Author Archives: Mark Gardner

Summer Reading: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

I should be reading the new budget and writing about that, I know. That’s for another day.

Instead, I spent my Fourth of July family trip getting sunburned while reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond. A much better choice, as I walked away with far less frustration than a close read of the budget likely would have offered me.

I have to admit that I rarely look forward to my summer “work reading.” Typically, my reading is more of a skim, dipping in when something seems to connect to my work. This book, however, seemed to connect at every turn.

I read this book with a specific purpose: When I and the other thousand-or-so staff return for our August kickoff meetings, we’re taking the idea of culturally responsive practice to scale. Specifically, the district Teaching and Learning team is working to design a common experience for the adults in our system to open us to more frank and meaningful conversations about race, inequity, privilege, and what culturally responsive practice should look like.

The challenge I’m facing, and which this book helped me with, is the reality of being a white male teaching is a largely white (generally affluent) community, and in this context trying to find the right way to communicate with my fellow white teachers that culturally responsive teaching isn’t about using rap music to “connect with kids” or putting up posters of famous nonwhite scientists or changing John to Juan in a story problem and checking the “culturally responsive” box. Further, saying “but I’m not racist” and “I treat every student the same” isn’t an excuse for not learning about and adopting culturally responsive practices (and I think such statements constitute a neon sign pointing at someone who probably needs more than anyone else to read this book).

At the August kickoff, that common experience will help establish that as a district our focus for the 2017-18 school year will be on “seeing and serving every child.” Why? Simply put, the data over the last few years communicates it without question: We’re serving some kids exceptionally well, others well enough, and some not well at all. The dividing line is crystal clear and let’s just say the students on one side of the line are are more linguistically and culturally diverse than those on the other.

But our test scores are high and our graduation rates just fine!

That’s good, of course. However, my assistant superintendent shared with me the field-trip analogy: if we take 100 kids on a field trip and only return with 93% of them, that’s a problem. Yes, we can celebrate our successes, but we as responsible educators must make sure we do all we can for each child, not just most kids. Continue reading

Why Paying Teachers More Matters

Let’s get it out of the way:

Greedy teachers’ unions, teachers only get paid to work 180 days a year, summers “off,” winter “break,” seven hour work days (ha!), “I had this mean/lazy/awful teacher once…”

Those perceptions are so crystallized in the minds of anti-public-education folks that no amount of evidence or reason to the contrary will convince them.

But here’s the simple truth: To attract and retain teachers capable of meeting the exceedingly high public and policy standards placed on public education, we need to pay them better.

It isn’t about throwing money at the problem, which is the common refrain.

I’ll use myself as an example: While I love teaching, believe I am good at it, and believe strongly in the importance of public education, I am also a husband and a parent of three. The latter job, in truth, is the most important to me. As a result, every single year of my career (15 years in, now) I have had to have multiple sources of income in order to meet the basic needs of my family. We don’t live extravagantly: no gaming system or high tech entertainment suite, I’m typing this on a nine-year-old iMac, we don’t take lavish trips, we don’t have fancy cars. I’m not complaining, as we are comfortable… we’re just kinda simple-living people.

But still, to make the student loan payments, mortgage (we bought at half of what we were pre-approved for back in 2004, so we’re pretty conservative in that realm as well), and everyday bills, we are a three-income family. To live simply and comfortably, we have to be a three income family. We have enough savings to last us a month or two in an emergency, but not a dime saved for my sons’ college. Still, though, by comparison to most in this world, I absolutely acknowledge that we are doing fine.

Several times a year, non-education job prospects come my way. Sometimes it is a parent or community member who somehow saw skill in how I operate. Sometimes it is a non-education business or organization. Usually, the pay is better, the hours are better, the work is less…

[Enter the internet trolls: “Then why don’t you quit complaining about low teacher pay and take one of THOSE jobs??!!”]

That is exactly my point.

I am a good teacher. I could leave, probably fairly easily, and find good employment elsewhere. If school funding tanks or pay continues to not keep up with costs of living and I can’t support my family on teaching plus side gigs, you bet I will look for a one-job, one-income, kind of employment. And I think I’d be able to find work because I have a track record of being good at my job, getting results, and impacting students and colleagues through my efforts.

That would mean I would leave the classroom.

There are many other teachers like me, and I’ve already watched several of them peel away. It was painful. Several talked about feeling like a failure for taking a better paying job outside of education, in a couple of cases, literally months after receiving honors and awards as top tier teachers. The best teachers are the ones who are eminently employable outside of education as well. The best teachers are who we stand to lose.

Do we want our kids taught by teachers who teach because they love it and are good at it… or by those who aren’t good enough to successfully compete for other jobs? To keep the former, we need to be sure to pay them well enough to recruit them, retain them, and let them live a work life where they can focus on the work of teaching children well… not finding side jobs to build a life for their own families.

It isn’t about greedy teachers’ unions. It isn’t about throwing money at the problem.

We should not expect a high quality teaching corps if we aren’t willing to pay for it.

 

Anyone Can Teach… Except Teachers

The popular narrative is that unionized teachers are destroying public education because of our supposed low standards for performance, laziness, and constant cries for more pay and less work.

States across the country, including Washington, buckled down on teacher performance by reforming the teacher evaluation system to be more rigorous and standards-based. New academic standards were adopted and new tests were designed to measure just how bad we teachers are at teaching, in many cases with the stated purpose of those tests to be to identify and remove bad teachers.

We’re so bad at teaching despite our degrees and training in this complex work, in fact, that the current fashion in education policy is that anyone…ANYONE has to be better at teaching than teachers are.

As you might have seen, states like Arizona are launching policy referred to as the “warm body” approach for teacher recruitment: The main qualification for earning a teaching credential being that you are a carbon-based life form capable of sustaining metabolism.

Even here in Washington, “alternative routes to certification” are gaining traction as more and more classrooms are being staffed by teachers with an emergency credential because of the dearth of capable applicants.

Let’s break this down: Because so few people are choosing to become teachers on purpose, we’re satisfied with taking whomever we can get…and we think this is a solution to our problem?

Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t the unionized teachers demanding better policy and pay who are the problem here. I wonder what will it take for our policymakers…or as importantly, us as a society…to recognize that effective teaching involves a set of complex skills and behaviors which, even in the best of conditions, involves countless variables that must all be managed and responded to on a moment-by-moment basis. It is not something random folks off the street can do well, particularly if those random folks can get paid better to do other, perhaps easier, work. Clearly, we’re not dealing with “the best of conditions” in our schools, so putting a warm body in front of kids is not going to be the solution to our problem, no matter what evaluation system we use or what rigorous standards we demand be taught.

The solutions are the same solutions they have always been: It isn’t about stricter evaluations, higher standards, or better tests. We have to invest money, and more than we think, in order to turn this ship around. We can’t spend a dime and expect a dollar’s return…and then complain because we actually got what we paid for and not more.

If we aren’t willing to make schools as workplaces into the kinds of places where the very best and brightest are not only drawn but want to stay, then we don’t actually care about improving educational outcomes for kids. The latter will never happen without the former.


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Summative Rating: UNSAT

After one year of unsatisfactory ratings on his or her job performance, a teacher may be placed on a directed plan of improvement. If that plan is not satisfied, that teacher may be terminated and replaced with someone else who can do the job.

This is what the legislature codified into law with our new teacher evaluation model, and I’m all for it.

And the premise ought to apply to the legislature as well.

The Supreme Court put them on a plan of improvement long ago. They have failed to meet the terms of that plan.

They were granted an extended special session, during which time non-policymakers spent more time in Olympia talking ed policy than the elected officials did. Still, no performance.

In the evaluation framework that judges my work as a teacher, action…nearly any kind of action…is enough to get me rated “Basic.” To be rated “Unsatisfactory,” my performance must demonstrate “no action when action is called for.”

There is no better phrase to describe our legislature right now than that.

I’m with the Seattle Times Editorial Board. No more special sessions. No more probationary periods to turn it around. Let the Supreme Court make the decisions if the Legislature won’t.

To Appreciate a Teacher…

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the cookies.

Those intricately decorated, apple-shaped cookies: I do appreciate those.

And the bacon. That pound of pepper-bacon a group of students gave me after I used a few too many example sentences including bacon in our practice with diagramming sentences.

Then there are notes: Brief or lengthy, the notes from parents, students, former students from over a decade ago whose teenaged face immediately appears the moment I see the name on the return address. Those keep me going and make me feel appreciated, for sure, and are among my most cherished items.

I’ve been lucky that those kinds of little surprises haven’t been relegated to just one week in the year when websites offer discounts or coupons and businesses encourage patrons to “thank a teacher.”

This year for Teacher Appreciation Week, what will really make teachers feel appreciated? Maybe a cookie or a pound of bacon, but most definitely a specific kind of little note will do. A phone call, maybe. A visit to an office. More specifically: notes, phone calls, emails, office visits to our legislative policymakers. That’s how teachers will feel appreciated. Call for a budget that fully funds Washington public schools, not to “throw money at the problem,” but to invest in a system that for the last forty years has been perpetually under-invested in. Call for policies that make sense for kids, parents, communities, and schools. The voices of teachers in this battle are too often discounted as shrill, complainy, or as base union thuggery. The voices of parents, students, and community members are what policymakers have a harder time ignoring.

Teachers know that we are appreciated at the immediate, local level, with our kids and parents. We are thankful for that, for sure. We love the cookies, the treats, and the notes: Those put the wind back in our sails without a doubt.

But this year, consider one phone call, one note, or one office visit to your elected officials who are struggling to get their work done. Little by little those small gestures of appreciation will add up and make a huge difference not just to “appreciate teachers,” but to transform the lives of kids.


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Things You Should Know About: The Washington Teacher Advisory Council

Back in 2008 I was honored to be a regional “Teacher of the Year” for ESD 112. I had the chance to sit in a room with “TOYs” from each ESD, and it was humbling, astonishing, and inspiring to hear all the great work we each were championing in our section of the state.

Then, after the interviews and celebrations and receptions, we sped back to our respective classrooms and put our respective noses back to our respective grindstones.

Lyon Terry, 2015 Washington State Teacher of the Year, likely had a similar experience. The difference was what he chose to do next. He saw highly accomplished educators be selected and celebrated each year, and in that he saw an opportunity: While you might teach down the hall from a TOY and never know it (we teachers are often reticent to share our accolades), titles such as “Teacher of the Year” carry potentially powerful ethos when we enter into policy conversations with non-educators.

Lyon formed WATAC, the Washington Teacher Advisory Council, aimed at pulling together the expertise and ethos of alumni regional teachers of the year. Each year, the number of regional TOYs grows by nine (one for each ESD), so though the group may be small, it is certainly mighty.

This last weekend at Cedarbrook was the 2017 WATAC Spring Conference, where alumni of the TOY program gathered to learn about policy, advocacy, and the importance of teachers telling their stories. It was a powerful and inspiring experience, and I now feel like I am part of an even deeper network of teachers likewise committed to improving public education in Washington.

A big take-away and a good reminder: Everything we do as teachers is somehow impacted by a policy that someone, somewhere has written. Whether it is law from the legislature or rules put forth by a state-level group like the Board of Ed, Standards Board, or innumerable others, people are making decisions that directly impact every move we make as a teacher. Simply put: the people making those decisions ought to be teachers themselves. That’s one mission of WATAC (and CSTP, for that matter), that teachers are not just present at the policy table, but that they are the ones whose hands, hearts, and minds are creating the policy.

For more information about WATAC, here is the website and here is the overview of the program on OSPI’s homepage.

Stepping Off the Career Ladder

Back in 2009 or so when I started writing for this site, I was what I referred to as an “untitled” teacher leader. I taught all day, didn’t hold any specific positions, yet I still saw myself as a teacher leader charged with advocating for kids, systems, and our profession. I was less than a decade into my career.

Then, in the standard “nose goes” way, I found myself with the title of Department Chair for the English Department. While not “leadership” as I envisioned it (since managing P.O.s and counting books in the book room wasn’t my vision of leadership) it served an important systemic role.

Over time, the titles started to pile on and I began to drift further and further away from the classroom. This year and last, my desk isn’t even in a school, but at central office two doors down from HR. The only time I get to teach real, live, children is when I do model lessons for my first-year-mentees or snag an unfilled sub job here or there to keep myself sane.

This spring has been one of relative upheaval at the high school level in my district. Two administrators at our large compressive high school (my former building) are moving to different roles, leaving unprecedented administrative vacancies. Both of the English teaching positions at our smaller alternative high school opened up, leaving a whole discipline unstaffed.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure on many people who find themselves with teacher leadership titles. I started feeling it a few years ago as TOSA when the social studies department started (half-) jokingly referring to me as “Junior Admin.” When I think about what has made some of the administrators in my district so successful, I often find myself saying “they still think like a teacher.” We should want good educators to be the administrative leaders of our buildings.

And we should also want good educators to be standing in front of kids.

I don’t know if it is the same for women in education, but as a man in education I started feeling the assumptions about “ascending the career ladder” to an administrative position as soon as I took a hybrid role teaching half-time and being on special assignment half-time. After each of the administrator roles at my former building were posted, I was inundated with texts and emails: “Are you going for that job?” Never mind that I have no administrative coursework let alone credential. For reasons woven into the fabric of our idea of what it means to be “professional” in our culture, climbing the career ladder is the assumed goal. To not keep climbing is to lower oneself down, to go “backward.”

Next year, I will be in a hybrid role: I applied for, interviewed for, and was offered one of the English teaching positions at our smaller high school. I’ll still be serving part of my time on release as our local EA President. The year after that, I’ll be full time teaching, untitled.

I’ve worked hard to avoid two phrases as I talk about this move. I’m not “going back.” I’m not “returning.”

Rather, I’m trying to redefine what the career ladder might look like for teachers who want to lead and teach.


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Title II and “Failed” PD

Title II, which funds (among other things) opportunities for teacher leadership, learning, and professional development, is on the federal chopping block. One argument, supported by research, is that teacher professional development has little to no impact in student performance.

Despite half of my job being teacher professional development, it is hard for me to disagree. In fact, I concede that you cannot always draw a solid line between teacher PD and dramatic changes in student performance on the standardized tests that serve as the go-to barometer of “impact on student learning.”

There are many other lines I can draw, though. I can cite examples where PD around inquiry processes in science resulted in more student-centered lessons. I can cite examples where PD around trauma-informed practices resulted in students spending more time in the classroom and less time in the principal’s office. I can cite examples where PD around helping students track their own performance resulted in faster gains on classroom assessments. The keys to all of these solid lines: (1) The teacher was provided time and space to try new practices, even if success required a few attempts, (2) the teacher was provided access to peer-collaboration or peer-coaching to help support implementation, and (3) there wasn’t some sort of oppressive accountability system demanding immediate and unequivocal success.

I can see why Title II is an easy candidate for a cut. The impact is difficult to ascertain using the measures we have in place. I’m sure that people can also cite instances where Title II funds have been misused or misdirected. But if people are looking for solid lines of causality between X and increased student test scores, there is nothing yet that can produce a solid line, like the proverbial silver bullet’s path through the air.

Teaching and learning is a complex dynamic influenced by seemingly infinite factors. That is not an attempt to seek absolution from responsibility…rather it is a call to acknowledge the complexity of the system and the many ways we ought to monitor system reactions. If my learning about adolescent trauma means my student spends more time in my classroom learning, rather than in the office receiving discipline, is that not a positive change? If my students take greater ownership of their own progress and are more metacognitive about their learning processes, those immeasurable dispositions will serve them as well (if not better) than their ability to guess the right bubble on a test…is that not a positive change?

Every one of us has had to endure crappy PD that wasted our time, so let’s set that aside for a moment and imagine a world of better-designed, well-implemented, and relevant PD that meets a need in our practice (such PD would also need to be adequately funded in order to achieve those standards). Professional learning, in whatever form it might take, is the only way to spur professional practice toward improvement. If we don’t improve our professional practice, how can we expect improved results?

Fakes, Facts, and the Hardest Lessons to Teach

I was numbly scrolling through Facebook a recent morning when one of those infographic-ish memes appeared. Of course, since it was in my feed, it aligned with the political leanings that my clicks and likes had already communicated to the Facebook algorithms, and in my pre-coffee state I found myself hovering over the “share” button.

I had to pause, though. Even though I wanted (desperately) to believe that the political statement being made in the meme was true (hint: it had to do with golf trips and certain federal budget items), I wasn’t sure. I didn’t see any sources linked, I didn’t know who the creator of the meme was, and I didn’t want to spend a ton of time researching its veracity. I did anyway, and after about three minutes of research it turned out that this particular meme had its number off by about 100 times and misrepresented the nature of the budget in question. Darn those pesky alternative facts.

While I didn’t click “share,” that nugget of information, despite being proven false, is now lodged in the schema that I bring to political conversations in the near future. I will have to very intentionally not use it as I form my arguments to support my political positions. That will be hard, because meme-depth facts are what it seems most political conversations resort to anymore.

We hear plenty about Fake News nowadays. Fake News is to critical thinking what super-sized fast food is to our diet: It is convenient, appears to look more or less like it’s authentic counterpart, and satisfies a need. Yes, a flawed analogy if extended completely, but there are valid parallels about the long term health of both individuals and the community. In particular, a good parallel is that the amount of comparable effort it takes to systematically deconstruct and discount Fake News is as seemingly insurmountable as making seismic shifts to unhealthy diet habits. If the latter were easy, we’d all be fit and healthy; if the former were easy, Fake News would be a nonissue.

How do we teach “quick” critical thinking? How do we teach students to resist the temptation of our confirmation biases? How do we teach that facts aren’t established by clicks, shares, or re-tweets…and that our own opinions don’t trump facts just because our opinions are our own?

Forget Common Core. This is the great pedagogical challenge of the next phase of my career.


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Small Policies: Implementation Matters

Lately our attention has been on state and national education policy and how these connect to our practice. Those policies, however, are not the only ones that have an impact on our practice, and no matter the source of the policy it is the implementation that really impacts us.

A simple policy implementation example I have been witness to over and over again in my career: A school’s “no hats in the building” policy. I contend that how a school handles its hat policy is as important, if not more important, than how we implement most policies DeVos or our Legislature foist upon us.

Scenario: You see a middle school kid walking down a crowded hallway toward you, and of all horrors he is wearing a hat.

Policy Implementation Option #1: “Hey buddy, remember you can’t have hats on here in school, go ahead and put that in your backpack,” accompanied by a “I’m taking my hat off my head” hand gesture.

Policy Implementation Option #2: “Take that hat off. Give me that hat. If you want it back you need to come get it from the principal’s office,” accompanied by a stern voice and an extended, stiffly open hand with an aggressive “give me” hand gesture.

By the way, I am making no attempt to hide my bias on this issue.

The things “banned” in the schools I’ve worked in have included discmans, headphone/earbuds, hats, hoods, iPods, iPhones, water bottles, flip-flops, laptops, snacks… all of which had valid policy reasons. To me,  these “student management” policies, or other truly minor behavioral controls, are the kinds of policies whose implementation makes or breaks the culture and climate of a school. I’m not necessarily opposed to rules around these things. I concede very valid reasons to control these student behaviors. It all boils down to how we choose to implement these policies.

Critics of Option #1 above will point out that the student might just put his hat back on later, and therefore the problem has not been solved: The better solution is to take the hat (as if that permanently solves the problem). The rationale: The kid has to learn that if he breaks a rule in life, there will be consequences, in this case the loss of his property and potential disciplinary action. In fact, in this exact scenario (which I’ve been part of innumerable unnecessary permutations of in my career) I often hear about teaching the student lessons like “understanding the impacts of your own behavior” or “natural consequences.”

Whenever I teach simile and metaphor to my 9th graders, one of our practice similes is “School is like ___.” In 16 years of this exercise, the first answer called out is always “a prison.” Every. Single. Time. Some of that is our cultural narrative about school, but that has to come from somewhere. I don’t think that comes from federal policy: it comes from how we implement little, ultimately insignificant rules like the “no-hats” policy.

Having my hat taken away is not a “natural consequence.” Breaking my arm because I jump off the barn roof is a “natural consequence.” Losing my hat to an aggressive authority is very much a contrived consequence. Other than being subject to strong winds or ending up with wonky hair, there is no “natural consequence” associated with wearing a hat.

If I forcibly wrestle a hat away from a kid because the policy makes me think I should, there is a different natural consequence: The disempowerment of the student to control his own behavior. People want to say that taking the hat “teaches a lesson.” What lesson? This one: “I wear my hat, that [creative new expletive] takes it away.”

I say that if I actually teach the desired behavior (put your hat in your backpack), yes I may have to teach that same lesson several times, but here’s the lesson that gets learned: “If I forget to take my hat off, I need to put it in my backpack.”

In a place where learning is supposed to be the goal, it is obvious to me which “lesson” I ought to try to teach my students.