Category Archives: Life in the Classroom

The Tyranny of the TTWWADI and Why Change Is So Hard

I’m in a new role this year, having been elected last spring to serve as the president of our education association. We’re also heading into a full contract bargain this coming spring.

As I’ve been learning about contract negotiations (and the posturing, games, and politics involved), I keep asking myself a very simple question: Why does it have to be this way? Why the “us” vs. “them”? Why the feeling like it’s all about sliding back-and-forth a series of numbers face down on scraps of paper? Why the constant “poker game” metaphors about holding cards close, reading your opponent, bluffing and calling bluffs?

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Happiness in the Classroom

My first year or two as a teacher, I was a yeller.

My temper would get the best of me when my repertoire of classroom management skills proved too shallow. Unfortunately, it “worked.” The class of 14 year olds would go silent. They’d comply. When the bell rang they’d scramble to the door and away, gasping for the air my tirade had sucked from the room. It didn’t happen often, but that it happened at all was too much.

In hindsight, the yelling was the culmination of too many extremes: large classes, too few resources; kids with profound struggles, me with a dearth of strategies. That’s no excuse.

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Teacher Dreams

imageIt always starts with a dream. A real dream; not an aspiration or goal, but the kind you have when you sleep. One year it was a poorly-executed field trip to Manhattan (with fourth graders) and another year I had a class of forty but no classroom. I was expected to teach them out on the lawn.

In this year’s late-summer teacher dream I was giving a practice spelling test to my kiddos and the third word on the list was “sh*t.” It was a difficult situation, especially trying to come up with an appropriate context sentence. I remember silently cursing the publishers from whom we adopted the curriculum.

My annual awkward teacher dream is how I know my summer is winding down. The next phase involves completely going over my plans for the year. Then there’s the “Leadership Team Retreat” where we revisit our School Improvement Plan and chart out corresponding Professional Development. After that there’s a few days of moving furniture and putting up bulletin boards, some whole-staff meetings, a slew of online, state-mandated health trainings and before I know it, kids.

But let me back up a bit, to the part where I go over my plans for the year. One thing I’ve noticed is that as the years go by, I find myself changing things less and less. Back in the day, I would practically reinvent myself every summer. Different homework plans, new classroom management programs, alternative seating plans, you name it. But now, thirty-three years in, I find myself merely tweaking.

When I first noticed this trend I felt lazy. Is this what it feels like to be burned-out old-timer? Perhaps. But maybe it’s what it feels like to be a competent veteran. I think about the major changes I used to make – classroom management, for example – and I honestly don’t feel compelled to make any major changes. Not because I’m afraid of the effort, but because it worked last year. And the year before that.

Change is good. But so is repeating something that still works. I guess the challenge is trying to figure out what to keep and what to tweak.

And believe it or not, the only thing I’m going to totally overhaul this year is my spelling curriculum.

I wonder why.

“B” is the new “F”

I’m not a fan of letter grades for many reasons. For one, in my entire career I’ve never met a single student who I believe actually became more motivated as the result of an “F.” More often than not, the “F” is demoralizing, and gets logged with all the other evidence a child might use to prove to himself he is worthless and can’t learn…despite how hard we might try to convince him otherwise.

I’m not a fan of the terminology applied to our evaluation. In many meetings and trainings, I joke about the fact that the terms (U, B, P, and D) are in fact adjectival labels…that at the end of the year I plan to have my summative label embroidered on my school polo, right below the school logo and “STAFF.” I’m a believer in the potential of our evaluation model, but I see it being undone by four little words. One word, actually: “Basic.”

Because I understand our framework, the law, and our model very deeply, I’m not personally too concerned when I have a “Basic” here or there. I also have a few “Distinguished” here or there, and I’ve said flat out to my evaluator that I never choose to aspire to anything more than “Basic” in 8.4. That one, with all respect due to Dr. Marzano, represents someplace I don’t intend to devote my personal and professional energy. (It’s true: I’m arrogant. I am good at my work; for me it’s not about being bulletproof, it’s about knowing my own professional weaknesses before my evaluator even has the chance to point them out.)

As summative conversations are happening in my district, my role with our teachers’ union and as a Marzano framework trainer means I have received many emails per day from both teachers and principals about the “Basic.” It is quite clear, that despite my hopes, “B” is the new “F.”

Despite all the talk of this being a growth model (and while it is now too cliche to use the term “growth mindset,” I am still a big believer in the essential premise of mindset as a deciding factor in success, happiness, and professional improvement), I realize that the labels themselves don’t walk the growth mindset talk. The labels are static. They “define” a teacher. As adjectives, they imply a fixed state. Thou art “Basic.”

But here’s the kicker: Almost none of the conversations I’ve had with principals and teachers have been about a summative overall “Basic” score. In almost every case, the teacher is set to receive an overall label of “Proficient.” In some cases, every one of the major criteria is set to receive a “Proficient” rating, while one or two components here or there is labeled “Basic.” The “Basic” is intolerable. It is a professional affront. And it is, very possibly, an accurate assessment of the practices taking place. The reality is that some students do perform at an “F” level, and some teachers do perform at a “B” level.

A teacher who “gives” a student an F will no doubt argue that the student “earned” the score. There will be evidence (or an absence of evidence) to support the rating. Nevertheless, I still contend that the “F” label serves to demoralize rather than motivate. The “Basic” has a similar impact…but the action I too often see motivated from the “Basic” isn’t a motivation to take action and change practice, it is a motivation to challenge the label. Just as when a student (or parent) challenges a grade with little regard to the learning it is supposed to represent, I see many of us challenging the label without much regard for the practice it is supposed to represent. In my interpretation, it isn’t necessarily the teacher’s fault for this reaction. The fault stems from  terminology the connotes a state of being rather than a description of actions.

The problem is the meaning that our system, our whole culture, applies to those labels. I know a syntactical shift won’t change everything but moving from an adjective to verb, from label to action, from fixed to fluid, could be one way to shift perspectives. An adjective defines what we are, and definitions (in our world) are fixed. A verb describes what we do, and once we’ve done what we do it is in the past; we always have the choice do something new or different in the present and future.

Word changes, you say, won’t change the fact that we are as a culture intolerant of second-places, B-minuses, and not being treated as exceptional. That’s a bigger issue. But the words we choose shape how we see ourselves and the world around us.

And I’m just pollyanna enough to believe that a student getting a rating of “Emerging” rather than a label of “F” will sense that there is perhaps hope. I believe it because I’ve seen it in my own classroom with my own students. I believe that a teacher being told his skills are “Developing” will respond differently than if he is given the label “Basic.” As it is, the “Basic” shifts our focus to the label, and away from cultivating better practice.

Teaching More than Academics—Much More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Behavior, Teacher Behavior, and Getting Cussed Out

For some reason, my heart has always been with “those kids.” The ones who sneer at you the first time you meet them. The ones who push buttons and boundaries. The frequent fliers in the “tank” (In School Suspension) and who know the campus security guards far too well.

I was talking to the principal at the smaller of the two high schools in our district recently, and without consulting my brain, my mouth spoke my truth: What a privilege it is for me to be the adult for that kid at whom they can scream “F— you, Mr. Gardner!” And then tomorrow, we can talk it through and figure out where that came from; I can teach about repairing relationships, and we can strategize how to handle it better next time…and the time after that…in a safe place where they won’t be risking their paycheck or their marriage or their freedom; in a safe place where they can start to learn some important lessons that don’t show up in the Common Core.

Read no sarcasm here, I mean it: What a privilege that I get to be that person.

While I think I’m a pretty good teacher of the academic stuff, I think what has made me successful is the way I handle moments like that. I don’t always do it perfectly; none of us do. The idea of student discipline is one that I often think over, and in particular in my role this year as a new-teacher mentor. Classroom management and discipline, creating those safe, productive educational spaces, are central lessons for the beginning of a teaching career. Recently, at a conference related to the Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) program here in Washington, this topic of how teachers handle student behavior was at the core.

It was at this conference that I was handed some data that did what data is supposed to do: It made me think.

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Making Student Growth Matter

I am no fan of standardized testing, so one of the greatest strengths of our teacher evaluation system in Washington state is that it empowers teachers to use classroom-based assessments (and data) to illustrate how they are fostering growth in students’ knowledge and skills. Closer to the kid always is the way to go, so using an assessment I designed or chose with my learners in mind will always (for me) trump using a corporate product, no matter how “standards aligned” it might claim to be.

One problem that I am seeing throughout my district and in other districts whose staff I support through WEA is that with all the many moving parts of teaching, student growth examination often ends of falling into the realm of “whatever is easiest to count.” Further, as I engage in deeper conversations with teachers who go this route, the whole student growth process becomes an exercise in compliance and thus a box to be checked.

When this occurs, we’re letting ourselves choose to waste our own time.

I have worked with teachers for several years now to design and implement student growth goals, and some patterns are starting to emerge:

What teachers are doing that works: Continue reading

Collaboration, Introversion, and Stifled Innovation

There’s a stage of social development that most kids go through somewhere between ages one and three where they engage in “parallel play.” At this stage, kids will play near one another, enjoy one another’s company, but are more “coexisting in play space” than interacting with one another’s play. One child’s play might influence the other, but they can’t really be said to be playing together.

At the risk of casting myself as developmentally arrested, parallel play is how I prefer to collaborate in my job. (We each do our own thing, have the chance to see how the other plays, maybe get inspired by what we see, and we can ask for things if we need them.)

Despite the work I do daily, I am a remarkably introverted person. I think of all of the quasi-social moments (adult to adult) in my work and how painfully exhausting those moments are… and how deeply, deeply awkward I feel when I’m not in teaching, coaching, or facilitating mode. Try to strike up a social conversation with me and I want to either (1) change the subject to talk about education policy or (2) hide under the table. Oddly, when I am in front of a classroom full of teenagers or even when I lead teacher or principal PD, I shift confidently into what, by all outward appearances, is a distinctly extroverted disposition. Though I almost always end up physically exhausted, those kinds of interactions are intellectually invigorating.

Where my introversion does emerge in my work is very specific: I do not like collaboration as it seems to be happening in the profession right now, with the emphasis on “group production and alignment” and what often feels like the sacrificing of individual innovation in order to appease the common. The net product almost never feels as satisfying as if I could have just worked independently with occasional advice and consultation of peers, then reported back to the group.

A recent article grabbed my attention because it pinged twice on my radar: It referenced teacher mentorship and introversion. The article from The Atlantic about how teacher burnout is more likely among introverts (the link is worth reading from to top to bottom), highlighted how collaboration is prized so vehemently in modern school systems and how incompatible and unsustainable these are for those of us who tend toward introversion… to the point that it drives some out of the profession altogether.

What it boils down to for me personally is this: for introverts, collaboration isn’t actually about doing work. Collaboration is a social exercise. For an introvert like me, such a social exercise is stressful and exhausting and inefficient. Worse, it feels like it allows no room for any innovative or creative impulses that don’t feel instantly palatable to the group.

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Classroom Management and the Teacher Shortage

Of the lessons I learned about classroom behavior management over the years, the one that has had the greatest payoff is my realization that the behavior a student presents is less important to address than the conditions which precipitate that behavior.

In other words, if Johnny is acting out in class all the time, I could perpetually redirect him, eventually punish him, and finally succeed in getting him to be quiet. A better approach, however, would be to deeply consider what conditions are causing Johnny to act out all the time, and then address those conditions, or help Johnny be better at coping with those conditions.

Treating the action has the potential to shut Johnny down (which in the moment, may appear to be the goal). Treating the conditions helps create the new conditions wherein Johnny might succeed.

When I read recently that during a work session our legislature had been briefed on the growing teacher shortage state- and nation-wide, which included discussion about promising practices in recruiting and training new teachers, I immediately thought of classroom management.

Disturbingly, this discussion referenced ways to “make it easier” for people to get on the pathway toward becoming a teacher. (Seriously, it is not that hard to become a teacher when we think of “become” as “get a job as.” It’s just that no one in their right mind wants to do it anymore. Let’s pause and think about the consequences of easier paths to teaching for a second: If we draw a pool of applicants who make their decision to become teachers because it was easy to become a teacher, what will happen when they face the incredibly hard work of actual teaching?)

Making it easier for people to become teachers doesn’t solve the problem.

Providing alternative pathways to certification doesn’t solve the problem.

Districts actively recruiting undergrads or setting up university partnerships doesn’t solve the problem.

We need to directly and boldly address the conditions that have created turnover and the teacher shortage. If we do not, the problem will not go away: Instead, we will perpetually rotate through failed solutions, always blaming the solution for being the wrong answer when in reality we’re answering the wrong question.

Here is what I believe has created the teacher turnover and teacher shortage problem. Unless these get fixed, it won’t matter how we recruit, how easy we make it to get a teaching license, or what partnerships schools and universities try to cultivate.

Our real problems: Continue reading

There’s Always Hope

esperanzaBy Tom White

I was sitting around the other morning thinking about former students. And when I do that, my thoughts invariably turn to Vincent. Because Vincent was memorable.

Eighteen years ago, on the first day of third grade, when I had my class “write something about themselves,” he just sat there. So I took him outside to see what was wrong. “You can write about something else; anything you want,” I offered, “just write something.” He turned to me and screamed, “I can’t write!” and threw his pencil farther than I would have thought possible.

That pretty much set the tone for what was to be a long year.

Vincent was tough and angry. He acted out. He threw things: pencils, books, foul language, a chair. He refused to work. He refused to be quiet. He refused to sit down. But what made him legendary was the passion with which he did and didn’t do those things. To get an idea of how hostile Vincent was, picture your most challenging student ever and multiply that image by the number of years you’ve been teaching. That was Vincent.

So I was sitting around, wondering (and fearing) what he was up to. With time on my hands, I Googled him and looked him up on Facebook and before long I found him. And after exchanging a few texts we agreed to meet for a few beers.

And he told me his story.

Although he couldn’t articulate it at the time, Vincent knew he was smart, but he also knew he couldn’t do what the other kids could do. He had to move around and talk in order to process information. Sitting still, listening and reading, didn’t work for him. He described school as a plunge into a dark cylinder; the more he tried to engage on his terms, the more we forced him to engage on our terms and the angrier he got. And the angrier he got, the more trouble he got into and the farther he plunged into that darkness.

In other words, we failed him.

But he wouldn’t let me tell him that. He takes full responsibility for his behavior; then and now. He remembers feeling terrible for acting out. Day after day. And now he feels embarrassed, and worries that some of us quit our jobs after a year with him.

That surprised me. Because the familiar narrative when it comes to kids like Vincent is that they’re angry about something; they take it out on the world and they hold the world responsible for the consequences.

This narrative also has one of us turning Vincent around. Setting him straight. But none of us did that for him. There was no Annie Sullivan; no Jaime Escalante. Not that we didn’t try. I remember countless conversations, trying to figure him out. I remember trying to connect with him, going to his Little League games. Nothing.

It was Vincent who turned Vincent around, along with a junkie house painter that he worked with after stumbling through high school. This guy apparently scared him straight; talked him into going to community college, holding himself up as the eventual alternative.

The strung-out painter was the catalyst, but it was Vincent who enrolled in classes and got straight A’s for two years. And it was Vincent who got accepted into ten different universities, including Stanford and UW. And it was Vincent who received a full ride to Purdue, where he graduated two years later. And it was all Vincent who landed a great job at a major tech firm, where he’s been promoted several times.

Most of us are pretty realistic. We know that every Quinton Tarantino movie has a villain and every Warren Zevon song has a hero. And we know those characters are based on real people; people who plowed through the public education system, leaving terrified teachers in their wake. And we know what usually happens to those people.

But sometimes there’s a happy ending, and I was privileged to spend an evening with one.

Vincent is relaxed, funny and centered. He’s completely different from the feral nightmare I knew 18 years ago. I couldn’t be happier for Vincent, his wife and their two-week old son; a kid who has no idea how lucky he is.

And for me, the message is as simple as it was powerful: there’s always hope.