The Homework Debate. Again.

Homework-1By Tom White

It seems like every few years we go through this. Parents and teachers who hate homework tell us how bad it is. And teachers that don’t hate it keep assigning it. Students, of course, mostly don’t like it and mostly do it anyway. Mostly.

So which is it? A waste of time that keeps kids from enjoying their childhood and keeps families from doing Fun Activities together? Or an essential extension of the school day, providing practice and reinforcement of the skills and knowledge students learned during their time at school.

It’s probably both. Or either, depending on what the homework actually consists of. Continue reading

Student Behavior, Teacher Behavior, and Getting Cussed Out

proportionality index

For some reason, my heart has always been with “those kids.” The ones who sneer at you the first time you meet them. The ones who push buttons and boundaries. The frequent fliers in the “tank” (In School Suspension) and who know the campus security guards far too well.

I was talking to the principal at the smaller of the two high schools in our district recently, and without consulting my brain, my mouth spoke my truth: What a privilege it is for me to be the adult for that kid at whom they can scream “F— you, Mr. Gardner!” And then tomorrow, we can talk it through and figure out where that came from; I can teach about repairing relationships, and we can strategize how to handle it better next time…and the time after that…in a safe place where they won’t be risking their paycheck or their marriage or their freedom; in a safe place where they can start to learn some important lessons that don’t show up in the Common Core.

Read no sarcasm here, I mean it: What a privilege that I get to be that person.

While I think I’m a pretty good teacher of the academic stuff, I think what has made me successful is the way I handle moments like that. I don’t always do it perfectly; none of us do. The idea of student discipline is one that I often think over, and in particular in my role this year as a new-teacher mentor. Classroom management and discipline, creating those safe, productive educational spaces, are central lessons for the beginning of a teaching career. Recently, at a conference related to the Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) program here in Washington, this topic of how teachers handle student behavior was at the core.

It was at this conference that I was handed some data that did what data is supposed to do: It made me think.

Continue reading

21st Century School Segregation

baltimore-integrationThis post is the beginning of a series of posts I will write about 21st century school segregation. I want to start by acknowledging a few factors that influence my perspective and shape my writing.

  1. This topic is complicated and multifaceted
  2. Nuance is hard to write in a blog
  3. I’m a white lady without children
  4. My instructional choices and community activism is shaped by my evolving understanding of my role as a white, female educator
  5. I love metaphors and analogies

Recently, I met with two outstanding women—one I consider the “Godmother” of my teaching practice and the other a teacher, community activist, and all-around inspiration. Over a cup of coffee, we grappled with elements of a conversation that started on Facebook then moved to email and finally to Bluebeard Coffee Roasters. As white women, what do we do about increasingly segregated schools? What do we do about the segregated schools in our city? 

Grappling with these questions is like swimming the English channel–it can be done but it’s cold, choppy, and overwhelming. These questions are particularly relevant because I am part of that “interchangeable white lady” teaching force working in a school with a majority of students of color.

As a nation, we were founded on simple truth. “That all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” See that tension there: liberty and equality. At their core those two ideas seem to be at odds with each other. Which has more value? Personal liberty? Equality? Overall, good for the majority of the communities?

As Americans we value choice–what we eat, where we shop, and where we send our kids to school. The policy obsession school choice is undergirded by America’s obsession with exceptionalism. In my freedom, I deserve to have choice because I’m exceptional. We want to be special. We want our kids to be special. And we want to choose an exceptional, special school for our child.

The unacknowledged issue with school choice is that it really isn’t a choice for everyone. School choice is limited by a parent’s employment situation, their transportation costs and access, and the services their child needs. As noted in “Not Everyone Has a Choice”, parents lack access to all the information necessary to even make the best choice for their child. School choice is actually a privilege that is only readily available for middle and upper class Americans. It is these parents that have consistent access the innovative programs across town and can get their students there.

If we’re serious about doing something to stop our segregated school system we have to be honest about the beliefs that undergird the choices we make about where we send our children and why we send them there. We have to decide if we want liberty or if we want equality. As the system now stands, we can’t seem to have both. Due to a myriad of factors–among them underfunding, legislative incompetence, voter apathy, and a skewed sense of social responsibility–current policy conditions we don’t have the resources to make all schools exceptional. You can’t create exceptional schools without the commensurate support from the community.

So where does that leave us? Rationing. People with means use their means to provide themselves with choices and options. People with means in our society are more likely to be white, leading to school segregation.

As a childless, white woman I’m left pondering the way forward from here: Open enrollment? Options for parents in poverty are limited by ineffective and underfunded public transit. Charters? I am skeptical. Vouchers? Results are mixed at best and exacerbate existing underfunding of K-12. I really don’t have an answer, but I am hoping to stumble my way to one in this series.

Shopping Mall Schools and Department Store Schools

Cambridgeside-GalleriaBy Tom White

There’s a large shopping mall near my school that functions the way many schools do. Although the stores all share the same parking lot, utility service, and roof, they all operate independently. They employ workers on their own, set their own prices and treat their customers as they see fit.

Likewise, many schools have classrooms that share the same general space, serve the same community and teach to the same standards, but have little else in common. The students have different routines, use different books, and do different projects and assignments.

I also teach near a department store. It operates somewhat like the larger mall, with separate departments that focus on specific products with separate workers who understand those products, yet the entire department store is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

Department store schools have separate classrooms that focus on specific grade levels or subjects, with teachers trained to teach in those specific classrooms, yet the entire school is a cohesive, collaborative unit.

My school is definitely a shopping-mall school. Continue reading

The Neglected PD

Thursday, in one of my last spring conferences, one of my moms was pretty tense. That was unusual. After all, she and I had known each other for three years now, after two children in my 4/5 class, and we got along well. Eventually she came out with the cause. A few days earlier I had sent her an email that upset her. She proceeded to tell me that I had handled things completely wrong and how I should have done it.

My first instinct was to explain the circumstances from my point of view and tell her in some detail why I had done what I did. Then I bit my tongue. I said simply, “You are right. I am so sorry. I should have done that better. I apologize.”

She continued to talk about why she was upset, explaining what had happened to her in the past—incidents at another school with another staff member—to make her so emotional in her response. I told her I understood. After a few minutes we got back to her child’s conference.

At the end of the conference, as she stood up to leave, I asked, “Do you forgive me?”

She said, “Of course!”

We hugged, and she left smiling.

Let’s be clear here. I botched the communication I sent to her. (Emails have the advantage of providing brief and rapid communication. The disadvantage? They can more easily cause miscommunication!) I am completely comfortable with acknowledging the fact that I made a mistake and apologizing.

Friday I was at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair with the students from my class who entered the fair this year and their moms. While the students were in the auditorium with the judges, the moms and I sat around a table and talked.

One mom asked if there was a time the two of us could get together so I could give her advice for how to handle an issue with a colleague in my district. I told her, “After I retire.” She said that wouldn’t be very timely.

Then a parent who’s a doctor asked if I’d ever done teacher training. Yes. I’ve done in-service training on subjects from classroom management to science to social studies to all areas of language arts. I’m a regional trainer for Highly Capable. I’ve done a lot of teacher training.

That wasn’t what she was interested in. She wanted to know if I’d ever taught a class to teachers on how to interact with parents.

I said no. I must have looked surprised.

“Don’t you take classes like that?” she asked. “Isn’t that part of your regular teacher training courses?”

“Not that I know of,” I said—it certainly wasn’t a part of mine. At most I’ve seen a few handouts over the years about how to talk to parents put in my box around conference time.

Apparently learning how to interact with adult clients was part of her training to be a doctor. She roleplayed meeting with patients while a psych observed. The interaction was videotaped. She and the psych watched the tape later and discussed what they saw. She says she learned a lot from what she did well and even more from what she didn’t do well.

As a teacher leader, I’ve taken classes on how to train adults and how to communicate with peers. The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession has helpful material on their leadership framework. However, all the materials I’ve seen and all the classes I’ve taken are geared towards making teacher leaders effective at providing professional development to their peers.  While the materials and classes have crossover applications, I haven’t seen any classes specifically designed to help new teachers learn how to interact well with parents. And how helpful would that kind of training be?

There have been times in my career when I knew I was headed into a difficult conference, and I asked the school counselor to join me. Having the counselor there helped, but I believe now that at least one particular difficult conference would have gone so much better if she and I had role-played the conference ahead of time, practicing for the real thing. I never considered doing that with her, and she never suggested it to me.

There were other times, like this week, when I had no idea there was a problem coming at me in the conference. I wouldn’t have known to role-play in advance. But what if practicing before conferences was part of my routine? What if our team used one PLC time before each set of conferences to get ready by role-playing some possible scenarios?

All teachers have to learn how to teach our subjects areas. We have to learn how to teach our students with all their social and emotional needs. We take classes to learn how to do those things.

Teachers need to know how to interact with parents as well. Maybe we need some classes—pre-service, in-service, or just practice training sessions—to learn how to do that too.

A “High Functioning” PLC


It’s like a unicorn. Or a clearly articulated Trump policy. I can’t seem to find convincing, real-world examples anywhere. A “High Functioning PLC” seems to be the sasquatch of the education world…or at least my education world.

For over a decade now, my district has been a “PLC” district. There is specific time carved out in the school week for each staff, usually about 45-50 minutes, that is explicitly dedicated to PLC. Throughout this time, PLC has evolved through various iterations, oscillating from highly micro-managed to an administrative laissez faire policy and back again. (And then back again…)

During this decade we’ve had the typical staff churn: people retire or move on, more families move into our community thus necessitating new hires for growth, and now a mere fraction of our “original” staff remains from those long-ago-days when PLC was first introduced.

We teachers have been trudging along, compliant but with more than a little uncertainly. We recognize there are tasks our PLC is “supposed to” do, but more often than not, those tasks felt at odds with the overall purpose of PLC: “Mutual professional development to positively impact student learning.” We move forward through time, completing our tasks and submitting them to our bosses, all the while feeling a little like we are either engaged in a dance or spinning our wheels. Too often, the PLC work doesn’t clearly translate into our classrooms.

In the last few years, I’ve scoured the internet and my networks of teacher connections to find examples of what a strong and high-functioning PLC is “supposed to” look like. Every teacher I speak with talks about PLC’s at best with an attitude of indifferent “take it or leave it” and at worst with an overwhelming rage at the waste of time and energy it seems to be. On the internet, I find contrived and awkwardly scripted videos that feel more like a painful role play or a stilted staff meeting. I find case stories that hover in the world of theory, never really giving me a clear picture of a real PLC. Or, I find stories of what someone coined “co-blabboration” instead of “collaboration,” with the former defined as “teachers just getting together to share practices.” (Which IMO would be awesome.)

I’ve already written about how difficult “collaboration” is for me, and how, quite frankly, I’d rather not be forced to do it with a contrived group for a contrived purpose. Our teacher-leader team in my district has been wrestling with PLC structures and systems as our “problem of practice” this year, and this is what I personally have found: PLC, as it is enacted in many places, does not exist to serve a clear need that cannot be addressed in other less messy or more efficient means. Rather, PLCs are task groups. Where do those tasks seem to come from? Well, to be honest, they seem to be coming from someone asking the question “What should our PLCs be doing?” The “L” of PLC seems to be completely forgotten.

A few weeks ago, I led a teacher-leadership workshop about the interpersonal dynamics of a PLC and how a teacher leader might use his/her understanding of adult learners, communication, systems, and change theory to interact more effectively with peers. It became clear within the first five minutes that the essential premise of PLC, Mutual professional development to positively impact student learning, was widely approved of…but that the premise was not emerging in system practices. PLCs had tasks to do, and while the value of those tasks sometimes ran the gamut, what PLCs didn’t have clarity around was how to work together for a purpose.

While it emerged to be true that what was missing was, in fact, a clear and meaningful purpose, these teacher-leaders also surfaced that they simply were not equipped with the tangible nor intangible resources needed to accomplish the work: The tangibles might be routines or protocols; the intangibles being the nuanced interpersonal skills to coach one another through conflict or past resistance.

In my sasquatch search for examples of “High Functioning PLCs,” I predictably have not found a Grant Unified Theory of PLC. I say predictably, because if we think about any complex process, highly effective applications of that process will have infinite manifestations. A highly functioning complex process will be nuanced, unique, and tailored to a context. That’s why it functions so well.

This, I believe, is the root of our problem. Our systems have been looking to emulate this undefined “High Functioning PLC” by trying to pour ourselves into a mold rather than make space for authentic innovation and leadership.

One of my colleagues yesterday (at PLC, during a discussion about how PLC wasn’t working) came up with this simple, but brilliant solution…No forms, no mandates, no special tasks. The only requirement placed upon a PLC must be that at the end of the year, they can offer a clear and convincing response to this question: “How did your PLC help you improve your teaching in order to make an impact on student learning?” It should be up to school leadership to offer the learning and resources around the tangibles and intangibles of how to do the work; it should be up to the team to decide what work to address, keeping essential question in mind.

How did your PLC help you improve your teaching in order to make an impact on student learning?

If an individual can answer this with enthusiasm, the PLC has done its job.

Photo Source: Miami University Libraries, Digital Collection – Ohio State Normal College Faculty Meeting, 1910.


The X Files and More

Honestly, I expected more out of this legislative session. I didn’t expect the legislators to come up with a complete plan to fully fund education in this state. I’m not that sanguine. But I had hoped they would tweak things to make life better for those of us in the trenches. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of improvement. Bills died, and even the bill that made it to the governor’s desk didn’t offer much.

At least one bill that would have helped is now “X” filed, which means it’s dead. House Bill 1867 proposed that National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT) do comprehensive evaluations every six years and Professional Certified teachers do them every four years—as long as teachers in both cases received a rating of 3 or above in their last comprehensive evaluation. I’d proposed a ten-year stretch between comprehensive evaluations for NBCTs, but I was happy to see people in the legislature acknowledge the need to:

  • honor the National Board—and Professional Certification—process
  • ease the amount of TPEP work principals have to do.

Our school has a crackerjack new principal this year. But she is running herself into the ground. I see her late at work, night after night. We constantly get email from her at ridiculously late hours. Last week as I left she bemoaned the fact that “I’m not getting to do the instructional leadership in this job I thought I was going to be able to do.”

Nope. She’s doing endless TPEP tasks—pre- and post-conferences, reviewing evidence, and writing evaluations.

House Bills 1737 and 2573 had to do with the teacher shortage, substitutes, and allowing retirees to work more days as substitutes. Those bills were both “X” filed too. However, Senate Bill 6455 said it was designed to expand the professional educator workforce, and it did include some employment opportunities for retirees. SB6455 made it to the governor’s desk. I read the senate bill with high hopes.

How does SB6455 go about recruiting teachers? First, it directs OSPI to have a better website for job openings and job applications with more information for people who might want to move to Washington to teach here. I had to laugh. Have we not been clear enough? The problem isn’t just that there aren’t enough teachers in the state, but there aren’t enough teachers currently in teacher training programs teachers. There aren’t enough teachers in the country. That issue hasn’t hit full force yet, but it will. In our school alone we had a support position that took over two months to fill; the position just sat empty for the first several weeks of school.

It seems like current teachers in Washington are watching the ocean water recede, so we holler to the legislature, “There is a tsunami on the way!” and the legislature goes out to have a picnic on the beach. They just aren’t getting how vast the problem is and how devastating it’s going to be.

Second, SB6455 directs the professional education standards board to recruit teachers, especially teachers from traditionally underrepresented groups, through every resource the legislators could think of to name, from OSPI to districts to major employers to “other parties.” Third, it makes it easier, I believe, to work on Professional Certification or National Board Certification while going to school and suggests provisions for out-of-state teachers. Fourth, it directs the standards board to offer an alternative route to teacher certification.

Ok, that’s the ticket. We are now going to have a flood of new candidates pouring into our state, demanding to be allowed to teach here. Our schools of education will be turning prospects away! I mean, wouldn’t those steps make you long to teach in Washington?

Somehow, I don’t think so. When I ask fifth graders what they want to be when they grow up, they say, “Computer programmer, video game designer, pro sport player, singer, veterinarian, architect, artist, novelist.” They go with their current passion. At eighteen, the first thing my daughter did was find out which jobs paid the most. Then she decided which jobs she liked out of those jobs. Because at 18, kids have a better sense of reality. They understand that they will have to pay bills.

If we want to recruit more students into teaching in general and to our state in particular, we need to concentrate on a few obvious things:

  • pay (notice that “education” doesn’t even show up on Forbes’ list of top-paying jobs in the country)


  • benefits
  • working conditions
  • job satisfaction

These are the things that draw anyone to any job. I think our culture has traditionally relied on teachers rating “job satisfaction” high. Perhaps people decided the other three aren’t really important for teachers. I don’t think that attitude is going to work for recruiting new teachers, though.

(Did the senators even ask themselves what incentives would make them want to take a job?)

SB6455 does allow retired teachers to substitute for about 115 days each year. Again, I think we’ve been clear. We don’t have enough substitutes. In my building if we can’t get a substitute, we pull one of the specialists into the classroom—the PE teacher or music teacher or librarian. Of course, that means whatever class had PE or music or library that day loses that class. Because we don’t have enough substitutes.

Some of our favorite substitutes are our retired teachers. Many of them will work ONLY in their old school where they already know the routines, staff, and students. We don’t have to write detailed, comprehensive notes for them because they bring their encyclopedic background knowledge with them! I have to say, if they’re willing to work for the meager substitute pay they get, I’d let them work every single day they’re available to come in. And God bless them.

So what did we get out of this session? A few more days of retired teachers being able to substitute. And some—to me, anyway—highly amusing suggestions for how to get more teachers to work in our state. Certainly not what I hoped for.

If McCleary Doesn’t Motivate the Legislature, What Will?


It is now March of 2016, and all we have is a plan to make a plan.

Let’s look back at the timeline (Source).

It was January of 2007 when the state was first sued for not meeting its constitutional duty to adequately fund public schools.

In February of 2010, the King County Superior Court upheld the original ruling, in favor of McCleary et al.

January 2012, and the State Supreme Court upheld the King County Superior Court’s ruling.

In December of 2012, the state’s report to the court was deemed inadequate: the state was failing to fulfill the conditions of the ruling.

Continue reading

Making Student Growth Matter

student growth

I am no fan of standardized testing, so one of the greatest strengths of our teacher evaluation system in Washington state is that it empowers teachers to use classroom-based assessments (and data) to illustrate how they are fostering growth in students’ knowledge and skills. Closer to the kid always is the way to go, so using an assessment I designed or chose with my learners in mind will always (for me) trump using a corporate product, no matter how “standards aligned” it might claim to be.

One problem that I am seeing throughout my district and in other districts whose staff I support through WEA is that with all the many moving parts of teaching, student growth examination often ends of falling into the realm of “whatever is easiest to count.” Further, as I engage in deeper conversations with teachers who go this route, the whole student growth process becomes an exercise in compliance and thus a box to be checked.

When this occurs, we’re letting ourselves choose to waste our own time.

I have worked with teachers for several years now to design and implement student growth goals, and some patterns are starting to emerge:

What teachers are doing that works: Continue reading

Washington’s Retired Teachers as Substitutes Bill

Last IMG_0670week I had 42 students in my classroom.

The teacher next door called in sick; so did the teacher down the hall. Unfortunately, there were no available substitutes. We solved the dilemma by dividing the students from the two teacher-less classrooms among four other, nearby classrooms.

The result was six classes of students crammed into four classrooms.

The problem, besides the fact that our classrooms were extremely overcrowded and under-furnished, is that teachers within a grade-level team aren’t exactly at the same place in the curriculum. Thus, it wasn’t feasibly for any of us to simply push ahead with what we had planned for the day. I ended up doing an easy-to-prepare craft activity. (See figure A)

The kids loved it but I didn’t. I can’t stand wasted time and there was a lot of it. Basically we had close to 200 students doing busy-work for most of a day. That’s a lot of wasted time.

Like many states, Washington has a teacher shortage. And the leading edge of that shortage is the substitute pool. Those substitutes who have been looking for full-time employment now have it, and the remaining subs are usually booked days in advance.

The underlying problem is that there just aren’t as many people going into education as there used to be. The reasons behind this problem are legion. But it essentially boils down to the fact that teaching just isn’t the attractive career choice it once was.

I’m not exactly sure how we solve that problem in the long-term, but it’ll probably involve money.

But in the meantime, we’ve got a crisis on our hands. Like it or not, teachers can’t always be in their classrooms. They get sick, their spouses get sick, their kids get sick, their parents get sick, they have meetings, they have professional development and sometimes they just take the day off. Most teachers average about ten days out of the classroom each year, and right now the substitute pool just isn’t deep enough.

One way to solve the problem is to make it easier for retired teachers to work as substitutes. Many schools – like mine – have a recently retired teacher who’s not quite ready to hang it up entirely and becomes the “house sub.” We have Colleen. Colleen knows the faculty, knows the kids and knows the routine. She’s the perfect sub.

The problem is, Colleen can’t work as many days as we want her. That’s because there’s a policy restricting the amount of time retired teachers can work without compromising their pension benefits.

The good news is that there’s a bill in Olympia to address this. HB 1737 will let the Colleens in our state work as a substitute for up to 630 hours per school year without losing their pension.

Will it solve the problem? No. But it’ll help. It’ll let us use recently retired teachers as substitutes until we get through the current substitute crisis.

And it’ll keep me from having 42 students in my classroom.