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Aleta Margolis: Unleashing the Power of Inspired Teaching

I can personally attest to the difference individual teachers can make when they are seeking to inspire students instead of treating them as empty vessels into which they can pour academic standards. I’m grateful that even when I attended large, under-funded public schools, I still had individual teachers (shout out to Sr. Sierra, Sra. Ortiz, and Mr. Glasser, to name a few) who used their creativity to spark curiosity, inspiration, and learning. They more than made up for those who were teaching by rote. Changemaker Aleta Margolis, founder and executive director of the Center for Inspired Teaching, has dedicated her life to helping teachers refine their craft as "instigators of thought.” Her goal? To ensure that all students have access to “inspired” teaching in their classrooms. Since its founding in 1995, the Center for Inspired Teaching has worked with more than 15,000 teachers to build their practice in engagement-based teaching. In 2011, Aleta launched the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, a DC public charter school.

Why did you decide to become a teacher? When and why did you shift your focus from teaching children to coaching teachers?

My first job after college involved designing and running a playwriting program for high school students in the juvenile justice system in my hometown of Washington, DC. My students had experienced few opportunities to talk about the problems that plagued DC: the crack cocaine epidemic, gun violence, and gang violence. But through our time together, my students examined the system that disadvantaged them, and together they wrote, produced, and performed a powerful play that offered concrete solutions to the issues they faced. I had majored in theatre arts at Brown, but learned through this experience that the skills I'd developed as an actor and director - in particular the ability to ask good questions and listen to and build on the responses - were useful teaching skills. This experience convinced me to become a teacher. I went to grad school and earned my teaching license, then taught sixth grade and then third grade. I loved teaching, including sparking my students' imaginations as well as their intellects. But I encountered complacency among many of my colleagues - they believed some kids just wouldn't or couldn't learn some subjects. And this complacency made me decide to figure out a way to invest in teachers, to help them shift their mindsets as well as their practice.


What made you decide to start the Center for Inspired Teaching? What was your initial mission or goal? Has it changed over time?


I knew the same systematic educational inequities that disadvantaged my playwriting students affected students nationwide. I also knew that we as teachers have the power to construct classrooms in which each student is an expert and has a voice. I wanted to make this a reality for every child’s school experience in the entire education system. This prompted me to shift my focus from teaching students to teaching teachers, which was the start of Center for Inspired Teaching.  


What is “Inspired” teaching? What does it look like and what is the impact? What are the barriers to more inspired teaching?


Inspired Teaching is built on the 4 I's: Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity. We believe every lesson should focus on those 4 I's - regardless of the subject or grade level. Inspired Teaching looks like students leading classroom discussions and activities, and it looks like classrooms full of action and authentic engagement. Our biggest barrier is inertia and nostalgia for "the way it's always been" - we expect school to be a place that prizes compliance, and it can feel uncomfortable when school becomes a place that prizes students' ideas and interests over their obedience. 


How did you support teachers as they adjusted to distance learning during the pandemic?


 In March 2020, we shifted all of our programming to virtual - which was a real challenge since our teacher professional learning is based in improvisation, and is 100% interactive. But we learned to engage in improv-based work through a screen, and continue this virtual programming today (though we've also launched some in-person teacher workshops that take place outdoors). We also created many free resources, which teachers can use as asynchronous professional learning, including the #Inspired2Learn library, Hooray For Monday, and our recently published back to school toolkit called Making School Worth It.


What is your response to people who believe that low-income children need a more regimented approach to learning in order to catch up to their more privileged peers?


This is a deeply embedded problem that is reflected in so many classrooms. In many schools that serve students in low-income communities, rote learning, rigid structure, and compliance-based discipline are the norm. These approaches not only don't serve students well, they actually exacerbate the achievement gap. All of Inspired Teaching's programming serves teachers and students from diverse communities. And we are seeing that all students thrive when they are offered learning that is engaging and meaningful, and when their voices and ideas help to lead the learning. 

What can we do to attract more and better teachers to our public schools and improve how we prepare them for success? Are there any especially innovative or successful approaches to teacher recruitment and training? 

In order to attract and, most importantly, retain creative, highly effective teachers, we need to make school a place where they feel supported, and where their ideas and energy are valued. (Just like kids, teachers thrive when their learning environment is positive and supportive.) At this moment in time, teaching is extremely stressful for teachers, as they navigate the academic and socio-emotional effects of the ongoing pandemic. So, schools that focus on wellbeing for adults and children, and recognize that wellbeing is just as important as academic learning are most likely to attract and retain excellent teachers. 


Think back to when you were 17. What did you want to be when you grew up?


When I was 17, I wanted to be an actor and a dancer. I studied musical theatre throughout high school and college. Over time I realized that the things I'd learned as a performing artist - how to ask great questions and incorporate input from a variety of sources in working toward a goal - were critical skills for teaching teachers.


If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give your 17-year old self? Is that the same advice you would give me now? 


Keep your observation skills sharp. Pay attention and look for the learning opportunity in each experience you have. Even a job or course or internship that you don't enjoy has something to teach you about what you do/don't want in a work experience. Build relationships with peers, teachers, and others and don't be afraid to ask the people in your life to advise you, on issues large and small. Choose to spend your time doing things you love, and that feel important to you. And, at the same time, recognize that you can find things to love even in the midst of a class, or internship, or job that doesn't seem that exciting at first. Don't wait for great opportunities to come to you. Look closely at the opportunities around you; and practice creating meaningful opportunities for yourself. 


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