Author Archives: Jan Kragen

About Jan Kragen

I'm a National Board Certified Teacher. I am also on the Executive Board of the Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG). I've been a teacher since 1977, in public and private schools, in third through eighth grades, in California, Colorado, New York, and Washington. In 1983 I started specializing in gifted education. I now work in North Kitsap, teaching a self-contained Highly-Capable 5th grade class. I also teach teachers. I've written science and social studies curriculum units for our district, resource books for teachers, and educational articles. I've presented at national and state science, social studies, and gifted conferences. And I've done in-service training, both within my district and as a consultant through other districts and my ESD. Many of the things I have written and many of the materials I have developed for my own classroom use are available for free off my website, kragen.net.

President’s Day

Today is president’s day, the day we celebrate Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday.

As it happens, I am currently reading Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. And, as it happens, today I read this excerpt from a letter he wrote on October 5, 1863:

“We are in civil war. In such cases there always is a main question; but in this case that question is a perplexing compound—Union and Slavery. It thus becomes a question not of two sides merely, but of at least four sides, even among those who are for the Union, saying nothing of those who are against it. Thus, those who are for the Union with, but not without slavery—those for it without but not with—those for it with or without, but prefer it with—and those for it with or without, but prefer it without. Among these again is a subdivision of those who are for gradual but not for immediate, and those who are for immediate, but not for gradual extinction of slavery.”

First of all, I marveled at his understanding of the complexity of the issue facing him and the nation, at the shades of loyalty to one cause or the other that he could parse out in a few phrases.

In those days people didn’t use bullets or charts. I put the ideas into slightly simpler language and into a diagram that I could use in my classroom.

But Lincoln didn’t stop there. He went on. “It is easy to conceive that all these shades of opinion, and even more, may be sincerely entertained by honest and truthful men.”

As I’ve been reading his biography I’ve been struck by how vilified Lincoln was while he was in office, not just by the South but by the North as well. We hear his name now and immediately think of the Lincoln Memorial. The Gettysburg Address. The national holiday. But while he was alive I think he felt he was fighting his own side almost as much as the Confederacy.

Instead of lashing out or complaining bitterly about all the groups opposing him, Lincoln makes this extraordinary statement. A wide range of opinions can be sincere. The people who have them can be honest and truthful even while they disagree.

That’s the best civics lesson I can bring back to school tomorrow.

Sometimes issues are complex.

People will disagree.

The ways they disagree may be complex too.

Even when people disagree with you, assume the best motives. Assume sincerity. Assume integrity. Carry on a conversation from there.

Thank you, Mr. Lincoln.

Funding Gifted Education

I am one of three teachers in my school who teach in a self-contained Highly Capable (HC) classroom. We have a common math period, and when math class starts it’s a moment or two of scramble. Some of my students go to Mrs. Taylor’s. Some of Mrs. Taylor’s and Mrs. Fairchild’s come to me. Some of mine go to computers in the hall to work independently.

The three of us share one hour of paraeducator time that we use during math wherever we deem we most need the help. This year our paraeducator is working with the younger students.

A couple weeks ago I met with our program director and mentioned that next year our paraeducator would have at least six students in seventh grade math. No worries—she has worked with a small group of advanced students in seventh grade math before, and she actually prefers that assignment.

My administrator told me not to count on having any paraeducator time next year.

Now I’ve taught in the HC program in our district since 1989. We’ve always had help for math. After all, we have three teachers working with students on levels from grade three to grade seven or eight. Having one extra adult makes the groups manageable.

But next year there might not be enough money to make that possible. For the first time ever.

Trust me, I’m concerned about state funding for Highly Capable programs.

Eight years ago only 49% of the districts in the state of Washington had any programs at all for their gifted students, their Highly Capable programs. In those districts that actually had programs, most provided services just for students in grades three to five. Why those grades? Most districts didn’t do the testing to identify students until the end of second grade, so schools didn’t start services until third grade. And most districts (or the secondary schools in the districts) felt they offered enough variety at the secondary level that they didn’t need HC services past fifth grade.

During the 2008-2009 school year the legislature passed the Basic Education Act, and everything changed for HC education in Washington. HB 2261 stated that “for highly capable students, access to accelerated learning and enhanced instruction is access to a basic education”—and it said “the program for highly capable students … shall be categorical funding” (HB 2261, page 63, lines 21-23, and page 64, lines 2-4).

The legislature decreed that having an appropriate HC education was Basic Education for HC students! And the funding for HC students was to be treated the same way as the funding for ELL and LAP students. Hallelujah! All roads were now smooth!

Of course, we all know what an unfunded mandate is. Welcome to the world of gifted education.

Running the programs for half the districts in the state, and just a handful of grade levels at that, cost $43,471,005 in 2008-2009. The state allocation that year—before Highly Capable was required—was   $8,367,000. That means the state paid 19.2% of the cost of HC education that year.

By last year, 2015-16, the state allocated $10,001,000. The funds for HC have gone up about 19.5% since 2000-2009. But, remember, the number of grades served has more than quadrupled. And the number of districts receiving funds has doubled. The state increase in HC funds is laughably low.

Districts have started solving the lack of state funding by identifying fewer HC students. What’s wrong with identifying fewer students? The insidious problem is, the students who are less likely to get identified are students from low income groups, minorities, ELL students, dual-identified or twice-exceptional students (gifted and another identification—think HC with a 504 or IEP). Narrowing the focus, limiting the pool, becomes an equity issue, an issue addressed last week at the Equity Summit on Gifted Equity at the Robinson Center at the University of Washington. And we are back to making HC education look like an elitist program.

Sigh.

Every proposal, from the governor, the House, and the Senate, offers some improvement in HC allocation. The question is, do any of the proposals actually fully fund the costs of HC in the st
ate?

Trust me, my students desperately need the help they get. Not just in math. They deserve materials appropriate for their level in every subject, just like any other special needs group. They require teachers who are trained to meet not only their academic but their unique social and emotional needs. And their number one need must be met on a regular basis—quality time with their intellectual peers.

The state requires districts to treat HC students like they matter. Now the state has to provide the money for their education.

Right to Strike

The education funding bill from the Washington Senate, SB 5607, includes a section prohibiting teacher strikes.

When I heard about this provision, my first question was, “What does the right to strike have to do with an education budget?”

The answer, of course, is nothing. Look at the League of Education Voters’ comparison chart of four funding proposals side-by-side: the current state education funding levels, Governor Inslee’s Education Funding Proposal, the Majority Coalition Caucus Education Funding Proposal (SB 5607), and the House Democrat Education Funding Proposal (HB 1843). There is no mention of right to strike in any of the other proposals. That’s because having the right to strike has nothing to do with funding.

So I double checked. Was this Senate bill actually a funding bill? Of course it was. Up at the top of the bill, it says it was “referred to the Committee on Ways and Means.” It’s a bona fide budget bill.

Some senators decided that—on the way to rewriting how to fund education—they would also add this change in how teachers can protect themselves.

Take a minute to read the text of this section.

PART XI 2 PROHIBITING TEACHER STRIKES

NEW SECTION. Sec. 1101. The legislature finds that, like other state and local public employees, educational employees do not have a legally protected right to strike. No such right existed at common law, and none has been granted by statute. The legislature further finds, as have numerous trial court decisions and the Washington state attorney general in AGO 2006 No. 3, that any argument that a right to strike is implied by the absence of a provision in chapter 10 41.59 RCW is wrong. The legislature intends to provide greater clarity to parents and school districts by prohibiting strikes, work stoppages, or work slowdowns or other refusal to perform official duties.

NEW SECTION. Sec. 1102. A new section is added to chapter 41.59 RCW to read as follows:

Nothing contained in this chapter permits or grants any educational employee

  • the right to strike,
  • participate in work stoppages or work slowdowns,
  • or to otherwise refuse to perform his or her official duties.

(Highlighting and bullets are mine).

I don’t know about you, but when I read this section, my heart just stopped.

Right now I am in the middle of teaching about colonial America to my class of fifth graders. We talk about indentured servants who came to America. They paid for their passage by working for their masters for seven years. Essentially, for those seven years, they were the equivalent of slaves. They had no rights. If they were lucky, they had a good master. If they were unlucky, they didn’t. But they had no recourse. They were stuck for those seven years.

No right to strike? No work to contract? (That would definitely count as a work slowdown!) No saying no to evening work or early morning or after school meetings? (A principal could call those “official duties.”)

No effective way to make our voices heard?

I read that Senate bill passage and immediately felt like an indentured servant. Like I had traveled back in time to the 1600s.

No, thank you!

I find it interesting that the senators who wrote this bill said their intention in including this section was to “provide greater clarity to parents and school districts.” They act as if teachers’ strikes cause the greatest problems for parents and districts.

True, parents have it hard when teachers go on strike. Their children aren’t in school. They have to arrange childcare. I’ve been amazed, though, at the level of support many parents give striking teachers—perhaps because they know best what the teachers are doing in the classrooms with and for their children.

If the teachers are striking against their districts, I am sure their districts are deeply unhappy. But I guarantee the teachers are deeply unhappy too. Teachers don’t go on strike lightly. Whenever I read about districts out on strike, I think about how much time those teachers must have spent working through every other option to come to an agreement. I think about how they have struggled through other procedures, without success, to arrive at the difficult and taxing step of striking.

I don’t buy the legislature’s sly claim, though. My district has participated in two “strike” events in the 28 years I’ve lived in Washington. Neither time was our action aimed at our district.

Both times we protested against the legislature.

By the way, both times we walked out for a one-day strike, we had the support, not just of the parents in our district, but of our administration as well. After all, our district administrators were just as upset with the legislature as the teachers were!

I think the senators added this section to their budget to protect themselves! They are threatened by the media coverage when masses of teachers show up on the Capitol steps.

I say we need to keep showing up until we get the issues resolved. Because that’s our JOB. We are, after all, educators. We have an obligation to educate, not just the students in our classroom, but the adults who impact them. The school board. The public.

The legislature.

Because I went back to read the beginning of the Senate bill, I discovered this opening line: “GOAL. The goal of this act is to improve the educational outcomes for all students.”

That’s a great goal! We promise to stand right there next to you, senators, holding your feet to the fire, making sure you live up to that commitment.

Having a Voice

I didn’t want to get up at 6 am on Saturday.

I didn’t want to catch a 7:05 ferry.

I didn’t want to get turned around in the dark and rain and end up going north on I-5. Then spend 20 minutes wandering around downtown Seattle trying to find my way to south I-5.

Sputter, sputter, sputter.

But, oh, NBCT teachers, if you ever receive an email invitation to an NBCT Policy Summit and wonder if you should consider going, I am here to tell you—it was definitely worth it.

After we all went through check-in and ate breakfast and had a chance to mingle, the morning panel greeted us. There were five people on the panel but three in particular stuck out to me, probably because they represented the three organizations that sponsored the summit:

The general message? Speak up. Stand up. Be heard. Make an impact.

But the specific message that reverberated back and forth from one panel member to the next was that teachers need to find their passion and focus on that passion.

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

Policy Summit Mural by Taryl Hansen

I immediately took that message to heart. As soon as we were dismissed to mid morning snack time, I introduced myself to Gil Mendoza. I gave told him I’m on the Executive Board for WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted). He replied enthusiastically about what a great organization it is and how lucky we are to have it in our state. I gave him my card and said, “If you ever need someone with a background in gifted to serve on a committee please keep me in mind.” He grinned—he’d just talked about how OSPI looks for teachers willing to serve on committees. Now he had a volunteer! He handed me his card and asked me to contact him again by email.

I’ve been teaching gifted in this state since 1989, and I’ve been on the board of WAETAG since 2008. But being in the room at the Policy Summit gave me a different level of access than I’d ever experienced before.

Breakout sessions met before and after lunch. Participants met in groups of about eight to discuss one of two issues:

  • A—Second Tier Licensure (Professional Certificate) or
  • B—National Board Incentive Structure

At our table in one of the B groups we started with the fact that we love having a bonus and, for those who get it, love having the extra bonus for challenging schools. What we don’t like is that fact that any bonus is a line item. It’s too easy to delete from the budget. For a long time those were our biggest discussion points.

Then I spoke up. I’d come to the Policy Summit with a slightly different point to make. As I told my table, I’ve been teaching for 38 years, and I’m not ready to stop. I hit 16 years’ experience a long, long time ago. I earned my MA in 1982 and I hit my 90 units beyond an MA when I was in my 50s and a long way from retirement.

The ONLY way for me to get any additional money was to become National Board Certified. So I got my NBCT in 2012. I plan to keep teaching until my certificate expires in 2022.

Having a salary schedule plateau early means veteran teachers can’t keep up with the rising cost of living, especially health costs.

So I suggested it would be beneficial to have some kind of step system that allows for longevity. For example, what if we got a bonus for the initial NBCT and an additional bonus at each renewal?

That led to a long examination of my idea. People brought up snags I hadn’t foreseen. They improved the original suggestion by adding a requirement that teachers who get the extra bonus demonstrate leadership—which spawned another tangle of questions. Who defines leadership? How many hours a year? How would the extra work be documented? How would OSPI track the paperwork? We even tossed around ideas for how much of a bonus although finally most of the questions were labelled TBD.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we not only kept my idea on our list of five “high leverage” ideas to submit to the group at large.  In a surprise move, the members of my group voted my suggestion as the number one on the list because it

  • encouraged teachers to pursue NBCT sooner rather than later
  • encouraged teachers to take on leadership roles after completing their NBCT
  • encouraged professional growth, not just professional development

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Then came the mid afternoon snack. (Nasue warned me that her goal was to have each of us gain five pounds before the day was over!)

Our last keynote address came from Peggy Brookins, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She spoke eloquently about those who surreptitiously do things for teachers but without teachers—for example, people who write education laws without bringing teachers to the table. Once again, she encouraged us to make our voices heard.

I came to the Policy Summit wanting to be heard. I hoped my peers would listen and understand and maybe empathize with the salary concerns of older teachers.

I left feeling empowered.

So think about coming yourself next time. And meanwhile, think about your passion and the difference you can make.

 

The Way We Work

At this particular moment in American history I am fiercely proud to be a teacher.

Why?

Because every single day in my classroom we actively practice cooperative and interpersonal skills as part of our regular routine.

This year we started with listing attributes of Teamwork and displaying them in the front of the room. Every day groups self-assessed their own efforts toward the effective use of teamwork skills; they gained points for good teamwork.

Now we are working on using Active Listening skills with group members. I picked this skill because after the last unit I had students fill out a reflection sheet to let me know where they thought they did well and where they needed to do better. Listening better was the clear winner in the “needs to improve” category!

Over the course of the year I will pick other skills to emphasize including, for example:

  • empathy
  • respect
  • compromise
  • focused attention
  • encouragement
  • cooperation
  • collaboration
  • having a positive attitude
  • being willing to “share the air”

Earlier this week my students built remote operated vehicles (ROVs) to use later at a field trip to the Keyport Undersea Museum. At one point I realized a student was in the hall by himself, sitting crumpled on a chair. I went out to talk to him and discovered he was crying. I couldn’t get him to tell me why. Suddenly one of his teammates appeared and enfolded him, comforting him. Another arrived almost immediately and started to explain, “Wait, don’t feel bad! We liked your design. It was just too big to go through the diamond [an obstacle the museum sets up as part of the problem]. But we still used your design. We just shrunk it up!”

The b20161110_140428oy was still crushed. He had every reason to be. He had toiled long and hard cutting all the PVC pipe pieces for the original design—and for a small kid, it was laborious work. Clearly, he felt like all his effort was for nothing.

By now his entire team was in the hall, all gathered around him, encouraging him. They talked about how great his design was. They talked about how they now needed a cool name for their ROV.

I left them alone, stepped back into the classroom, and watched them all still out in the hall.

They stayed with him for 15 minutes or more. They did not come back and work on their project until he was ready to come back and work with them.

That’s why I do what I do.

Yes, I teach reading and writing and math and science (obviously very cool science) and social studies (and cool social studies too). Art. Public speaking. The things that get grades on the report card.

But first of all, I teach civilization.

The reason public schools exist is so our country has an informed electorate. That’s why we teach history and civics and how to examine multiples sides of issues.

(That’s why one of my exit slips might be “Who—besides you—had the best idea in the discussion today? What was it?” or “Who changed your mind today? Why?”)

At a time when civilization—civil discourse, civility, civilized behavior—seems to be unraveling, when trash talk radio and “reality” television teach that the way to win is to be the loudest, the most obnoxious, the most aggressive and rude, I will stand in the doorway of my classroom and put my hand up and say, “No.” Not in my classroom.

In my classroom we give everyone a chance to speak.

In my classroom we listen to each other.

In my classroom compromise is not a dirty word.

In my classroom we do respect.

In my classroom we work together.

Is My Job At-Risk?

If you look at the trends in education these days, it’s hard to believe that public schools will continue to need professional teachers in the future.

First of all, there’s the movement toward scripted curriculum. Not only is the content provided, but the exact lessons are dictated in excruciating detail: here is the question to ask and the kind of answers you can expect, here is where you should pause and for how long, here is the activity to do and the results you should expect to see.

Of course every scripted curriculum demands that you present it with fidelity. That’s become one of my least favorite words.

All of this is driven, of course by the research-based education movement. Someone did research somewhere to demonstrate the effectiveness of this particular curriculum program but ONLY if it is done the exact same way as it was done in the research test. If you, the lowly teacher in the classroom, do it a slightly different way, then all bets are off. There is no guarantee that your presentation will be “research-based.” And we can’t have that.

So who needs the lowly teacher? All we need is someone who can read. And follow directions. And smile for the camera. Because really all we need in front of the classroom is a talking head, just reading off a prompter.

That’s nonsense.

When I first got my teaching credential, I spent a semester substituting. I sat in smoke-filled teacher lunchrooms and listened to veteran teachers complain about Sesame Street. “That show has kids expecting to be entertained!”

I didn’t say anything. I was brand new, and a substitute. But I thought, “If you were sitting in a room for six hours, wouldn’t you want to be entertained? If there wasn’t something going on that was interesting and exciting and engaging and fun, wouldn’t you—as an adult—raise Cain? Riot? Walk out? Complain to the board? So how can you expect more from kids?”

I decided early on that teaching wasn’t just a skill to learn. It was also a performance art. I needed to pay attention to my audience, to read their reactions and be responsive to them.

That attitude makes following a scripted curriculum remarkably difficult. I ask the first question and get all kinds of answers. If I wait a moment, I get more. With a longer pause, I can usually tease out even more.  The answers I get usually include the ones the curriculum says I can expect, but I may have other interesting ideas to pursue. At this point I haven’t even gotten past step one and I’m already apt to go off into divergent thinking with my group.

Telling me how long to pause? At times I have followed the directions and watched the class’s attention drift. So I cut the pause short. That seems obvious to me, that I would use my judgment. Sometimes I can give a longer pause, sometimes shorter. It won’t be the same from one year to the next. It depends on the students, the day, and even the time of day.

I will give every curriculum activity a try. But I’ve started an activity and had it clearly not be suitable in my classroom with my particular students. I make sure I have alternative activities on hand that I can pull out as needed. I’ve taught gifted classes since 1983, so I am used to having to supply differentiated curriculum for my students.

Now, of course, if I pull out alternate activities, that means I’m going off-script and not teaching the curriculum with fidelity.

True. I’m just doing a better, more appropriate job. After all, meeting the needs of my students is more important than reading every word in the script.

Second, there’s the movement toward online education. Two of my fifth grade students are taking high school algebra this year through PEAK online. You can find everything from Khan Academy to MIT Open Courseware on your computer. Washington state offers a variety of digital learning opportunities for our students. (You can go to the teacher resources page on my web site and scroll down to the links section for even more.)

If students can learn everything on their computers, won’t they just stay home in the future and do all their studies online?

Well, first you have to read Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Fun They Had.”

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The check out a research brief  by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The study compared the effects of an online Algebra I makeup course to a typical classroom course. The researchers found that the students performed better in the standard in-person course. Students who took the course online rated the course as harder and indicated more negative attitudes about math after taking the course.

My two guys are doing fine in their online course. Of course, they adore math, they live and breathe math, and they are already extremely skilled in math. They represent a very small slice of humanity. And they are taking sitting side by side the online class together so they aren’t working at a computer alone. I hear them giggling conspiratorially occasionally.

Why is it that the students in the study did better in a typical classroom than taking an online course?

I can tell you that as a general rule my students need me because I pay attention to them. I respond to them. I adjust my instruction to meet their needs on a moment-by-moment basis.

So take that, scripted curriculum. Take that, online curriculum.

You’re not taking my job away from me any time soon.

 

 

Professional Development—The Long View

I’ve reached the point in my career where people have started to ask me, “And when are you going to retire, Jan?” After all, a lot of my friends and contemporaries have quit teaching. What am I still doing here?

I see the shiny new teachers, just out of the box, full of energy and enthusiasm. I must look so old to them. (“But wait! Inside I am still shiny!”) They are up to date on all the latest instructional strategies and educational jargon. They are ready to take on the world. (“Me too! I still want to take on the world!”)

I remember my initial certification program at San Jose State in the (gulp) 1970s and my earliest professional development classes. My career began in the days of Assertive Discipline and Madeline Hunter. I can’t begin to recount all the different permutations of trainings I have been through since then to improve my teaching skills and classroom management. Just in the last few years it’s included extensive GLAD training and PBIS training.

From my perspective here’s what I can say about all of them. They were all introduced with great fanfare as a sweeping solution for the whole school or district. They all had positive aspects. They were all eventually superseded by the Next Big Thing.

Here’s my take-away. I eagerly adopt the best of each program and incorporate it into my practice. (Notice, I carefully make professional decisions about what works best in my particular classroom culture.)  I am totally willing to work with the school or the district on whatever system they adopt for as long as they want to use it. And then I wait. Because I know the Next Big Thing is bound to come along eventually.

In the meantime, if I find a better Next Big Thing, I promote it to my admin.

Does that make me jaded? I don’t think so. I continue to learn from each new training, I keep adding to my tool kit, and I keep looking for even better new options.

Meanwhile, I synthesize what I’ve learned from multiple trainings over the years. For instance, GLAD wants to have the walls “dripping with language.” But I learned early in my career that having a lot of visual clutter on the walls badly distracts ADD/ADHD kids. It makes it hard for them to focus. So, for example, instead of keeping my Cognitive Content Dictionary on huge swathes of butcher paper on the walls, I write the information on the white board and erase it when I’m done. Meanwhile, I require my students to copy all the day’s dictionary information off the whiteboard into a composition book that they keep in their desks. An added bonus is that they have access to their vocabulary words all year! I’ve modified other GLAD strategies too, so I can use them and still keep my walls pretty clean. People walk into my room and comment on how calm and organized everything looks. I believe my room helps my students be calm and organized too.

All that training, all that synthesizing, all that experience pays off over time.

The research says so.

The Learning Policy Institute recently published a review of research into teacher effectiveness as teachers become more experienced. They said that as teachers gain years of experience, you can expect to see positive gains in student achievement. What was interesting for me to learn was that, while the steepest gain was in the first few years of a teacher’s career, the gains “continue to be significant as teachers reach the second, and often third, decades of their careers.” Not only did students do better on standardized tests with more experienced teachers, but they had other positive outcomes, like fewer absences.

Besides supporting increased student learning in their own classrooms, experienced teachers also help support greater student learning for other teachers in the school. They benefit the school as a whole.

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Of course they do. This last year I met with multiple brand-new and fairly-new teachers to help them with multiple issues from technology questions to classroom management to how to deal with parent issues to how to craft a particular lesson. Most of those meetings weren’t formal. A lot of them started in the hall or workroom. Individuals shared a problem, I offered help, and they accepted, or they approached me and asked for help. At the end of the year, I got thank you notes, but not for any specific problem-solving. For the hugs and smiles and sense of support I offered.

Hm. Maybe I have good reasons to stick around.

 

Best Teachers Ever

The first teacher I really remember was Mrs. Hester. She was absolutely rigorous, absolutely strict, and one of the most fun teachers I ever had. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. She was the first person who inspired me to be a teacher. I think I’m still channeling her.

The thing is, I was super lucky. I had multiple memorable teachers.

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Mrs. Garland in sixth grade not only taught me math but she read the most incredibly vivid stories, stories I still remember. Mr. Spivey in seventh grade made grammar and writing both comprehensible and fun. Besides teaching us how to speak Spanish, Sr. Isidro Jesus Maytorena y Robinson shared with us what it was like to grow up in rural Mexico. Our junior high librarian took us to the Stanford library and let us tour the rare book section.

Then came high school. Mr. Meredith and Mr. Rigley demanded higher and higher levels of writing. (When I got to college I tested out of most of the required composition classes because of what they taught me.) Mr. Bradburn taught my whole sophomore English class how to speak in public without fear. An amazing feat! Mr. Barley and the other geometry teachers team-taught a fluid set of three classes we could move up and down within; meanwhile the teachers wrote their own geometry textbook. M. Keplinger had us speaking French from the first day of school. Miss Allshouse ran the Model UN and the Asian History Club and let us make dinner at her house. Mr. Viera would NOT let me leave the room until I understood each day’s physics lesson.

Sir Isaac Newton said he saw further as a scientist because he stood on the shoulders of giants. I feel like I had a similar experience. I am a better teacher because I grew up in the classrooms of giants.

As I start school next week, I won’t begin the year alone. I will be accompanied by all the great teachers who laid the foundation for my own education.

Now seems like an ideal time to remember and thank them.

The Ponytailed Principal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fully Funding College Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including my students who really want to go to college.