Thirty-Two Down…

factor_tree_32Wednesday was the last day of my thirty-second year teaching. Besides a flurry of part-time teenage jobs, I’ve never really done anything else and I honestly can’t imagine a different career.

Despite my apparent longevity (or stagnation) I am not the same teacher I was back in 1984. I’ve learned a few things, sometimes the easy way, but mostly the hard way. Here, in no particular order are some of them:

  1. Get good at classroom management. It’s not the most important thing we do, but none of the important things can happen without it.
  2. Relationships matter. Especially your relationships with the principal, the office manager and the custodian.
  3. Don’t pull maps down past the line that says “Don’t pull past this line.”
  4. Don’t lose your school key. It’s a huge mess.
  5. Take your job seriously. It’s about the most important job you can imagine.
  6. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You aren’t as special as your mother said you were.
  7. Stay in shape. That’s good advice in general, but this job definitely has a physical component. I’ve seen teachers let themselves go only to have their careers cut short.
  8. You can’t change people. I’m not talking about students; changing students is actually our job. I’m talking about other people, like colleagues and parents. It might be nice to change some of these people, but you can’t.
  9. This is not a competitive job. Trying to be the best teacher is a waste of time and energy.
  10. The reason we have assessments is to improve instruction. It’s not the other way around.
  11. Don’t go to work when you’re sick. Don’t call in sick when you’re not.
  12. The kids who need the most love are the hardest kids to love. And you should sit them towards the front.
  13. Go to most of the staff parties, but don’t bring your spouse; they won’t enjoy it. And don’t get drunk.
  14. Don’t expect anything productive to happen when you have a sub.
  15. Work hard, but sustainably hard. You’re not being paid to work 70-hour weeks, and doing so will have a negative effect on the 35 hours for which you are being paid. Know when to quit.
  16. Grade papers immediately. Student work does not become more interesting over time.

And finally,

17. Support your union. Those are good people.

It’s been a great thirty-years. That doesn’t mean every minute of every day was bliss, but it does mean that I can look back knowing I’ve done something important with myself. And that’s saying something.

And I’m not even close to being done. In fact, I’m shooting for fifty. So that’s thirty-two down and eighteen to go!

The Ponytailed Principal

I ran into my principal in the hall recently. She made a comment about her hair being pulled back into a ponytail again. “It’s my go-to hairstyle when I’ve had two hours of sleep,” she quipped.

I replied that I hadn’t seen her with a different hairstyle for weeks.

“That’s because I’m writing up my T-PEP evaluations. I don’t have any time to sleep.”

After we lost our great principal last year, we looked for an awesome replacement. And we got one. Our new principal is a first-year principal, but she is far from inexperienced. She was the math instructional coach for our district for years. She knows how to use data to drive instruction, how to coach teachers in using effective strategies, how to help teams implement new curriculum materials.

As she made the transition to administration, she became the TPEP coach for the district. She is the TPEP queen. She can observe me teaching for ten minutes, walk out of my room, and rattle off a dozen Marzano strategies—by name and number—that I’ve nailed in that brief period. I couldn’t possibly identify all the things I did in that snippet! And I certainly wouldn’t know the numbers without looking. She’s a phenomena.

Our school, though, gives her little time for coaching. For instructional leadership. For any of the cool things that T-PEP is supposed to bring.

Our school is a high-poverty school. We have many students with high social and emotional needs. We have many Tier III behavior issues. The last couple of years have been especially difficult. Far worse than in the past, even with the same population. We haven’t been able to figure out why.

In my continuing study of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), I read a recent comment. Children who were born the year the economy tanked in 2008 are now in second grade. So last year they were in first grade, and the year before in kindergarten. The year before last is when our school’s disciple problems started to skyrocket—specifically in kindergarten. And the issues began in preschool.

Consider the trauma so many parents were going through in 2008. How many of those children had to deal with common ACEs: divorce, abuse or neglect, parents who were addicted or imprisoned?

When I talked about this correlation with my husband, he was fascinated and wondered if there were similar results during the Great Depression. I said, “During the Great Depression, a lot of those children were feral. They were running wild in the streets. The difference now is that we are requiring those children to go to school.”

So here is a typical week for my principal. She deals with discipline issues all day, trying to build positive relationships and positive systems as much as she can but also, of course, being the court of last resort for the Tier III kids all day every day.

She answers emails and calls parents—positive and not so fun calls—until 7:30 every night. Then she goes home to her family. Yes, as a matter of fact, she actually has a family!

Into the wee hours of the morning and on weekends she works on T-PEP. We all know this because we get the emails from her with the time stamp of 1:42 am or 3:56 am or Sunday morning at 7:14.

I was on focused T-PEP this year. My principal was in my room for several observations and walk-throughs—not as many as she wanted. We met formally at fall, winter, and spring conferences—not as often as she would have liked—and informally throughout the year to see how I was meeting my goals. Once in a while I got to talk more in depth with her after school when we both stayed late, at 7:30 or so. She did a fantastic job on my written evaluation. But the truth is I could have learned more from her—of course!—if she could have devoted more time to instructional leadership, which is her passion.

I asked her last week how much time T-PEP takes. Remember, she can pull Marzano chapter and verse out of her head like Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. So she’s no slowpoke. She figured that,

  • the time for each comprehensive T-PEP averaged 10 hours per person
  • the time for each focused T-PEP averaged 5 hours per person

Say eight full eight-hour days this year at home or on the weekends doing comprehensive T-PEP work that isn’t done at school—not the observations or meetings. Another seven days full eight-hour days doing focused.

In addition she has to do classified evaluations. I do wonder if we have more classified staff because we are a high poverty school and if that adds to her T-PEP work load even more. Figure another couple of eight-hour days devoted to those.

I figure 17 days beyond her more than full-time work as a principal in a high-needs school. Granted, she gets the big bucks for this work, right? Actually, for her extra work doing those 17 days off the clock, she gets a whopping stipend of $750.

This spring she got headhunted. She was offered a job in a different district. And she’ll be gone in a couple of weeks.

This is the second year in a row that we have lost a fabulous principal. We don’t blame our principals. We have seen their health fail. We have seen them beaten down. We know the hours and the stress of the job are more than one person can handle.

Both of them loved working at our school. However, the additional hours required by T-PEP—beyond an already very extended school day—made the principal job wholly unreasonable.

I know there are people who are enthusiastic supporters of T-PEP. Maybe conditions are different at their school. Maybe discipline isn’t such an overwhelming part of their principal’s day. Or maybe they have an assistant principal.

But I’ve had two principals I admire greatly and care about deeply who were crushed by T-PEP. It ate them alive. I can’t be so enthusiastic.

McCleary, Dorn, and School Closures

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The headlines are a bit disingenuous. And, I do have to admit I haven’t always been one to jump to Randy Dorn’s defense, but when every news source screams that the Superintendent of Washington schools says it is time to “shut down public education,” there’s a bit of cherry-picking from the message. In fact, Dorn’s actual statement to the Court contained five suggested actions the Court might take, with the closure of public schools being but one. His ideas, not necessarily suggested as concurrent moves, include that the Court might:

  • Fine individual legislators for being in contempt.
  • Order local government to withhold the distribution of local levy monies (since, ostensibly, the patching of financial holes that local levies provide masks the inadequacy of state-provided funding).
  • Direct the rolling back of 39 tax exemptions, credits, and preferential rates enacted by the Legislature from 2012 forward, in order to redirect revenue to schools.
  • Essentially, shut down non-critical state operations, akin to the “Government Shutdown” move we’ve marched near the brink of in times when budgets haven’t been adopted in legislative session.
  • Close public schools (which is the option making all the headlines).

As the shrill cries in the comments sections of articles all over the web point out, closing schools (as well as all the rest) turn taxpayers and children into pawns in a political game. Is it in the best interest of kids that their schools don’t start up this fall? Of course not. Is it in the best interest of kids to simply make plans to make plans, kicking hard decisions further into the future while school walls crumble, the burnout-motivated teacher exodus continues, and inequities in access widen achievement gaps for kids? Of course not. Thus, taxpayers, children, and businesses are forged into pawns in a game that ultimately doesn’t impact the day to day lives of the typical policymaker.

I’m not optimistic that any of Dorn’s suggestions will happen, and I’m not optimistic that the current legislative body in office is really all that serious about finding actual solutions. The main reason is simple: The money has to come from somewhere, either by reclaiming revenue by rescinding current tax breaks or by drawing new revenue in the form of new taxes. Neither is a comfortable proposition. Both require making important, powerful stakeholders unhappy: On one hand it’s the broad voting constituency, on the other is the business community that is essential to our state economy. In either case, a loser must be cast. By converse logic, then, right now both those groups are the relative winners. If the taxpayers and business are the winners in the present model…who is left as the loser?

I think we know the answer to that one.


 

Image source: Cropped from page 5 of the .pdf file of the “Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Amicus Brief Addressing 2016 Legislature’s Compliance with McCleary,” located here.

“B” is the new “F”

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I’m not a fan of letter grades for many reasons. For one, in my entire career I’ve never met a single student who I believe actually became more motivated as the result of an “F.” More often than not, the “F” is demoralizing, and gets logged with all the other evidence a child might use to prove to himself he is worthless and can’t learn…despite how hard we might try to convince him otherwise.

I’m not a fan of the terminology applied to our evaluation. In many meetings and trainings, I joke about the fact that the terms (U, B, P, and D) are in fact adjectival labels…that at the end of the year I plan to have my summative label embroidered on my school polo, right below the school logo and “STAFF.” I’m a believer in the potential of our evaluation model, but I see it being undone by four little words. One word, actually: “Basic.”

Because I understand our framework, the law, and our model very deeply, I’m not personally too concerned when I have a “Basic” here or there. I also have a few “Distinguished” here or there, and I’ve said flat out to my evaluator that I never choose to aspire to anything more than “Basic” in 8.4. That one, with all respect due to Dr. Marzano, represents someplace I don’t intend to devote my personal and professional energy. (It’s true: I’m arrogant. I am good at my work; for me it’s not about being bulletproof, it’s about knowing my own professional weaknesses before my evaluator even has the chance to point them out.)

As summative conversations are happening in my district, my role with our teachers’ union and as a Marzano framework trainer means I have received many emails per day from both teachers and principals about the “Basic.” It is quite clear, that despite my hopes, “B” is the new “F.”

Despite all the talk of this being a growth model (and while it is now too cliche to use the term “growth mindset,” I am still a big believer in the essential premise of mindset as a deciding factor in success, happiness, and professional improvement), I realize that the labels themselves don’t walk the growth mindset talk. The labels are static. They “define” a teacher. As adjectives, they imply a fixed state. Thou art “Basic.”

But here’s the kicker: Almost none of the conversations I’ve had with principals and teachers have been about a summative overall “Basic” score. In almost every case, the teacher is set to receive an overall label of “Proficient.” In some cases, every one of the major criteria is set to receive a “Proficient” rating, while one or two components here or there is labeled “Basic.” The “Basic” is intolerable. It is a professional affront. And it is, very possibly, an accurate assessment of the practices taking place. The reality is that some students do perform at an “F” level, and some teachers do perform at a “B” level.

A teacher who “gives” a student an F will no doubt argue that the student “earned” the score. There will be evidence (or an absence of evidence) to support the rating. Nevertheless, I still contend that the “F” label serves to demoralize rather than motivate. The “Basic” has a similar impact…but the action I too often see motivated from the “Basic” isn’t a motivation to take action and change practice, it is a motivation to challenge the label. Just as when a student (or parent) challenges a grade with little regard to the learning it is supposed to represent, I see many of us challenging the label without much regard for the practice it is supposed to represent. In my interpretation, it isn’t necessarily the teacher’s fault for this reaction. The fault stems from  terminology the connotes a state of being rather than a description of actions.

The problem is the meaning that our system, our whole culture, applies to those labels. I know a syntactical shift won’t change everything but moving from an adjective to verb, from label to action, from fixed to fluid, could be one way to shift perspectives. An adjective defines what we are, and definitions (in our world) are fixed. A verb describes what we do, and once we’ve done what we do it is in the past; we always have the choice do something new or different in the present and future.

Word changes, you say, won’t change the fact that we are as a culture intolerant of second-places, B-minuses, and not being treated as exceptional. That’s a bigger issue. But the words we choose shape how we see ourselves and the world around us.

And I’m just pollyanna enough to believe that a student getting a rating of “Emerging” rather than a label of “F” will sense that there is perhaps hope. I believe it because I’ve seen it in my own classroom with my own students. I believe that a teacher being told his skills are “Developing” will respond differently than if he is given the label “Basic.” As it is, the “Basic” shifts our focus to the label, and away from cultivating better practice.

Surprised by your summative TPEP score? You shouldn’t be…

It’s that time of year again when school comes to a close and seniors are waiting for graduation. As I think about that final report card, I know that the grades that my students will see will be of little surprise to them. We’ve been communicating all semester long about their progress towards the learning goals and standards. They’ve been assessed throughout the semester and I’ve offered significant feedback to them about their work and skill development. I’ve met with students routinely throughout the year to discuss learning strategies and how to overcome their perceived weaknesses. Now, as the year culminates, students should be pretty clear as to where they stand academically in my class.

So as teachers come to the end of this year’s TPEP (Teacher/Principal Evaluation Project) cycle, do all teachers know how they’ve been assessed? Have they had the opportunity to receive feedback about their teaching throughout the year? Will they be surprised when they see that summative TPEP score on their final evaluation?

For the past three months I’ve been engaged in pre-bargaining contract language to formally transition TPEP from a LOA (Letter of Agreement) into a more permanent place in our CBA (collective bargaining agreement). Part of the pre-bargaining process includes research. I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to teachers from other districts and looking over contracts from districts across the state. What I’ve learned is that TPEP implementation and annual process operates different depending on where a teacher works. My biggest take away: teachers and evaluators might be meeting routinely, but districts have distinct operating definitions of what “routine” looks like.

TPEP has been part of our state for the past six years. My district began implementation of the project during the 2013-2014 school year. Our implementation was fairly democratic. A committee of teachers and administrators selected the Danielson Framework. Core principles and beliefs were drafted and a game plan was put into place. At the core of our work was a belief that TPEP was to be a growth model for our teachers; a process by which teachers and administrators are constantly working to refine teaching and learning in and out of the classroom.

As implementation began, we (both teachers and evaluators) quickly found that the Comprehensive model was cumbersome if we wanted to be good stewards of our core beliefs and principles. Because our local union and administration agreed to meet once a month to discuss TPEP related issues/concerns, teachers asked to make a change to the district TPEP procedure. Beginning in November 2013, teachers on TPEP began meeting once every two weeks with their evaluators. The meetings became a time where teachers could present artifacts and materials to evidence evaluative criteria. Because I chose to be an early adopter, I met with my evaluators once every two weeks from November until April. During that time I was truly challenged. I don’t mean this negatively, whatsoever. I was the one who decided what evidence would be examined and I was the one who began the conversation about how I wanted the evidence scored. This did not mean that I always got my way or that my administrators were push overs. Instead, I was asked questions and given feedback about my practice in a way that I had not received in the past. If I disagreed with the score, I had an opportunity two weeks later to offer additional evidence. I was able to refine my student growth goals, carefully analyze student success towards those goals, and discuss that success or lack thereof, with my evaluators. That format, adopted nearly three years, with some minimal adjustments, remains in place today. It provides teachers with constant feedback. As a result, teachers are encouraged to think differently about their practice. Teachers are now taking risks in engaging learners with new techniques and strategies and seeking assistance from their coach (that’s me!).

Now we are wrapping up our third year on the cycle and transitioning TPEP into our contract. All of our veteran teachers (as well as new teachers) have completed Comprehensive. Although it is no longer feasible for our evaluators to meet once every two weeks with every teacher on Comprehensive, both evaluators in my building set a goal to meet once every three weeks. It doesn’t always happen– after all parent meetings come up, teachers or administrators are sick, but I hold firm in my belief that meeting routinely, throughout the school year, is the best way for an evaluator and a teacher to manage this process. Routine meetings offer the opportunity for teachers to talk about their work, show off when things are going well, and ask for help when they aren’t. When the meetings are routine, they become low risk and less stressful, thus leading to genuine conversations about teaching and learning. When the meetings are routine, the final summative assessment at the end of the year isn’t a surprise, instead it’s confirmation.

But here’s the problem. This isn’t happening everywhere. Teachers in districts across the state tell me that they rarely meet with their evaluator to discuss their practice. Teachers aren’t given the opportunity to routinely reflect and gather feedback about their practice. Danielson (whose model is one of the three approved in the state) points to the fact that routine meetings need to take place in order to see real growth in teaching (Educational Leadership, Vol. 68, No. 4). Many teachers have no idea what final score they will receive until they attend the year end summative meeting. Qutie frankly, this is unacceptable. It is time for teachers to question what “routine” meetings are and to ask that language and practice match intent and goals. A teacher’s summative score should not be a surprise. When teachers feel disconnected to the process and administrators don’t meet with teachers regularly to discuss progress, the entire evaluation process invalidates and undermines the growth model mindset. What could teaching and learning look like if all teachers benefited from this regular, intentional feedback?

If we ask our students to engage in learning with a growth mindset and we use regular feedback to build reflection for our students, shouldn’t our teacher evaluation system mirror that same practice? I completely understand that TPEP is a lot of work for teachers and evaluators. It’s supposed to be. Accomplished teaching requires constant reflection based on feedback and assessment in order to refine goals and practice. If we expect our teachers to provide feedback to students, shouldn’t we ask the same of our teacher evaluators?

Teacher Preparation – A Shared Responsibility

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This guest blog post is courtesy of Amanda Ward, who is a National Board Certified teacher from Bainbridge High School (BHS) where she has taught Social Studies for 15 years. This year Amanda is serving as a part-time teacher and part-time instructional coach at BHS.  She also is a National Teacher Fellow for Hope Street Group, focusing on teacher preparation issues in the U.S. 

Last year, if someone had asked me about my thoughts on Teacher Prep, I likely would not have had much to say. I completed my teacher preparation program nearly twenty years ago and it really is a distant memory. The job of a teacher has changed in those twenty years and I have evolved as an educator to meet those new demands. Frankly I really hadn’t thought much about my training and early development, until recently. Now, after a number of new experiences this year, I have a lot to say about this topic and the need for all teachers, particularly experienced teachers, to take active roles in teacher preparation.

For the past year I have served as a National Teacher Fellow for the nonpartisan nonprofit Hope Street Group. One of the primary responsibilities of that position was participating in a national research project on teacher prep. Over six weeks, the 17 other fellows and I conducted in-person focus groups and distributed surveys in order to gather the opinions of nearly 2,000 teachers in 49 states about how they were prepared and their wishes for aspiring educators. We produced a report called On Deck: Preparing the Next Generation of Teachers that features the findings and recommendations from our research. What is not surprising was that teachers emphasized the importance of deep clinical experience as well as training in how to effectively work with high-needs populations. But this research also reminded me that practicing teachers need to take an active role in both assisting in the training of teachers as well as demanding that universities and school districts provide the preparation and support needed for individuals to be successful entering this incredibly challenging job.

Continue reading

Dear Class of 2016: It is okay if you’re not going to college.

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What’s not okay: (1) Mooching off your your family or society while remaining unemployed and unwilling to put in the leg work to pursue employment, (2) Going on and on about how all the facts and figures you learned in high school (example: Algebra) aren’t things you use in the “real world,” and (3) Assuming that “going to college” is inherently the best choice or a guarantee of future happiness, financial security, or prosperity. And, so I’m clear: I am not opposed to encouraging students to set their sights on college. If you’re headed off to a university next year, best of luck and congratulations.

What I am opposed to is the narrative that we’ve spun for students in our public schools about “college” being the only correct preferred path all should choose.

Notice that once we adopted this mantra, the policy and practice priorities shifted toward the accumulation of scores rather than the acquisition of skills. And notice that once we started focusing rabidly on scores, more and more students (and teachers) felt desperate enough to cheat, more and more students (and teachers) spiraled down into the mires of stress and anxiety, and more and more colleges were getting nabbed for preying on the “college only” mindset by gladly taking tuition money and churning out valueless degrees. Notice that as we focused on college admission as the be-all, end-all, vocational programs were squeezed out of secondary schools and the nation began to cry more and more that high schools were churning out students who didn’t know anything (they’d only memorized it for the test) and couldn’t do anything (they hadn’t been encouraged to gain marketable, real skills).

That’s all very negative, but here’s the upside: Continue reading

Fully Funding College Education

In my class we start each day with a vocabulary word that uses a Greek or Latin root. One recent word was expound, meaning “to explain in great detail.” When it came time to share sample sentences, one group offered, “Furiously defending his views on free education, Bernie Sanders expounded on how good it would be for the U.S.”

I asked for clarification—what exactly did the students in the group mean by free education? They said they meant a college education.

A girl in another group objected. “College wouldn’t really be free. People would still have to pay for it. Maybe not you. But other people would pay for it. They would just pay for it with taxes. So taxes would go up.”

We all agreed. Nothing was really free. “Of course,” I said, “we call this”—I gestured around the room—“free public education. You get to go to school for free. But your education isn’t free either. It is paid for out of taxes. Why would people be willing to pay taxes to send children to school?”

A long discussion ensued. Most of the arguments children gave in favor of paying taxes to support schools were based on altruism. “It’s nice for people to pay for school.” “It’s a good thing to do.”

Much as I love to encourage altruism, I had to admit to my class that the altruistic argument doesn’t go very far when asking people to vote for taxes. (Especially not in Washington, which is highly resistant to any taxes!)

Some students suggested arguments based on negative consequences. “If you don’t educate children, they might end up becoming criminals. Maybe they will rob you. It’s better to have them in school, isn’t it?” I agreed and added they should keep in mind that the cost of prisons is higher than the cost of schools!

Then we started talking about positive economic consequences. I told my class that economic consequences—ones that are apt to bring money in the end—are the ones more likely motivate voters to approve taxes.

“As a general rule, who makes more money, a person with a high school education or a college education?” I asked. “So who will pay more income tax—for the rest of their life? Would that extra tax help offset the cost of their college education?”

Income tax isn’t enough obviously. But we talked about the kinds of jobs that people with more education can get and how those jobs increase the economy of the community. In the end, a more educated populace should lead to a greater Gross National Product—a better economy for the whole country. On the other hand, a less educated populace leads to higher rates of poverty and more unemployment.

Which brought us back to the question of free college education. I said there are countries that do offer college education for free: Germany, Finland, Denmark. In Denmark they even pay for living expenses in addition to tuition costs! My students went nuts! They all wanted to go to Germany or Finland or Denmark for school! “But wait a minute,” one skeptic inserted. “Maybe you get what you pay for. Maybe their schools are bad.” I cringed. “I don’t think you’ll find that’s a problem,” I told them.

“Well, then,” my students insisted, “why do those countries pay for THEIR students’ college educations when our country doesn’t pay for OURS?”

I honestly couldn’t answer that question. After all, I went to college in California in the 1970s when California virtually fully funded college for state residents. The fees at San Jose State University back then ran about $200 for a semester. So I know there is a precedent for nearly free college education in the US.

Of course, California doesn’t fund higher education the same way it used to. Too many students came in from other states, lived in California for one year to “establish residency,” and then took advantage of the nearly free college education.

But what was happening in California at the time I was going to college? The rise of Silicon Valley! California paid extra taxes to support college educations, but I’d say they’re still getting the economic payback all these years later!

Meanwhile, nation-wide, our college costs have gone up so much that most young people can’t afford a college education. I talk to my students at fall conferences about their goals. They have lofty aspirations and we talk about the best schools in the country for their chosen fields. Then I look at their parents—solid middle/working class citizens, most of them—and I wonder how they will ever manage.

Not everyone needs or wants to go to college. The trades are good, honest work that support the economy too. But even trade schools cost money.

I know we can’t even get K-12 fully funded in our state. And the proposed tax on the top 2% in the state of Washington failed. But what if our top 2% made a public commitment to the students in our state? “If you graduate from high school in Washington with a 3.0 GPA or better, we will fully fund your continuing education at the college or trade school of your choice, anywhere in the United States.” There are amazing examples of outrageous philanthropy now—what a great time to tap into a trend!

My own district has a goal of fewer drop-outs. I believe the prospect of free college or trade school would keep significantly more high school students engaged in school through graduation.

Having more students complete not just high school but college or trade school would be such a boost for the state economy! Just think—less unemployment. Less drain on the state social services budget. More money to pay for things like our crumbling infrastructure—and more fresh new engineers and contractors to help fix the problems. Everybody wins!

Including my students who really want to go to college.

Teaching More than Academics—Much More

From the time I started specializing in gifted students in the mid-1980s, I also began studying their special needs. I realized that if I was going to teach them well, I must do more than meet their intellectual and academic needs. I had to address their myriad social and emotional needs as well.

I can tell you, there are times when I feel as if fully half my job involves meeting my students’ social and emotional issues needs.

Years ago I taught in a pull-out program. There was a fourth grade girl I’ll call Kristy who became infamous in the school after she threw a desk at the principal. She entered my program in the fifth grade and spent the first several months hiding under desks and tables whenever she came to my room. The first time Kristy presented a project in my class—in front of students and parents—she spoke for a few minutes then stopped and said, “That’s all I have. I didn’t do any more. It’s my own fault. I’m sorry.” And she sat down. Once everyone left the room her mom and I danced around the room together because she had accepted responsibility for her own actions.

In order to teach Kristy any academics, I first had to understand what was causing her to misbehave so badly. I had to understand the social and emotional issues that went hand in hand with her incredibly advanced intellect. I had to address those social and emotional needs before I could address her academic needs.

And, at the time I was teaching her, I had to do it with almost no training in the social and emotional needs of gifted.

Over the last couple of years, it sounds like other teachers in my school are starting to feel the same way about their jobs, as if half their jobs have to do with meeting social and emotional needs instead of academic needs. Our school’s professional development this year hasn’t been about math and reading strategies. It’s been about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS).

What does the phrase “adverse childhood experiences” mean? It refers to all the bad things that can happen to children, all the traumas that can have lasting negative effects, all the ordeals that can impact a child’s long-term health and long-term well-being. In the United States the most common ACEs would include parents getting a divorce, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, or having a parent incarcerated.

It seems that the divorce rate in the US has actually started to decline from its high during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Childhelp.org and the American Humane Organization have a wealth of statistics on child abuse and neglect. Data indicates an increase in abuse and neglect. The number of Americans in jail or in prison has exploded since 1990. Prisons are a growth industry in the US!

According to our ACEs trainers, children who grow up in highly stressful and traumatic situations can get stuck in almost a permanent “fight or flight” response. So when they come to school, they aren’t ready to sit quietly, to work in groups, to learn how to read or do math. If a teacher insists that they perform those tasks, they are likely to react with frustration, anger, or violence. Unfortunately, a discipline system that has always worked in the past might not work anymore.

Instead of asking, “What is wrong with this child?” sometimes we need to ask, “What happened to this child?”

Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS) is a school-wide tiered behavior-management system based on the Response to Intervention (RTI) model for academics. Tier I behaviors are handled in the classroom by the teachers, Tier II behaviors might need a buddy classroom or other intervention, and Tier III go to the office. There is a lot of positive reinforcement built into the system along with common language and common expectations.

You might remember Greg from my post in October. Not surprisingly, it turns out he’s an ACEs kid. He’s gone through more traumas in his eight years than I have in in my 63! He’s still difficult to handle in the classroom. But every time I see him now, I get a hug. And if I hear him starting to spin out of control in his classroom—especially if I know there is a guest teacher in there—I poke my head in and say, “Hey, Greg, want to come visit me for a bit?” He’ll come lounge on my couch for a while until he’s calmed down. It works for everyone.

We are classroom teachers. None of us trained to be counselors or social workers. A lot of things we are doing in the classroom now used to be the purview of other professionals. We are stretching our job description to do far more than teach the Common Core, and it’s daunting.

We need pre-service training and/or professional development to prepare us for the ways our job requirements are being extended. This year our school offered about three hours training on ACEs and a couple of days on PBIS. As a point of comparison, I’ve spent years taking courses on meeting the social and emotional needs of gifted students, and I’ll continue to take those courses until I retire.

We need high-quality parent support groups and community outreach. For ACEs, that support needs to start with pre-natal care and neo-natal care and then parenting classes—all of which should be offered for free for high-risk parents. (Just to reassure taxpayers, the public health costs alone of kids growing up with ACEs are much higher than the costs of the care or classes would ever be.) Again, as a comparison, I know I can direct parents to Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted at sengifted.org.

And wouldn’t it be nice to have administrative and legislative support that acknowledges how much more complex and difficult our jobs are becoming?

21st Century School Segregation: The Power of Neighborhood Schools

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My first two years of teaching, I commuted to work—45 minutes one way, an hour and a half the other. My gas bill was insane and I was constantly stressed out from the traffic. I wanted to move closer to my school, but didn’t really want to live in Kent. Although I loved the staff and the students, I knew I wanted to eventually work in a more urban school. Commuting was the norm for most teachers in our building, and a majority of my colleagues drove in from surrounding cities. We’d joke about the benefits of living out of district—time to plan in the car or going to a bar without worrying about running into parents. But, I always felt the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. I was so exhausted I didn’t feel like I was doing my best teaching. I barely attended after-school activities like dances, football games or musicals. I felt like I wasn’t supporting my students enough and only had a surface level understanding the community’s values.

Deep down, I knew that living so far away from where I taught was counter to my belief system. I grew up as the kind of missionary kid that actually lived in the village my parents worked in. My parents home schooled us so that they could integrate their ministries into our daily lives (that meant at age 8 I was helping deliver babies in the prenatal clinic my mom built in the garage). This is why, after two years at Kentridge High School, I eagerly accepted a job in Clover Park School District just ten minutes from my house. Now, I teach at Lincoln, eat my way up and down 38th street (shout out to Vien Dong, Zocalo, and Dragon Crawsfish!), shop at Cappy’s and the 72nd Fred Meyer, and live on the Eastside of Tacoma. I love it.

I believe in neighborhood schools.

I believe in living and teaching in my neighborhood school.

A strong neighborhood school has the potential to change lives. It can be community-oriented, a center of support for families. It’s the community listening as Clover Park HS seniors describe how they tried to change the world through their senior project. It’s Abe’s Golden Acres providing one ton of food for the Eastside of Tacoma during the summer. It’s the SOMA church donating toiletries and snacks for the Football team. It’s The Grand Cinema sponsoring a Film Club after school. Successful neighborhood schools are thriving hubs that facilitate strong community-school partnerships that promote real world learning experiences for students.

I find myself extremely excited about neighborhood schools that are an integral part of their community and that reflect the racial and cultural makeup of that neighborhood. But the nature of intersectionality prevents me from ignoring the overlapping venn diagrams where race and class meet school and housing policies. Because anyone who doesn’t live under a mushroom can see that the neighborhood school reflects the people living in the ‘hood. So we end up with whiter or browner schools directly reflective of historical housing practices (redlining) and current housing “choice” (aka white families fleeing the urban core).

As a result, our segregated neighborhood schools reveal an increased concentration of the have and have-nots. In my mind, the real issue is the concentration of poverty that accompanies the neighborhood.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about many high-performing charters is that they are neighborhood schools. Many public charters are serving a traditionally marginalized, high poverty population. Programs like KIPP or Greendot are a response to long neglected neighborhoods and communities. And their students are thriving. The anti-charter crowd forgets that segregation already existed in these communities and that the charters went into rejected communities, targeted children that many believe couldn’t learn, and said they were valuable and could achieve. Charters schools don’t promote school segregation. They offer a solution (note: I did not say the solution).

So What?

If we want great public schools for all students then we need to be honest with ourselves about our current conditions. We need to recognize that the current housing and school policies work together for the betterment of some schools and neighborhoods and not others, and with that understanding we can do better. We need to prioritize. Is school choice most important? Does the demographic makeup of the student population really matter? Do we fight to desegregate our schools? Do we work to decentralize concentrated poverty? Do we invest in making amazing neighborhood schools regardless of the makeup of the neighborhood? All of the above?

Now What?

There is so much more to be said or explored. But for now, I want to end with a thought from Korbett Mosesly on my initial post.

“What if we started from the premise that culturally affinity neighborhoods are ok. It is the racial mismatch in educational leadership/teacher and their students that may be an issue if there is a lack of open dialogue and understanding. It’s a lack of equity in resources to provide fully funded educational programs that is an issue. It’s a concentration of intergenerational poverty and a lack of people be willing to have hard conversations about systems of oppression.”

Let’s continue to have those hard conversations.