Big Ideas
Chapter: The Fodder for Hard Work

(6) Content Rigor & Mastery

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-4-05-49-pmMany partners’ classroom leadership models emphasize content-neutral principles and actions that can be applied in any content area.  That is, our teacher frameworks  are often as applicable to high school chemistry as to third grade language arts.

[For many of our programs, there are pressing logistical reasons for that emphasis on content-neutral training:  our teachers are often the last hired and we do not always know what content/grade-level they will be teaching.]

In many of our most transformational classrooms, however, we see a stronger emphasis on and hunger for engagement with specific mastery of rigorous academic content and skills.  Our strongest teachers see rigorous content mastery as the lynchpin of dramatically broadening opportunities for students. screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-4-06-44-pm

Content Rigor is the Difficult Fodder for Beyond-Academic Growth

Our strongest classrooms suggest that process of pursuing content mastery is the means by which our students build critical elements of their own leadership—locus of control, a belief in malleable intelligence, perseverance, grit, self-confidence, self-reliance, etc.  And, we see that growth of pedagogical practices and expertise builds in teachers the conviction that leaders grow and know the substance of their context. 

The Relationship Between Mastery and Leadership

That same concept—the importance of working toward expertise—applies to our teachers as well as our students.  Part of leadership is learning to mastery.

Morva McDonald, a former associate professor at University of Washington whom we often rely on for critical friendship (see the Provocation Paper on learning theory), shared her perspective on this relationship between content mastery and leadership:

One of the very first things I tell teachers at Teach For America is: you have a vision for how you want the world to be different for kids in this community. And you have ideas about social justice and equity… You could get at that vision in a whole bunch of ways—be a social worker, be a health care professional, be a community organizer.  These are all good ways of doing this work.  But you have decided to be a teacher… and so you have to actually understand what it means to be really good at your work. And being good at your work, in and of itself, is revolutionary. If you want to be really good and change the world – through this mechanism of teaching – you have to get really good at it. Be a teacher in your school who gets kids to talk to each other about intellectual ideas, become that example at your school. That is leadership in this context…

The PURPOSE of Content Rigor Distinguishes Transformational Classrooms

As we study classrooms across the network, we see recurring patterns in why stronger teachers are focusing on content mastery and rigor that are different from why weaker teachers are focusing on content mastery and rigor.

The following graphic captures the critical important insight from transformational classrooms that the ultimate value of content mastery and rigor is to build student leadership:


How could we more fully embrace the role of content-specific pedagogy and mastery in our conception of classroom leadership, in our programs and in our training and support models?

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