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.

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.

Teaching More than Academics—Much More

From the time I started specializing in gifted students in the mid-1980s, I also began studying their special needs. I realized that if I was going to teach them well, I must do more than meet their intellectual and academic needs. I had to address their myriad social and emotional needs as well.

I can tell you, there are times when I feel as if fully half my job involves meeting my students’ social and emotional issues needs.

Years ago I taught in a pull-out program. There was a fourth grade girl I’ll call Kristy who became infamous in the school after she threw a desk at the principal. She entered my program in the fifth grade and spent the first several months hiding under desks and tables whenever she came to my room. The first time Kristy presented a project in my class—in front of students and parents—she spoke for a few minutes then stopped and said, “That’s all I have. I didn’t do any more. It’s my own fault. I’m sorry.” And she sat down. Once everyone left the room her mom and I danced around the room together because she had accepted responsibility for her own actions.

In order to teach Kristy any academics, I first had to understand what was causing her to misbehave so badly. I had to understand the social and emotional issues that went hand in hand with her incredibly advanced intellect. I had to address those social and emotional needs before I could address her academic needs.

And, at the time I was teaching her, I had to do it with almost no training in the social and emotional needs of gifted.

Over the last couple of years, it sounds like other teachers in my school are starting to feel the same way about their jobs, as if half their jobs have to do with meeting social and emotional needs instead of academic needs. Our school’s professional development this year hasn’t been about math and reading strategies. It’s been about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS).

What does the phrase “adverse childhood experiences” mean? It refers to all the bad things that can happen to children, all the traumas that can have lasting negative effects, all the ordeals that can impact a child’s long-term health and long-term well-being. In the United States the most common ACEs would include parents getting a divorce, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, or having a parent incarcerated.

It seems that the divorce rate in the US has actually started to decline from its high during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Childhelp.org and the American Humane Organization have a wealth of statistics on child abuse and neglect. Data indicates an increase in abuse and neglect. The number of Americans in jail or in prison has exploded since 1990. Prisons are a growth industry in the US!

According to our ACEs trainers, children who grow up in highly stressful and traumatic situations can get stuck in almost a permanent “fight or flight” response. So when they come to school, they aren’t ready to sit quietly, to work in groups, to learn how to read or do math. If a teacher insists that they perform those tasks, they are likely to react with frustration, anger, or violence. Unfortunately, a discipline system that has always worked in the past might not work anymore.

Instead of asking, “What is wrong with this child?” sometimes we need to ask, “What happened to this child?”

Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS) is a school-wide tiered behavior-management system based on the Response to Intervention (RTI) model for academics. Tier I behaviors are handled in the classroom by the teachers, Tier II behaviors might need a buddy classroom or other intervention, and Tier III go to the office. There is a lot of positive reinforcement built into the system along with common language and common expectations.

You might remember Greg from my post in October. Not surprisingly, it turns out he’s an ACEs kid. He’s gone through more traumas in his eight years than I have in in my 63! He’s still difficult to handle in the classroom. But every time I see him now, I get a hug. And if I hear him starting to spin out of control in his classroom—especially if I know there is a guest teacher in there—I poke my head in and say, “Hey, Greg, want to come visit me for a bit?” He’ll come lounge on my couch for a while until he’s calmed down. It works for everyone.

We are classroom teachers. None of us trained to be counselors or social workers. A lot of things we are doing in the classroom now used to be the purview of other professionals. We are stretching our job description to do far more than teach the Common Core, and it’s daunting.

We need pre-service training and/or professional development to prepare us for the ways our job requirements are being extended. This year our school offered about three hours training on ACEs and a couple of days on PBIS. As a point of comparison, I’ve spent years taking courses on meeting the social and emotional needs of gifted students, and I’ll continue to take those courses until I retire.

We need high-quality parent support groups and community outreach. For ACEs, that support needs to start with pre-natal care and neo-natal care and then parenting classes—all of which should be offered for free for high-risk parents. (Just to reassure taxpayers, the public health costs alone of kids growing up with ACEs are much higher than the costs of the care or classes would ever be.) Again, as a comparison, I know I can direct parents to Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted at sengifted.org.

And wouldn’t it be nice to have administrative and legislative support that acknowledges how much more complex and difficult our jobs are becoming?

The Neglected PD

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

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

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

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

She said, “Of course!”

We hugged, and she left smiling.

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

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

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

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

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

I said no. I must have looked surprised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The X Files and More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bachelor-s-Degrees-Starting-Salary

  • benefits
  • working conditions
  • job satisfaction

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

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

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

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

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

Gifted Isn’t Good

There, I’ve said it. The startling. The scandalous. Or maybe just the incomprehensible. But gifted isn’t good. It isn’t bad either. “Gifted” isn’t a value statement.

Gifted education is not a privilege or a prize. It is not an elite club.

Believe it or not, “gifted” is not a label to aspire to.

Changing the mindset of the public on this issue is difficult. I worked in a district years ago where I not only tested students for the gifted program, but I contacted the parents with the results of the testing. At first I followed the district protocol of mailing letters home, but I got so many questioning phone calls and unhappy letters I finally decided it was more efficient just to call every parent to talk them through the results before mailing the official results.

“Mrs. Brown, your daughter’s scores were really great,” I’d say and read the scores to her. “But she didn’t make it into the gifted program.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.” I could feel her disappointment.

“Well, tell me about your daughter. Does she like school?”

“Yes.”

“Does she get along with her peers? Her teacher? Does she do well? Get good grades?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Then, Mrs. Brown, thank God. You have a bright child. They are so much easier to raise than a gifted child! For a gifted child, very often the answers to those questions is no.”

I don’t notify parents any more, but I still encounter parents who crave the label. The trouble is, if parents’ aspirations exceed their children’s capabilities, it can harm the children academically, according to the American Psychological Association. Encouraging children to do well is helpful, but pushing too hard is counterproductive. It’s a fine balance, and it’s sometimes hard to strike that balance. In conferences, I sometimes need to counsel parents gently that their child is swimming as hard as they can, but they can’t keep their head above the water. A gifted program is not for everyone.

On the other hand, a general education program is not for everyone either.

Imagine observing a swimming program one summer. Some children test into guppies, some into minnows, some into fish. As soon as they master the skills at one level, the students move to the next. They can advance rapidly or take their time moving through classes over the course of the summer.

School is another matter entirely. In September we take five-year-olds and put them in the same classroom, no matter their skill level. And we keep them in the same room all year, no matter how quickly they advance through learning their skills. We have students in classes where most of their classmates are, so to speak, learning to hold their faces under water and blow bubbles while they should be perfecting their strokes as they swim laps—in the deep pool. Some of them should be diving and thinking of training for the Olympics!

I have an obligation to go diving regularly with my students. Last week’s fifth grade Time for Kids suggested debating whether or not sugary drinks should be taxed. Instead my students debated life-extensionism. Some thought the search for immortality a great idea, but one boy demurred. “Every day of your life now has value because it’s a fraction of your whole life. But if your whole life is forever, then each day is a fraction of that, and its value is nothing.” I’m not sure they’re considering that argument at MIT!

One thing I really appreciate about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that it talks about identifying “students with specific learning needs, particularly

  • children with disabilities,
  • English learners,
  • students who are gifted and talented, and
  • students with low literacy levels” (page 328, bullets mine).

Notice how the ESSA considers gifted students to be “students with specific learning needs” and it groups gifted students with children with disabilities, children who are learning English, and children who are having difficulty learning to read. In another section it again lists gifted students with children with disabilities and English learners (page 336, lines 6-12).

I am so pleased with this level of understanding on the part of the legislators who wrote this law. Gifted students are one group among many with “specific learning needs”—different educational needs.

I would love it if I could help people shift their mental construct. No more imagining a vertical framework with gifted education being at the top or the best or only for the elite. Instead picture a horizontal framework. Ask yourself, how far are students from the center, from the middle, from the norm? The students at both extremes are exceptional students who need a qualitatively different education.

So gifted students aren’t good/better/best. They’re needy/needier/neediest. And for those who do need it, gifted education is a necessity—a necessity designed to meet the unique educational needs of an outlier group.

ESSA and Gifted Education

For my entire career in education—and I started teaching in 1977—the federal government limited its involvement in gifted education to Javits grants, investing millions of dollars over the decades in scientifically-based research into gifted education.

Javits grants have not gone away. But the federal government has finally moved beyond Javits grants in addressing the needs of gifted students in America. I am thrilled that directives regarding gifted and talented students are peppered throughout the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The overarching goal of the ESSA is “to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education.” The law requires that “each local educational agency will monitor students’ progress in meeting the challenging State academic standards by … developing and implementing a well-rounded program of instruction to meet the academic needs of all students” (page 134, lines 10-22, emphasis mine).

In the past, states and districts reported data for students performing at the proficient level and below. Now they must also provide data for students performing at advanced levels. That PLC question 4 might look a lot more important to school and district administrators when the high scores are disaggregated out!

The feds know their requirements are going to cost money, so for the first time they say districts (“local educational agencies”) may use Title I funds to “assist schools in identifying and serving gifted and talented students” (page 138, lines 17-18, emphasis mine). One huge impact that funding could have is allowing districts to employ universal screening for gifted and talented programs, which we do at my district in second grade and which can help overcome the “gifted gap” among racial groups (see article).

Districts applying for Title II professional development funds must supply “a description of how the State educational agency will improve the skills of teachers, principals, or other school leaders in order to enable them

  • to identify students with specific learning needs, particularly children with disabilities, English learners, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels, and
  • provide instruction based on the needs of such students” (page 328, lines 9-17, bullets mine).

In that professional development, districts are to provide “training to support the identification of students who are gifted and talented, including high-ability students who have not been formally identified for gifted education services, and implementing instructional practices that support the education of such students, such as:

  • early entrance to kindergarten;
  • enrichment, acceleration, and curriculum compacting activities; and
  • dual or concurrent enrollment programs in secondary school and postsecondary education” (page 343, lines 1-13).

Let’s look at the kinds of practices the feds recommend, starting with early entrance. At a Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG) conference years ago, I met a parent who came to get advice about her four-year-old son. He was auditing courses at the university where her husband was a professor. She said she didn’t want to enroll him and make him a media sensation, but those classes were the only places where he got his intellectual needs met.

I asked where they lived and told her they might want to consider moving since there were about five schools in the country with elementary programs for the severely and profoundly gifted. She said if those schools existed, then moving made sense. “After all, his little brother? He’s even smarter.”

Some students need to start school before five years old.

When you think of enrichment activities, don’t be limited by suggestions in trade books. Gifted students crave novelty—they find learning brand new information and skills exciting. My lesson comparing causes of World Wars 1 and 2 went well over an hour, and when I finally put a stop to it, my students objected vehemently. “No!” they howled. “Don’t stop! Keep going!” Why? Depth and richness of information. The students were building connections. I was helping them make sense of the world.

There is more research in the literature supporting acceleration than any other intervention for gifted. My student who is currently triple-accelerated in math (my fourth grader in seventh grade math) is one of the best students in his math group. He could probably move up another grade level, but then he’d be working on his own, and his mom and I decided we’d keep him in this group this year. He’s happy there.

Curriculum compacting has been around for decades. My high school teachers did it in the 1960s. My sophomore year advanced placement English teacher gave our class the end-of-the-year exam at the beginning of the year. After he graded it, he told us, “You know most of the stuff on the test except you are shaky on punctuation, and you really don’t understand commas.” So we spent a month learning punctuation. Three weeks of that was commas. At the end of September we took the test again and did fine. Then we had the rest of the year to do the actual work of the class—learning public speaking. It’s a time-tested idea, which is probably why it’s on the list of recommended practices.

As for dual or concurrent enrollment programs, we do well. In Washington we have both AP and Running Start. But, in my humble opinion, we ought to be open, in a similar way, to students taking a three-year middle school program in two years. Or taking middle school and high school classes at the same time. Those options would certainly be allowed, and I think encouraged, under the ESSA.

The Javits grants studied gifted students for generations and decided that gifted students can be identified, they have educational needs, and that those needs can be met through several well-documented strategies. Now the ESSA is saying, “Go meet those needs. Here are some excellent ways to do it. And you can use federal money to help!” If your district needs help finding Highly Capable professional development specialists, go to the WAETAG site.