Category Archives: Current Affairs

Waiting on Olympia: Bargaining Certificated Salaries

We’re waiting.

Last August, we settled our comprehensive collective bargaining agreement (CBA). For better or worse (I say better), our CBA nearly doubled in scope: A whole new section was added about supporting new-to-career teachers; over a dozen pages detailing evaluation procedures was folded over from experimental year-to-year Memos of Understanding into the durable agreement; much needed language protecting the learning environments of special education students was added…and much more. Our contract, once rumored to be held up as one of the worst in the state, is now much stronger in its service to teaching and learning.

We knew, though, that we were bargaining at a pivotal moment in teacher compensation for our state. Our Superintendent, HR Director, and Finance Director (all of whom our Association has an unusually collaborative relationship with, even when we disagree) are likely more nervous than we are, as ultimately they are the individuals charged with managing the public’s monetary investment in our schools. Thus, the salaries we successfully bargained are a “one-year-deal” of sorts…with a salary re-opener mandated in the final agreement under the assumption that the legislature was going to make major changes.

As this recent article from the Seattle Times points out, and as I tried to articulate before, last year’s actions by the legislature created more problems than solutions. One paragraph from the Times article sums up the one of the key changes concisely:

The changes include scrapping the statewide salary schedule that virtually all school districts have used to set base pay for their teachers. Lawmakers also set a cap on teacher salaries and no longer will funnel more money into schools with more experienced and educated teachers. (Source; emphasis mine)

That part I bolded? That matters. Big time.

The guy who teaches next door to me is in the second year of his career as a teacher. Teaching is his second career, and he transitioned to my building after a successful career in the private sector. Recently, we were talking about a contract issue involving certain additional non-instructional activities that he and other teachers were required to invest time into, but for which they were not compensated. He made the comment that “it will sure be hard to keep people around if this is how it works!” Just the tip of the iceberg, I pointed out.

I’m interpolating here, but my hunch is that his private sector experience taught him something about what it takes to recruit and retain talented employees. Simply: Treat good people well and pay them for their talents, and the whole system benefits. Treat good people poorly and create excuses for not paying them for their experience and talent: Those good people leave your system…leaving behind, well, the less-than-good. As a parent, I don’t want my kids being taught by whomever’s left when all the good teachers move on find better work.

While there are many changes in policy and practice that can effectively recruit and retain the best possible talent, we have to acknowledge that if we want highly-skilled talent, we need to compensate in a way that values experience and training.

This is why my Association is waiting to head back to the bargaining table. I’m holding out hope that this legislative session will fix the hastily devised non-solutions that resulted from last year’s session. I’m hoping that their decisions signal a willingness to invest in doing what it takes to attract and retain the best, not just whoever we can get.

Not Neutral on Net Neutrality

Last week my eighth graders presented their independent, interest-based projects, the culmination of two months of research and applied learning. Elizabeth showed us her original comic, which she published online. Maisy displayed her handmade quilt and told us about the history of quilting in America. Sam presented his Claymation short film. Dana taught us about installation art and demonstrated the infinity mirror she had made.

These projects were impressive examples of what students can do when they have access to the right resources. For Elizabeth, Maisy, Sam, and Dana, that meant high-speed access to specialized websites, including the publishing platform Webtoons.com, the Emporia State University archives, and the Seattle Art Museum’s website.

If the school’s broadband provider had blocked access to some of these sites because they don’t bring in money, if it had slowed the connection speed in order to provide other users with faster service, or if it had required the school district to pay extra for access to less lucrative sites, these and the other student projects would never have happened. And that bleak scenario is exactly what schools across the country are likely to face in the wake of the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) recent repeal of the practice known as Net Neutrality. Teachers and students will have fewer opportunities, and those with the fewest resources will, of course, suffer disproportionately.

What is Net Neutrality?

Since the internet’s inception, internet service providers have treated all content equally. They do not restrict, discriminate, or charge differently based on content, user, or type of device. This is the concept of net neutrality. In 2014 President Obama sought to ensure the continuation of net neutrality, and to that end asked the FCC to recategorize internet broadband service as a utility. The FCC followed this recommendation in February 2015, instituting regulations that prevented broadband companies such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, from slowing or blocking access to legal websites, artificially slowing access for some customers while speeding it up for others, and charging customers extra for access to certain websites.

Net Neutrality in Schools

According to the 2017 State of the States report from the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, 97% of Washington State’s school districts had the necessary fiber optic connectivity to meet the FCC minimum goal of 100 kpbs per student. At my school that means my colleagues and I can stream videos and download resources from YouCubed to help our students develop mathematical mindsets. This amazing website is helping us transform our practice. And we are not the only ones. As of this writing, YouCubed has received 22,895,390 visits. But what will happen if we can no longer freely access YouCubed or the countless other sites that support our teaching and our students’ learning? According to Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, “when carriers can choose to prioritize paid content over freely available content, schools really are at risk.”

In high-poverty schools such as mine, the risk is especially great. The internet provides access to experiences that our schools could not otherwise provide, such as authentic science investigations and contact with project mentors. Many of our students also live in homes without reliable internet access; they depend on having it at school not only for their assignments, but to develop the technological literacy that all students need and deserve.

Net neutrality has helped to reduce inequities between well-funded and under-funded schools, between students of privilege and students of poverty. If such access disappears, the equity gap will increase.

Broadband service providers argue that net neutrality stifles the free market. Other opponents fear that regulation allows the government to invade our privacy. Those arguments do not persuade me. There is no financial incentive for broadband companies to provide unrestricted, high-speed access to consumers, including schools. If they have the opportunity to make money by restricting access to certain websites, or by charging consumers for access or faster service, they will do that in order to satisfy shareholders. We may well find ourselves living in a world that our students will recognize from their favorite dystopian novels: a world where access to information and expression exists only for individuals with the most power and the most money.

I asked my district’s chief technology officer if the district has a plan for how to respond to the effects of the repeal of net neutrality. He replied, “We had no impact before the change and from what I’m reading/seeing/hearing, the impact back may be just as little. This is a move to free market service, not the end of access. It’s high on my radar. I deal with the FCC almost monthly. I’m watching it.”

We all need to do more than watch. While there was no impact on schools before the net neutrality regulations, that does not mean broadband companies would not have moved in the direction of restricting access and speed.  If we remain passive, if we wait to react until there is a change that harms schools, our students will lose.

For information on the efforts of various state leaders to ensure net neutrality in Washington State, go here.

Your Salary and Why “Staff Mix” Matters

 

OSPI recently released its response to the EHB 2242 requirement that it provide salary grid recommendations for districts in the legislature’s new plan for funding educator salaries.

As a refresher: At it’s simplest, the legislature required that starting salaries at entry-level must be at least $40,000 per year, maximum salaries can start no higher than $90,000 per year, but regardless of those numbers, the average salary (allocation) per certificated staff member will sit at $64,000. In other words, no matter what a district chooses to pay its teachers, the state will only provide that district $64K per FTE cert staff.

By doling out a flat rate per teacher, the “staff mix” component of how schools were previously funded has been eliminated.

This is something all educators in Washington need to take notice of.

Staff mix is based on the reality that a district with more experienced staff (who receive higher pay on any salary schedule) will need a higher state allocation than a district with less experienced staff placed lower on that schedule. The Olympia School District did a great job of articulating the problem with eliminating staff mix: Districts staffed with experienced teachers will not receive adequate funding to pay teacher salaries. The illustrative scenarios below are drawn directly from the OSD’s communication about the fiscal impact of the loss of staff mix on their district alone:

  • DISTRICT A has 100 teachers, and all 100 are early career teachers. As a result, District A receives more than adequate state funding to staff its schools. In fact, it receives more than it needs.
  • DISTRICT B has 100 teachers, with roughly 50 more experienced than average and 50 less experienced than the state average (not the district average). District B received exactly the right amount of state funding to adequately fund salaries.
  • DISTRICT C has 100 teachers, with roughly 70 on the more-experienced side and 30 on the less-experienced side. Provided only a flat rate per teacher, the district cannot afford to pay salaries for experienced staff.

It’s a mess: When the state funds based on an average (rather than staff mix), those 90K salaries are a smokescreen for the unfortunate reality that such a model basically requires that large numbers of teachers cycle out of the profession well before they achieve that 90K salary in order for the state’s flat-rate model to be sustainable. A compensation model that banks on high rates of teacher turnover in order to even work doesn’t seem like it is addressing the actual problem of compensating teachers in a way that recruits and retains the best. The only other guaranteed option is to simply pay every teacher the exact same salary. That might seem the simple and logical solution, but let’s pause to consider the impact this would have on recruiting and retaining quality teachers who in other work sectors in the real world would expect their pay to increase with added experience, training, and expertise.

(While we’re on the topic, here are my thoughts on why it matters to pay teachers more.) 

The OLD salary allocation model, even with its flaws (including small numbers), at least based salary allocations on who that school actually employed. That allocation, based on actual staff numbers and experience levels, meant that even two districts with the exact same number of teachers, might receive different total allocations from the state because one staff might have a different “mix” of teachers with different levels of experience or advanced credits.

While responding to the legislature’s mandate to produce model salary grids for districts to consider, Superintendent Reykdal makes the point succinctly: “In the absence of a ‘staff mix’ factor that was eliminated by the Legislature beginning next school year, drafting a sample salary grid for districts has little meaning” (Source) If the state only funds $64K per teacher, per year, there is no “prototypical salary grid” that will make sense given that every single district in the state has a different staff mix.

I reiterate, it is a mess. In the coming legislative session, we as educators need to help our leaders understand what a mess they’ve created…and that restoring staff mix to the funding formula is a simple, do-able solution.

The Teacher Leader I Want To Be

I laid awake in bed at the Omni Shoreham. Light seeped through the cracks of the door and laughter drifted up from the courtyard. It wasn’t so much the time zone that kept me awake. I couldn’t turn my brain off. I often can’t turn my brain off.=

This time though, I was thinking about what I’d learned today sitting around the table with teachers, principals, coaches, and district leaders mulling through the Teacher Leader Model Standards and Professional Standards for Educational Leaders. The day’s conversations lingered and added to some of the thinking I’d done with the CSTP Teacher Leadership Skills Framework. I was incredibly grateful to Katherine Bassett (NNSTOY) and those at the Aspen Education Program who thought I should be part of this conversation.

I couldn’t stop thinking: What kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of teacher leader are you trying to be, Hope?

My first “formal” leadership position was team lead my second year of teaching. That same year I was recruited to join a new Equity and Diversity committee. The following year I moved to a new school but quickly found myself leading some curriculum design work. By my 5th year of teaching, I’d served on a district curriculum design team, as a senior team lead, a senior project lead, a Daffodil Princess Coordinator, was offered a job as a litearcy coach (Um, how was I going to tell experienced teachers how to teach?!), and was an NBCT. Fast-foward, add English Department chair, ASB teacher, inquiry group lead, and a few more formal and informal teacher leadership roles in there and you’ll be all caught up to 2017.

I was busy but fulfilled. I learned to work with a variety of personalities. I learned how to navigate a school system. I gained a stronger sense of purpose. Most importantly, I had examples of the kind of leader I want to be…and the kind of leader I despise.

As I contemplate what type of teacher leader I want to be, I am acutely aware of my own hypocrisy. On the one hand, I don’t care about titles at all. On the other, it deeply bothers me when I’m asked so what else do you do besides teach? I find myself stumbling to make up titles for the ways I contribute to the growth of my grade level team, my department, my school and my work with Teachers United.

A title doesn’t make you a good leader. And that’s definitely not the type of leader I want to be. So who do I want to be?

I want to be the type of leader that inspires others to come alongside and follow. The kind of leader who is in expert in instructional and content but doesn’t have to tell everyone about it. The type of leader others know they can come to when they need help creating a lesson plan, a reality check, or a laugh. I want to be the kind of leader who is both well-planned and prepared, but prepared and planned enough to be organic. I want to be the type of leader that doesn’t demand more than they’re willing to give. The leader who checks their emails thoroughly before responding. The leader who thinks about how their choices will marginalize or include others. The leader that knows when to step in and when to step back. The leader who understands that leading is an ongoing learning process. The leader that sees current promise in others and predicts their future greatness. The leader that sees the big pictures and pays attention to the tiny details. The leader who is constantly considering the role race, class, and gender norms play in that moment. I want to inspire. I want to always remain reflective. I want to be the kind of leader who learns from her mistakes. I want to a leader that is humble enough to ask for help, and willing to seek out the wisdom of others. The kind of leader that doesn’t have to talk about how great of a leader they are (I recognize the irony of this blog post).

Don’t get me wrong. I have aspirations of being sharply dressed, breaking out a Tweetable quip, and using big words. I want to remember the name of the author who wrote that one book and recognize Katie Couric when I see her dressed in a blue sweat suit (yes, that happened). But let’s not get carried away here.

Most importantly, I want to be the teacher leader that is a part of a team that shares power, distributes responsibilities and is accountable to one another. They build teams. They are committed to building partnerships with everyone who has something to lose or gain in the work. When I think about my favorite leaders, the ones who modelled and continue to model, this is who they are. They know their why and they never stray from it.

 

Extra Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

You know how you don’t know what you don’t know until you realize you don’t know it?

Today I stepped into a role as “instructional coach.” My principal is trying a new thing with several of the leaders in the building—-getting a sub on Wednesdays to cover our classes so that we can support new teachers, conduct informal observations, and provide feedback to any teacher who want an extra set of ears and eyes in their classroom.

Non-evaluative, peer observation are what so many teachers beg for. Yet, with the except of instructional coaches, or a pop-ins by a dept chair there is little time for this type of collaboration. To contend with time constraints, many of the teachers I know are using #ObserveMe as a way to get the peer feedback and informal coaching they crave. This summer, Nate Bowling and I led in-school professional development where we shared the vision behind #ObserveMe. Teachers created their evaluation goals in conjunction with their #ObserveMe goals. I was #stoked.

Fast forward, due to some life stuff, our instructional coach is on hiatus and many of the teacher leaders in our building are stepping in to fill the large hole he left. So there I was, armed with flair pens, a clipboard, a schedule, and an observation tool. I left my students in the capable hands of my student teacher and I marched down to the first classroom.

Over the course of two and a half periods, I observed three full-time teachers and one student teacher. Each teacher had emailed me asking if I could come observe for x, y, and z. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect to feel as emotional as I did through this process.

First, I was honored that these teachers wanted me in their classroom. They wanted to be better. They wanted an extra set of eyes and ears to see what they weren’t seeing and hear what they missed.

Second, I was moved by the passion I saw from these teachers. The love that they have for their students, their content, and our school motivates them to ask for help from a colleague.

Third, I was inspired by each of these teachers who were putting in work to make their classes more engaging, more relevant, and more real for their students.

I honestly struggled to complete my teacher moves/students moves chart because I just wanted to write things like “I love how the kids look at your with respect in their eyes” or “Even though the students were reluctant to do the song in Spanish with you, they all did it–and that’s a sign of respect for you, their peers, or at least resignation that they need to play along”. I tried to stay in the template and write benign questions like “how do you think blah blah blah”.

What stands out the most is my last visit of the morning. I popped into a Science classroom where the teacher is building a program modeled after the GRuB School. I kind of knew that there was a group of “at risk” young men and women working with this highly effective and passionate teacher to develop social/emotional skills that translate into academic skills such as being on time, attending classes, and doing homework. I knew that some of the students in this program were in my English classes. But I hadn’t put two and two together–I didn’t realize just how many of them I knew. I sat on the edge of the circle listening to students giving each other advice on real life issues from dealing with parents to handling annoying teachers or friends, I wanted to burst into tears. Actually, I did…later when I was alone. Although each of those students struggle to control their actions and choices in a world of chaos, I watched them respond each other with thoughtfulness. I saw them respond to the firm but loving redirection from the teacher. I saw my students in a new light.

Later, when they came to class, I felt like we had a secret. They knew that I knew something about them that I hadn’t known before. They also knew (I hope) that I would listen and support them in a way I might not have before.

I left school today unsure if I made a difference for the teachers I observed. I do know however, that these teachers made a difference to me.

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.

The Kids without Lug Nuts

I live in a rural area. I have been teaching here for many years—same classroom, same job assignment. In July I left my teaching job, and started a new job—still in education, but out of the classroom.

I have been in my new job about two months, and am definitely enjoying it! However, last week I had the first serious tug at the heart I have felt since leaving my longtime school.

My two sons and I were running down the road, enjoying the summer. On the way back home, not too far from my house, I see a car pulled over. Two people get out, look at their tires, and just kind of stand there. My younger son notes a cat in the car. I note the car is full of items, mostly packed in trash bags.

As we came up to the car, one of the people says, “It’s Ms. Johnson!” I see that it is two former students, a young man and a young woman, who left school a handful of years ago. They are now in their early twenties, and they look incredibly relieved to see me.

The girl says, “The tire just came off my car–I think someone stole my lug nuts!” I don’t know a lot about cars, but even I could see the rear wheel hanging off at an odd angle. I leaned over to look—where lug nuts should be, there were none.

She said they were camping last night, and there were some unsavory characters at the campsite next to them. The young woman suspects her car was vandalized.

Someone had removed the lug nuts from the car of my former students–this is not something that would happen by accident. In addition, the boy doesn’t have a cell phone, and the girl’s phone battery had died.

I offer to run back to my house, get my phone, and then run back so they can use my phone to call for some assistance. I also spend more time talking to my two former students.

The girl tells me that she is feeling lucky. She says just a few minutes ago she felt unlucky–their lug nuts had been stolen, and they broke down in the middle of nowhere. Now she says she feels fortunate: they didn’t get into a major accident when the wheel came off, and then I came by.

More phone calls. It becomes clear they need a ride somewhere. The plan is I will drive the girl into town, and the boy will stay with the car and the cat. The girl will get her friend’s mom to come back and bring some lug nuts.

I go get my car and come back to pick up the girl. She said they lost their apartment and had been homeless since June, living out of their car in local campgrounds and in the woods.

She said it hadn’t been a good week. She recently started a new job, but then had gotten food poisoning, likely from something she ate while camping. Given their lack of access to refrigerator, this seemed a good possibility. She called in sick, but her new boss had said she couldn’t call in sick so soon after starting a new job, so then she lost her job.

The girl told me this morning her boyfriend had become very frustrated. He had tried to go fishing at the lake they were camping at, but he only had a handline. A handline, for those of you not familiar, is literally just that—a hook on a line. No pole—you just throw the line out with your arm. Usually her boyfriend had good success, but this morning he had been stymied. Another person had come along, fishing close to him with a pole, and that person got all the fish.

Being outfished by someone because they have a pole and you don’t? That is rural poverty.

I drop the girl off at her friend’s place. Thinking about what their breakfast must have been like without any fish or much other food, I head to the grocery store. I buy sandwiches, cat food, and a few other groceries.

I drive back down the road, and bring the food to the young man, who is very appreciative. I tell him I will be back in a while to check on how things are going with getting the lug nuts on once they get them.

These young people were already living on the edge, and I wanted to do what I could to make sure they didn’t go completely off a precipice.

I was pretty shaken up by the day’s events. These two former students had only left school a few years ago, and now they had almost nothing. I felt as though we may have failed them in school, yet I remember numerous care teams, interventions, and services provided for both.

There were a number of issues here: paid sick leave, low income housing, unemployment.

Education was also an issue. One of these young people had graduated from high school, and one had not.

Teachers are at their best when they care individually for students. That is something that is difficult for us to measure with our certification and evaluation systems, but it doesn’t make it any less important. I do remember caring for these students in school, and I know my colleagues did as well.

My former students did not have the money for a tow, and if their car were to be impounded, along with everything they own in it, they would not be able to afford to release it. It would be devastating for them. Setbacks have a disproportionate impact when you are poor.

As educators we work to support every student, and sometimes we do not succeed. Efforts that combine caring for individual students with systems that support families and communities should continue and expand. We can do more.

After some time, their friend’s mom shows up with the girl…and lug nuts! My former students introduce me.

“She’s our teacher,” they say. I never felt so proud.

I bring tools and more water to drink. Soon my former students are off. They were going to make it into town.

On this day, they were both very gracious and appreciative for the little I provided: some food, the loan of some tools, and a bit of human kindness.

Maren Johnson, NBCT, is a longtime high school science teacher who recently left the classroom. She now works for a state agency on policy related to educator certification. She lives in a beautiful area of rural Washington state with her husband and children.

Building Relationships With Legislators – Sharing My Stories and Changing the Message

The year I graduated from high school, 1994, marked the introduction of the phrase “failing public schools.” This phrase grabbed hold of society and took off, leading to twenty-plus years of rhetoric on “bad” teachers, union thugs who protect “bad” teachers, and schools which are not meeting the needs of our children. This led to the standardization of classrooms, curriculum, and teaching via governmental regulations. Today, in 2017, we still hear this phrase, and continue to feel the destructive consequences left in its wake, most importantly the increasing lack of respect for educators.

Most recently, over the past several years and particularly with this new federal administration, we’ve seen a huge push for privatization and independent charter schools. The message is that public schools are failing our children and that private and charter schools can provide students with more attention and individual instruction. As an educator and a parent with children in both public and charter schools, I can honestly say that public schools have the ability to offer much more than charter schools, provide more diverse learning opportunities, and are far better at differentiating instruction. Imagine for a moment if all schools had to fight for local funding, via fundraisers and other money-making endeavors. Which schools would have the most money? Which schools would be able to offer the most opportunities? Which schools would your child be able to attend? Which children and which zip codes would be left behind?

The key to changing the rhetoric on public schools is to take charge of the messaging. For far too long, private corporations, government officials, and the media, who by and large have no experience in education, have controlled what the public sees and hears about public schools, and therefore, control the mindset of the masses. It is time for us educators to take that influence back and teach our communities how great our public schools really are, and that with their support, they could be even better.

Over the past two years I have worked to communicate with the state legislators in both the district in which I work, and also the district in which I live. I would periodically contact them via email and phone, and would invite them to my classroom. Repeatedly, I did not hear back. During that time, I puzzled over this problem. How could I be a better messenger and get these decision-makers into my school and into my classroom to actually see and experience what we do? It was at a National Board Hill Day in February 2017, that my ideas finally came together. As I visited many senators and representatives throughout the day, I realized that much of what they hear focuses on what public schools lack, not on what makes us succeed. That’s when I decided to start a letter writing campaign.

After some planning, I sent my first newsletter – “April Update – The Great Things Happening in Our Public Schools.” In it I outlined some incredible activities and experiences educators in my school and in my district were providing their students. I was specific. I told stories. I painted a picture of the everyday in our schools and I immediately got a response. Mostly, our state leaders thanked me for the update and encouraged me to continue to reach out. It was much more than I’d received in two whole years. I had begun to build real relationships with the individuals directly responsible for creating laws for funding our schools.

It was after my second update in May that there was real movement. Two legislators, Republican Senator Baumgartner, and Republican Representative Volz, agreed to come to my classroom. We immediately set up dates and times for June, as they were between special sessions. With it being such a contentious time, as legislators were working to meet the demands of the McLeary decision, I was shocked and so excited. My focus on success was working.

Both visits happened within a week of one another and at a time when the testing season was coming to a close and the school year was wrapping up, but things had not slowed down in my classroom. Both legislators had the opportunity to meet my diverse student group (I teach Newcomer English Language Learners), to learn about what we do in our classroom, and to help my students, new to our nation and our school system, practice their math skills. Watching the interactions and answering the questions that followed was exhilarating. Both Senator Baumgartner and Representative Volz asked insightful questions and showed genuine interest in my class and in my students. Both agreed to visit again in the fall when they would have more time. Since then, I have had commitments from both Senator Billig and Representative Riccelli to also visit in the fall and Representative Volz and I are collaborating on bringing my class over to Olympia for a tour and to meet with the House Education Committee.

It’s a simple thing. Each month I gather stories about what’s awesome about our schools and send an email to my elected officials. It’s not hard. Our schools are great and I have a lot to share about the good work we’re doing! By focusing on our success, it is easy to convince decision-makers to continue and expand their support for our public schools. We live education every day. We must control the messages our communities receive about what we do and how much we care about their children.

Join me in this effort. Write up a story about your classroom or work with your colleagues. Find out who your legislators are that represent where you live and where you work. Push send and see what happens.

This will make all the difference.

Mandy Manning experiences learning with English language learners in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. Nearing 20 years in education and as a teacher-leader, she endeavors to spread Cultural Competency to students, educators, administrators, and the community at large. She is a National Board Certified Teacher in English as a new language and the 2018 ESD 101 Regional Teacher of the Year.

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?

 

 

We Need to Be About The Work: NNSTOY 2017

Educators are hungry for real professional learning opportunities. For fresh, relevant, and timely content. For ideas that can be applied tomorrow. For a community of professionals, like-minded educators who cause us to shout “amen” and to suck in our breath with an “oh snap”.

This is why I concluded my summer conference tour with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) event. You don’t need to be a state teacher of the year or finalist to attend (my review from last year Professional Interloper) so I recruited two teachers from my school and joined the WATAC representatives. I spent five days in sweaty DC because this is a conference that doesn’t just talk about the work—NNSTOY tries to be about the work. A member driven organization, NNSTOY focuses their programming around issues of social justice and equity.

This year the conference focused on four strands; each with a guiding question. It was strand 1 “Elevating Our Voices for Educational Equity” and the essential question “how can we support the type of schooling (and society) that values, rather than marginalizes” that stayed with me all week. It followed me like campfire smoke I couldn’t wash out of my clothes.

In the last few years we are seeing more and more programs slap on the word “equity” (it’s the new “diversity”) but many groups don’t actually know what it means or make effort to try to understand what it means. This conference actively seeks to include a variety of perspectives and voices from the planning team down to the sessions offered. While last year’s program was solid, I noticed several changes this year. First, I noticed that more people of color were presenting as keynotes and in sessions. Second, I noticed there were more people of color attending. In fact, there was a concerted effort to include Black male educators as participants and as presenters in a way I’ve never seen at an education conference. Third, I noticed more folks engaged in conversations about race and equity (and it wasn’t only the people of color).

What’s the big deal, you may be asking. I’ve attended countless professional development opportunities where the presenters and participants were all white. In the same way I have concerns about a conference where mostly men present their ideas to a roomful of women in a profession dominated by women (yes, both of these really happen), I’m troubled by the lack of effort to counter homogeneous professional settings that lead to groupthink and spread of a dominant culture that isn’t reflective of the diversity within our classrooms. Understanding equity starts with intentional organizational reflection about what creates inequity.

We can create and support the type of schooling and society that values equity.

It starts with the teachers. Don’t be afraid to interrogate the demographics of our school and professional learning communities. NNSTOY is by no means perfect. It was still full of interchangeable white women (as is the profession), but it’s trying to be a model for what true inclusion might look like. It’s intentionally creating a professional learning space where white, black, and brown educators come together to wrestle with what it means to teach for social justice, racial justice, and equity. Get in the habit of looking around the room–who’s at the table? Who’s even invited to participate in the conversation? What’s the ratio of men to women, young & old, black/white/brown? These details matter. We need to learn from people who have lived a different life than we have. We need to learn with others who don’t live where we do, dress like we do, speak like we might, or racially identify as we do, but who are working on behalf of all our students.

It flows into our classrooms. We continually need to examine our curriculum. Do your students see themselves in the texts? Are they reading about experiences other than their own? Wesley Williams, II (watch the video on his home page) framed the entire conference he asked us to consider “And How Are the Children?” If we frame the work we do with this question in mind, our student would actually be at the center of the choices we make. I have to ask myself how are the children in room 200? I want to answer–they’re good. The children are talented. The children are brilliant. The children are beautiful. Concurrently, I have to face the less comfortable answer. The children are homeless. The children underfed. The children are hurting. Dang it. I’m back to the question.

It moves through our system. When was the last time you looked around your school? How is the leadership structured? Who gets hired? Who influences the decision making? What do we believe about our students? How do we talk about our students? For more on this point, listen to Nate Bowling’s interview with Jose Vilson “A Conversation Worth Having,”

One of the most significant takeaways from NNSTOY 2017 was that it doesn’t really matter if you’ve earned a teaching award or other recognition– we all have the power and the responsibility to lift our voices about educational equity and support that type of schooling and society that values equitable access and opportunity for all our students.