WWHD (What Would Harry Do)?

FirstDaysofSchool

This post is dedicated to all the teachers in the final countdown before students arrive. Solidarity.

“What would Harry do?” I whisper under my breathe. For nearly ten years, I’ve asked myself this question every day during the month of August.

My well-worn copy of First Days of School lies limply on the coffee table offering me support and guidance for my insecurities about the new school year.

Every year the routine is the same. Each night, for weeks leading up to the start of the new year, just when I begin to drift off to sleep, my mind fires up reminders of all the little things I haven’t finished preparing for my classes.  My syllabi aren’t finished. My gradebook isn’t set up. My bulletin boards are bare. Heck, I have a new classroom and the boxes are everywhere! How will I have time to implement all my Pinterest bulletin boards ideas, laminate new classroom management tools, and design highly engaging, culturally relevant curriculum–not to mention pickle cucumbers, finish that book I started this summer, and cross stitch that doilie that’s been on my to-do list for three years– with barely one week before kids show up?!

By far, this was the busiest summer of my career, filled with family events, professional trainings, leadership camps, and teaching in China. Furthermore, my new co-teaching role as ASB and Leadership adviser has consumed much of my summer planning time. Wanting to start the year strong, has lead to countless hours, emails and text messages theorizing and planning a servant-leadership program. My excitement for this new opportunity is only tempered by one tiny detail: the desire to be prepared. This manifests itself in an obsession to be over-prepared.

Yes, I admit it. I’m a perfectionist. Hence, my regular school nightmares.

However, just when I feel the wave about to overtake me, I hear a still, small voice.

Smile. Set high expectations. Be firm but warm. Build relationships.

Of course Harry is right! All this worry is for naught!

Are the essential things done to make my room an inviting, safe space for learning to happen? Do I have an opening lesson that puts relationships and rigor at the center of learning?

Then I’m ready. And so are you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FirstDaysofSchool

Starting Over

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One of the best things about being a teacher is that you get to do it all over again each year.

As my colleagues and I have been reconnecting (between meetings, etc.) this week, there are of course the personal reconnections about what we did or didn’t do over the summer, but talk soon turns to the work we are all excited to do.

Good teachers are always thinking about what they do and constantly adjusting their practice in action during the school year. The start of the new year, though, is a time to start with all of those best ideas in place rather than in progress.

All over this country, late August means that teachers are staying up until the wee hours of the night to get their classroom “just right” for the kids or to put the finer polishes on that first week’s lessons, since we all know that how we begin sets the tone for the entire year. Lessons learned last year shape this year’s expertise; we know what worked, what didn’t, what we liked, and what worked for the students. Teaching is a constant process of culling and keeping, editing and revision. The story of last year is marked up with red ink, and when the buses arrive in these late days of August, we’re ready with our next clean draft of who we are as professionals, that carefully-selected special grading pen at the ready to begin revising ourselves all over again.

Enjoy starting over, fellow teachers, it is one of the best things about the job!

Challenging a Growth Mindset

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Alfie Kohn published a Salon opinion piece August 16th imploring educators (and others) to take a closer look at the current fad in education: Growth vs. Fixed mindset.

Carol Dweck’s research about the impact of growth versus fixed mindsets (with regard to children achieving their full potential) seemed to sweep quickly through the education landscape. There’s a lot of good in the idea: what we focus on in the learning process ought to focus on improving knowledge and skills rather than simply aiming for a specific score on an assessment. Dweck’s 2007 book, Mindset, perseverates on that point though examples and in my personal opinion, contains about seven really great pages that get to the core of the idea (you can skip the rest).

Kohn points out that the fundamental principles of the growth mindset focus aren’t inherently bad, but he offers this, which to me sums up everything (everything) about education reform, trends, and change:

Having spent a few decades watching one idea after another light up the night sky and then flame out — in the field of education and in the culture at large — I realize this pattern often has less to do with the original (promising) idea than with the way it has been oversimplified and poorly implemented. (Source)

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What a School Could Do with $100,000 a Day…

RETURNED COINS

Before morning recess on day two, the salaries and benefits for two experienced full-time teachers would be fully funded for the whole year.

That was my first thought when I read that the Washington State Supreme Court is fining the State of Washington $100,000 a day for failing to establish an acceptable plan to meet the 2018 deadline for fully funding schools. (Actual Court Order here.)

Since I’m in a financial position where a mere speeding ticket could put my family over the edge (and thus is enough motivation for me to ease up on the lead foot), the idea of a fine of $100,000 per day seems like it ought to inspire action. But will it? Continue reading

The scale is not in balance

The 2015-2016 school year marks my sixteenth year as a professional educator.  I’ve worked in Washington for thirteen years.  One of the draws that brought me to this state was the state salary allocation model (SAM).  As strange as that sounds, it’s absolutely true.  I taught in Illinois for three years at the second largest school district in the state.  My husband, a music teacher, taught for a company that brought in outsourced band/orchestra teachers to schools that couldn’t afford to hire their own music teacher.  We both became acutely aware of the disparity between the districts where we worked.  Because salary models are all locally negotiated and district funds are based on property taxes, property rich communities could afford to pay their teachers two to three times more than property poor districts.  The district that I worked in encompassed property rich and property poor communities, but the neighboring district housed multiple corporations and could afford to pay their teachers twice as much as the district where I worked. Districts could compete for teachers using salary as incentive.  As a result, my district saw a great deal of turnover; teachers, including one of my closest friends, became experienced in the low paying district and then moved to the higher paying districts when they had a few years under their belt. Although there were some veterans in my department, teachers who served as excellent stewards of pedagogy and their content, I was often asked when I was going to leave to move on for more pay at a neighboring district.  This mindset frustrated me.  When my district was $52,000,000 (yes, you’re reading that correctly) in the red, the solution was to cut teachers and I, like the other 1700 first, second, and third year teachers were RIFed (reduction in force).  Although I was offered my position back, I turned it down, looking to find employment in a state that created more equity.  So in the end, I left, too.

So for thirteen years, I’ve been in Washington and I don’t regret the decision to move, whatsoever.  However, I have stopped looking at the world of educational funding through rose colored glasses.  Equity doesn’t really exist, but there are attempts at it and the SAM is one attempt.  Negotiated TRI (Time, Responsibility, Incentive) pay and dollars for professional development and technology resources differ from district to district.  My husband teaches in a large district which can afford to offer TRI pay and substantial extra curricular contracts.  Some districts levy at higher percentages and others receive levy equalization.  There are districts that foot the entire cost of National Board Certification (my district is one of those) and others provide a free cohort (my district also does this).  So, back to my point—equity doesn’t really exist.  But our SAM does provide a foundation for our teachers. That foundation is solid. But maybe our state needs to reconsider adjusting the foundation a bit.

This legislative session has been noteworthy for several reasons.  Teachers have asked for the reinstatement of our COLA (cost of living allowance) and for pay increases.  While the legislators voted themselves a substantial pay raise, teachers received a 1.8% increase in pay and a 3% COLA for two years.  Does that make up for the 1.9% loss from a few years ago?  Frankly, I’m not so sure that I’m coming out ahead all that much, if at all.  Recent discussion as to whether the legislature will see the contempt charge dropped, also has me concerned.  I worry that the lawmakers will find victory and we won’t see increased dollars in our SAM or in a future COLA.   I’m disappointed.

But the SAM isn’t perfect and it doesn’t recognize veteran teachers who are continuing to improve their education.  Reality hit me about two weeks ago.  I’m on year sixteen and I’m almost at an MA+90.  I’ve officially topped out on the salary model.  I know that I should be thankful that I’ve got that extra degree plus additional credits.  Believe me, I am thankful.  I worked hard for the MA (Master of Arts) in History with a 135 page thesis to prove it.  On the other hand, I’m still working to get more education.  I’m really digging educational technology and I’ve attended several technology courses and once I hit that 90 credits mark (which is going to be in the next month) I don’t have anywhere else to go in order to earn more money.  I suppose I could coach a sport or advise a club to make more money.  I could do additional work outside of school, too.  But frankly, I wonder, why does the legislature stop providing pay increases once you hit 16 years of teaching?  Shouldn’t we want to keep veteran teachers teaching?  I keep reading articles from EdWeek and the Washington Post talking about a teacher shortage and problems with retention rates.  Maybe the place to start is at the logical first step—salary.  Let’s start recognizing veteran teachers and rewarding them for being leaders in their field.  I look at that salary schedule and feel stagnated in my income.  I wonder where my potential for income growth is at this point. What are my viable options?  I won’t avoid the cliché—I don’t teach for the income, I teach for the outcome.  However, the income does have to provide for my continuing education, mortgage, and my children’s college education.   While we could argue the merit system when it comes to teacher’s salaries and raises, under our current model, I have no where to go if I’d like to increase my income.  I’m 37 years old and I’ve topped out on the SAM.  I believe that I have the skills, the heart, the grit, and the knowledge to stay in the classroom for the next 20 years, but can I afford it?

Sadly,  I know other veteran teachers feel the same way.  Attrition in the field is on the rise.  There are myriad reasons for this and pay is a factor.  We’ve worked hard to advance our own education.  We’ve adapted, adjusted, and watched the pendulum swing in our field and we’re still in the classroom, demonstrating our grit because we love students and we want them to succeed.  But that success doesn’t always help to put dinner on the table or pay for our kids to take piano lessons.  In a field where the pressure to perform is already so high and the spotlight is always on, it might be good for state legislators to consider recognizing and rewarding the teachers who’ve decided to remain in the classroom to work with students.

 

TeachtoLead: Tacoma

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Something I like about teaching in my district is that I feel like there is a clear balance of expectations and autonomy for a classroom teacher. I know what my standards are, as well as what “curriculum” and anchor works of literature have been approved, but I also have the autonomy to design instruction that fits not only my students’ needs but also my own teaching style.

Stepping into teacher leadership often means stepping into a much grayer zone. There are usually some expected measurable outcomes, but there is much more (or at least more noticeable) reliance on my creativity, influence, and problem solving than I have experienced in my career in the classroom. In my classroom, when I’m stumped about how to best teach a standard for a particular novel or unit in my classroom, Google can help me find mountains of ideas from fellow teachers: throughout the country, it is a safe bet that dozens if not hundreds of teachers have taught the same content to similar kids, and I can sort through their work to design lessons that match my kids’ needs.

In my role as a teacher leader, there is not the same kind of easy-to-access banked expertise just yet. Finding philosophy around teacher leadership is a piece of cake; finding specific ideas in the “just tell me what I need to do!” moments is much tougher. Continue reading

How Will the NCLB Affect the Common Core?

ccss2By Tom White

The big news out of Washington DC is the long-delayed rewrite of the odious NCLB bill. The House and Senate have both passed their versions, which means it’s now time for them to reconcile and send something to the president. Either bill will dramatically change the Federal Government’s role in education policy in terms of accountability and testing. But what I’m most concerned with is the status of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), since both bills prohibit the Federal Government from imposing or even encouraging states to adopt the CCSS.

This represents a sea change. Continue reading

Washington 2015-17 Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Disappointing

8180-Olympia-Beer-Posters_largeBy Tom White

It looks like the lawmakers in Olympia have finally passed a budget. This came after a third special session, and it’s still not completely clear that they’re finished, since they haven’t decided how to handle the fact that they aren’t fully funding Initiative 1351. But let’s look at it anyway.

First the good: the budget spends an additional $47 million on Early Learning. Actually, I don’t even consider that “spending.” I call it investing. Whenever I visit my kindergarten-teacher friend (she keeps chocolate in her closet) she points out exactly which kids went to a decent preschool. They’re the ones who read and do math. The others are still learning their letters and numbers. Not surprisingly, when I get them as fourth graders, the differences are still apparent. Spending on early learning is incredibly important, and it pays off. Continue reading

Focusing on “Can’t” at the expense of “Can.”

Secretly studying animal physiology after bedtime.

Secretly studying animal physiology after bedtime.

On the drive home from school a few weeks ago, my middle son, at the time a first grader, said that from then on he wanted to be homeschooled.

My mind raced: Is he being bullied? Is he struggling to learn? What is happening that might make this otherwise happy kid want to be homeschooled?

As it turned out, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to go to his public school any more. He wanted to learn things that weren’t being taught in school: specifically, he was deeply curious about science. We came to the agreement that he’d keep going to regular school, but that we’d do some science experiments and learn some science at home.

This is the same boy who when I think about his education, it keeps me up at night. Not because I don’t trust his teachers or his school, but because I am concerned about what the coming years in school will look like for him.

This past year in my other job (teaching high school English to 12th graders) I had the opportunity to work with a young man who had spent his entire academic life with a label. Served by an IEP with all the best of intentions, this now-adult sat in his IEP meetings this year and articulated something that made my heart sink. He talked about how being part of the “IEP program” as he called it led him to assume that he was incapable of being successful. He described how he felt conditioned (his word, not mine) to wait for help because the message that he was not able to do it on his own and that he “needed help” was repeated loud and clear and often. Now possessing greater maturity, he was able to agree that everyone had the best intentions at heart, yet the collateral effect on him was that the “program” seemed to communicate to him that he was incapable. That became part of his identity. Rolled in with the other struggles he faced, a downward spiral ensued, and whether he would graduate from high school was in question almost to the very last minute. He did make it, though, and his reflections on his experience are shaping the way I think about my own son and what school can do for and to him.

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For English Language Learners, Intentional Collaboration is Key

Tamar Krames

Guest blogger Tamar Krames is a NBCT in English as a New Language, a certified GLAD trainer, and an ELL instructional coach currently working with OSPI. Prior to her work at OSPI, Tamar worked as a district GLAD trainer and coach, taught ELL classes and co-taught sheltered ELL content classes. 

I recently sat at a table in a windowless conference room with a 3rd grade team of teachers. As you might expect, the table was covered with grade-level ELA curriculum materials, open laptops, and copies of Common Core Standards. Far less common were the open and highlighted English Language Proficiency Standards (ELP), Tier 2 vocabulary lists, and the laminated pictures piled on the table. Two teachers were pulling up engaging image files related to an upcoming unit on their personal tablets and one was searching her phone for affixes and Latin roots to support their vocabulary mini-lesson. While the driving force of the co-planning session was ELA content and standards, addressing the profound language needs of their dynamic students was inspired. This is it, I thought, this is what best practice for ELLs looks like. These teachers were clearly committed to their craft and to their multilingual students. But what made that collaborative moment so powerful was the shared focus of the whole building to best meet the needs of their particular student body. The teachers had common understanding of second language acquisition and ELP standards because a team of teachers had requested ELL training for the whole staff. The planning session had the full support of the building’s leadership. Collaboration was not happening on the fly. It was intentional and deliberately supported.

As a traveling ELL instructional coach, I visit diverse school communities across WA State. The geographic context and demographic mix varies greatly. One school community is comprised of Spanish-speaking migrant families living in a small town surrounded by orchards and mountains. Another school has no clear ethnic majority, the students speaking 15 different languages in one urban classroom. Regardless of setting, I walk into my first building visits with one central question; What might best practice for ELLs look like in this unique school community? I ask this question to school leadership right off the bat.

More often than not, the answer to this question disappoints me. Consistently the first answer points to a single focal point. “ We are so lucky to have a wonderful ELL teacher named A” or “ We just purchased this amazing online language program called B”, or “ our ELL Para has attended a training called C!”. Clearly this singular view of best practice begs the question – What happens when A, B, or C leaves the building?

As far as I can tell, there is no right answer to this question of best practice for ELLs. The learning needs of multilingual students are complex and always changing. A linguistics professor once said to my class, “ if you remember one thing about second language acquisition, remember this – language acquisition is without fail developmental”. For teachers this means that the ELLs support structures (scaffolding) must change and flex as their students’ English proficiency and content mastery develops. On top of that, the rate at which ELLs develop proficiency and mastery varies drastically in relation to a seemingly endless set of factors (literacy in first language, status of first language in the dominant culture, educational background, poverty, learning disabilities, access to quality instruction…)

If you need further proof of the complex and ever-changing learning needs of ELLs, try navigating though the English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards (An amazingly thorough matrix that outlines language development by grade level in relation to common core standards). Best practice for ELLs is truly a moving target as students trudge through the stages of second language development and academic literacy at their own unique pace.

More than a “right” answer to this question of best practice for ELLs, what I hope to hear is a plural answer that points to shared ownership instead of pointing towards one program or person. Whatever the site-based vision for ELL support entails, it must involve intentional and ongoing collaborative structures. Collaborative structure is different from collaboration as it is proactive and systematic – it implies a deeper commitment than amazing content teacher, X, that collaborates with one-of-a-kind ELL specialist, Y. Intentional collaborative structures answer questions such as, How and when do counselors, administrators, content teachers and ELL specialists work together to best schedule ELLs according to their developing proficiency level? How and when do content teachers investigate and integrate ELP standards into their grade-level planning? If the ELL specialist is ‘pushing in’ to core instruction – how and when do teachers learn about, experiment with, and reflect on co-teaching models?

Ultimately, the goal of any ELL program model is to expedite the academic English language/ literacy development of multilingual students so that they can meet grade-level standards and breeze through any gatekeepers they encounter on their path towards earning a diploma. Supporting ELLs through the K-12 system is not about finding the right teacher, program, or PD session. It is about shared ownership and commitment to refining best-practice, uniquely designed for each community, together.

TamarArt

The above drawing is an original piece done by Tamar Krames.

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