Differentiation: When Virtue turns Vice

I sincerely believe in the practice of differentiating instruction for the needs of learners. To help learners grow and improve, we need to meet them where they are and craft variations in output, outcome, process, scope or purpose in order to help students move from A to B…so they can eventually get to Z.

But, a heretical wondering has been bouncing around my head lately.

Over my career I have had many students who, when we are tasked with reading a novel or other long work, either by IEP, 504, or personal preference, end up engaging with the audiobook version of the text rather than the printed version. I’ve always considered that a crucial form of differentiation.

As I was preparing to teach the current unit (Romeo and Juliet) to my 9th graders, I was mulling over how to engage them with the intimidating complexities of Shakespeare. It had been a few years since I last taught the play, so on an early morning run I was going over past unit plans, assignments, and ways I had engaged students. I came to this conclusion: I wanted my students to gain confidence when faced with complex or intimidating texts. That, to me, was more important than whether they “got” all of the nuanced details of the play.

It was clear in my head: The act of reading was what I was trying to teach, to some degree, no matter what literary text we were studying. My learning goal wasn’t that kids simply knew who, what, when, where, and how: it was that kids had the skills to decode the written word in order to be able to figure those things out from reading.

My heretical wondering: Might differentiation inadvertently place students on a lower trajectory for success if that differentiation is misapplied? To be blunt: Will listening to the audio book help a teenager learn to process a text visually? Of course, audiobooks are a necessity for students with visual impairments, but if my goal is to help students improve their processing and comprehension of text, might differentiation such as audiobooks actually get in the way of developing that skill?

I did some cursory research, and all of it was consistent: Using audiobooks to augment the reading of a text increases student comprehension of that text. My question, though, is about the enduring skill of being able to read and make meaning. Yes, listening to the text will increase a struggling teen reader’s comprehension of that text…but what does it do for their reading skill when they face a new complex text that isn’t or can’t be accompanied by audio?

I’m seriously rethinking all of the differentiation I plan in my class. If my goal is for my teenage readers to “get through” the text and know what happens, or even be able to interpret the literature to depth, the audiobook will suffice if I am teaching content. If I am teaching skills, though, I must focus on differentiating the learning of the skill (how I help kids strengthen the act of reading) rather than being satisfied that they “got” the content. When I think back over 16 years of teaching various complex texts where audiobooks were a go-to mode of differentiating, I feel confident my kids left knowing content but I wonder if I did a darn thing to cultivate their transferable skills. I wonder if I might have inadvertently flattened their potential trajectory as a reader.

A central theme of Romeo and Juliet is that “virtue turns vice, being misapplied.” In other words, being loving is a virtue, being lustful and misapplying that emotion turns that same sentiment to a vice…and in the case of the play, a tragedy rather than a love story.

I now wonder, too, if differentiation of instruction isn’t subject to that same theme: It is a virtuous idea which, if misapplied, might do more harm than good.

The Difference a Counselor Makes

This year I made the transition from teaching at a school with various high-needs populations, to a school with considerably lower Free and Reduced-Lunch numbers. The schools couldn’t feel less alike, and one of the greatest factors in this difference lies in the counseling offices. If we are serious about combating the opportunity gap, we need more counselors where it is needed most. It looks like Superintendent Reykdahl gets this, to some degree – he supported ESHB 2224, which passed, and will provide more funding for school counselors at the middle school level (mainly to comply with High School and Beyond Plan development for students).

I would wager that any teacher anywhere would support increases in school counseling positions (caveat: unless it means we have to give up another vital support for students). The top-priority goal of the 2013-18 strategic plan of the WA State Counseling Association is to “Pass legislation that establishes and funds lower ratios for ALL levels (elementary, middle & high school).”

As Seattle becomes less and less live-able for so many lower-income city residents, the allocation of counseling services amongst schools is especially critical, and needs to be redesigned.

My current middle school has almost 900 students and 3 full-time counselors – one for each house/grade (6th-8th grades). My old elementary school has a highly fluctuating number of students – more on that in a bit – which generally totals around 250-300 students (grades PreK-5th), and a half-time counselor. Looking strictly at enrollment numbers, this seems fair: the more students at a school, the more counselor FTE (percentage of full-time position), a school gets.

But not all students have equal need for a counselor. School counselors serve students in a number of capacities. Historically, they started as vocational advisors. ”The role of school counselors continued to develop in parallel to changes in education and society. As the momentous social issues of the 1960s arose, the field focused increasingly on the developmental, personal, and social issues of students and on cultural sensitivity. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the work of counselors became more entwined with central school goals for student academic success (Gladding, 2012).”

Doesn’t it make sense to base the number of counselors (and percentage of full-time work), based on the school population’s individual needs, rather than enrollment numbers alone?

This is sort-of already happening at Seattle Public Schools. According to this year’s Weighted Staffing Standards, an elementary school receives a half-time position for EITHER a counselor, a social worker, or a head teacher IF it qualifies as “Focus or Priority (the school is not doing well by various metrics); has Greater than 50% poverty per OSPI; or has a Social/Emotional Behavior program.” Excellent! But don’t make us choose!

At my old school, the half-time counselor tried to the best of their well-qualified ability to meet students’ needs. But the school included all downtown housing shelters, and the school population includes a huge, and growing number of students whose lives are in major turmoil and transition. Students regularly show up at the main office with no records of any evaluations for special ed services required, and no information about their academic and behavioral needs (which are often plentiful, due to the trauma they were/are experiencing). They stay for a month, a quarter, sometimes more. Special funding pays for a Family Support Worker, who does incredible, on-the-ground work to coordinate families with various resources. But we chose the half-time counselor position over the Head Teacher position, which was very much needed, too. KUOW recently profiled the school, and brought up the need for more staff development around trauma-informed instructional practices. But when you have a number of students who didn’t sleep the night before because of noise in the shelter; who are not yet evaluated for special services, who are shutting down or starting conflicts; who don’t yet feel safe and trusting of the classroom…no amount of professional development will be enough. You need more trained professionals in a building to meet needs, particularly counselors.

At my new school, we have monthly house meetings, led by our counselors, to examine the academic, social/emotional, and physical needs of each student in the school. Students of concern are discussed by all of us, and we look for gaps in how we are serving them. Recently, one of my 6th graders shared with me that he hadn’t slept the night before. This happened again, and again. I started checking in with him a little more frequently; he was on my mind more than others. When he told me that he hadn’t slept for the three prior nights, had been walking around, and that his mom didn’t know, my concern grew. Was this enough to warrant a report of potential neglect?

I went to the 6th grade counselor for advice and help. She was on it immediately because she was available – she wasn’t stretched between hundreds of kids with similar concerns. She met with the student the next day, learned a lot more about his life, and determined that his home is stable and loving. We got some additional supports in place for him: a schedule change to include a study-skills class, some regular appointments with the counseling office. His vocational future is inseparable from his current well-being and his on-going academic success. Having counseling services to support him in all of this is invaluable.

I hope that the particular needs of students at a school shapes the way we fund counseling positions; it’s an issue of equity and teachers, alone, can’t meet the social-emotional needs of students.

What’s So Great about Teaching?

About twenty years ago a policeman came into my classroom to talk to my students about his job. He started out with great enthusiasm, “How many of you want to be a cop?”

Not a single hand went up. Two or three kids even laughed.

Stricken, he said, “That’s not funny—in most classes a lot of kids want to be a cop. Ok, then tell me what you want to be when you grow up.”

Hands up all over the room. He listened as kids told him a wide variety of ideas from astronaut to doctor (it wasn’t just “doctor,” either, it was a particular specialty all picked out in fifth grade) to entomologist.

“Ento-what?” he exclaimed and then turned to me. “This class isn’t normal!”

Apparently no one had warned him he was coming to a Highly Capable classroom.

Once he left I did talk to my class about being polite with guest speakers (which is an important life lesson).

Then I asked them to write a piece for me. “Tell me the job you want and give me three reasons developed in detail for why you want that job.”

They immediately turned the tables on me. “So why do you want to be a teacher?” “Yeah, what’s so great about teaching?” “What three reasons do you have?”

“I know—I know—it’s because of all the vacations!”

I got them quiet and said, “Those are legitimate questions. If I ask you why you want to have a job one day, it makes sense that you would want to know why I want to have the job I have now. So I’ll give you three reasons. And they don’t have anything to do with June, July, and August.”

All these years later, my reasons are still the same.

First off, teaching came naturally to me. From when I was in junior high or high school, if I was swimming at the pool, I would end up teaching some kid how to swim or how to dive off the side into the deep end. If I was drawing pictures in the park, I would end up teaching a cluster of kids how to draw. No matter where I was or what I was doing, I ended up teaching someone something. I figured I might as well be paid for it.

Second, I’m good at it. When I taught kids horseback riding at summer camps back in high school, I told stories about medieval knights carrying their spears in their right hands. “See how it makes sense to mount on the left? See why we hold our reins in the left hand? Cowboys don’t throw a spear with the right hand, but they do throw a rope with their right hand.” Then we would act out mounting the horse while holding something in the right hand.

To this day, I find that telling stories and acting out scenarios helps kids remember information.

I have another advantage as a teacher. Does anyone remember Gregorc’s Learning Styles? I took a test a long time ago to determine my teaching style according to Gregorc. I found that, operating in my normal mode, I was pretty strongly Concrete-Sequential. But the minute I got frustrated, I flipped into Abstract-Random mode, in his parlance.

How does that help my teaching? As long as everything is going smoothly, I generally continue in a Concrete-Sequential style. But if students don’t understand a concept, if they start asking a lot of questions, if they look confused, then I get frustrated. I stop teaching the way I’ve been teaching—the way that hasn’t been working. I say, “Ok, let’s look at it this way.” I come up with a sideways, out-of-the-box way of explaining the concept. A more Abstract-Random way. (Something that’s not in the script of a Direct Instruction lesson.)

I’ve had students say, “Now it makes sense.” (I’ve also heard the criticism, “Well, why didn’t you say it that way the first time?”)

My third reason I want to be a teacher?

I love it when kids get it. Nearly forty years of doing this job, and if some kid suddenly grasps an idea they’ve been struggling with, I do a victory dance right there with them. I’m pumped. I’m excited. I’m vindicated!

This is the coolest part of my job! I get to watch the light bulbs go on.

Right here, by the way, is why I set impossibly high standards for my kids. So when they meet those standards, that victory dance is SO incredibly sweet.

Twenty years ago I gave my kids those three reasons, and they agreed, they were legitimate reasons to want to be a teacher.

I still think so!

Waiting on Olympia: Bargaining Certificated Salaries

We’re waiting.

Last August, we settled our comprehensive collective bargaining agreement (CBA). For better or worse (I say better), our CBA nearly doubled in scope: A whole new section was added about supporting new-to-career teachers; over a dozen pages detailing evaluation procedures was folded over from experimental year-to-year Memos of Understanding into the durable agreement; much needed language protecting the learning environments of special education students was added…and much more. Our contract, once rumored to be held up as one of the worst in the state, is now much stronger in its service to teaching and learning.

We knew, though, that we were bargaining at a pivotal moment in teacher compensation for our state. Our Superintendent, HR Director, and Finance Director (all of whom our Association has an unusually collaborative relationship with, even when we disagree) are likely more nervous than we are, as ultimately they are the individuals charged with managing the public’s monetary investment in our schools. Thus, the salaries we successfully bargained are a “one-year-deal” of sorts…with a salary re-opener mandated in the final agreement under the assumption that the legislature was going to make major changes.

As this recent article from the Seattle Times points out, and as I tried to articulate before, last year’s actions by the legislature created more problems than solutions. One paragraph from the Times article sums up the one of the key changes concisely: Continue reading

TPEP 2: Personnel Supports–Impact and Reflection

This is the second post in a series regarding the current Teacher and Principal Evaluation System (TPEP) in Washington State.  Each post will examine findings from the University of Washington’s Final Report on TPEP, titled ‘Washington’s Teacher and Principal Evaluation System:  Examining the Implementation of a Complex System.’  The full report can be found here:  http://www.education.uw.edu/ctp/sites/default/files/UW_TPEP_Rpt_2017_Rvsd_ADA.pdf  

In my last post I examined the challenges of the comprehensive model.  I also shared my building’s first go around with comprehensive and how we established systems to make the process a bit more manageable.  My administrators reworked their schedules, which created greater capacity for time in the classroom and meetings with teachers.  This shift has been a positive one, accentuating discussion about teaching/learning and not about student discipline/classroom management, only. In the recent University of Washington report on TPEP Implementation, teachers noted increased engagement of instructional leadership by administrators, including use of the instructional framework and feedback on student growth goals (Elfers and Plecki, 25).  Administrators concur with the findings of their teachers.  “A majority of principals (70%) and assistant principals (79%) agree that TPEP has allowed them to to focus more on instructional leadership (Elfers and Plecki, 25).  

TPEP fundamentally changed my school and my job. While my administrators made some serious adjustments, I did, too. Three years ago I became a .2 instructional coach. My responsibilities are diverse in many ways, but essentially I assist our teachers with TPEP.  I support student growth goal writing, coach/reflect with teachers on lessons taught, and implement new technology and engagement strategies. Over the past three years, the demand for coaching time has increased resulting in the expansion of our model. I am now one of two instructional coaches–I serve as a .4 and my colleague is a .2 release.  Basically, we’re the eyes and the ears of the teachers, not the administrators. Our job is to help our teachers navigate design and delivery of instruction, assessment, management, goal writing, and whatever else they need.  This is good work. This is important work. This work impacts students and teachers each day. This was absolutely driven by TPEP. That’s not to say that this is a negative.  New technologies and strategies have developed because of our coaching model.  In some ways, work that individual teachers took on has been shifted to our coaches.  It’s surprising to look back and consider the supports teachers should have received for years but didn’t.  Maybe teachers didn’t even know that they could ask for those supports?  In any case, TPEP was the catalyst.

My building is not alone.  “59% of superintendents and 15% of school administrators said that they added time from instructional coaches, TPEP coaches, or department heads”  (Elfer and Plecki, 41).  The results are staggering. There is a cost.  An increase in coaching and department head work results in loss contact time with students.  When I decreased my teaching load from five courses to four and then from four to three I immediately realized that I’d be working with fewer students.  I was acutely aware of what I was missing but also worked to amplify the relationships that I was building with the students in my remaining three class periods.  But, in all honesty, I miss the kids that I’m not teaching.  

Clearly TPEP has increased workloads for administrators. The report indicates, “About three-quarters of principals and assistant principals who responded to the survey agreed that TPEP has reduced their ability to perform other essential duties (76%) and reduced the amount of time interacting with students (73%)” (Elfers and Plecki, 28).  So, if we’re going to do TPEP “right” and make it meaningful, teacher driven, a natural harvest of work, and focused on student learning outcomes, how do school manage the logistics of this work?  Has an increase in coaching been the only solution?

UW’s report also speaks to the rise of administrative positions as a result of TPEP.  The Seattle Times asserts that TPEP led to a “hiring spree” (Seattle Times, Ed Lab, January 9, 2018).  The most significant impact in hiring came in the form of the assistant principal position where growth far exceeded the expansion of principal positions.  From 2010 to 2016, the number of principals grew by 4% compared with a 29% increase in assistant principals (Elfers and Plecki, 41).  The largest area of growth within the market was at the elementary level. The Seattle Times highlights that this was a 126% growth for elementary school assistant principals.  The data begs questions. How many of those schools that saw growth never had an assistant principal?  In schools where an assistant principal (AP) was added, how has the principal’s job changed?  What’s been taken off of his/her plate?  What’s been added?  What’s multiplied?  The diverse landscape of our state is made up of small schools, many which may have traditionally only had one administrator at the helm.  Is the increase in administrative positions, particularly with regard to the elementary assistant principal, directly caused by TPEP related duties or correlated with TPEP and the outgrowth of stronger instructional practices and resuscitated funding emerging out of an improved economy during this time span?  

TPEP isn’t binary and it’s not useful to think about who/what systems win and who/what systems lose as a result of the implementation.  Instead it’s far more useful for buildings and districts to consider the voices of stakeholders and reflect and adjust. Perhaps supports were needed for quite some time and TPEP created the impetus for the change? But, even with these report findings, I can’t say that definitively.  What I do know is that teacher quality and student learning isn’t easy to measure and systems must reflect those obstacles and provide flexibility in order to demonstrate fidelity to the evaluation process. To do so may require these personnel supports but without integrity to this process, TPEP will surely collapse.

On Google and Soft Skills and Things We Already do Well

21st century skills. Individual learning. STEM. These are just a few of the buzz words flitting around students heads as they prepare for their lives beyond high school.

The push for STEM has been strong and consistent for years now (8-10 depending on who you ask). STEM has been prescribed as necessary for students to survive in a world we cannot imagine and for jobs that do not exist. The truth is that education has always been possibly training students for jobs that do not exist in an unimaginable world. The details have changed, but the general progression of society and culture has not. How could it?

Two recent research projects at Google “Project Oxygen,” and “Project Aristotle,” have studied the behemoth company intensely (not a surprise from Google) and discovered the following are the traits of their most successful employees:

Conclusions from “Project Oxygen” (2013) as reported in the Washington Post:

  • The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Conclusions from “Project Aristotle” (2017) as reported in the Washington Post:

  • Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

As an English teacher it is hard for me to find these conclusions surprising. Both of these lists echo reasons to read literature of all sorts and across all time periods, and reasons to write analytically and reflectively. Reasons supported by scientists and personal experience alike. These conclusions are also solid support for the argument for a liberal arts education (I highly recommend Fareed Zakaria’s great book).

The Washington Post article focus on what Google’s conclusions mean for students, and as a teacher I cannot help thinking about what they mean for education as a whole.  I understand the desire to glom onto STEM as a focus for students, because the outcomes for STEM are, more often than not, tangible and measurable. Plus, STEM is really important. The outcomes for humanities classes often encompass (even when they zero in on tangible activities or skills) the above decidedly intangible set of soft skills. How do we measure a student’s capacity to “possess insights into others?” Or even measure critical thinking? These are inherently messy proposals.

My district and most of our surrounding districts have begun a process of embracing the ambiguity of this situation. We are learning about “Deep Learning.” Explaining deep learning is as convoluted and problematic as fostering generosity in a student. These are huge, abstract, human concepts. The question I keep finding at the forefront of my mind is this one: what differentiates “deeper learning” (or insert your own professional development term of choice here) from what we used to call “best practices?”

It increasingly seems to me that we have all the tools we need. Bloom’s taxonomy, questioning strategies, concept based learning, the teaching-learning cycle of assess, teach, experiment, assess, etc. I know the terms for these concepts and strategies varies, but the application does not. The application is as old as the allusion in Google’s research project: Aristotle. Or older even. I really do think education is more about how individual teachers connect and get individual students “there” (there being that “deeper,” epiphany-laden place…or Plato’s allegory for education: the cave—my other theory is that our job is just to keep leading students out of cave after cave after cave and to learn to see right alongside them as we move forward).

I don’t think there is a panacea. What if professional development took a deep breath and just let teachers do what they know how to do? What if pro-d just started pointing out things teachers are doing well? What if pro-d (and those that oversee it and evaluate teachers) practiced being good coaches, listening well, making sure teachers felt safe, supported, and heard? If we practiced this at the pro-d level nationally, state-wide, district by district, school by school, what would be the effect? Would it trickle down into the classroom and into the student’s lives?

My great concern is that studies like Google’s lead to a rash of “teaching empathy” lessons, where well-meaning educators explicitly teach soft skills. In my experience this is like explicitly teaching grammar. When I teach grammar in isolation, students become better grammarians, but not better writers. When I teach grammar in the context of the reading students engage with (no one better to teach complex sentences than David Foster Wallace), or in the context of their own writing, they become better writers. If we teach empathy in isolation of sympathetic characters, situations, or engaging details students might become better clinical psychologists (?) but not necessarily better practitioners of empathy in their daily or work lives. They need to experience it in realistic conditions.

I will put forth here that most teachers do this well already. I mean, those Google employees in the study are products of our school systems.  I believe teachers can focus on two primary things: 1) make students feel safe, 2) challenge them with rich content.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed offers a good list of the conditions ideal for learning: awareness of the subject matter, interest, motivation, relevance, engagement, reinforcement, and support. All seven of these are created naturally in a safe environment with rich content. I don’t intend to sound reductive, as this simple focus is extremely difficult. What could be more important?

PBIS and the Boy Elephant in the Room: Some Thoughts

I remember being a starry-eyed, youthful 36-year-old English teacher (okay this was 5 years ago, and if I was starry-eyed, it was thanks to Clinique Ultra Volume Mascara) when my colleagues and I gathered in the library to be introduced to another acronym that would save the state of public education: PBIS. PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, was a multi-tiered system of wraparound services to encourage positive behavior and achievement and discourage negative, anti-social behavior. It was responsive to the social and emotional needs of students, would ensure equitable and appropriate discipline for students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and would ensure that students understood our school’s simple and consistent behavioral expectations. We would all have to become comfortable with changing the ways in which we handled classroom discipline, starting with lessening our reliance on office referrals and ISS. For the most part, we were on board, accepting the research that this was good for kids.

5 years is enough time to implement a new program, train staff, work out some of the kinks, and evaluate the successes. It’s also enough time to step back and look at what our challenges have been and ask ourselves some tough questions. Teachers work and learn in community, so for my maiden blog post, I would like to have a conversation about PBIS, and its edgier sister, Restorative Justice, which I, admittedly, have zero experience with, but which has been implemented by some area districts.  

When I was doing my National Boards (no mascara tube big enough to make me starry-eyed that year), I remember thinking, “I’d be a REALLY awesome teacher if I didn’t have students all the time.” Like many ed reform measures, PBIS works really well on paper. Its implementation was the tricky part. Our district was a PBIS leader in the region, so some of our changes took on the feel of science experiments- “I hypothesize that…90% of students will achieve success under this change!” Most changes were easily accepted by our staff, who’ve enjoyed a long reputation for caring about all kids and having good rapport with students. The most controversial change was shifting discipline away from ISS (many of us thought that ISS was closed for business) and handling disruptive behavior and minor infractions in our classrooms through use of a “buddy system” called Refocus, where students we would usually send out to the hall or to ISS would now be sent next door to a designated colleague’s room where they would ponder their crimes and engage in some deep soul-searching while filling out a half-sheet on how they can make better choices. The rationale? ISS was not an effective deterrent and it pulled kids away from learning. With Refocus, after 5 to 10 minutes in another classroom, they would emerge like a chrysalis and re-enter our classrooms with vigor and a determination to read Romeo & Juliet without their phones out.

We had some skeptics, but we are nothing if not team players, so we tried. And by the year’s end, some found Refocus to work, but many of us quietly swapped it for our own system that did not involve sending kids out to disrupt our co-worker’s classrooms. Five years later, our whole department uses whatever system works best for us and our students. Turns out- one size does not fit all. What have we gained? Better identification of students needing services, incentives and rewards for students doing well and showing improvement, and a lot of conversations on the roots of student misbehavior (trauma, mental health issues, home-school disconnect, culturally unresponsive teaching, kids being kids, etc…) This has been good and necessary, but it’s too early and results are too mixed to declare victory yet.

I asked a dozen colleagues recently about PBIS and what we need to actually implement it successfully. Our long-time ISS supervisor (who many kids regard as a tough-loving mother-figure) said “STRICT discipline.” Another staff member who handles major discipline asked for a simplified system without so many steps or warnings before serious consequences are used. A counselor and two administrators said, simply, “staffing”: that we need a full-time mental health counselor or clinician to keep pace with the growing rates of anxiety and depression among teens. That, and alternative means of schooling for students who are not able to work within a traditional school environment.  

As for my answer? I worry about a system so forgiving that teenagers develop unrealistic expectations for the world that will greet them after graduation: that bosses will praise their simple act of showing up and punching in on time, that multiple chances will be granted after violating a university’s (or society’s) code of conduct or rule of law, that life will be less flexible and empathetic in meeting their individual needs, shortcomings, desires. I want them to be successful. I want our school to set them up for success. I think we can all do better- myself included. The student group that we can and need to do better by? Boys. 5 years after implementation of PBIS, I looked at the data on our school disciplinary rates by sex. Males made up 74.9% of tardy referrals and 75.2% of referrals for all other infractions. Our school is not an outlier by any means: boys across the country (and developed world) are overrepresented in school discipline and underrepresented among students thriving academically. If a disciplinary system does not work well for half of our student body, it’s time to examine why and work to change it.

Fresh Year, Fresh Eyes

I have been teaching middle school for a long time, but it never fails to make me smile when the following happens at a dinner party:

“What is it that you do?” asks a completely genuine person after they have told me of their grand office adventures.

“I teach (a smile starts to turn up the corner their lips)…. middle school” (smile transforms into awkward grimace). I am always intrigued by the shift in smile as it crosses the person’s face, I can’t help it. What is in that shift? A recalling of their own painful middle school years? A flash of sitting alone at lunch, head-gear on the table next to their institutional green tray? The aftereffects of what this unique age and stage represents in a person’s life fascinates me.

I also relish it because inevitably the person stumbles for words and then says something to the effect, “I could never do that.” One woman even exclaimed, “You must have a secret super human power!”

“Oh, I do!” I replied, “ I have no sense of smell!”

Fast-forward to 2018. My New Year’s Resolution is well underway. I have changed my diet drastically, eliminated my allergies and now… I can smell! I have lost my super human power and I am experiencing the world through a fresh set of nostrils.

Morning math class, Struggling Student, with serious math woes that compare nothing to his home-life woes, comes up for help. A wave of alcohol stench beats him to my desk. What?! This is middle school! He has been drinking? When? Where? Did he come to school this way? Even before he opens his mouth to speak, I have a mental plan to be in the office with this student and the principal. I help him find “X”. I eye him intensely as he ambles back (unsteadily?) to his desk.

I reach for the phone to call the principal. Sweet Girl, the class peach, walks up. Again, a cloud of alcohol fumes wafts towards me. What? Not Sweet Girl…not the class peach! What is going on? I stand up, walk around my desk and survey the room.

It is flu season and a big, green bottle of hand sanitizer has been placed by the sink. Yes! Whew! I do not have a class of prepubescent drunkards…I have a class of rightful germophobes!

And then it hits me. I had quickly jumped to judge Struggling Student as wayward child, while it took Sweet Girl’s presumed innocence to make me go upstream and seek the truth. My conscience slunk into my gut and sat down hard. I never wanted to know I could be that kind of teacher – the kind who falls prey to the Pygmalion Effect.

I clearly recall sitting in my teacher prep classes in college and learning about the Pygmalion Effect. This concept was presented by Dr. Rosenthal in the 1960s and holds that teachers’ expectations of students greatly influences their learning and behaviors. Dr. Rosenthal found that when teachers were told their students were on the brink of a massive intellectual blooming, their IQs did indeed rise over the course of the school year. The kicker? All were truly just average students. The Pygmalion Effect has been supported by numerous studies since it was first discovered.

I was a Pygmalion Effect participant. I was not happy, nor was I proud about that. How had I come to this? More importantly, how could I improve my thinking?

So many data points track our students year-to-year, classroom-to-classroom: Response to Intervention data, state test scores, in-district test scores, behavioral referrals and IEPs are just a few. Most are aligned to statewide policies that require teachers to review, analyze and adjust their instruction for improvement. I cannot help but wonder what effect this information has on a teacher’s subconscious mind as she participates in a thousand little interactions with each student over the course of the year. It is very easy to see how I could have come to this; how any teacher can come to this.

How can I improve? How can any teacher improve? In all honestly, I feel like I am a very fair and equitable teacher. I keep mental track of whom I have called on, I am careful in my praise to ensure students know they their efforts are meaningful. I am cognizant of each student’s abilities as I prepare materials that will push each child to the high end of their Zone of Proximal Development. And yet, those are all very conscious choices I am aware of. What about my unconscious actions? My implicit biases? Perhaps I “feel” like a fair and equitable teacher, but do I subconsciously think like one?

I am intrigued by the work of Dr. Pianta in this area. He experimented with an intensive behavioral training program which provided teachers with a whole new set of teaching responses surrounding student behavior. A quick review of his work gave me a series of, “Aha” moments. In essence, he found that teachers who undertook skills-based training to ameliorate unconscious biases actually increased student learning for all of their students. Many of my students come from deep poverty and face many struggles in their daily lives. Interactions with their teacher should not be one of them. Most of the time, I am keenly aware of this; my moment was an eye-opener for me. I realized I needed to do everything in my conscious AND unconscious power to ensure this to be true ALL the time; throughout all those thousands of little interactions that grow students’ belief about themselves.

My New Year’s Resolution has found me experiencing the world through a fresh, new set of nostrils. I have added to my resolution to view my students through a fresh, new set of eyes.

TPEP 1: Re-Evaluating our Evaluation Model

This is the first of a series of posts I will be writing regarding the current Teacher and Principal Evaluation System (TPEP) in Washington State.  Each post will examine findings from the University of Washington’s Final Report on TPEP, titled ‘Washington’s Teacher and Principal Evaluation System:  Examining the Implementation of a Complex System.’  The full report can be found here:  http://www.education.uw.edu/ctp/sites/default/files/UW_TPEP_Rpt_2017_Rvsd_ADA.pdf  

Washington’s Teacher and Principal Evaluation System (TPEP) created fundamental changes to the way teachers and principals talk about teaching and learning.  Moreover, TPEP established a shift in how teachers are evaluated and how they evidence their achievement in eight criteria. The system requires that each teacher complete a comprehensive evaluation (all eight criteria, including measurements of student growth towards specific learning goals) once every four years and a focused evaluation during the other three years (evidencing one criterion and one student growth goal).  A new teacher must successfully complete the comprehensive evaluation for three consecutive years before he/she can move towards a focused evaluation.  Additional legislation now allows a teacher to carry his/her comprehensive summative rating into the focused cycle as a way to promote growth and zero in on a focused area of weakness for improvement without fear of receiving a worse summative evaluation rating at the end of the year (see WAC: 392-191A-190).

I was an early adopter of TPEP.  As a building leader and local education association president I felt it was important to see what this new process looked like first hand so I offered myself up as a guinea pig. Thankfully, a few of my building colleagues did the same. Four and a half years ago we underwent the comprehensive system for the first time and like anything new, we (both teachers, building, and district admin) muddled through the process, putting this new policy into practice. We learned a great deal from trial and error. Within a few months our building established an effective system based on routine meetings (every three weeks) and grounded in teacher agency over artifacts. Our process is now streamlined in contract language and having completed a full cycle (1 year of comprehensive and 3 years of focused) I can confidently say that conversations about teaching and learning are firmly entrenched in language found in the criteria.  We’ve established a process that helps teachers and administrators talk about our work with shared values and a common language. A recently released report from the University of Washington regarding the implementation of TPEP echoes similar sentiment from stakeholders in districts around the state  (Elfers and Plecki, xii).

I’m back on the comprehensive model this year and finding the process to be inhibiting to my growth as a teacher. It’s not that I’m unwilling to closely analyze my practice to demonstrate my achievement in these areas. In fact I welcome these opportunities. But evidencing eight criterion (three pieces of evidence for each) and two student growth goals (with three different assessments) is challenging to do well in one academic school year.  To be fair, I live this work every day.  Half of my day is spent serving as an instructional coach supporting our building teaching staff as they prepare for meetings and reflect upon their practice. The University of Washington TPEP report indicates that the comprehensive evaluation model within a single year poses series concerns for teachers, school administrators, and superintendents. “More than three-quarters of teachers, four-fifths of school administrators, and 71% of superintendents either strongly or somewhat agreed that the comprehensive evaluation attempts to cover too many aspects of teaching in a single year.”  (Elfers and Plecki,  xiii).  But now that I’m back in the mix of the twenty four pieces of evidence, six assessments, etc… I’m feeling like I can’t juggle all of  these criteria well and as a result, I’m not demonstrating my best work and that has me concerned. These feelings signal to me that I’m treating the comprehensive evaluation system as a checklist of attributes and indicators that I have to reach so that I can show that I am a “Distinguished” educator this year so that next year I can go back into the focused model and take some real risks, pushing myself in my areas of weakness so that I can make substantive changes without fear of losing my “Distinguished” label. I’m tired of proving that I’m “Distinguished’ enough to do this work.  I’m a National Board Certified Teacher, once renewed, who has shown through a variety of means that I continually seek out opportunities to grow professionally so that I may be a better teacher for my students.  The comprehensive evaluation system makes me feel weighed down and less reflective, not more.

What about our newest teachers?  Our state, like others, is struggling to retain teachers in the profession, yet we immerse them in this complex process right out of the gate.  84% of building administrators felt that covering all aspects of the comprehensive evaluation with a first year teacher was of major or moderate concern (Elfers and Plecki, xiii).  So how can we expect new teachers to the profession to carefully and thoughtfully engage with this instructional evaluation tool?  Spoiler alert: I’ll address the rise in support systems that have emerged since the implementation of TPEP in my next related blog post.  Nonetheless, the UW report on TPEP Implementation doesn’t zero in on the experience of new teachers (from the perspective of the new teacher) as an analyzed sub group, but there are hints at the familiarity of new teachers with TPEP.  The report finds that teachers who recently graduated from a teacher prep program (within the past three years) largely had experience with TPEP related criteria such as use of assessments to inform instructional practice and the assessment and collection of evidence of student growth (Elfers and Plecki, xii, 6).  But does experience alone mitigate the challenges presented in the first year of teaching coupled with the use of a comprehensive evaluation?  I’m hoping to see additional research in this area. So I wonder, what would happen if new teachers began with focused area, allowing for richer reflection and analysis in one area, instead of jumping head first into the all eight criteria?  This would create less pressure and more confidence for those just starting into the career.  

So where do we go from here?  We’re now almost five years into implementation and perhaps now is the time for policymakers to step back and make adjustments to this system.  Re-examining how we evaluate our newest teachers and ensuring that all teachers are able to take risks, improve weaknesses, and cultivate practice will create an even stronger, perhaps more sustainable teaching force for our students.  

The Recess Disconnect

Two things you should know prior to reading this post: 1) I am writing through the lens of both a parent and a secondary educator (meaning I’m far from being an expert), and 2) my child has two amazing Kindergarten teachers. They are passionate and kind, they ensure my son loves school, and I can tell they care deeply about him. This is what every parent wants for their children. With these two admissions, I will proceed. I recently received two unsettling emails from my son’s teachers.

The first email was expected, but still a bit disappointing, as we all want to believe our children are little well-behaved geniuses. So, the hard truth is a bit difficult to swallow. According to the email, my son struggles at times to pay attention, he is easily distracted by his peers, and when he becomes unengaged he is often stubborn and unwilling to reengage, especially when the task is a difficult one. Lack of focus and inability to pay attention sometimes is exactly what I would expect of a five-year-old. He is still learning to be a student, his attention-span is growing, he loves to play with his friends, and he tends to shift focus from more difficult endeavors to easier ones. As far as the stubborn element, well, he is my son. I’ve learned these characteristics are fairly common among the Kindergarten-set, as evidenced by the discussions I’ve had at birthday parties with other parents. Also, in that same email, my son’s teachers had plenty of praise for him. He is helpful, kind, and a good friend, all awesome qualities, so I wasn’t particularly concerned.

The unsettling part came when I received the next email — about recess. In it, my son’s teachers outlined the new plan. After the winter break, they would be cutting lunch recess from 45 minutes to 30 minutes (which includes time to eat). The rationale for this decision was that per district recommendations, the first half of the year, Kindergartners are allotted an extra 15 minutes at lunch to meet their social-emotional needs, but that the time should be cut during the second half of the year. The reasoning for the cut was not explained, nor the implication that Kindergartners somehow no longer need the social-emotional support of a longer recess after only four months of school. The email went on to describe the practice they’d been doing as a class to prepare for the change. They’d implemented a “quiet lunch” in which the kids must be silent during the first 5 to 10 minutes, in order to focus on eating. They could then socialize for the remaining 5 minutes of lunch and 15 minutes of recess.

I’d also recently had some discussion with area elementary teachers about this topic. Along with being a parent and an educator, I am also a teacher leader. I recently took on the role of facilitator for the Washington Education Association’s National Board Teacher Leadership Academy. NBCTs in my region sign up and we work together to develop teacher leadership plans. Through our discussions I have learned a great deal about elementary school recess and have discovered that not all schools are implementing recess in the same ways. Anecdotally speaking, schools with fewer behavior issues have more recess, while schools with more behavior problems, have fewer minutes of recess.

This knowledge in combination with the change in my own child’s recess, got me thinking about the rationale for the cut in recess time. Many of us parents received similar reports from the teachers about inattention and disengagement. This discovery led to more discussion of the consequences for such behavior, which often meant removal of free-time and/or sitting with head down while the other students participated in an activity. It appears to me there is a logical disconnect. Students are losing social-time for poor behavior, but schools with statistically fewer discipline issues have more social-time. To me, that would suggest that increased social-time leads to more positive behaviors. This thought process warranted a bit of research.

I found several studies and articles supporting my hypothesis that increased recess decreases behavior issues in the classroom. One study in particular, by Theresa Phillippo at Hamline University, was a comprehensive overview of the impact of recess on behavior in Kindergarten. This researcher found “evidence that students are able to display more self-control when given more opportunities for movement during the day. Students were also more successful at showing soft skills such as cooperation, problem-solving, negotiation, compromising, and forming new friendships.” The author asserts that “a positive connection was found indicating that recess has a positive effect on classroom behavior. Results indicate that the long-term effects of providing recess may outweigh the short-term effects or reducing recess.”

I am not an expert, and an afternoon of research into recess does not qualify me to give advice to my son’s two amazing Kindergarten teachers. I do believe, though, that our schools need to think more deeply about their strict focus on seat-time and learning, especially in Kindergarten. Free play has such a positive impact on a child’s ability to connect and bond with others, problem-solve, be self-motivated, and is just plain good to get the wiggles out. These qualities and abilities are essential to being ready to learn.

I plan on visiting my school board and giving them my opinion about district policy concerning recess in Kindergarten. I will include the research I did today, but I’d love some additional resources to support my assertion that we should be adding minutes, not subtracting them from recess and that removal of free time is not an effective consequence for misbehavior, if anything it only makes the problem worse. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments below. I can definitely use the help.