Category Archives: Professional Development

On Google and Soft Skills and Things We Already do Well

21st century skills. Individual learning. STEM. These are just a few of the buzz words flitting around students heads as they prepare for their lives beyond high school.

The push for STEM has been strong and consistent for years now (8-10 depending on who you ask). STEM has been prescribed as necessary for students to survive in a world we cannot imagine and for jobs that do not exist. The truth is that education has always been possibly training students for jobs that do not exist in an unimaginable world. The details have changed, but the general progression of society and culture has not. How could it?

Two recent research projects at Google “Project Oxygen,” and “Project Aristotle,” have studied the behemoth company intensely (not a surprise from Google) and discovered the following are the traits of their most successful employees:

Conclusions from “Project Oxygen” (2013) as reported in the Washington Post:

  • The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Conclusions from “Project Aristotle” (2017) as reported in the Washington Post:

  • Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

As an English teacher it is hard for me to find these conclusions surprising. Both of these lists echo reasons to read literature of all sorts and across all time periods, and reasons to write analytically and reflectively. Reasons supported by scientists and personal experience alike. These conclusions are also solid support for the argument for a liberal arts education (I highly recommend Fareed Zakaria’s great book).

The Washington Post article focus on what Google’s conclusions mean for students, and as a teacher I cannot help thinking about what they mean for education as a whole.  I understand the desire to glom onto STEM as a focus for students, because the outcomes for STEM are, more often than not, tangible and measurable. Plus, STEM is really important. The outcomes for humanities classes often encompass (even when they zero in on tangible activities or skills) the above decidedly intangible set of soft skills. How do we measure a student’s capacity to “possess insights into others?” Or even measure critical thinking? These are inherently messy proposals.

My district and most of our surrounding districts have begun a process of embracing the ambiguity of this situation. We are learning about “Deep Learning.” Explaining deep learning is as convoluted and problematic as fostering generosity in a student. These are huge, abstract, human concepts. The question I keep finding at the forefront of my mind is this one: what differentiates “deeper learning” (or insert your own professional development term of choice here) from what we used to call “best practices?”

It increasingly seems to me that we have all the tools we need. Bloom’s taxonomy, questioning strategies, concept based learning, the teaching-learning cycle of assess, teach, experiment, assess, etc. I know the terms for these concepts and strategies varies, but the application does not. The application is as old as the allusion in Google’s research project: Aristotle. Or older even. I really do think education is more about how individual teachers connect and get individual students “there” (there being that “deeper,” epiphany-laden place…or Plato’s allegory for education: the cave—my other theory is that our job is just to keep leading students out of cave after cave after cave and to learn to see right alongside them as we move forward).

I don’t think there is a panacea. What if professional development took a deep breath and just let teachers do what they know how to do? What if pro-d just started pointing out things teachers are doing well? What if pro-d (and those that oversee it and evaluate teachers) practiced being good coaches, listening well, making sure teachers felt safe, supported, and heard? If we practiced this at the pro-d level nationally, state-wide, district by district, school by school, what would be the effect? Would it trickle down into the classroom and into the student’s lives?

My great concern is that studies like Google’s lead to a rash of “teaching empathy” lessons, where well-meaning educators explicitly teach soft skills. In my experience this is like explicitly teaching grammar. When I teach grammar in isolation, students become better grammarians, but not better writers. When I teach grammar in the context of the reading students engage with (no one better to teach complex sentences than David Foster Wallace), or in the context of their own writing, they become better writers. If we teach empathy in isolation of sympathetic characters, situations, or engaging details students might become better clinical psychologists (?) but not necessarily better practitioners of empathy in their daily or work lives. They need to experience it in realistic conditions.

I will put forth here that most teachers do this well already. I mean, those Google employees in the study are products of our school systems.  I believe teachers can focus on two primary things: 1) make students feel safe, 2) challenge them with rich content.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed offers a good list of the conditions ideal for learning: awareness of the subject matter, interest, motivation, relevance, engagement, reinforcement, and support. All seven of these are created naturally in a safe environment with rich content. I don’t intend to sound reductive, as this simple focus is extremely difficult. What could be more important?

National Boards: Let Me Tell You Why

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

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

Good questions. I think I have some answers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I highly recommend it.

“Teachers are members of learning communities”

Earlier this week, Shari shared the great news about accomplished teaching here in Washington (1,435 teachers earned National Board Certification and 533 teachers renewed their National Board Certification in this last cycle).

When I earned my National Board Certification in 2006, I had no idea what an impact it was going to have on my career.

We often hear about the National Board Certification process: it fosters reflection on and close examination of student needs and our responsive practice. Many teachers who go through the process share how it helped focus their lens on how their knowledge of students informs practice as they move up that “Architecture of Accomplished Teaching.” There are those “Five Core Propositions” around which the process is centered, as well:

(Image source)

For me, earning my certification was a watershed moment around Proposition 5: Teachers are members of learning communities.

Specifically, I realized that my learning community wasn’t limited to the Friday PLC meetings I attended. In fact, my community extended across the whole state of Washington and beyond.

One of the best…and hardest…things about being a teacher is that you can be by yourself in your room, doing what you decide is best for the kids sitting in front of you. There is the opportunity for tremendous autonomy, creativity, and personal choice. That autonomy might be nice, but it might leave us unaware of the opportunities for learning that can occur when we connect our classrooms to others.

After earning my NBPTS certification, I ended upon a few email lists. Usually that is an annoyance, but when I started getting emails from names like Jeanne Harmon, Terese Emry (those names might ring a bell to some of you readers), it didn’t read as the typical spam email that filled my inbox. Instead, it was about connecting teachers, fostering teacher leadership, amplifying teacher voice, and making a difference within and beyond the classroom.

Earning my NBPTS certification connected me with a community of talented, creative and passionate teachers. Those teachers existed before, like me, doing their best work in front of roomfuls of kids. Those extra letters after our names, though, that “NBCT,” instantly built bridges to connect classrooms otherwise isolated by open miles, even whole states.

Since 2006, I’ve met and learned from elementary teachers in tiny districts far flung across our state, middle school specialists from urban districts on the east coast, and NBCT-administrators leading systems change near and far. What I’ve learned has shaped my knowledge and skill as a teacher leader, and as importantly, has added skills and tools to my repertoire as a classroom teacher.

Congratulations to the new and newly-renewed NBCTs across our state, not only for what you’ve accomplished for your students but also for becoming a part of a thriving network of amazing teachers… your learning community just expanded!

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

With the recent news that 1,435 teachers recently earned National Board Certification and 533 teachers renewed National Board Certification, the State of Washington has much to celebrate. This achievement means a great deal to the teachers, districts, cohorts, and our state education system, including a variety of agencies and organizations that provide supports to those seeking certification. However, for those who’ve just earned certification, your race to the finish line might feel it’s over, but In fact, it’s just beginning.

Thirteen years ago I began my National Board Certification journey. I was a fourth year teacher, both new to Washington and my district.  I was the first in my district to attempt certification much less complete the process.  I remember trying to explain it to my students–many had never seen a video camera in the classroom before. Most people in my district hadn’t heard of this certification, much less how to support it. I struggled through the certification process without the supports that exist in the system today, but with the mindset that I would finish what I started.  And I did. In all transparency, I barely made it and certified by one point. That one point might have made the difference between certifying in 2005 versus 2006 but the process involved created more growth for me than just arriving at the destination.  After certifying, I took on a challenge.  I wanted to open the doors for other teachers to deeply analyze their practice using the structure and framework provided by the National Board process. This is where my leadership began. I wanted to be the person who helped clear the pathways so that others who wanted to, could travel with a bit more ease. Thirteen years later, I’m proud to say that my district has many National Board Certified Teachers and an effective cohort system that supports teachers and counselors as they journey down this road.

I oftentimes share with candidates that the process of earning National Board Certification is more of a marathon and less of a sprint.  Figuring out when to start the race depends on the individual teacher/counselor. There is no perfect time to start. I started the process at a critical time in my career. I was just past the triage stage–you know, when you’re staying up until midnight planning for tomorrow’s lesson, unsure of where you’re going or how to get there.  Now, I could see the big picture and better understand my pacing, skill development, and how to write assessments.  But I certainly didn’t feel settled. I needed National Board Certification to push me, to develop me, and to help me find more rhythm. I questioned the triage strategies and routines I’d already established. I needed this, like a runner needs fuel.  Analyzing my work fed my soul and honed my skills to make me a reflective practitioner.   

The growth didn’t just come from the process.  Certification was a pivotal turning point in my teaching career. Who knows, perhaps it was the one point differential that activated change in me.  Perhaps it was the adrenaline rush that comes from finding out that I certified.  But after learning that I certified, I began to see myself as a teacher leader.  I became more involved in organizations that promote and support highly effective teaching practices. I began advocating for students at a building and district level. I understood that my voice could be heard and that my personal struggle through the process brought validation and credibility to the table when I talked with administrators about the needs of students.  I took on more leadership roles, participated in building decision making, and felt inspired to be a change agent for my community.  I took risks–used cutting edge resources, created new lessons, developed new strategies and all the while, reflected upon each change to determine what worked, what didn’t, and why (a process I practiced through National Board and continue to use today).  And while many of my colleagues who aren’t NBCTs may be doing these things too, this certification caused me to go down this path.  The best part is, that my journey into teacher leadership is still ongoing. Like so many other NBCTs, my race isn’t over yet. Heck, we’re just now picking up speed. 

 

 

National Board Certification, the Second Time Around

Shelly Milne

Lately, I have been reading a lot about the importance of helping students develop a growth mindset. A student with a growth mindset knows she can grow through hard work and perseverance. Right now, I am totally embracing the concept of the “not yet” mind set. Thank you, Carol Dweck, for celebrating the idea of encouraging students to ‘stick with’ hard things. This concept is especially important to me because I have been a National Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescence English-Language Arts (EA ELA) since 2004, and three years ago I decided to attempt certification in new area.

After renewing my certification in English-Language Arts, I moved to the position of Library Media Specialist in my building. As a Jump Start trainer and year-long National Board candidate support provider, I started reading the standards for Library Media Certification, and, yes, I saw some connections to my language arts standards, but I also noticed other areas that were unique to Library Media. I started thinking, “I need to learn these new standards and work on a second National Board Certification.”

Now achieving National Board Certification in Library Media is important to me because, after spending over three years working as a Teacher-Librarian, I realize the role and importance of Library Media Specialists is not fully understood. I earned a Library Media Endorsement from Antioch University three years ago, and before that experience I didn’t really know the significance of the role either. Earlier this school year, I was asked to cover another teacher’s class. I said, “I would, but I have a 5th grade library class coming in at that time.”

I was surprised when I heard this response, “We’ll get someone else to cover the library, so you can cover a core language arts class.” Fortunately, I have been around awhile, so I felt comfortable saying, “No, I am going to stay with the class I prepared to teach because I am doing important work in the library.” This attitude that library media is an extra add-on that isn’t as important as core classes is something I would like to address as a teacher-leader and earning my Library Media Certification will help me with this task.

I may be feeling anxious about finding out my scores, but working on a second certification has reminded me of just how much courage it takes to open up your practice for evaluation. It’s more than just a considerable time commitment. As a National Board Candidate, you tell assessors what you did; how and why you did it that way; and share student results and your reflection on the process. Then you send in your work and wait…and wait…and wait some more. Waiting for the score report where assessors tell you how much evidence of accomplished practice they found in your written commentary and other submitted artifacts. No teacher wants to read the words: shows little or no evidence of accomplished teaching practice.

So like all candidates who are waiting for their scores, I am nervous. As a National Board support provider, I am also nervous for the candidates I have been working with for the last three years. I know first hand how much energy, time, and commitment they have invested in this process. When they started in 2014, they didn’t know what score it would take to certify, but they were willing to open their practice to scrutiny and start the journey toward certification. I have the utmost respect for the pioneers of the NB 3.0.

I have been rehearsing what I will say to people if I don’t certify on my first attempt in this new certification area. When people ask I plan to remember the work of Carol Dweck and simply say, “Not yet.” This mindset is actually not a new concept for me. I have always embraced the “not yet” mindset. Not yet just means I am continuing to grow. As a 30+ year educator, a growth mindset makes sense. In over thirty years in this profession, I have never completed a school year, and yelled at the end, “I nailed it! All of it!” This teaching thing is complex. Like all accomplished educators, I always end the year reflecting on where I nailed it, and where I missed the mark.

So even though I am a little nervous as I anticipate Score Release Day on December 16. I do know this if my score is 110 or more, I will celebrate with all the thousands of new NBCTs across the country, and if my score is 109 or less I am still going to celebrate the growth I have experienced so far after digging deeper into what an accomplished Library Media Specialist knows and is able to do. After seeing my scores, I will do what I have always done. I will roll up my sleeves and decide what I need to learn, understand, and show in my next attempt because that’s what accomplished teachers do every single day.

 

Biography: Shelly Milne is National Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescence English Language Arts. LA. She certified in 2004, and renewed in 2012. Four years ago, she moved from a 7th grade Humanities classroom teacher at Cashmere Middle School into the position of teacher-librarian. She earned her endorsement in library media from Antioch University. She is currently a National Board Candidate in Library Media. She provides candidates with yearlong support and works as a Washington Education Association Jump Start Trainer. She’s also member of the National Education Association Jump Start Team.

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.

Certification Changes: Pro and Con

When the last minute education legislation passed this summer, it included a provision eliminating the requirement that teachers earn a second tier of certification after our Residency Certificate.

This move was celebrated across the state with teachers unenrolling themselves from ProTeach programs and National Board Cohorts. Now, instead of pursuing one of those two second-tier certification options, a teacher needs only to earn 100 clock hours before the expiration of their certificate in order to remain legal.

From one perspective, it is a win. Earning the second tier certificate required time, money, and no small amount of stress…on top of the work a teacher already had to do. Teachers now might have more time for their families or those second (or third) jobs so many of us hold down. Not having to do ProTeach or National Boards definitely lightens the load for many.

On the other hand, though, it is one more move to de-professionalize our profession. Already, I’ve ranted a little about lowering the bar for teachers. Now that incentives such as the state’s salary schedule rewarding the attainment of higher degrees will be phased out*, there is less and less to extrinsically motivate continued focus on continually improving our practice. Of course, extrinsic motivators are not the “right” motivators (remember, we teachers are supposed to give hours for less pay than similarly-educated professionals in other fields out of the goodness of our hearts, we knew what we signed up for, the internet trolls quickly point out). But, unless compelled to by rule or motivated to by a tangible benefit, most of us choose to focus on the work already heaped on our plates rather than consider ways to examine our practice in the way ProTeach is intended to and National Boards does.

I believe, though, that in giving up a mandatory second-tier certification, we’ve allowed one more blow to the professionalism of our field. Given the dire (and increasing) need for teachers to staff schools properly, further de-professionalizing teaching might net a benefit in the short term, but I believe in looking at the long game: In the long run, it weakens the profession as a whole.

If a key issue with second tier certification is around cost and time, that is a symptom of an issue to be addressed: Why is the cost prohibitive? Perhaps because it is disproportionate to overall compensation. Why is the time prohibitive? Perhaps because the demands on teachers’ time are already too great.

I would have rather seen the state address those two issues in courageous, real ways: properly fund salaries (rather than play the shell game that was played) and fund systems in a way that permits schools to think creatively about how teacher time looks during the work day. For the latter, I’m talking about greater time during a teacher’s day for planning, assessment, collaboration, and the work that has to be done in order to make the time with students more effective.

Like the salary shell game (Top teacher salaries of $90K! Early career teachers get a raise!),  I think we’ve been duped around certification as well (No more hoops to jump through!). Eliminating the second tier certification doesn’t do a single thing to solve the problems we are facing in our system. It is a token move to pacify a subset of the angry masses. We’ve been shown a something shiny and appealing, but consideration for the long term ripple effect is waved off or ignored outright.

Yes, we might not have to put in the same time or money for a second tier certificate, but at what cost to the profession?


*CORRECTION: Previous versions of this post referred to a “sunset” for the National Board bonus/incentive. I had understood that the long-term vision for the National Board incentive was that it was to be phased out as salary schedules shift from state-driven to locally-driven, but I was mistaken. The National Board incentive will continue to be funded in the FY2018 budget, but as always, the long term continuation of this funding will be a key budget point for teachers to pay attention to.

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.

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