Extra Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

You know how you don’t know what you don’t know until you realize you don’t know it?

Today I stepped into a role as “instructional coach.” My principal is trying a new thing with several of the leaders in the building—-getting a sub on Wednesdays to cover our classes so that we can support new teachers, conduct informal observations, and provide feedback to any teacher who want an extra set of ears and eyes in their classroom.

Non-evaluative, peer observation are what so many teachers beg for. Yet, with the except of instructional coaches, or a pop-ins by a dept chair there is little time for this type of collaboration. To contend with time constraints, many of the teachers I know are using #ObserveMe as a way to get the peer feedback and informal coaching they crave. This summer, Nate Bowling and I led in-school professional development where we shared the vision behind #ObserveMe. Teachers created their evaluation goals in conjunction with their #ObserveMe goals. I was #stoked.

Fast forward, due to some life stuff, our instructional coach is on hiatus and many of the teacher leaders in our building are stepping in to fill the large hole he left. So there I was, armed with flair pens, a clipboard, a schedule, and an observation tool. I left my students in the capable hands of my student teacher and I marched down to the first classroom.

Over the course of two and a half periods, I observed three full-time teachers and one student teacher. Each teacher had emailed me asking if I could come observe for x, y, and z. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect to feel as emotional as I did through this process.

First, I was honored that these teachers wanted me in their classroom. They wanted to be better. They wanted an extra set of eyes and ears to see what they weren’t seeing and hear what they missed.

Second, I was moved by the passion I saw from these teachers. The love that they have for their students, their content, and our school motivates them to ask for help from a colleague.

Third, I was inspired by each of these teachers who were putting in work to make their classes more engaging, more relevant, and more real for their students.

I honestly struggled to complete my teacher moves/students moves chart because I just wanted to write things like “I love how the kids look at your with respect in their eyes” or “Even though the students were reluctant to do the song in Spanish with you, they all did it–and that’s a sign of respect for you, their peers, or at least resignation that they need to play along”. I tried to stay in the template and write benign questions like “how do you think blah blah blah”.

What stands out the most is my last visit of the morning. I popped into a Science classroom where the teacher is building a program modeled after the GRuB School. I kind of knew that there was a group of “at risk” young men and women working with this highly effective and passionate teacher to develop social/emotional skills that translate into academic skills such as being on time, attending classes, and doing homework. I knew that some of the students in this program were in my English classes. But I hadn’t put two and two together–I didn’t realize just how many of them I knew. I sat on the edge of the circle listening to students giving each other advice on real life issues from dealing with parents to handling annoying teachers or friends, I wanted to burst into tears. Actually, I did…later when I was alone. Although each of those students struggle to control their actions and choices in a world of chaos, I watched them respond each other with thoughtfulness. I saw them respond to the firm but loving redirection from the teacher. I saw my students in a new light.

Later, when they came to class, I felt like we had a secret. They knew that I knew something about them that I hadn’t known before. They also knew (I hope) that I would listen and support them in a way I might not have before.

I left school today unsure if I made a difference for the teachers I observed. I do know however, that these teachers made a difference to me.

Losing Touch with the Classroom

I made it through September.

I may have nearly crested the salary schedule, but I feel a little like a first-year teacher again… In many ways I am: Same district, but a new building, new curriculum, new pace, new students.

After being a classroom teacher for 13 years, I spent the last two years on full-time release building and launching our district’s new-teacher mentoring and induction program (plus a plethora of other teacher professional learning design and facilitation, from training principals on TPEP to supporting PLC collaboration, and other duties as assigned). Those two years were fulfilling, educational, and an important step in my personal professional trajectory. My heart, though, was always in the classroom.

Now I’m teaching again, and it didn’t take me long to realize just how much I had lost touch with the realities of the day to day work of teaching. For me personally two years of shifting into the policy world, system design, and facilitation of staff PD…all without responsibilities to a roster of kids…was enough for my mind to disconnect.

Oh yeah, this is why it sometimes takes teachers a few days to reply to emails: they’re not at their computers all day or “multitasking” around a meeting table. Oh yeah, this is why those teachers who came to my after-school PD sessions dropped into their chairs, sighed, and slowly slid into an exhausted heap. Oh yeah, that theory about pedagogy and practice is fantastic up until you walk around the room and realize that what you’re tasked to teach isn’t actually at all what the students need.

Cognitively, I assured myself I remembered this and everything else. Back in it, though, I realize that there were some realities of teacherlife that my memory had somehow put into soft focus over the course of my two years outside the classroom.

I’ve had a few people ask which job is “harder,” the central-office systems work or the in-the-building work of teaching. For me, it was probably the systems work in no small part because I so rarely had the chance to see the direct results my efforts had on students. That left me in a perpetual state of uncertainty: were my actions working? How did I know?

Now I get to see the impact of my decisions daily as I listen to kids talk or read, or watch them write or create. I can respond in the moment to shift course, try something different, or push just the right way. Nonetheless, I have enduring respect for the complexity and challenge of central-office systems work having seen behind the curtain now for a couple of years. (Example: I hate dealing with budgets and the associated rules, restrictions and reporting… intense, profound hate.) For my skill-set and for what makes me happy? The classroom is the place.

One more thing I can say after two years straddling the line between teacher and administrator: The administrators I was able to work so closely with are not a secret quasi-illuminati set on building one more meeting-that-could-have-been-an-email agenda to ruin a teacher’s life. They genuinely want what is best for both teachers and students. And don’t get me wrong: I’m just sharing my own story… I’m not implying that they have lost touch as I did. I see many administrators working overtime to walk alongside teachers, and in many cases, teach lessons or units to groups of kids, in order to stay connected with the realities of planning, assessment, feedback, and classroom management.

What my experience transitioning into teaching again has reminded me is that it is so important that we teachers find the right way to share the impact of policy decisions…whether they be a change to the hall pass routine or a change to the state testing regime…so that rather than being shrill complainers we are vivid storytellers.

Stories are the most fundamental way that we can communicate our reality to others, especially if those others are like me: whole-hearted for public education, but perhaps just far enough removed to have forgotten what day-to-day teaching is really like.

Equity in Identifying Highly Capable Students

I spent several days this summer at the annual board retreat for WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talents and Gifted). Jody Hess, OSPI’s Program Supervisor for Highly Capable Student Programs, came to talk with us about a change to the law: districts must “prioritize equitable identification of low income students.”

Universal Screening

One of the barriers to equity in HC programs is the process districts use to invite students into the identification procedure. I was stunned to learn this year how many districts still use nominations as an initial screening device.

What’s the problem with that?

There is still a great deal of confusion about the nature of the Highly Capable or gifted student. Many people—teachers and parents—nominate only those students who are responsible, high-achieving, engaged, motivated, and well-behaved. They fail to nominate students who never turn in their assignments, resist doing any class work, are distracted, and chronically misbehave, even if those less than stellar scholars meet the state criteria for identification.

Then there’s a thornier issue. It seems that people do a better job at nominating students who are similar to them—the same ethnic background, the same socio-economic background. If a majority of teachers in a district are white and middle class, it’s possible HC minority and lower socio-economic students in that district may be overlooked.

If teachers don’t nominate a student, the parents can always fill out a nomination form, right? Trouble is, relying on parents to nominate their children is always tricky. Some parents are savvier than others. Is it fair to make a child’s chance at identification rest on their parents’ ability to access and maneuver around the system?

The solution is called universal screening. ALL the students in the district are tested for the Highly Capable program. Or at least use a quick screener (it might be test or checklist such as WaKIDS) with all students initially. Then include those students who score well in a pool for more formal identification.

By the way, universal screening also means there is no impediment to the testing. For example, the testing isn’t offered only on Saturday when some families might not be able to bring their child.

At my district we test every student at the end of second grade. The tests are conducted during the school day, and they are administered in the second grade classrooms by the students’ own teachers. There is very little test anxiety in that situation. We’ve been doing our testing this way for about 15 years now. I honestly thought by now it was standard operating procedure around the state.

If you don’t see every student in your district having some screening for your HC program, you should start asking why.

Multiple Points of Data

Another question you want to ask is if your district is relying on a single criterion for identification: a CogAT score, for example.

While a CogAT is a great way to say, “Yes, this child definitely needs services through the Highly Capable Program,” too often a slightly lower score is used as an excuse to say, “No, this child definitely does not need services.”

No district should be using cut off scores—those in the 95%ile and above are eligible and get served, those below aren’t and don’t, and we’re done.

Instead districts should be looking at multiple data points. It’s fine to say that children who score at 130 and above obviously need services. Now it’s time to look more closely at the children who don’t quite make that. How do they score on achievement tests? On their SBA? On report cards?

When the Multi-disciplinary Team at my district meets to work on Highly Capable identifications, we have access to many types of data, including:

  • CogAT scores (broken down so we can see verbal, quantitative, and nonverbal scores),
  • STAR math and reading (we can access STAR scores for the year so we can track the progression of scores),
  • SBA (for grade levels that took the test),
  • parent and teacher nominations (which still get turned in even though they are not required), and
  • HOPE scale scores (from teachers).

Other information we have is ELL status of students. Our district ELL coordinator is a member of the team and keeps us up-to-date about how ELL students on our lists are progressing. We take that information into account when making decisions. We attempt to keep the identification for HC proportional with the demographics of the district.

For students going into grades 3-5, we first look for students whose scores are so high in both verbal and quantitative areas that they belong in the self-contained HC classes. We don’t limit ourselves to just the CogAT scores to determine which students require those advanced services. Then we go through the lists again. If there are students who are strong in math or verbal, we identify them in those particular areas for extra attention in their general education classrooms.

We are looking for reasons TO identify students, not reasons to deny services.

In middle school every fifth grade student’s math scores in the district are analyzed and every student is placed in math according to their abilities. There are sixth graders in middle school this year taking sixth grade math, seventh grade math, algebra, and geometry.

(When I first arrived in my district the math department at the middle schools would not allow a student to take algebra before eighth grade. “They aren’t developmentally ready.” Now we have sixth graders taking geometry!)

Students who were in the self-contained fifth grade class, students who were identified for verbal skills in elementary school, and additional students whose parents or teachers request that they get retested at the end of fifth grade can all move into the HC English/social studies classes at the middle school. We have one full class at one middle school and

two full classes at the other. Then at the high school all students have access to pre-AP and AP starting at ninth grade.

Low Income

The trouble with saying we have to “prioritize equitable identification of low-income students” is that we can’t know which of our students are low-income. Not when

we go into the Multi-disciplinary Team meetings and look at data. After all, we aren’t allowed to have individual students identified as free/reduced lunch.

(Jody Hess from OSPI is working on what indicators of low-income may be useful, without “profiling” students.)

The point it, we have to do the best we can at identifying every student who needs services. And then provide those services.

Smarter Balanced: Celebrating the Scores?

Like many parents across the nation, we received our children’s Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) results a few weeks ago.  The results, printed in color ink, did not largely surprise us. What did, however, was our children’s reaction.

My daughter is now a 6th grader.  She’s been taking this test for a few years, although science was a new component for her last year in 5th grade.  In the past, she’s been worried about the adaptive portion of the exam, nervous about whether she’s moving too slow or too fast and wondering if her screen should look alike or different from her peers.  One year, right before school let out for summer, we received notification that she was invited to attend a summer math program. This invitation was an opportunity for extended math instruction, which I was gladly willing to take her to.  I did, however, have no sense that she was struggling in math.  Her standards based report card always revealed that she was on target.  So when I dug around a bit more and contacted the building assessment coordinator, we discovered that she met standard and that the invitation was an accident.  However, the damage was done.  She was downtrodden about her math skills and entered into the 5th grade believing that her skills weren’t where they needed to be (whatever that means).  After receiving the official score report and looking at the data with her, I saw a noticeable difference in my child and how she thought of herself as a math student.  Even then, it took her months and at least a quarter in 5th grade math before she felt confident about her skills and abilities.  You’d think that I would have learned my lesson.

So this year when the assessment results arrived in the mail, I immediately opened them up. After reviewing the data, I decided to sit down with my children to discuss the results.  My daughter the now 6th grader, looked at her scores and said, “I guess this means I’m pretty smart.”  I was stunned.  I’m thankful that I had enough clarity of thought to respond with, “Uh, this test doesn’t measure whether you’re smart.  It tells you that you can answer specific questions related to certain skills and standards that the testing organization wants to measure. It certainly doesn’t address your ability to learn music.”  My husband, her father, is a middle school band teacher.  My daughter has been playing piano for five years (read:  I’ve been paying for piano lessons for five years.)  She nodded and walked away.  I then sat down with my son to review his first SBA results.  

But I wish I hadn’t.  In fact, I’m done sitting down with my children to talk about these scores. Sadly, I think they, like so many other children, adults, school districts, and states, are defining themselves in relation to a score.  My daughter’s self esteem as a math student was tied to that exam.  This year, she used the exam to confirm a sense of self.  

And that’s scary.

And unhealthy.

And it must stop.  

I want to be clear.  I’m not anti-test.  I’m not anti Common Core.  In fact, I embrace the Common Core, and I’d be happy to address that in another post.  However, I fear that we’re sending a dangerous message to our youth if we oversell the data learned from the test.  My school, like so many others, examined our scores in our back to school meeting.  Thankfully,  I didn’t get a sense that our students and our teachers were being overly celebrated or beat up due to assessment data. Our building elevates a variety of achievements, accomplishments, and talents. However, communities across the country put up gigantic signs on  schools when some percentage of students are meeting a standard.  This isn’t helping.  We award schools for these scores and for the most growth over a year.  I’m not saying it’s negative to give a hard working staff recognition for their efforts, but essentially aren’t we also celebrating the test score?  What false sense does that give us of who our students are and what our students know and can do?  

Do teachers walk around defining themselves by their evaluation score?  I sure hope not. This would be an unhealthy approach to the profession, one that isn’t sustainable, and does not encourage self reflection or growth.  So why do we do this with kids?

Let’s find other things to celebrate.  Shouldn’t we consider exalting our students and our schools as more?

Certification Changes: Pro and Con

When the last minute education legislation passed this summer, it included a provision eliminating the requirement that teachers earn a second tier of certification after our Residency Certificate.

This move was celebrated across the state with teachers unenrolling themselves from ProTeach programs and National Board Cohorts. Now, instead of pursuing one of those two second-tier certification options, a teacher needs only to earn 100 clock hours before the expiration of their certificate in order to remain legal.

From one perspective, it is a win. Earning the second tier certificate required time, money, and no small amount of stress…on top of the work a teacher already had to do. Teachers now might have more time for their families or those second (or third) jobs so many of us hold down. Not having to do ProTeach or National Boards definitely lightens the load for many.

On the other hand, though, it is one more move to de-professionalize our profession. Already, I’ve ranted a little about lowering the bar for teachers. Now that incentives such as the state’s salary schedule rewarding the attainment of higher degrees will be phased out*, there is less and less to extrinsically motivate continued focus on continually improving our practice. Of course, extrinsic motivators are not the “right” motivators (remember, we teachers are supposed to give hours for less pay than similarly-educated professionals in other fields out of the goodness of our hearts, we knew what we signed up for, the internet trolls quickly point out). But, unless compelled to by rule or motivated to by a tangible benefit, most of us choose to focus on the work already heaped on our plates rather than consider ways to examine our practice in the way ProTeach is intended to and National Boards does.

I believe, though, that in giving up a mandatory second-tier certification, we’ve allowed one more blow to the professionalism of our field. Given the dire (and increasing) need for teachers to staff schools properly, further de-professionalizing teaching might net a benefit in the short term, but I believe in looking at the long game: In the long run, it weakens the profession as a whole.

If a key issue with second tier certification is around cost and time, that is a symptom of an issue to be addressed: Why is the cost prohibitive? Perhaps because it is disproportionate to overall compensation. Why is the time prohibitive? Perhaps because the demands on teachers’ time are already too great.

I would have rather seen the state address those two issues in courageous, real ways: properly fund salaries (rather than play the shell game that was played) and fund systems in a way that permits schools to think creatively about how teacher time looks during the work day. For the latter, I’m talking about greater time during a teacher’s day for planning, assessment, collaboration, and the work that has to be done in order to make the time with students more effective.

Like the salary shell game (Top teacher salaries of $90K! Early career teachers get a raise!),  I think we’ve been duped around certification as well (No more hoops to jump through!). Eliminating the second tier certification doesn’t do a single thing to solve the problems we are facing in our system. It is a token move to pacify a subset of the angry masses. We’ve been shown a something shiny and appealing, but consideration for the long term ripple effect is waved off or ignored outright.

Yes, we might not have to put in the same time or money for a second tier certificate, but at what cost to the profession?


*CORRECTION: Previous versions of this post referred to a “sunset” for the National Board bonus/incentive. I had understood that the long-term vision for the National Board incentive was that it was to be phased out as salary schedules shift from state-driven to locally-driven, but I was mistaken. The National Board incentive will continue to be funded in the FY2018 budget, but as always, the long term continuation of this funding will be a key budget point for teachers to pay attention to.

Small Lesson Learned: Raised Hands

On the third day of school, everything kinda stalled.

My 9th grade English class and I had plugging along quite nicely the first two days, and that day was no different. Then it happened: I asked a tough question about the story we’d just read.

No hands went up. Silence.

Nothing new to a teacher. We’re used to that awkwardly long silence when we ask a question to the class. “Think time,” right?

After enough “think time,” I tried my first trick: “I won’t call an anyone until I see five hands.” Usually that works, and a hand or two will shoot up, confident that I won’t call on them right away.

No dice. Continued silence and no hands. I tried a few more tricks: jot down your answer (which they did) and share what you wrote (nope, lips were sealed). I reworded the question at a lower level of abstraction. Nada. Zip. Not defiance, just silence. Before long, my toolbox was empty. I refused, though, to just give the answer to them and move on.

My 2nd period class is a quiet but wonderful group. The high school I now teach in is a smaller school-of-choice in our district. There is but one hallway, a more intimate environment, and the students we serve choose our school for a variety of reasons. For some, they are re-entering public schools from other institutions. Some are in Running Start at the local community college and need a flexible home base. Others face struggles with anxiety, depression, or other personal or family challenges. Still others are like any prototypical teen, but for whatever reason found the smaller environment a better “fit” than the other high school (where I used to work), which has about two thousand* more students than we do.

So instead of waiting out the silence, I asked them this: “When a teacher asks you a question, and you raise your hand, what are you communicating?”

That we know the answer, a student replied (without raising her hand, it is worth noting).

“Then what does it mean when you don’t raise your hand and you stay quiet? What does that communicate to the teacher?”

That we don’t know, a different student replied. No, another interjected, It’s that we don’t want to say the answer. Sometimes I know the answer but don’t want to be called on.

“Makes sense,” I agreed. A hand finally went up, and the young man attached to it said Besides, if we wait long enough, most teachers just tell us the answer anyway and move on.

So I tried this: “Okay, I’m going to ask you all the same question. I want anyone who thinks they might have a response, whether right or wrong, to raise their hands. I promise I will not call on anyone.” I asked the question again, and this time about three-quarters of the students raised their hands.

“So all of you think you have an idea that responds to my question?” I made eye contact with kid after kid, who nodded.

“But sometimes you don’t want to say it?” More nods.

“Alright then… keep your hand up if you are willing to share your answer.” A few hands went down, one by one, but most stayed up…including several students who had yet to speak up at all in class….and by far more that who raised hands the first time I asked the question (if you recall, the number of hands that went up that time was exactly zero).

A new, simple routine was born.

The act of raising your hand as a student in my class no longer means I want to be called on. Now it is a signal: I think I might have an answer. Now instead of asking for answers, I say “show me your hands…” after I ask a question. Then, I say “keep your hands up to share.”

Since adopting this little change, I consistently have more (and different) students keeping their hands up, bringing more voices in to the room than just the ones who have the confidence to throw that hand in the air, end the awkward silence, and give the answer so the rest of us can move on. No longer is the Q-and-A about “getting through it.” Less and less do I sense that students are afraid to make their voices heard.

Later, with a smaller group of kids, we talked about how schools condition students to give right answers. They each talked about how, through their whole academic lives, they’d sat in classes where they were truly listening and learning, but were afraid to risk raising their hand and having the teacher say as they pivot away “no, not quite, does anyone else know the answer?” as the wrong-answer-student is left to stew in embarassment.

I know, maybe they’re just raising their hands…how can I really know whether they are playing the game or actually have an idea in their minds? I’d rather know they’re engaged enough to play the game, even if that’s all they’re doing…something that certainly wasn’t happening when the same three kids were the only ones raising their hands to answer questions while the others just waited us out, watching the clock.

For me the proof of this practice is in the fact that kids who I don’t usually hear from are keeping their hands up and giving us insight that before now they had been reticent to risk sharing.


*Not an exaggeration.

The Kids without Lug Nuts

I live in a rural area. I have been teaching here for many years—same classroom, same job assignment. In July I left my teaching job, and started a new job—still in education, but out of the classroom.

I have been in my new job about two months, and am definitely enjoying it! However, last week I had the first serious tug at the heart I have felt since leaving my longtime school.

My two sons and I were running down the road, enjoying the summer. On the way back home, not too far from my house, I see a car pulled over. Two people get out, look at their tires, and just kind of stand there. My younger son notes a cat in the car. I note the car is full of items, mostly packed in trash bags.

As we came up to the car, one of the people says, “It’s Ms. Johnson!” I see that it is two former students, a young man and a young woman, who left school a handful of years ago. They are now in their early twenties, and they look incredibly relieved to see me.

The girl says, “The tire just came off my car–I think someone stole my lug nuts!” I don’t know a lot about cars, but even I could see the rear wheel hanging off at an odd angle. I leaned over to look—where lug nuts should be, there were none.

She said they were camping last night, and there were some unsavory characters at the campsite next to them. The young woman suspects her car was vandalized.

Someone had removed the lug nuts from the car of my former students–this is not something that would happen by accident. In addition, the boy doesn’t have a cell phone, and the girl’s phone battery had died.

I offer to run back to my house, get my phone, and then run back so they can use my phone to call for some assistance. I also spend more time talking to my two former students.

The girl tells me that she is feeling lucky. She says just a few minutes ago she felt unlucky–their lug nuts had been stolen, and they broke down in the middle of nowhere. Now she says she feels fortunate: they didn’t get into a major accident when the wheel came off, and then I came by.

More phone calls. It becomes clear they need a ride somewhere. The plan is I will drive the girl into town, and the boy will stay with the car and the cat. The girl will get her friend’s mom to come back and bring some lug nuts.

I go get my car and come back to pick up the girl. She said they lost their apartment and had been homeless since June, living out of their car in local campgrounds and in the woods.

She said it hadn’t been a good week. She recently started a new job, but then had gotten food poisoning, likely from something she ate while camping. Given their lack of access to refrigerator, this seemed a good possibility. She called in sick, but her new boss had said she couldn’t call in sick so soon after starting a new job, so then she lost her job.

The girl told me this morning her boyfriend had become very frustrated. He had tried to go fishing at the lake they were camping at, but he only had a handline. A handline, for those of you not familiar, is literally just that—a hook on a line. No pole—you just throw the line out with your arm. Usually her boyfriend had good success, but this morning he had been stymied. Another person had come along, fishing close to him with a pole, and that person got all the fish.

Being outfished by someone because they have a pole and you don’t? That is rural poverty.

I drop the girl off at her friend’s place. Thinking about what their breakfast must have been like without any fish or much other food, I head to the grocery store. I buy sandwiches, cat food, and a few other groceries.

I drive back down the road, and bring the food to the young man, who is very appreciative. I tell him I will be back in a while to check on how things are going with getting the lug nuts on once they get them.

These young people were already living on the edge, and I wanted to do what I could to make sure they didn’t go completely off a precipice.

I was pretty shaken up by the day’s events. These two former students had only left school a few years ago, and now they had almost nothing. I felt as though we may have failed them in school, yet I remember numerous care teams, interventions, and services provided for both.

There were a number of issues here: paid sick leave, low income housing, unemployment.

Education was also an issue. One of these young people had graduated from high school, and one had not.

Teachers are at their best when they care individually for students. That is something that is difficult for us to measure with our certification and evaluation systems, but it doesn’t make it any less important. I do remember caring for these students in school, and I know my colleagues did as well.

My former students did not have the money for a tow, and if their car were to be impounded, along with everything they own in it, they would not be able to afford to release it. It would be devastating for them. Setbacks have a disproportionate impact when you are poor.

As educators we work to support every student, and sometimes we do not succeed. Efforts that combine caring for individual students with systems that support families and communities should continue and expand. We can do more.

After some time, their friend’s mom shows up with the girl…and lug nuts! My former students introduce me.

“She’s our teacher,” they say. I never felt so proud.

I bring tools and more water to drink. Soon my former students are off. They were going to make it into town.

On this day, they were both very gracious and appreciative for the little I provided: some food, the loan of some tools, and a bit of human kindness.

Maren Johnson, NBCT, is a longtime high school science teacher who recently left the classroom. She now works for a state agency on policy related to educator certification. She lives in a beautiful area of rural Washington state with her husband and children.

What I’ve learned about the first day

Tuesday marked the beginning of my eighteenth year of teaching. While the school year is filled with a variety of excitement and wonder, the first day of school seems almost magical.  Yet, having done the “first day” eighteen times, I’ve started to develop some observations about this special day of school.  Some of these observations are more like advice while others are basically predictions.

1.No matter how many extra copies I think I’ve made I will inevitably be short by at least 1 copy.  I might count them ahead of time.  I may have made sure that I added together all of my students scheduled for 1st and 3rd period but nonetheless, I will be short on copies.

2.I have to retrain my stomach and my bladder.  No longer do I have free reign of when I can eat nor when I can leave my room.  Welcome to monitoring liquid intake over the next ten months.

3. The technology application I’ve practiced 10 times will not work or will crash when I need it. Naturally my lesson is based all around the use of this app. However, here’s the good news– because I’m a teacher, I know how to punt and create a workaround.

4. A senior who knows his/her way around our building (he/she’s been attending for years) will suddenly forget how to navigate the hallway and will be late to 2nd period.  Somehow they’ve figured out that we don’t count tardies on the first day of school.

5. The day is best spent getting to know your students instead of teaching content.  Save that content for the next 179 days of the year.  Building the foundation for a positive class climate will make teaching the content far more manageable and enjoyable.

6. Those heels I thought I could pull off- nope. One of these days running shoes will be fashionable with dresses.  I’m patiently waiting on this fashion trend.

7. No feeling can ever match how it feels to look out at your room right before the students walk in.  Teachers spend days, even weeks, preparing for the first day.  It’s exciting to think of all of the learning that is going to happen in our classroom over the next ten months.

8. Students want to feel successful from the very start.  The first day is the silver lined cloud. Our relationship with students helps determine how long that lining remains.

9.  I have a better afternoon when I’ve had lunch with my colleagues. Spending some time talking about topics unrelated to our work helps shift my brain and allows me the opportunity to have a break in my day.  I am more effective when I take a break in the middle of my day– even if it’s for just thirty minutes.

10. I can never have enough pens and pencils.  The 40 Ticonderogas I bought before school started and placed in the extra pencil cup will be gone within two weeks.

11. I have to retrain my hand on the size of an Expo versus a Sharpie. I am incredibly thankful for those newly formulated white board cleaners.

12. Meeting students at the door generates a sense of hospitality.  This is their classroom, not mine. I just happen to spend more time in it than they do.  

13. I create opportunities so students can laugh. This is a big one, folks.  If we can laugh on day one we’ve begun to build a positive environment where students can let down their guard. I know that my students see me as an expert.  I have degrees and awards on the wall.  They’ve heard stories about me.  But I also want them to see me as approachable.  We inherently feel more comfortable working with people with whom we can share a laugh or two (or many).

What observations have you made about the first day?

 

Welcome Back to School, Parents!

Every year my school has a Back to School Night for parents the evening before school starts. Children and parents move freely from room to room, greeting teachers, checking out the gym and library, signing up for the PTSA. We end the evening with some food out on the playground. And we start school the next day.

Every year I have my own Back to School Night for the parents in my room sometime in the first week of school. The children are not invited. For one thing, there isn’t enough room, and for another, they’ve already heard everything I’m going to say.

I tell the parents all the details that I’ve already told the students about rules, policies, and procedures, including how I communicate with parents during the year. I tell them about the curriculum and grading. I seek out classroom volunteers.

Then I talk about how important I consider parents to be. I have taught since 1977, and I’ve taught gifted since 1983. I have the MA plus 90 plus I’ve lost track of how many credits since then. I just keep taking classes. (I went to a great set of classes this summer!)

I have a wealth of experience and expertise in my field.

But I see students for, at most, about six hours each day. I am educating their child for a year.

Parents have their children for their whole lives.

Parents have the wealth of experience and expertise in their own children.

I tell parents I see us as partners, and, in many ways, I see myself as the junior partner as we work together.

I can help them understand the demands of the educational system, but they can help me understand the needs of their child.

Having that kind of attitude toward parents helps build collaborative relationships, as well as mutual respect.

Sometimes I need to do more. One time a parent was trying to have her child placed in the self-contained gifted class—in my classroom. The teachers who knew her came up to me and warned me about her, how pushy she was, how hard to get along with.

The day she came to my classroom to tell me her son had been accepted into my class, I threw my arms wide and said, “Welcome to my room!”

I made her cry. From that moment on I could do no wrong.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do wrong all the time. I made mistakes and screw up with the best of them. But I have a good working relationship with my parents. So most times they come to me to talk to me about what I did.

Last year at spring conferences, at the end of the conference, one mom took a deep breath and said, “Jan, I have to tell you, you said something that really bothered me.”

“Oh, no, what did I say?”

She told me, and I responded, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.” I apologized thoroughly.

(I was probably 40 years old before I figured this out: Don’t explain. Don’t defend yourself. Just apologize.)

We talked some more and on the way out I asked, “Do you forgive me?”

She laughed and said, “Of course!”

Light and easy.

Having a collaborative relationship really helps with dual identified children, or with children who are gifted and have other social-emotional needs. I had so many of those last year. I was in daily contact with several parents, just to keep them abreast of how things were going in the classroom. I would hear back about how things were going at home. Between us, we tried to keep all those little ships on an even keel.

Every year I look forward to greeting my new students. But every year I also look forward to greeting my new team of adults—who will help me work with those students—the parents of my students.

Building Relationships With Legislators – Sharing My Stories and Changing the Message

The year I graduated from high school, 1994, marked the introduction of the phrase “failing public schools.” This phrase grabbed hold of society and took off, leading to twenty-plus years of rhetoric on “bad” teachers, union thugs who protect “bad” teachers, and schools which are not meeting the needs of our children. This led to the standardization of classrooms, curriculum, and teaching via governmental regulations. Today, in 2017, we still hear this phrase, and continue to feel the destructive consequences left in its wake, most importantly the increasing lack of respect for educators.

Most recently, over the past several years and particularly with this new federal administration, we’ve seen a huge push for privatization and independent charter schools. The message is that public schools are failing our children and that private and charter schools can provide students with more attention and individual instruction. As an educator and a parent with children in both public and charter schools, I can honestly say that public schools have the ability to offer much more than charter schools, provide more diverse learning opportunities, and are far better at differentiating instruction. Imagine for a moment if all schools had to fight for local funding, via fundraisers and other money-making endeavors. Which schools would have the most money? Which schools would be able to offer the most opportunities? Which schools would your child be able to attend? Which children and which zip codes would be left behind?

The key to changing the rhetoric on public schools is to take charge of the messaging. For far too long, private corporations, government officials, and the media, who by and large have no experience in education, have controlled what the public sees and hears about public schools, and therefore, control the mindset of the masses. It is time for us educators to take that influence back and teach our communities how great our public schools really are, and that with their support, they could be even better.

Over the past two years I have worked to communicate with the state legislators in both the district in which I work, and also the district in which I live. I would periodically contact them via email and phone, and would invite them to my classroom. Repeatedly, I did not hear back. During that time, I puzzled over this problem. How could I be a better messenger and get these decision-makers into my school and into my classroom to actually see and experience what we do? It was at a National Board Hill Day in February 2017, that my ideas finally came together. As I visited many senators and representatives throughout the day, I realized that much of what they hear focuses on what public schools lack, not on what makes us succeed. That’s when I decided to start a letter writing campaign.

After some planning, I sent my first newsletter – “April Update – The Great Things Happening in Our Public Schools.” In it I outlined some incredible activities and experiences educators in my school and in my district were providing their students. I was specific. I told stories. I painted a picture of the everyday in our schools and I immediately got a response. Mostly, our state leaders thanked me for the update and encouraged me to continue to reach out. It was much more than I’d received in two whole years. I had begun to build real relationships with the individuals directly responsible for creating laws for funding our schools.

It was after my second update in May that there was real movement. Two legislators, Republican Senator Baumgartner, and Republican Representative Volz, agreed to come to my classroom. We immediately set up dates and times for June, as they were between special sessions. With it being such a contentious time, as legislators were working to meet the demands of the McLeary decision, I was shocked and so excited. My focus on success was working.

Both visits happened within a week of one another and at a time when the testing season was coming to a close and the school year was wrapping up, but things had not slowed down in my classroom. Both legislators had the opportunity to meet my diverse student group (I teach Newcomer English Language Learners), to learn about what we do in our classroom, and to help my students, new to our nation and our school system, practice their math skills. Watching the interactions and answering the questions that followed was exhilarating. Both Senator Baumgartner and Representative Volz asked insightful questions and showed genuine interest in my class and in my students. Both agreed to visit again in the fall when they would have more time. Since then, I have had commitments from both Senator Billig and Representative Riccelli to also visit in the fall and Representative Volz and I are collaborating on bringing my class over to Olympia for a tour and to meet with the House Education Committee.

It’s a simple thing. Each month I gather stories about what’s awesome about our schools and send an email to my elected officials. It’s not hard. Our schools are great and I have a lot to share about the good work we’re doing! By focusing on our success, it is easy to convince decision-makers to continue and expand their support for our public schools. We live education every day. We must control the messages our communities receive about what we do and how much we care about their children.

Join me in this effort. Write up a story about your classroom or work with your colleagues. Find out who your legislators are that represent where you live and where you work. Push send and see what happens.

This will make all the difference.

Mandy Manning experiences learning with English language learners in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. Nearing 20 years in education and as a teacher-leader, she endeavors to spread Cultural Competency to students, educators, administrators, and the community at large. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in English as a new language and the 2018 ESD 101 Regional Teacher of the Year.