Author Archives: Mark Gardner

Small Lesson Learned: Raised Hands

On the third day of school, everything kinda stalled.

My 9th grade English class and I had plugging along quite nicely the first two days, and that day was no different. Then it happened: I asked a tough question about the story we’d just read.

No hands went up. Silence.

Nothing new to a teacher. We’re used to that awkwardly long silence when we ask a question to the class. “Think time,” right?

After enough “think time,” I tried my first trick: “I won’t call an anyone until I see five hands.” Usually that works, and a hand or two will shoot up, confident that I won’t call on them right away.

No dice. Continued silence and no hands. I tried a few more tricks: jot down your answer (which they did) and share what you wrote (nope, lips were sealed). I reworded the question at a lower level of abstraction. Nada. Zip. Not defiance, just silence. Before long, my toolbox was empty. I refused, though, to just give the answer to them and move on.

My 2nd period class is a quiet but wonderful group. The high school I now teach in is a smaller school-of-choice in our district. There is but one hallway, a more intimate environment, and the students we serve choose our school for a variety of reasons. For some, they are re-entering public schools from other institutions. Some are in Running Start at the local community college and need a flexible home base. Others face struggles with anxiety, depression, or other personal or family challenges. Still others are like any prototypical teen, but for whatever reason found the smaller environment a better “fit” than the other high school (where I used to work), which has about two thousand* more students than we do.

So instead of waiting out the silence, I asked them this: “When a teacher asks you a question, and you raise your hand, what are you communicating?”

That we know the answer, a student replied (without raising her hand, it is worth noting).

“Then what does it mean when you don’t raise your hand and you stay quiet? What does that communicate to the teacher?”

That we don’t know, a different student replied. No, another interjected, It’s that we don’t want to say the answer. Sometimes I know the answer but don’t want to be called on.

“Makes sense,” I agreed. A hand finally went up, and the young man attached to it said Besides, if we wait long enough, most teachers just tell us the answer anyway and move on.

So I tried this: “Okay, I’m going to ask you all the same question. I want anyone who thinks they might have a response, whether right or wrong, to raise their hands. I promise I will not call on anyone.” I asked the question again, and this time about three-quarters of the students raised their hands.

“So all of you think you have an idea that responds to my question?” I made eye contact with kid after kid, who nodded.

“But sometimes you don’t want to say it?” More nods.

“Alright then… keep your hand up if you are willing to share your answer.” A few hands went down, one by one, but most stayed up…including several students who had yet to speak up at all in class….and by far more that who raised hands the first time I asked the question (if you recall, the number of hands that went up that time was exactly zero).

A new, simple routine was born.

The act of raising your hand as a student in my class no longer means I want to be called on. Now it is a signal: I think I might have an answer. Now instead of asking for answers, I say “show me your hands…” after I ask a question. Then, I say “keep your hands up to share.”

Since adopting this little change, I consistently have more (and different) students keeping their hands up, bringing more voices in to the room than just the ones who have the confidence to throw that hand in the air, end the awkward silence, and give the answer so the rest of us can move on. No longer is the Q-and-A about “getting through it.” Less and less do I sense that students are afraid to make their voices heard.

Later, with a smaller group of kids, we talked about how schools condition students to give right answers. They each talked about how, through their whole academic lives, they’d sat in classes where they were truly listening and learning, but were afraid to risk raising their hand and having the teacher say as they pivot away “no, not quite, does anyone else know the answer?” as the wrong-answer-student is left to stew in embarassment.

I know, maybe they’re just raising their hands…how can I really know whether they are playing the game or actually have an idea in their minds? I’d rather know they’re engaged enough to play the game, even if that’s all they’re doing…something that certainly wasn’t happening when the same three kids were the only ones raising their hands to answer questions while the others just waited us out, watching the clock.

For me the proof of this practice is in the fact that kids who I don’t usually hear from are keeping their hands up and giving us insight that before now they had been reticent to risk sharing.


*Not an exaggeration.

Small Shifts, Big Difference

One of the simplest lessons I’ll be taking into the new school year came from a small interaction with a student last spring.

I was covering several days of classes for a colleague of mine when this gregarious and clearly outgoing ninth grade student bounded up to me, said their name, then shared “and I prefer the pronoun they.”

I immediately thanked them, saying how appreciative I was that they told me, because I didn’t want to inadvertently be disrespectful. Then, mere moments later as I was calling for the attention of my students…

“Ladies and gentlemen, can I get your faces toward the front please?”

I paused. For all the students knew, I was just waiting for the class to settle. In my head, though, I felt the impact of an important, albeit small, new lesson learned.

Given our political and social climate in this country, matters of gender identity are certainly a hot-button topic. It is easy to fall into an argument about whether alternative pronouns are “okay” or whether gender is a binary or a spectrum. People hold strong opinions on all sides. When I shared this story with a colleague, her reaction was at first “that’s stupid, were ‘they’ a boy or a girl?”

Unfortunately the conversation swiftly devolved, as often happens, down a slippery slope of ridiculousness: “So if a student says they prefer to be called ‘Your Highness’ you’ll just go along with it?”

No, for a simple reason. If a student asks to be called “Your Highness,” they are likely being punchy. It is a bid for some sort of attention. I will not be referring to any student by “Your Highness” unless it is their legal name (which does happen). If a student asks to be referred to with a different pronoun, what sort of asinine power play am I engaging in if I, a grown adult, refuse to comply?

I cannot pretend to imagine what it is like for any person, young or old, to have a pervasive feeling that the identity in their minds somehow is a mismatch with the identity the world expects based on their external, superficial appearances. As we head back to school in the next few weeks, these little but not-so-little things about my teaching are what I am focusing on. I’m at that stage where the lesson planning and delivery could happen on autopilot and kids would still be getting a good enough product. I’m also at that stage where passable practice is no longer permissible… especially if I know better.

We all know that in order for enduring learning to happen, certain needs must be met, not the least of which the need for physical, emotional and intellectual safety. If I turned to that child and said “No, you’re going to have to choose ‘he’ or ‘she,'” what good would it do? What would I actually accomplish other than some purposeless assertion of control? Even if I did for some reason “disagree” with concepts of gender beyond the binary and passive aggressively insist on still referring to them by ‘he’ or ‘she,’ why?

For that gregarious student who introduced themself to me, perhaps me saying “Ladies and gentlemen…” to get the class’s attention wasn’t even a blip on their radar. Or maybe it was. Maybe it was one more little way that they were reminded of being excluded, pushed out, not invited to the conversation we as a class were about to have.

Will anyone notice that instead of “Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention the front” I now say things like “Room 101, thank you for giving me your attention”? Probably not. It is a simple shift that requires next to nothing from me. By week three I’ll have a new habit, and the old “Ladies and gentlemen” will be gone.

Some could call this political correctness run amok. I say nope. It is as simple as this: If it is in my control to do such small things to prevent even one student from feeling excluded, why wouldn’t I?

 

 

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?