Interviewing a teacher candidate last year, I asked how she felt about collaborating with me to integrate my technology periods with her classroom periods. She replied, “It would be fine. I have been teaching technology to my students all year.” Of course. Not all schools are lucky enough to have a technology specialist provide students with dedicated instructional time. It is quite usual for homeroom teachers to both teach technology skills to students and determine how to use new technologies to support instruction.
Specialist instructors are a hallmark of independent schools. Tuition payments supply generous budgets, funding teaching positions in the arts, technology, and co-curricular programs: instrumental music, vocal music, painting and drawing, drama, ceramics, film, graphic design, animation, technology, library, outdoor education, global education, urban studies, community service, diversity studies, and more. Students experience a wide array of course work in many disciplines, enriching their education and broadening their horizons.
Schools with many specialist classes must work especially hard to achieve program coherence. Homeroom and specialist teachers must form strong grade level teams so that students experience a reasonable degree of consistency in purpose, values, instruction, and assessment, or else risk confusing students with contradictory expectations and rules. Teachers must regularly exchange information about students, so that each teacher understands the whole view of each child. Administrators must take care to maintain equal emphasis among programs, as specialist teachers work hard to develop events, seek community recognition, and justify their positions.
Specialist courses can only be good for students, right? Not necessarily. Providing students with such a number of classes and teachers can shortchange the development of core skills and fragment the student experience. The demands of scheduling specialist classes reduces homeroom instructional time for younger students and encourages older students to carry a heavy course load. Passing periods fragment the weekly schedule, as students travel from one building or classroom to another.
Most importantly, teachers in all disciplines must teach reading, writing, math, and higher-order thinking skills. If they do not, then students in the best-funded schools will receive less instruction in these foundational skills than their public school counterparts.
The school that does these things can create the ultimate instructional program, rich in a full range of intellectual pursuits while also intently focused on the child’s development of essential skills and habits of lifelong learning.