Feeling Frustrated?

More than half the number of people in Washington who actually vote consistently vote in favor of initiatives designed to support education and teachers.

More than half the number of people in Washington who actually vote consistently vote in favor of initiatives for reducing or eliminating or restricting taxes.

Some of those voters have to be voting for both initiatives.

I am sure there are legislators who want to follow the will of the people but can’t figure out how to do it. How can you decrease class size and add support staff and pay teachers more—all with less tax revenue?

And I understand that the proponents of each set of initiatives are avid supporters of their causes. If legislators find a new and creative way to get a little money for the state, the anti-tax group complains vehemently that they are disregarding the will of the voters. If they don’t find a new and creative way to get the money to pay for all the education initiatives—from class size to COLAs—then the educational community insists they are disregarding the will of the voters.

And of course they are. But which “will” wins?

I have to admit, I understand how some legislators might get frustrated.

When I first moved to Washington in 1989, schools still got a lot of funding from Department of Natural Resources revenue. Then came the state lottery, which was supposed to bring in lots of extra money for education. Except that as soon as that extra money started coming in, the legislators appropriated that amount less out of the general budget for education.

I remember when the economy heated up. Every year the teachers asked for more money. Every year the legislators said they would get to education later.

Then the economy tanked. Everyone had to take cuts—including education, which hadn’t really gotten the benefits of the boom!

And now, with the economy improving, even with the McCleary decision, even with the $100,000 fines on the legislature, we still don’t see the legislature fully funding education.

I have to confess, I know why teachers are frustrated!

The truth is, education has the state constitution on its side. The constitution says, “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” I absolutely love how clear the Supreme Court decision was in the McCleary case:

  • Paramount” means the State must amply provide for the education of all Washington children as the State’s “first and highest prioritybefore any other State program or operation” not as one of many priorities that the legislature will get around to funding when they decide they can afford to (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 520).
  • Duty” means the State must amply provide for the education of all Washington children—it’s not an optional task the legislature can ignore (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 520).
  • Ample” means “considerably more than just adequate.” The legislature thought they were doing just fine with enough to get by. The Court said no, that enough to get by was not enough (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 484).
  • The Court said, “For our purposes, the terms ‘education’ under article IX, section 1 and ‘basic education’ are synonymous” (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 524n). By the way, the Court also added a warning that the legislature could not reduce the services currently offered under basic education without a sound educational rationale. Not having the money to provide the services wasn’t an adequate reason to drop services. Basically, the only valid reason to make changes to basic education was to improve it.
  • All” means “each and every child” in Washington. “No child is excluded” (McCleary v. State, 173 Wn. 2d at 484). Of course, this last bit makes my heart sing because Highly Capable is now protected under basic education. That makes providing ample educational services to Highly Capable students part of the paramount duty of the state, protected by the constitution.

I went to the Listening Tour to report to the legislators on the education committee about how districts are using levy funds to augment the state funds to pay for basic education. According to OSPI estimates, districts in Washington are paying 85% of the cost of Highly Capable education out of levy dollars right now! Many other people told stories of how local levy dollars are being used to pay for basic education needs. In case you haven’t heard the ruling, the Court says NO levy dollars should be used for basic education.

Clearly, the State Supreme Court is frustrated too.

Where did 1351 go?

I was incredibly excited to start the 2015 2016 school year.   After spending twelve years in a portable classroom, our high school moved into a brand new building, full of sunlight, windows, and classrooms.  We even have empty rooms.  But, my room is far from empty.  As soon as the construction company gave us “occupancy” I was in my room trying to figure out how to arrange my 30 desks.  I settled on a U shape because I like to be able to easily access all of my students when they need assistance and the arrangement is conducive for whole class discussion.  Prior to the beginning of the year, I watched my rosters and when the first day arrived, I had 36 students in one class period.  Soon the emails were flying among our staff, 38 students here, 40 students there.  

Here’s the good news-parents want their kids to come to our school.  I love that!  Enrollment is up and admittedly, creating a balanced schedule is challenging for small schools that try to offer competitive courses.  Our union has bargained language (I helped bargain that language) that creates limits to the number of preps a core teacher teaches so this also places a hardship on the schedule and can tie the hands of the registrar and administrators.  I know that all stakeholders in my school see this as a problem.  I don’t place the blame with them.  I had faith that we could all put our heads together and come to a solution.  Afterall, we are smart people-we can figure this out.  I also believed that no one was going to argue that having 38 students in a math class was a good idea.  Now nine weeks into the semester, my excitement is far more contained, the dust has settled and adjustments have been made.  In order to bring class sizes down, a few staff members agreed to give up their prep period so that a few extra class periods can be placed in the schedule, creating more scheduling flexibility.  I don’t have 36 students anymore–I’m now down to 32.  The classroom still feels packed and it is a challenge to manage all class discussions let alone mobilizing to assist students on assignments.

I suppose I could blame all sorts of factors.  But I can’t help but feel that my school and students could have seen some relief with 1351.  Voter approved Initiative 1351 would have reduced K-12 class sizes.  While the initiative may have not directed the legislature to increase taxes or reallocate funds directly, approval of the initiative should have been viewed by the legislature as a mandate from the people.  When the 2014-2015 legislature delayed the implementation (see the Associated Press article from July 9, 2015) of the initiative by four years, they sent a message to voters and to my students.  My current students will see no immediate relief from the legislature.  How frustrating it is to to tell my students that the popularly elected legislature cannot figure out a way to enact a voter approved initiative that would directly impact their learning.   How is it that a legislator can see class size as a ‘luxury’ and not a necessity?

As our state legislature and court system evaluate what a basic education is in Washington, I can’t help but think that basic education must encompass quality instructional time between a teacher and each student.  While it’s challenging to quantify what quality instructional time looks like, it’s not a reach to assume that students in smaller classes have more access to a teacher during class time than students in larger classes.  It’s difficult to run around and work one on one with students on the writing process when you have 32 in a class.  Is that what a basic education looks like? 

What is the purpose of democracy if an act passed by the electorate in a democratic manner is set aside by the legislature?  I teach government and politics to high school seniors and our legislature has failed to recognize what democracy looks like.  How do I explain to my 17 and 18 year old students that voting matters when the outcome of an election can be suspended by the legislature?  Do I chalk that up to the Madisonian Model of checks and balances?  I have to admit-that’s not an example I intend to use with my students.  With the legislature under pressure again, I hope that 1351 isn’t dead.  I hope that democracy will eventually rule.  I have to believe that because it’s the foundation of the course that I teach.  What message would I be sending to my kids about the power of democracy?  I refuse for it to be the same message being sent to them by our legislature.  


High School Redesign?


Last week, the Obama Administration announced the offer of $375 million to support what it calls “Next Generation” high schools in an effort to improve graduation rates and career and college readiness (with a distinct emphasis on STEM as the be-all, end-all solution).

I am not anti-STEM, but I do not believe that preparing students for STEM careers ought to be the sole valued purpose for school redesign. As I read the press releases and fact sheets, I also see repeated references to innovation. Paired in the right sentence, “high school redesign” and “innovation” are truly exciting. However, if the word “innovation” is intended to mean “more STEM,” then I don’t think we’re heading down the right path. Adding more science and math is not a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t amount to innovative redesign. If we are going to truly redesign what high school looks like, we need to do more than revise the course catalog or offer more internships in the community (also a major theme in the redesign literature released last week, also not a bad thing, but also not really a realistic “innovation” for all communities and all students).

Ultimately, adopting new standards, offering new classes or internships, layering on teacher accountability measures, or mandating exit assessments will not broadly result in school reform until we address the one resource that no school reform movement has meaningfully addressed: time.

By this I do not mean adding more time to the day or even the school year. I mean that we need to utterly rehaul how we structure the time both teachers and students spend at school. And by how we structure time I also mean whether we structure time.

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When Tragedy Strikes Over & Over & Over Again

BOTY Photos by Bill Healy 016


Teaching in an urban, high poverty school isn’t like teaching elsewhere. The lack of resources, sporadic community support, systemic inequalities, and high mobility cultivates an environment filled with trauma. In this environment, it necessary to be in a constant state of alert. My kids are on guard. I’m on guard.

Tragedy is around every corner.

Literally. Every few months–it seems–there is an altercation that results in the death of a young man or a young woman. Usually a young man. A young man of color. It was Elijah yesterday.

Having taught in a suburban high school, I know this is not the same experience. Yes, there were deaths and sadness but there wasn’t an air of expectation. An air of resignation to the facts of life–that hardship, struggle, and sorrow are moments away. It’s an air of “we hope this never happens again” combined with a whiff of “we aren’t surprised anymore.”

Our students are constantly faced with loss and death, but are expected to be resilient and move on. They mourn in whatever way they can—through stories of precious moments, through over-sized T-shirts tagged “in loving memory” and through altars of remembrance. The district sends in extra grief counselors and we all pray the day hurries to a close so we can stop pretending to care about Shakespeare, transitive properties, and Government. Tomorrow will be better we tell ourselves. And it will.

But what about the days after the initial event? Who is there to help our students process this grief? How about the next tragic event? And the one after that?  Five counselors, two psychologists, and a few administrators can not carry the psychological and emotional weight of 1400 students and 90 + staff members.

Education administration professor, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, argues that urban youth are undergoing “toxic stress”. He further postulates that,

When we look at national data sets for trauma, the numbers suggest that one in three urban youth display mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. They’re twice as likely as a soldier coming out of live combat to have PTSD. In the veterans’ administration, this is topic number one. But in conversations about urban youth, it almost never registers. All data shows symptoms of PTSD are interruptive to someone trying to perform well in school and more likely to create risk behavior, [yet] the investment is being made on incarceration.

In a classroom of 30, that is one third of my students. Where are the discussions on mental health, toxic stress, or urban PTSD on the local and national level? Are we waiting to see how the Compton Unified class action lawsuit against the district for failure to respond appropriately to student trauma pans out?

I have my suspicions why few want to address these issues.  

Regardless, if our students are coming to school with more PTSD than a soldier, how are the staff in any building prepared to mitigate this? In 2012, the AFT published findings that 93% of teachers never received any bereavement training. The report elaborates that teachers are asking for it. Clearly, teachers want to be better prepared to serve all student needs not just ones related to Common Core. I think it’s just as important for Larry to know how to respond to his triggers as it is for him to read grade level texts.

Alas, when I browse through the catalogues of professional learning opportunities of surrounding districts, I notice I can sign up to learn how to set up a flipped classroom. I can get tips on how to use love and logic for my discipline plan. I can learn the ins and outs of the TPEP evaluation system. What I can’t find is anything on how to manage the grief my students bring with them to the classroom. I don’t see courses on mediating toxic stress for students or colleagues. I can’t seem to find a training on conflict resolution or tips for designing lessons that maintain academic rigour and give alternative activities to lower the affective filter. I can’t find a class to help me understand and respond to the differences between trauma and grief.

It is critical that schools with high percentages of students living with toxic stress receive more short and long term support addressing these conditions. Staff need more than momentary pep talks or a handout on the stages of grief. We need to acknowledge that it’s not enough to cry in the bathroom and then pretend things are fine and go back to teaching Things Fall Apart. We need to stop ignoring that our urban youth and their teachers have unique needs that aren’t being addressed system wide. We need professional learning opportunities that equip our teachers to handle grief—their own and a classroom full of it! If we develop sustainable programs truly addressing the whole child, then both our teachers and our students will be empowered to handle whatever is around the next corner.

Would we teach kids the way we teach teachers?


I have now completed two full months “out of the classroom.” I do miss it terribly, and to be honest, one of the things I miss is the ability to go to my classroom, close the door, and ignore the “big picture” that I’m now so tuned in to in my teacher-leadership role in my district. Sometimes I just want to go talk to some 14 year-olds about symbolism and metaphor. That’s a much more comfortable place than talking budgets and systems and human resources and how to create meaningful learning experiences for teachers.

The team of teacher-leaders in my district who are spearheading our professional learning system are working hard to make changes to how we design the learning experiences our teachers engage with. When I think about the many, many hours of “PD” I’ve sat through, the experiences that impacted me positively shared a common theme: they treated me as a learner, not as some container into which to stuff information I was obligated to accept. Too many experiences, though, left me feeling like that over-stuffed container, which was then promptly shuffled out the door to get to work.

I don’t think professional-learning design has had inadequate motives in the past. I just think that there was not the kind of expectation, systemically, that the design of teacher-learning deserved the same attention we’d expect to be given to the design of student-learning.

Here are the things that I think too much teacher professional development gets wrong… despite the best of intentions. Continue reading

Balancing Teaching and Leading

By Tom White

I’ve never had an existential crises. Frankly, I’ve never had the time for it. But this past year has caused me to do a lot of thinking about my role as a teacher leader and how it aligns with – and conflicts with – my role as a teacher.

Teacher leadership, according to my personal definition, is when a practicing teacher goes beyond working with his students and does something to affect change in the broader context of education. Teacher leadership is incredibly important; policy and executive decisions are being made all the time and everywhere by various stakeholders, many of whom have never taught and most of whom aren’t currently teaching. It’s imperative that current, practicing teachers are at the table when these decision are made.

But there’s an inherent problem built into teacher leadership: time. Actually two problems: time and energy. Most decisions are discussed and made during the workday, and those days are usually not in July. Teachers are expected to be elsewhere during those times, and if they’re aren’t elsewhere it’s because they wrote elaborate plans for someone who’s far less qualified so that their classroom culture doesn’t completely collapse while they’re gone.

For me, that has always been a major barrier for teacher leadership. I’ve always tried to take on no more than I can handle.  But I’ve also tried to take on no less than I can handle; because I firmly believe in the value of having a practicing teacher working with other stakeholders on important work.

But then this year happened. Continue reading

Stop Confusing Assessment and Accountability


“While some tests are for accountability purposes only, the vast majority of assessments should be tools in a broader strategy to improve teaching and learning. In a well-designed testing strategy, assessment outcomes are not only used to identify what students know, but also inform and guide additional teaching, supports, or interventions that will help students master challenging material.”


The above passage is from an October 24 United States Department of Education  Fact Sheet about “overtesting,” which tacitly acknowledged that the “accountability and assessment” movement in public schools has surpassed ridiculous proportions. The first page of the Fact Sheet even contained a half-hearted mea culpa that the federal powers bore “some of the responsibility for” the current norm of “unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students,” which has ended up “consuming too much instructional time… creating undue stress for educators and students.”

I absolutely agree that “overtesting” is a major problem. The Fact Sheet calls for a cap of 2% of instructional time being devoted to standardized testing (which still amounts to between 20 and 22 hours of standardized testing per kid, per year). This is a start, I suppose.

My bigger issue, though, comes in the paragraph I included at the top of this post. Specifically that opening clause: “While some tests are for accountability purposes only.”

I want to make this clear: No test should be used “for accountability purposes only.” Ever. Period.

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Positive Behavior Supports

This year my district adopted Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), so our teachers got several days of training. In August I attended an unpaid PD day, mostly as a show of support for my new principal. (Remember my article last year “TPEP Is Killing My Principal”? He resigned in the spring. He’s now working for a small private school—and looking a lot more relaxed.) We had a second day of training right before school started and a third in September.

The feds recommend PBIS on their site (http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/index.html). One goal of the Department of Education is to decrease expulsions and suspensions. After all, students who are out of school for discipline issues are not likely to make academic gains while they are gone.

On one hand, PBIS focuses on teaching and modeling correct behaviors and offering tons of positive support. On the other, it mirrors RTI in that it helps schools identify Tier I, II, and III level behavior and the types of interventions appropriate at each level.

My class helped make videos of how to behave on the playground, in line, and even at the sinks outside the bathrooms. They love watching themselves show off how to do things right! Our school now has common expectations for the halls, lunchroom, recess, cafeteria—with the entire staff is using the same language, from the four expectations to the numbered noise levels.



Unfortunately, this year we are struggling with a number of Tier III students. So far PBIS isn’t a magic solution for those students.

Our principal, counselor, and interventionist are dealing with emergencies all day, every day. Experienced, seasoned teachers are strained and strung out. Teachers that last year I encouraged to go out for National Boards are equally strained and strung out. As much as we want to fix everything immediately, it’s impossible to effect big, systemic changes overnight.

Under PBIS, my classroom is both a time-out space for students to write reflection sheets, and it’s a haven for emergency evacuations. Late in September, while I was working with my math group, I looked up and realized there was a bunch of “littles” in my room. The dozen second graders had entered so quietly I hadn’t noticed! They were sitting crossed legged in the front of the classroom, hidden by the big fifth grader desks. Their teacher had sent them to my room for safety.

I peeked my head out the door. Three administrators stood there, observing one small student. The administrators said it wasn’t safe to bring my class through the hall to lunch. I had to find another solution, for them and for the second graders suddenly in my care.

How can we solve the problem at our school? We’ve met with district administration and our union president. Multiple district administrators have spent extended time at our building. We’ve received extra support in terms of additional trained personnel. We are working on problem-solving every way we can.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to do small things that might make appreciable differences.

I have one little guy who is a frequent flyer in my classroom. Call him Greg. He comes in often to fill out a Time to Reflect sheet. He’s not very cooperative. He’ll knock over a chair or make rude noises.

But I saw him in the office with an ice pack a couple weeks ago or so. I said, “Oh, honey, what happened?” He told me he hurt his eye. I said I was so sorry and gave him a hug. He melted into me. The principal gave me a surprised look—that was not his normal interaction with adults. But she said, “Good for you, Jan.”

A few days later I saw him in the office again. I said, “Hey, Greg, how’s it going?” It turns out he’d earned a reward and was in the office to collect. I told him how proud I was of him and gave him another hug. He clung to me again.

Now whenever I have a few extra minutes I stop by Greg’s classroom. I kneel by his chair. I ask him to read to me or show me what he’s writing. (His teacher is delighted that I’m giving him this extra support—I did check!)

This week when I said, “See you later,” Greg said, “No.” Surprised, I asked if he didn’t want me to come by any more. It turns out he didn’t want me to leave.

Ok, Greg is not a Tier III kid. He’s a Tier II. But he’s the one hard-to-manage kid who’s frequented my classroom. And if I can be one more adult building one more positive relationship with one more kid in my school, it can’t hurt.

And I also bring brownies for the staff room.


Secrets Student Share Help Me to Help Them


This guest post comes courtesy of Irene Smith, an EA ELA NBCT in Yakima, Washington, who teaches English Language Arts, Social Studies and more to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the Discovery Lab School.  She and her students produce a full length Shakespeare play every year, and she is currently writing a companion text for The Tempest.

You may find this strange.

I collect students’ notes that they pass to each other. Sometimes I catch them passing their little missives and keep them. Sometimes I find them left on a desk or floor, tucked into a drawer or left on a filing cabinet. My students are aware of my fixation with their notes. Sometimes they even purposefully pass one in class in hopes that I’ll collect it in order to find the “Hi Mrs. Smith!” folded up inside. Some students purposefully intercept or find notes to bring to me.

I never read the notes aloud. I just save them until I’m alone to see what the message is. Mostly they are of relative unimportance- I m bored L. But not infrequently, they are full of mystery and angst.

Middle school students are careless, but I suspect they may sometimes leave these notes in order to let me in on their secret communications, to become more closely acquainted with their private worlds, and to help me understand them better.

Dear people at my school, I’m so sorry I’m weird. I’m sorry I don’t fit in. I’m sorry I don’t look pretty like all of you.

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Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, Linda Myrick, Mary John Rightmire liked this post

Caution: Disillusionment Phase Ahead

Next week is our first support group meeting.

By name it is a “New Teacher Workshop,” but I know what it really is. When we gather those dozen newly-minted first-year teachers together, it isn’t going to be a time for “digging into the framework” or “unpacking standards” or “doing a data dive” (whatever that is). Instead, we’ll have an hour or two, with snacks and school-appropriate beverages (this time) where we can just be in a room with the only other people who understand what we’re facing: the October-January “Disillusionment Phase.”

This chart may be familiar to some. It originally came from Ellen Moir in 1999 as part of the Santa Cruz New Teacher project, and described her observations about first-year teachers:

Phases of first-year teachers' copy (1)

Image Source: http://www.carnegiefoundation.org

You’ll notice I’ve lumped myself in with that crew, even though I’m solidly “mid-career.” The reality is that I am a novice in my new work of working with novices, and I too am facing that roller-coaster of feelings: we’ve sped swiftly past the “survival” stage and the track is pointing down, down, down.

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