Share Your Stories

“Oh you’re a teacher!  You guys have it made.  Paid summers off where you sleep in every day–what a cushy life.”  These words, uttered by my dentist while his hands were in my mouth drilling a tooth, caused far more discomfort than the actual dental procedure.  So after he was done (and yes, the novocaine still had half of my face numb) I shared with him that I spent most of my summer at conferences and in classes. I also explained how the pay structure works.  And, as these conversations typically go, it ended up with, “I really had no idea.”  

A year ago I felt a fire light inside me. I can’t remember what started it all to build, but the result has been an overwhelming desire to advocate for the teaching profession.  Maybe it was the need to address the misconceptions that people have about this lifestyle (I consider teaching a lifestyle, it’s far too encompassing to just be a job) or perhaps it was the oversimplification of this work by the media, tv shows, and movies that show burned out teachers, but either way, that fire started and it keeps burning brighter.  

So last week, when the airplane pilot standing next to me on the shuttle to our plane started asking me questions about my work, I was happy to share the dynamic nature of teaching. I also made sure to note that I was flying back from a week long class on constitutional law.  The pilot didn’t realize that teachers participate in summer coursework to strengthen their knowledge and skills in the classroom.  He was curious about this and we had a great conversation (our shuttle was stuck on the tarmac for 30 minutes) about professional development for teachers and pilots, thus shedding light on both of our professions.

I have spent the past eight months talking to policymakers and stakeholders about the impact of legislation in the classroom.  While I go in with a game plan, inevitably the conversation always turns when I tell a story about my students, my colleagues, and my own children.  Last month I met with my US Congresswoman in Washington D.C., and while my ask was to retain Title II funding in the budget, my story was specific to how we use that funding in our schools.  This story provides insight into policy impact and also constituent needs. Her job is dynamic, too, and I do not expect my representative to be an expert in all facets of life.  So if I can be a resource and share my experience with her, then perhaps that experience can shape her thinking on an issue.

I’ve come to see these interactions as opportunities to educate and advocate for this work. We can control the narrative.  It’s easy to sell an anti-teacher message when the public doesn’t have a deep understanding of what our work looks like.  Worse, if people rely upon their varied past experiences as students without recognizing how that skews their vision of what schools look like today, the picture that’s created may likely be inconsistent in practice and unrecognizable to those of us who do teach.  So instead of dismissing ignorant remarks about our work,  it is imperative that we seize the moment as an opportunity to teach.  We must teach others about our work so that they can see the intricacies of this lifestyle.  We must share our stories, our experiences, our successes, and our struggles. Only then will the larger public begin to see who we really are.

Vacay-On: The Aspen Ideas Festival

For every completed book I post on Instagram, I add a new novel to my stack. For every workshop I attend, at least a handful of tweets and sixty minutes of happy hour discussion ensue. This is my summer vacay-on. An adios to the grading is a bienvenidos to the reflecting, thinking, and planning for next year. A typical teacher’s summer–whether we like it or not–follows the National Board cycle of plan, act, reflect.

Two weeks ago I found myself learning and reflecting in the mountains suffering from altitude sickness and allergy attacks. My husband, Nate Bowling, was invited to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He slayed (recordings can be found here).

The Aspen Ideas Festival is known as a place where brilliant minds meet, theories clash, and plans are hatched. I had no idea how incredible it would be or how dumb I would feel. I definitely didn’t recognize Katie Couric sitting next to me. Even though I know and love Melissa Block from All Things Considered, I’d never seen a picture. I didn’t recognize David Brooks and Thomas Friedman when they walked past me. I tried not to geek out completely when I met Rabia Chaudry of the Undisclosed Podcast and Serial fame.

Here are some of the sessions I attended:

  • The America Women Know
  • Being Muslim and American in 2017
  • Hate on the Rise–And What We Can Do to Stop It
  • Guns And State Rights: A Loaded Weapon?
  • Creative Tensions: The Responsibility of Identity
  • When Color Blindness Renders Me Invisible to You
  • Building American Talent (Making it in the US)
  • Leadership Through Inspiration
  • Deep Dive: Rural America
  • On Being Latino In America

At first glance, my choices might look like a strange exhibition at the art museum. With a closer look, you’ll notice that each session is like an episode of an epic podcast series (think Serial or S-Town) working to form a complete story. Here’s what I imagine each episode to include.

Episode One: Who are we?
We live in a country comprised of different languages, cultures, values, and perspectives. Yet, as a nation, we struggle to find a sense of identity. Are we a Superpower? Are we the creators of the American Dream? Are we Big Brother? Are we the defender of democracy and justice in the world? Do we have a national language? Are we religious? Are we white or black or brown or multiracial?

We are all of those and none of the above. Because our identity is ever changing, ever evolving, we continuously wrestle with our sense of national identity. Voices press from all sides wanting us to be this or that, praising the merits of color blindness and telling us to ignore our differences.

At the Festival, Haris Tarin (Senior Policy Director for Homeland Security) shared a story about his father who emigrated from Afghanistan. His father always said, “I moved to this country because I would not be accepted for who I am [in Afghanistan]. I think my children will be able to find that acceptance [in America].” While this family found that acceptance, today many Americans can’t find a place to fit in and don’t feel a sense of belonging anywhere. Our culture affirms certain identities and rejects others.

Our students are bombarded by conflicting messages about their identities and place in our world. They bring whatever they’ve internalized into our classrooms and it’s our duty to address them.

Episode Two: Haters Gonna Hate
Yes, it’s official. Hate is on the rise. Say what you will about the reasons for that. Maybe it’s the election. Maybe it’s that we have more technology at our fingertips and therefore are able to document and report these occurrences. Maybe it’s because we’ve moved away from accepting the “kids will be kids” excuse for bullying and harassment and have consequently implemented Student Life departments to prevent and manage cases. Maybe we are more sensitive because we realize it’s not about being politically correct but about not being a jerk. We may be “better off” than we were in the 50s but we still have white supremacy driving the increasing acts of hate. We–especially those of us who are part of the dominate culture, language, or power structures–must stop ignoring this.

In particular, educators must learn how to shut down acts of hate in our schools by identifying symbols of hate and facilitating “table talk” about these issues. We have to stand up for the kids in our classrooms who are systematically pushed to the edges of society.

Episode Three: The Invisible Costs
Throughout the week, I thought about the young women in our schools who are looking at a future where they continue to be paid less than men and have yet to see themselves as presidents. I reflected on the thousands of Muslim children who are carrying the weight of a conflicted identity because we say that in America you can be both, and; however, these kids aren’t allowed that luxury. I wondered about the young Black men in my classroom who pursue their dreams but constantly worry about being stopped by the police for wearing a hoodie and carrying some Takis. I pondered the attacks on immigrants, the ease by which immigrants are targeted and fear of the “other” is whipped up.

Educators, we have to see our students. Start by dropping the assumptions. Examine the expectations we have for our students. Listen to what they share with us. Accept who they are and support them.

Episode Four: A New Hope
As Jonathan Greenblatt said, “The best antidote to hate is knowledge.”

We have the power to stop hate in this country, but we have to intentionally fight it through knowledge and education. Wherever you are, whatever you are blessed to be doing, you have a responsibility to do something with your platform. That might mean doing what Camille Jones, 2017 State Teacher of the Year does with her blog, Farmtable Teach or what teacher leaders are doing over at Corelaborate.

Of course we can’t do this alone but can as a community. Join a network such as #EduColor or create your own network of like-minded educators. We need to work together and collaborate. Even if we don’t agree 100% on everything we have to find a way to organize around the most important 75%. Our children cannot wait for us to stop bickering over nonsense.

Epilogue:
Okay, so maybe this is an extremely short season of your new favorite podcast, but you get the point. Over and over, speakers challenge the audience to see both the beauty and the pain, to challenge our fears, to share our stories, to get uncomfortable, and to grow.

Summer Reading: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

I should be reading the new budget and writing about that, I know. That’s for another day.

Instead, I spent my Fourth of July family trip getting sunburned while reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond. A much better choice, as I walked away with far less frustration than a close read of the budget likely would have offered me.

I have to admit that I rarely look forward to my summer “work reading.” Typically, my reading is more of a skim, dipping in when something seems to connect to my work. This book, however, seemed to connect at every turn.

I read this book with a specific purpose: When I and the other thousand-or-so staff return for our August kickoff meetings, we’re taking the idea of culturally responsive practice to scale. Specifically, the district Teaching and Learning team is working to design a common experience for the adults in our system to open us to more frank and meaningful conversations about race, inequity, privilege, and what culturally responsive practice should look like.

The challenge I’m facing, and which this book helped me with, is the reality of being a white male teaching is a largely white (generally affluent) community, and in this context trying to find the right way to communicate with my fellow white teachers that culturally responsive teaching isn’t about using rap music to “connect with kids” or putting up posters of famous nonwhite scientists or changing John to Juan in a story problem and checking the “culturally responsive” box. Further, saying “but I’m not racist” and “I treat every student the same” isn’t an excuse for not learning about and adopting culturally responsive practices (and I think such statements constitute a neon sign pointing at someone who probably needs more than anyone else to read this book).

At the August kickoff, that common experience will help establish that as a district our focus for the 2017-18 school year will be on “seeing and serving every child.” Why? Simply put, the data over the last few years communicates it without question: We’re serving some kids exceptionally well, others well enough, and some not well at all. The dividing line is crystal clear and let’s just say the students on one side of the line are are more linguistically and culturally diverse than those on the other.

But our test scores are high and our graduation rates just fine!

That’s good, of course. However, my assistant superintendent shared with me the field-trip analogy: if we take 100 kids on a field trip and only return with 93% of them, that’s a problem. Yes, we can celebrate our successes, but we as responsible educators must make sure we do all we can for each child, not just most kids. Continue reading

Educators Rising: Start ‘Em While They’re Young

The Hyatt filled with teens from across the country. The smell of long bus rides, airplane food, and hot Cheetos permeated the lobby. But by the opening session, these students had transformed into professionally dressed young men and women in “conference mode.” Their excitement and energy was palpable in the North Ballroom. Last weekend was the convergence of young voices at the Educators Rising Annual Conference. This organization “cultivates highly skilled educators by guiding young people on a path to becoming accomplished teachers, beginning in high school and extending through college and into the profession.” What’s even more exciting than this mission is that 51% of the 30k members are students of color!

Basically, Educators Rising works with secondary teachers to identify black, brown, and white young people–as young as 13– who have potential as future educators. Through intentional programming at local and state levels​, these students will one day be well-prepared, highly effective classroom teachers. The annual conference offers outstanding keynotes, interactive workshops on cultural competency and teacher leadership, and competitions.

Competitions are fascinating and are divided into three categories:

  1. Teaching. Sub categories include planned instruction where students create a lesson, tape themselves teaching, then reflect with a judge (think National Boards) or impromptu teaching where a student is given a scenario (Mr. Hall started vomiting and you must take over his class immediately), a learning standard, and a box of materials. The subs must create an engaging lesson and deliver it in a short time (think Iron Chef but teaching).
  2. Career Explorations. Students competing in this category follow an administrator, a non-core classroom teacher, or a support staff member in a job shadow. They must conduct an interview, dig into all aspects of this career and then present their findings..
  3. Advocacy and Policy Development. Students can create a Ted Talk on an effective instructional strategy, present a policy brief on a researched issue, or give an impromptu speech on an education issue.

Are you kidding me!? I know grown adults who couldn’t handle these challenges.

This makes me hopeful.

Early in the opening session, Joshua Starr set the tone of the conference when he quoted Dr. King reminding us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Despite our political climate, the increase in police brutality, and the growing racial divide in this country, we must still have hope. Nate Bowling developed this theme with his talk that culminated in a challenge for everyone in the room (current or future educators): Embed, Disrupt, and Advocate.

Nods, tweets and follow up conversations indicated that these messages resonated with the crowd. This makes me hopeful.

While some adults complain about teens obsession with fidget spinners and Snapchat, I’m here to tell you that our young people are far better than we are. They are more creative. They are more compassionate. They are more understanding. They are more kind. They are more justice-minded.

I met two students who especially exemplified these qualities—Educators Rising National Student President, Cassey Hall from Mississippi and National Student Officer Tamir Harper from Philadelphia. Cassey shared her story of how her 9th grade English teacher recruited her into a new course centered on learning about teaching. As she heads off to college, she is certain she wants to be a 3rd grade Science teacher.

I struck up a conversation with Tamir on the way out of the convention center. Instantly I was struck by his charisma, his wisdom, and his passion for his school, his neighborhood, and his city. Besides running a session at the conference on reconstructing the educational system, this fall Tamir will co-teaching an African American history class at his high school. As Tamir shared his dreams to teach and later run for office, I kept think “is this young man really 17?!”

These are just two of the hundreds of students at #EducatorsRising17 that I know are bending their voices towards justice. In four to six years, they will be teaching our children. I cannot wait!

They make me hopeful.

Why Paying Teachers More Matters

Let’s get it out of the way:

Greedy teachers’ unions, teachers only get paid to work 180 days a year, summers “off,” winter “break,” seven hour work days (ha!), “I had this mean/lazy/awful teacher once…”

Those perceptions are so crystallized in the minds of anti-public-education folks that no amount of evidence or reason to the contrary will convince them.

But here’s the simple truth: To attract and retain teachers capable of meeting the exceedingly high public and policy standards placed on public education, we need to pay them better.

It isn’t about throwing money at the problem, which is the common refrain.

I’ll use myself as an example: While I love teaching, believe I am good at it, and believe strongly in the importance of public education, I am also a husband and a parent of three. The latter job, in truth, is the most important to me. As a result, every single year of my career (15 years in, now) I have had to have multiple sources of income in order to meet the basic needs of my family. We don’t live extravagantly: no gaming system or high tech entertainment suite, I’m typing this on a nine-year-old iMac, we don’t take lavish trips, we don’t have fancy cars. I’m not complaining, as we are comfortable… we’re just kinda simple-living people.

But still, to make the student loan payments, mortgage (we bought at half of what we were pre-approved for back in 2004, so we’re pretty conservative in that realm as well), and everyday bills, we are a three-income family. To live simply and comfortably, we have to be a three income family. We have enough savings to last us a month or two in an emergency, but not a dime saved for my sons’ college. Still, though, by comparison to most in this world, I absolutely acknowledge that we are doing fine.

Several times a year, non-education job prospects come my way. Sometimes it is a parent or community member who somehow saw skill in how I operate. Sometimes it is a non-education business or organization. Usually, the pay is better, the hours are better, the work is less…

[Enter the internet trolls: “Then why don’t you quit complaining about low teacher pay and take one of THOSE jobs??!!”]

That is exactly my point.

I am a good teacher. I could leave, probably fairly easily, and find good employment elsewhere. If school funding tanks or pay continues to not keep up with costs of living and I can’t support my family on teaching plus side gigs, you bet I will look for a one-job, one-income, kind of employment. And I think I’d be able to find work because I have a track record of being good at my job, getting results, and impacting students and colleagues through my efforts.

That would mean I would leave the classroom.

There are many other teachers like me, and I’ve already watched several of them peel away. It was painful. Several talked about feeling like a failure for taking a better paying job outside of education, in a couple of cases, literally months after receiving honors and awards as top tier teachers. The best teachers are the ones who are eminently employable outside of education as well. The best teachers are who we stand to lose.

Do we want our kids taught by teachers who teach because they love it and are good at it… or by those who aren’t good enough to successfully compete for other jobs? To keep the former, we need to be sure to pay them well enough to recruit them, retain them, and let them live a work life where they can focus on the work of teaching children well… not finding side jobs to build a life for their own families.

It isn’t about greedy teachers’ unions. It isn’t about throwing money at the problem.

We should not expect a high quality teaching corps if we aren’t willing to pay for it.

 

ACLU vs OSPI

Last week the ACLU sued the OSPI because Washington students with emotional disabilities are suspended or expelled from school at twice the normal rate. The suit alleges that the state should ensure that teachers “de-escalate” situations in which students with emotional disorders are having outbursts.

I have always admired the ACLU. They consistently take contrarian stands in support of the most marginalized people in our society. It’s an important role, now more than ever.

And on this issue they are true to form, advocating for the highest of the high-needs students, the kids with disabilities that prevent them from controlling their behavior well enough to make it through a day in school without having a verbal or physical meltdown or endangering their classmates or teachers. These kids need advocates.

I know because I’ve got one of these kids in my class this year. He has an IEP for academics and behavior. He performs about two grade levels below his peers and spends most of the school day in a series of learning support small-groups.

And as long as no one makes any demands on him, he’s fine.

But it’s hard to go through a school day without anyone putting demands on you. Teachers are supposed to ask students to do such things as read, write, solve math problems, join discussions, walk in the hallway, stop talking, take turns, and so on. And when someone asks this guy to do any of those things, there will be an outburst. There will be yelling, door-slamming, chair-throwing, running off and swearing. And by swearing, I mean serious filth; the kind of talk you’d expect from a hung-over stevedore trying to start a cold, 2-stroke outboard engine.

And then there’s the playground. Most kids are able to handle the give-and-take of the somewhat unstructured playground environment. There’s bound to be some teasing, perhaps some taunting and occasionally it can get a little nasty, which is why we have supervision. Most kids know when to pull back before a situation turns violent, but once in awhile we have kids who don’t, and again that’s why we have supervision.

This little guy has no filter, no control. The slightest slight by another student is cause for a full-on response, consisting of violence, racial and sexual insults and, of course, swearing.

All of this is despite the fact that he has a full-time, one-on-one aid. She shows up every morning, follows him around all day, helps him with his assignments and does everything possible to de-escalate his outbursts. It’s literally a full-time job and it’s required by his IEP.

Which brings me back to the ACLU lawsuit.

I get it; kids should not be suspended or expelled because of their disability. But as I explained to the parents of this particular student, there comes a time when I have to advocate for the rest of the class. And the rest of the class is terrified of this student. When he enters the room, they all get quiet and try to become as small as possible. His racial insults make them cry. He’s getting big enough that when he hits them it causes serious pain.

Consequently, he has been suspended at least three times this year. We did not do it lightly. We were fully aware of the consequences of our actions. We knew that he suffers a disability that affects his ability to self-govern.

But there are 600 students in our school and 27 students in my class. They need advocacy, too. At some point the right thing to do for the larger population might not be the right action for one particular person. When a student, no matter who it is, crosses the line and does or says something completely beyond the pale, suspension is an action a school must have at its disposal.

I’ll be interested to see how this lawsuit proceeds. If there’s another way to deal with students who display extreme behavioral disorders, I’d love to know about it. But until then, I think we need to continue to use school suspension as a last resort.

Charter Schools

My sister asked me why teachers objected to charter schools. Why shouldn’t the money just follow the kids to whatever school the parents choose?

I said that back in the 1970s, when I first started teaching, my first couple of jobs were in little Christian schools. We got paid about a third of what public school teachers made. Almost no benefits. I remember being handed a ream of paper before school started—that was my supply of copy paper for my class for the year. We had no specialists and no support staff.

At that time the parents sometimes talked about how frustrating it was that they paid taxes for public schools and then paid tuition for private school. Why couldn’t they have their own tax money to pay for their tuition?

My sister said, “Exactly.”

I told her the voucher movement started with already existing private schools. Even with that small beginning, the public schools were highly suspicious. I remember a great story from New York City where the public school union reps confronted the Catholic school nuns, accusing them of wanting to take only the best and the brightest of the students and turning away the trouble makers. The nuns said, “You pick who you send to our schools. We’ll take whoever you send.” That shut up the union, as far as those schools were concerned.

The ironic thing was, most of the private religious schools that I knew about quickly turned away from the voucher movement. They decided that money from the government in any form—even in the form of vouchers—would come with government strings attached. And they wanted to preserve their autonomy.

However, the voucher movement continued. Individuals, institutions, organizations—people created charter schools specifically to take advantage of voucher programs. And some charter schools are businesses, designed to make a profit.

I told my sister, I have a hard time reconciling the idea of taking money from public schools to give to private schools that are for-profit institutions.

She said, “Well, that’s ridiculous. That would be wrong.”

On the other hand, I’d like my coworkers who damn all charters with the same brush to take a look at Breakthrough Schools in Cleveland. Breakthrough Schools are a network of charter schools in Cleveland.

  • They are NONPROFIT.
  • They target some of the city’s neediest areas.
  • And they are remarkably successful.

“Nearly all Breakthrough students are students of color, and eight of 10 are low-income.”

 “Its schools are in the top third of all schools in the city for academic performance.”

And by the way, Breakthrough Charter Schools joined 20 other high scoring charter schools in opposing President Trump’s education budget, even though the new budget proposes $168 million more for charter schools. They united to oppose the cuts to traditional public schools, saying,

“We need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in ‘choice’ schools.”

Budgets are statements of priorities, and this one sends a clear message that public education is not a top priority.”

The group specifically objected to cuts in Pell grants, teacher training, and afterschool programs.

And they reiterated the value of public education as an “essential pillar of our democracy.”

Personally, I can’t reduce the charter school debate to a sound bite. I think for-profit schools should operate with no public money at all. But as far as I am concerned, if Cleveland or Ohio wants to give vouchers to families with children attending Breakthrough Schools, I’d be fine with that. Breakthrough Schools are bringing new people, new energy, and new ideas to a place that desperately needs them—not to make money, but to make a difference.

Rethinking our Assessment System Statewide

On May 24th, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal outlined a series of phases that addressed his long term vision for K-12 education in the State of Washington.  Included in
that vision is a differentiated assessment model that allows students pathways to demonstrate proficiency and mastery.  The plan calls for an immediate suspension of all test based graduation requirements for the Classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019, a policy that some legislators can get behind.  (See the June 4, 2017
Seattle Times Op-Ed piece by Rep. Monica Stonier and Rep. Laurie Dolan)  This agenda item isn’t necessarily as visionary as others but is more triage in nature.  Asking for these assessments to be waived now is a pressing concern for our potential graduates waiting in the wings (including the 7 students at my high school who are hoping that the state legislature acts immediately since graduation is on Friday, June 9th).  However, other components of this assessment system provide more opportunity and greater steering towards a student’s plans for high school and beyond.

One of the key takeaways from this plan is the use of assessment data for high school planning.  Superintendent Reykdal proposes that the 8th grade assessment (assuming this will still be mandated by the U.S. Department of Education) be used to determine what courses and in what sequence students need to take.  A 10th grade assessment (the Standards Based Assessment, or SBA, also mandated by the U.S. Department of Education) would further clarify what students need in order to be career and college ready.  That exam, while not necessary as a graduation requirement, would be a baseline for which other decisions would be made. The assessment would help stakeholders update a student’s high school and beyond plan (commonly referred to as a HSBP), either demonstrating that is student is now proficient in the required basic knowledge and skills needed to earn a diploma or highlighting what specific skills students need to further develop in order to achieve proficiency.  The plan suggests that alternatives such as the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate exams, Running Start, College in the High School, and other options be used to demonstrate proficiency.  All students after 10th grade must work towards a pathway that includes immediate entrance into the workforce, technical college, community college, apprenticeships, four year colleges/university, or the military.

This new assessment system may just help us combat the apathy that emerges junior and senior year from students wondering why they are enrolled in certain courses that don’t remotely relate to their post secondary education plans.  Such a plan opens the door to exciting new classes tailored to meet the needs of the 21st century learner on whatever pathway he/she may be on.  High schools will be able to utilize the flexibility and creativity that this system promotes and adjust current course offerings, tapping into the talents and expertise of their staff.  The idea that students can select pathways and prepare for those future careers allows students more buy in on their secondary education, potentially impacting overall attendance, number of failed classes, and eventually graduation rates.  Specific training and coursework geared towards a pathway will indeed result in a better worker or stronger college student thus largely impacting the state’s post secondary education system and the local workforce.  Superintendent Reykdal’s proposal directly impacts students allowing them to tap into their talents and interests at an earlier age so that they may develop as stronger, more effective and more efficient contributors to our communities and overall economy.

Addressing the Teacher Shortage Without Sacrificing Quality

 

There’s a place on the Washington coast called Taholah. I’ve been there a few times on my bicycle, riding up Highway 109 from Ocean Shores. The scenery is staggering. There’s huge trees everywhere, a river on the north end of town and an ocean to the west.

Also staggering is the obvious poverty. There’s run-down homes, stray dogs and abandoned cars. I didn’t see any stores or restaurants.

Taholah looks like a tough place to find work.

It also looks exactly like what you’d expect to see if you went there after reading the data. Per capita income is half that of the rest of the state. Housing values are about a third. About 5% of their 11th graders met standard in math; about a fourth met standard in ELA.

Twenty-three percent of their seniors graduate on time.

The other thing you should know about Taholah is that their population is 80% Native American. It’s the headquarters for the Quinault Reservation.

One more thing. According to the Seattle Times, 22.5% of their teachers are “Emergency Teachers,” teachers who are not certified and may or may not have a college degree. School districts are only allowed to hire emergency teachers when they’re unable to find anyone qualified to teach. According to my math, that means four of the seventeen teachers in Taholah are emergency status.

My district, on the other hand, attracts dozens of qualified applicants for every open position. Two summers ago I spent most of a sunny weekend wading through application packets, meeting with the rest of the hiring committee, and interviewing the five finalists before hiring the competent teacher who works next door.

That’s the thing about this teacher shortage. It’s like a large, complicated lake in the process of drying up. The shallow inlets are the first to empty out, while the deep water in the middle is safe for a long time. Taholah, with its poverty and lack of amenities will suffer the teacher shortage a lot sooner and a lot more severely than Edmonds, where I work.

So what do we do about it? One answer is to loosen the requirements to teach in Washington, a place well-known for having tough hurdles for prospective teachers, particularly those coming from out-of-state.

But is that really what we want? Do we really want to make it easier for people to teach in this state? Those requirements, after all, weren’t written out of spite; they were written to ensure that the kids in Taholah, as well as Edmonds, have a competent, qualified teacher in front of them.

We’ve got a problem. We’ve got a teacher shortage that hits small, rural – and frequently poor – communities much harder than it will ever hit more affluent communities. How do we make it attractive to teach in Taholah without sacrificing teacher quality?

I wish I knew.

Anyone Can Teach… Except Teachers

The popular narrative is that unionized teachers are destroying public education because of our supposed low standards for performance, laziness, and constant cries for more pay and less work.

States across the country, including Washington, buckled down on teacher performance by reforming the teacher evaluation system to be more rigorous and standards-based. New academic standards were adopted and new tests were designed to measure just how bad we teachers are at teaching, in many cases with the stated purpose of those tests to be to identify and remove bad teachers.

We’re so bad at teaching despite our degrees and training in this complex work, in fact, that the current fashion in education policy is that anyone…ANYONE has to be better at teaching than teachers are.

As you might have seen, states like Arizona are launching policy referred to as the “warm body” approach for teacher recruitment: The main qualification for earning a teaching credential being that you are a carbon-based life form capable of sustaining metabolism.

Even here in Washington, “alternative routes to certification” are gaining traction as more and more classrooms are being staffed by teachers with an emergency credential because of the dearth of capable applicants.

Let’s break this down: Because so few people are choosing to become teachers on purpose, we’re satisfied with taking whomever we can get…and we think this is a solution to our problem?

Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the unionized teachers demanding better policy and pay who are the problem here. I wonder what will it take for our policymakers…or as importantly, us as a society…to recognize that effective teaching involves a set of complex skills and behaviors which, even in the best of conditions, involves countless variables that must all be managed and responded to on a moment-by-moment basis. It is not something random folks off the street can do well, particularly if those random folks can get paid better to do other, perhaps easier, work. Clearly, we’re not dealing with “the best of conditions” in our schools, so putting a warm body in front of kids is not going to be the solution to our problem, no matter what evaluation system we use or what rigorous standards we demand be taught.

The solutions are the same solutions they have always been: It isn’t about stricter evaluations, higher standards, or better tests. We have to invest money, and more than we think, in order to turn this ship around. We can’t spend a dime and expect a dollar’s return…and then complain because we actually got what we paid for and not more.

If we aren’t willing to make schools as workplaces into the kinds of places where the very best and brightest are not only drawn but want to stay, then we don’t actually care about improving educational outcomes for kids. The latter will never happen without the former.


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