Author Archives: Lynne Olmos

National Boards: Let Me Tell You Why

Washington State just welcomed 1,434 new National Board Certified Teachers. That makes 10,135 statewide. The popularity and support of National Board Certification indicates an emphasis on quality education for the students of our state. We are fortunate to have support at a level that teachers in other states can only imagine.

Suddenly, all around me, teachers are taking notice and asking about National Boards. What is it like? Should they do it? Is it worth it?

Good questions. I think I have some answers.

I am a National Board Certified Teacher. And that matters. Now let me tell you why.

NBCTs demonstrate a new levels of dedication to their students. Certainly, I was thoroughly dedicated before I certified, as are the majority of teachers. I was the sort of teacher that was always looking for ways to improve my practice. I wanted to be the teacher my students deserved. And I was willing to work for it. This is just the sort of teacher that decides to pursue certification.

It takes a certain work ethic to pursue certification, but the extra work is worth it if students benefit. When it’s all said and done, certification is a badge of honor, proof of dedication.

NBCTs take increasing pride in their work. And yet there is a certain humility that we cultivate as well. We know that everything we do is grounded in our knowledge of our students and their needs.

I was the first in my small, rural district to certify. Hardly anyone seemed to notice at the time. Despite that, I was overflowing with pride in my achievement and a new level of confidence.

That newfound confidence led me to do something bold on that very day. I was looking for my name on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards website. I just wanted to make sure it was there, that I really was an NBCT. An announcement on the webpage caught my eye. The NBPTS was looking for applicants for its English Language Arts Standards Committee.

I had just certified…just that day. But did that keep me from filling out an application? No, it did not. And, by some miracle, I ended up on that committee.

With the NBPTS ELA Standards Committee, I had the experience of working with passionate and talented educators from around the country, creating standards that made us all very proud. The experience left me with a weird mixture of humble gratitude and elevated confidence in my abilities.

My certificate- A student’s reflection is visible, if you look closely. It has a place of honor in my classroom, as a reminder to keep my students at the forefront of my practice.

For many NBCTs, the journey doesn’t end at certification. NBCTs don’t retreat from the work. They know that we have to continue growing and improving as professionals, just as we want our students to grow and improve.

My professional journey has made me a much better learner alongside my students. I have learned to adjust on the fly, and to tweak activities and instructional tools to work for individuals, small groups, and whole classes. And, most of all, I know that we are all works in progress. My students and myself, we have a lot of growing to do. My NBCT journey gave me the confidence to always be in the middle of it, never just coasting on what I have always done before.

NBCTs develop the courage to look back and ask hard questions about their practice. We know what it is like to be judged by our peers, and, as unnerving as it is, the growth we achieve through the process propels us, perpetually looking back in order to move forward. The NBCTs I talk to always say that the certification process forces them to increase their ability to reflect and seek feedback. There is always something that can improve.

If you are trying something new, if you are pushing yourself to improve, you will find yourself in uncomfortable territory, where failure is possible. Not everyone is up to this, but NBCTs are ready to reflect and to adjust their practice as needed.

NBCTs seek opportunities to collaborate with others to provide the best experiences for their students. That means reaching out to their colleagues, their communities, their online resources and beyond. Our access to ideas and support is virtually limitless. For years, this pursuit of a network of support has bolstered my practice, increasing my confidence and filling my toolbox full of instructional tricks of the trade.

With the new interest in National Board Certification in my rural region, it became part of my journey to become a cohort facilitator and help others on their path to certification.  Local cohorts like ours are making it possible to get rural educators on board.

This year, two of my colleagues certified; so there are three NBCTs in my district now, and five more candidates in the process. The fire that has been lit across the state has ignited in rural Lewis County after all.

So, if you or someone you know is considering National Board Certification, if you are wondering what all the fuss is about, let me tell you:

Through National Board Certification teachers validate their practice and gain confidence to take it to the next level. Certification begins a journey of professional development that can be richly rewarding.

I highly recommend it.

The Worldwide Woes of Rural Education

It’s no secret that there is a shortage of teachers entering the workforce in Washington (OSPI has a page on this). But have you seen the news from rural China? Recent articles explain how education in rural China is in a crisis. Due to the developmental divide between urban and rural areas, and the low wages for teachers, young Chinese teachers entering the profession have little incentive to work in rural areas, far from the conveniences of the larger towns and cities. Likewise, wealthier rural families send their children to schools in more urban areas for better opportunities. Meanwhile, the students who remain in rural schools suffer from ever-decreasing quality of education, high teacher turnover, and limited programs of instruction.

Yunnan Rice Fields

I wish these articles were as exotic and foreign to me as the locale would suggest, but, line after line, I kept seeing a parallel to my own teaching context.

First of all, Chinese villages are inconvenient, with transportation issues for students and teachers. Transportation is a problem in rural Lewis County, too. Some students who attend my small, rural school in Southwest Washington, ride the bus for more than an hour from their remote homes. And, teachers who want to eat at a nice restaurant, shop at a large store, or get the oil changed in their car will have to drive at least forty minutes from our little neighborhood. Okay, it is probably worse in rural China, but who wants to drive forty minutes for fast food?

Another parallel? Rural Chinese teachers have little or no social life. Likewise, although many young teachers take rural teaching jobs in our region, it takes very little time before they realize that these remote, depressed areas are not exactly conducive to meeting other young singles. They have to travel for socialization, and, let’s face it, first-year teachers don’t have the time or money for the traveling.

Yamdrok Lake, Tibet, China

Other Chinese programs have cropped up to create incentives for teachers and young college graduates, even if they have no long-term wish to teach at all. These young people are encouraged to “volunteer” to perform a service for less privileged populations. They often start out enthusiastic and effective, but rarely last as teachers. They are a temporary fix that leaves needy rural students feeling abandoned after a short time.

This is a problem in our school, too. We have several positions filled by people who would not normally qualify for the jobs. For instance, our secondary special education teacher is a long-term substitute without prior experience in special ed. This is her second year. That would be especially terrible, but we are lucky, and she is doing a super job. But how fair is it that someone is doing a job they were not trained to do, without receiving benefits? She doesn’t plan to stay in the job.

Riffe Lake, Mossyrock WA

Another program that China is developing is a pipeline for rural educators, starting with high school students. They are incentivizing young people, getting them to promise to work in rural areas in exchange for their college education. This is where the parallel ends. I wish we had incentives for young people in rural communities to go into teaching. Our rural county is lacking in high school programs for future educators (such as Recruiting Washington Teachers), and that is especially frustrating.

Look, it takes a certain kind of educator to work in a poor, rural area. We are remote. We lack conveniences. Plus, we have kids that need us desperately due to poverty, homelessness, and domestic issues. We have diverse populations with needs that are sometimes hard to meet with limited resources and staff. It is hard to come from somewhere else and fall in love with this community, despite its beauty and the charm of the people who live here. Candidates for teaching jobs need to be up to the challenge.

My idea of a solid solution is our own local pipeline. I can imagine some of my current students as future teachers in rural Washington. They would know what they were getting into. They would understand the rhythm of the place. They would know the people. They would speak the languages. They wouldn’t mind the drive “out town,” which is our particular colloquialism for the big cities of Chehalis and Centralia. These kids would be perfect for the jobs. And we need them- desperately.

Lewis County Blueberry Fields

But this is not China, and no one is offering them money to become teachers and come back home to teach. In fact, we struggle to get programs for these promising students to earn college credit in high school. Unlike most urban schools who can attract teachers with advanced degrees to teach college courses in a high school setting, our teachers are often teaching several subjects, some of them far removed from their original major. Like rural China, our best students leave us for the better offerings of larger towns, such as Running Start or schools that offer more AP courses, clubs, or arts programs.

So, despite having students who would be excellent future teachers, we are losing the opportunity to give them an early start on that journey, to win them over to the joys of rural education.

Because it is joyous.

It would take so little to solve so much. Before it is worse, before we seem even more like rural China, we need to get our policy leaders to incentivize the education of future rural teachers.

Collaboration in the Classroom: Assembling Teams of Future Heroes

I felt like a superhero this week. I taught collaboration to seventh-graders. I taught them to come to a consensus quickly. I taught them to listen to each other’s ideas and incorporate them into the final product of their learning.

It was lovely, and it was dynamic, but let’s not get carried away. The same students, more likely than not, degraded one another’s opinions outside of class. The same students will groan and mutter next time I put them in groups they did not choose. It takes time and direct instruction to overcome what seems like a natural tendency to avoid cooperation, collaboration, and consensus.

And that’s the problem. How well have we been teaching these skills to our students?

Look at the news, read your Twitter feed, listen to the people around you. Has it always been so difficult for people to come to consensus, to make decisions together for the good of the larger group? I wonder how we got to be so divisive, so eager to disagree with one another. And, when did we become so publicly cruel to one another?

Okay, I’m being dramatic. We have always had problems, especially when it comes to working together. Humans tend to shy away from working outside of the group to which they already belong. Enter racism, homophobia, gender issues, classism… every ism.

As a teacher, I often view the students in my small, diverse school as a sort of microcosm of humanity. I watch as my new seventh-graders self-select the students with whom they are willing to work. I also watch as they openly spurn the others, the ones who don’t fit in their closed groups. Is this basic human behavior? Perhaps. But it can be modified, if you are determined, stubborn, and methodical in your approach to teaching communication, empathy, and cooperation.

Our evaluation system requires us to create environments that foster communication, respect, and a culture of learning. How does this look? Like students quietly sitting in rows, listening to a teacher? Well, yeah, sometimes it does. However, a dynamic classroom environment is often buzzing with lively conversations and debate. And yet, I still meet teachers who avoid assigning “group work” or they struggle to assess communication skills at all.

Shouldn’t we be assessing communication skills? The state standards include speaking and listening. In fact, standard SL.K.1 for kindergarten requires “Participation in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about kindergarten topics and texts with peers and adults and small and larger groups.” By their junior year, our students should,”initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.” These standards aren’t assessed on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, but that does not make them less important.

So, we know students should be learning the communication skills necessary to respectfully share their ideas. And, we know that we are better teachers when we foster a learning environment that encourages the participation of our students in rich discussions. More than that, I think we all realize that the world could be a better place if we could help the next generation perfect their teamwork and discussion skills. Still, instructing and evaluating collaborative skills is a struggle for most teachers.

Personally, I pieced together my methods for teaching collaboration and consensus to students over the years, using trial and error. My guess is that very few of us have a curriculum for these essential skills.

However, times are changing. Collaboration is one of the touted “21st Century Skills.” Employers want, they NEED, good team players. I’ve been cruising around the website for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Collaboration is one of their “Four Cs.” It’s part of their Framework. They have some very clear materials explaining the need for teaching collaborative skills, AND for how to do it.

In the meantime, if you are not convinced about the need for collaborative skills, check out this article by Danxi Shen, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, ‘Group and Cooperative Learning: Students as Classroom Leaders.”

After brushing up on what collaboration should look like in the classroom, kick back and watch one of those superhero team movies. Superheroes know the value of teamwork. In Justice League, Batman brings diverse heroes together to defeat a threat to all of mankind. When Aquaman resists him, saying, “A strong man is strongest alone; ever heard that?” Batman replies, “That’s not the saying, that’s like the opposite of what the saying is.” My students often think they are better off on their own. My job is to help them see the power they wield in groups.

I guess that makes me Batman.