Category Archives: Professional Development

Professional Learning Interloper

One of the greatest myths about public school teachers is that we have the summer off. Certainly, it’s nice to have a few days where the alarm doesn’t ring at 5am or to forget what day of the week it is, but most teachers, in fact, spend the summer finding themselves again as adults by connecting with family (and working out or going to the dentist), by working a second job to help pay for expenses, and by stretching themselves as learners–which means, finding relevant professional learning opportunities.

These professional learning opportunities create a space in which teacher can deeply reflect on what did/didn’t work last year and make the creative changes needed. Although exhausted by the last day of school, I anticipate attending workshops such as building retreat days, AP institute, GLAD training, or tech conferences that push my thinking. While research shows that the best professional learning is job-embedded and on-going, one-time conferences have a place–they’re a little surge of energy that’s just enough to wake you up. They give us a drone’s-eye view by showing us that we are connected to teachers across this state and around the nation.

However, this summer calendar was oddly clear. So, I decided to interlope. I tagged along with my husband, the WA STOY (see Lessons from the Road) to DC, Colorado, and Illinois. I eavesdropped at the Education Commission of the States during Happy Hour debriefing sessions. At the Aspen Institute Program on Education & Society (special invite only event!), I secretly read articles from the syllabus and chitchatted over dinner about policy with incredible leaders in equity work from across the country. The final conference of the summer was the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) where Nate gave a lunch time keynote speech. To my delight, the NNSTOY conference was open to “any teacher”. Alas, once I arrived, I learned that it really wasn’t any teacher (only a few of us were without titles like STOY or finalist of ___), but I was already there, my registration paid, and Katherine Bassett, the conference organizer, far too gracious to kick me out.

I was eager to release my inner nerd, especially because this year’s theme was “Bridging Theory and Practice.” If you’ve ever hung out with me, you know I’m obsessed with merging these two elements in my life. This theme was further developed by a focus on four strands keynoted by outstanding leaders in our field and facilitated by excellent teachers from across the country.

  1. Constructing Student Centered Classrooms
  2. Leadership Spanning
  3. Building Professional Networks
  4. Expanding on Teacher Leadership
  5. This conference delivered.

I walked out with a better sense of how to engage my students through technology. I was inspired by creative models for teacher leadership such as what Denver Public Schools is doing with their Teacher Leadership & Collaboration model. I heard exactly what Charlotte Danielson intended for the Danielson evaluation (omg! Geeked out that I heard the real Danielson!). I felt empowered to build my teacher leadership through blogging. I was challenged to keep equity at the center of everything I do. Finally, I was reminded by Maddie Fennell, an NBCT from Nebraska who works for the Department of Education, to get involved in policy work because “if you aren’t at the table, you’ll be on the menu.”

Most importantly, I met, networked, and collaborated with absolutely fantastic educators from Washington (shout out to the WA Teacher Advisory Council!) to Jersey.

This last takeaway is why I want to encourage all of you to interlope at an upcoming conference or training that you think will make you a better teacher or give you an opportunity to network with agents of change.

Although, the conference is over, I highly recommend you read the writing of James Ford “What School Segregation Looks Like” or watch Nate Bowling’s invitation to join “The Family Business” Also, go to Twitter and do some post-conference lurking…I mean learning… by using the hashtags #teachersleading and #NNSTOY16

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?

The Neglected PD

Thursday, in one of my last spring conferences, one of my moms was pretty tense. That was unusual. After all, she and I had known each other for three years now, after two children in my 4/5 class, and we got along well. Eventually she came out with the cause. A few days earlier I had sent her an email that upset her. She proceeded to tell me that I had handled things completely wrong and how I should have done it.

My first instinct was to explain the circumstances from my point of view and tell her in some detail why I had done what I did. Then I bit my tongue. I said simply, “You are right. I am so sorry. I should have done that better. I apologize.”

She continued to talk about why she was upset, explaining what had happened to her in the past—incidents at another school with another staff member—to make her so emotional in her response. I told her I understood. After a few minutes we got back to her child’s conference.

At the end of the conference, as she stood up to leave, I asked, “Do you forgive me?”

She said, “Of course!”

We hugged, and she left smiling.

Let’s be clear here. I botched the communication I sent to her. (Emails have the advantage of providing brief and rapid communication. The disadvantage? They can more easily cause miscommunication!) I am completely comfortable with acknowledging the fact that I made a mistake and apologizing.

Friday I was at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair with the students from my class who entered the fair this year and their moms. While the students were in the auditorium with the judges, the moms and I sat around a table and talked.

One mom asked if there was a time the two of us could get together so I could give her advice for how to handle an issue with a colleague in my district. I told her, “After I retire.” She said that wouldn’t be very timely.

Then a parent who’s a doctor asked if I’d ever done teacher training. Yes. I’ve done in-service training on subjects from classroom management to science to social studies to all areas of language arts. I’m a regional trainer for Highly Capable. I’ve done a lot of teacher training.

That wasn’t what she was interested in. She wanted to know if I’d ever taught a class to teachers on how to interact with parents.

I said no. I must have looked surprised.

“Don’t you take classes like that?” she asked. “Isn’t that part of your regular teacher training courses?”

“Not that I know of,” I said—it certainly wasn’t a part of mine. At most I’ve seen a few handouts over the years about how to talk to parents put in my box around conference time.

Apparently learning how to interact with adult clients was part of her training to be a doctor. She roleplayed meeting with patients while a psych observed. The interaction was videotaped. She and the psych watched the tape later and discussed what they saw. She says she learned a lot from what she did well and even more from what she didn’t do well.

As a teacher leader, I’ve taken classes on how to train adults and how to communicate with peers. The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession has helpful material on their leadership framework. However, all the materials I’ve seen and all the classes I’ve taken are geared towards making teacher leaders effective at providing professional development to their peers.  While the materials and classes have crossover applications, I haven’t seen any classes specifically designed to help new teachers learn how to interact well with parents. And how helpful would that kind of training be?

There have been times in my career when I knew I was headed into a difficult conference, and I asked the school counselor to join me. Having the counselor there helped, but I believe now that at least one particular difficult conference would have gone so much better if she and I had role-played the conference ahead of time, practicing for the real thing. I never considered doing that with her, and she never suggested it to me.

There were other times, like this week, when I had no idea there was a problem coming at me in the conference. I wouldn’t have known to role-play in advance. But what if practicing before conferences was part of my routine? What if our team used one PLC time before each set of conferences to get ready by role-playing some possible scenarios?

All teachers have to learn how to teach our subjects areas. We have to learn how to teach our students with all their social and emotional needs. We take classes to learn how to do those things.

Teachers need to know how to interact with parents as well. Maybe we need some classes—pre-service, in-service, or just practice training sessions—to learn how to do that too.

A “High Functioning” PLC

It’s like a unicorn. Or a clearly articulated Trump policy. I can’t seem to find convincing, real-world examples anywhere. A “High Functioning PLC” seems to be the sasquatch of the education world…or at least my education world.

For over a decade now, my district has been a “PLC” district. There is specific time carved out in the school week for each staff, usually about 45-50 minutes, that is explicitly dedicated to PLC. Throughout this time, PLC has evolved through various iterations, oscillating from highly micro-managed to an administrative laissez faire policy and back again. (And then back again…)

During this decade we’ve had the typical staff churn: people retire or move on, more families move into our community thus necessitating new hires for growth, and now a mere fraction of our “original” staff remains from those long-ago-days when PLC was first introduced.

We teachers have been trudging along, compliant but with more than a little uncertainly. We recognize there are tasks our PLC is “supposed to” do, but more often than not, those tasks felt at odds with the overall purpose of PLC: “Mutual professional development to positively impact student learning.” We move forward through time, completing our tasks and submitting them to our bosses, all the while feeling a little like we are either engaged in a dance or spinning our wheels. Too often, the PLC work doesn’t clearly translate into our classrooms.

In the last few years, I’ve scoured the internet and my networks of teacher connections to find examples of what a strong and high-functioning PLC is “supposed to” look like. Every teacher I speak with talks about PLC’s at best with an attitude of indifferent “take it or leave it” and at worst with an overwhelming rage at the waste of time and energy it seems to be. On the internet, I find contrived and awkwardly scripted videos that feel more like a painful role play or a stilted staff meeting. I find case stories that hover in the world of theory, never really giving me a clear picture of a real PLC. Or, I find stories of what someone coined “co-blabboration” instead of “collaboration,” with the former defined as “teachers just getting together to share practices.” (Which IMO would be awesome.)

I’ve already written about how difficult “collaboration” is for me, and how, quite frankly, I’d rather not be forced to do it with a contrived group for a contrived purpose. Our teacher-leader team in my district has been wrestling with PLC structures and systems as our “problem of practice” this year, and this is what I personally have found: PLC, as it is enacted in many places, does not exist to serve a clear need that cannot be addressed in other less messy or more efficient means. Rather, PLCs are task groups. Where do those tasks seem to come from? Well, to be honest, they seem to be coming from someone asking the question “What should our PLCs be doing?” The “L” of PLC seems to be completely forgotten.

A few weeks ago, I led a teacher-leadership workshop about the interpersonal dynamics of a PLC and how a teacher leader might use his/her understanding of adult learners, communication, systems, and change theory to interact more effectively with peers. It became clear within the first five minutes that the essential premise of PLC, Mutual professional development to positively impact student learning, was widely approved of…but that the premise was not emerging in system practices. PLCs had tasks to do, and while the value of those tasks sometimes ran the gamut, what PLCs didn’t have clarity around was how to work together for a purpose.

While it emerged to be true that what was missing was, in fact, a clear and meaningful purpose, these teacher-leaders also surfaced that they simply were not equipped with the tangible nor intangible resources needed to accomplish the work: The tangibles might be routines or protocols; the intangibles being the nuanced interpersonal skills to coach one another through conflict or past resistance.

In my sasquatch search for examples of “High Functioning PLCs,” I predictably have not found a Grant Unified Theory of PLC. I say predictably, because if we think about any complex process, highly effective applications of that process will have infinite manifestations. A highly functioning complex process will be nuanced, unique, and tailored to a context. That’s why it functions so well.

This, I believe, is the root of our problem. Our systems have been looking to emulate this undefined “High Functioning PLC” by trying to pour ourselves into a mold rather than make space for authentic innovation and leadership.

One of my colleagues yesterday (at PLC, during a discussion about how PLC wasn’t working) came up with this simple, but brilliant solution…No forms, no mandates, no special tasks. The only requirement placed upon a PLC must be that at the end of the year, they can offer a clear and convincing response to this question: “How did your PLC help you improve your teaching in order to make an impact on student learning?” It should be up to school leadership to offer the learning and resources around the tangibles and intangibles of how to do the work; it should be up to the team to decide what work to address, keeping essential question in mind.

How did your PLC help you improve your teaching in order to make an impact on student learning?

If an individual can answer this with enthusiasm, the PLC has done its job.


Photo Source: Miami University Libraries, Digital Collection – Ohio State Normal College Faculty Meeting, 1910.

 

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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ESSA and Gifted Education

For my entire career in education—and I started teaching in 1977—the federal government limited its involvement in gifted education to Javits grants, investing millions of dollars over the decades in scientifically-based research into gifted education.

Javits grants have not gone away. But the federal government has finally moved beyond Javits grants in addressing the needs of gifted students in America. I am thrilled that directives regarding gifted and talented students are peppered throughout the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The overarching goal of the ESSA is “to ensure that all children receive a high-quality education.” The law requires that “each local educational agency will monitor students’ progress in meeting the challenging State academic standards by … developing and implementing a well-rounded program of instruction to meet the academic needs of all students” (page 134, lines 10-22, emphasis mine).

In the past, states and districts reported data for students performing at the proficient level and below. Now they must also provide data for students performing at advanced levels. That PLC question 4 might look a lot more important to school and district administrators when the high scores are disaggregated out!

The feds know their requirements are going to cost money, so for the first time they say districts (“local educational agencies”) may use Title I funds to “assist schools in identifying and serving gifted and talented students” (page 138, lines 17-18, emphasis mine). One huge impact that funding could have is allowing districts to employ universal screening for gifted and talented programs, which we do at my district in second grade and which can help overcome the “gifted gap” among racial groups (see article).

Districts applying for Title II professional development funds must supply “a description of how the State educational agency will improve the skills of teachers, principals, or other school leaders in order to enable them

  • to identify students with specific learning needs, particularly children with disabilities, English learners, students who are gifted and talented, and students with low literacy levels, and
  • provide instruction based on the needs of such students” (page 328, lines 9-17, bullets mine).

In that professional development, districts are to provide “training to support the identification of students who are gifted and talented, including high-ability students who have not been formally identified for gifted education services, and implementing instructional practices that support the education of such students, such as:

  • early entrance to kindergarten;
  • enrichment, acceleration, and curriculum compacting activities; and
  • dual or concurrent enrollment programs in secondary school and postsecondary education” (page 343, lines 1-13).

Let’s look at the kinds of practices the feds recommend, starting with early entrance. At a Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted (WAETAG) conference years ago, I met a parent who came to get advice about her four-year-old son. He was auditing courses at the university where her husband was a professor. She said she didn’t want to enroll him and make him a media sensation, but those classes were the only places where he got his intellectual needs met.

I asked where they lived and told her they might want to consider moving since there were about five schools in the country with elementary programs for the severely and profoundly gifted. She said if those schools existed, then moving made sense. “After all, his little brother? He’s even smarter.”

Some students need to start school before five years old.

When you think of enrichment activities, don’t be limited by suggestions in trade books. Gifted students crave novelty—they find learning brand new information and skills exciting. My lesson comparing causes of World Wars 1 and 2 went well over an hour, and when I finally put a stop to it, my students objected vehemently. “No!” they howled. “Don’t stop! Keep going!” Why? Depth and richness of information. The students were building connections. I was helping them make sense of the world.

There is more research in the literature supporting acceleration than any other intervention for gifted. My student who is currently triple-accelerated in math (my fourth grader in seventh grade math) is one of the best students in his math group. He could probably move up another grade level, but then he’d be working on his own, and his mom and I decided we’d keep him in this group this year. He’s happy there.

Curriculum compacting has been around for decades. My high school teachers did it in the 1960s. My sophomore year advanced placement English teacher gave our class the end-of-the-year exam at the beginning of the year. After he graded it, he told us, “You know most of the stuff on the test except you are shaky on punctuation, and you really don’t understand commas.” So we spent a month learning punctuation. Three weeks of that was commas. At the end of September we took the test again and did fine. Then we had the rest of the year to do the actual work of the class—learning public speaking. It’s a time-tested idea, which is probably why it’s on the list of recommended practices.

As for dual or concurrent enrollment programs, we do well. In Washington we have both AP and Running Start. But, in my humble opinion, we ought to be open, in a similar way, to students taking a three-year middle school program in two years. Or taking middle school and high school classes at the same time. Those options would certainly be allowed, and I think encouraged, under the ESSA.

The Javits grants studied gifted students for generations and decided that gifted students can be identified, they have educational needs, and that those needs can be met through several well-documented strategies. Now the ESSA is saying, “Go meet those needs. Here are some excellent ways to do it. And you can use federal money to help!” If your district needs help finding Highly Capable professional development specialists, go to the WAETAG site.

When Tragedy Strikes Over & Over & Over Again

 

Teaching in an urban, high poverty school isn’t like teaching elsewhere. The lack of resources, sporadic community support, systemic inequalities, and high mobility cultivates an environment filled with trauma. In this environment, it necessary to be in a constant state of alert. My kids are on guard. I’m on guard.

Tragedy is around every corner.

Literally. Every few months–it seems–there is an altercation that results in the death of a young man or a young woman. Usually a young man. A young man of color. It was Elijah yesterday.

Having taught in a suburban high school, I know this is not the same experience. Yes, there were deaths and sadness but there wasn’t an air of expectation. An air of resignation to the facts of life–that hardship, struggle, and sorrow are moments away. It’s an air of “we hope this never happens again” combined with a whiff of “we aren’t surprised anymore.”

Our students are constantly faced with loss and death, but are expected to be resilient and move on. They mourn in whatever way they can—through stories of precious moments, through over-sized T-shirts tagged “in loving memory” and through altars of remembrance. The district sends in extra grief counselors and we all pray the day hurries to a close so we can stop pretending to care about Shakespeare, transitive properties, and Government. Tomorrow will be better we tell ourselves. And it will.

But what about the days after the initial event? Who is there to help our students process this grief? How about the next tragic event? And the one after that?  Five counselors, two psychologists, and a few administrators can not carry the psychological and emotional weight of 1400 students and 90 + staff members.

Education administration professor, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, argues that urban youth are undergoing “toxic stress”. He further postulates that,

When we look at national data sets for trauma, the numbers suggest that one in three urban youth display mild to severe symptoms of PTSD. They’re twice as likely as a soldier coming out of live combat to have PTSD. In the veterans’ administration, this is topic number one. But in conversations about urban youth, it almost never registers. All data shows symptoms of PTSD are interruptive to someone trying to perform well in school and more likely to create risk behavior, [yet] the investment is being made on incarceration.

In a classroom of 30, that is one third of my students. Where are the discussions on mental health, toxic stress, or urban PTSD on the local and national level? Are we waiting to see how the Compton Unified class action lawsuit against the district for failure to respond appropriately to student trauma pans out?

I have my suspicions why few want to address these issues.  

Regardless, if our students are coming to school with more PTSD than a soldier, how are the staff in any building prepared to mitigate this? In 2012, the AFT published findings that 93% of teachers never received any bereavement training. The report elaborates that teachers are asking for it. Clearly, teachers want to be better prepared to serve all student needs not just ones related to Common Core. I think it’s just as important for Larry to know how to respond to his triggers as it is for him to read grade level texts.

Alas, when I browse through the catalogues of professional learning opportunities of surrounding districts, I notice I can sign up to learn how to set up a flipped classroom. I can get tips on how to use love and logic for my discipline plan. I can learn the ins and outs of the TPEP evaluation system. What I can’t find is anything on how to manage the grief my students bring with them to the classroom. I don’t see courses on mediating toxic stress for students or colleagues. I can’t seem to find a training on conflict resolution or tips for designing lessons that maintain academic rigour and give alternative activities to lower the affective filter. I can’t find a class to help me understand and respond to the differences between trauma and grief.

It is critical that schools with high percentages of students living with toxic stress receive more short and long term support addressing these conditions. Staff need more than momentary pep talks or a handout on the stages of grief. We need to acknowledge that it’s not enough to cry in the bathroom and then pretend things are fine and go back to teaching Things Fall Apart. We need to stop ignoring that our urban youth and their teachers have unique needs that aren’t being addressed system wide. We need professional learning opportunities that equip our teachers to handle grief—their own and a classroom full of it! If we develop sustainable programs truly addressing the whole child, then both our teachers and our students will be empowered to handle whatever is around the next corner.

Would we teach kids the way we teach teachers?

I have now completed two full months “out of the classroom.” I do miss it terribly, and to be honest, one of the things I miss is the ability to go to my classroom, close the door, and ignore the “big picture” that I’m now so tuned in to in my teacher-leadership role in my district. Sometimes I just want to go talk to some 14 year-olds about symbolism and metaphor. That’s a much more comfortable place than talking budgets and systems and human resources and how to create meaningful learning experiences for teachers.

The team of teacher-leaders in my district who are spearheading our professional learning system are working hard to make changes to how we design the learning experiences our teachers engage with. When I think about the many, many hours of “PD” I’ve sat through, the experiences that impacted me positively shared a common theme: they treated me as a learner, not as some container into which to stuff information I was obligated to accept. Too many experiences, though, left me feeling like that over-stuffed container, which was then promptly shuffled out the door to get to work.

I don’t think professional-learning design has had inadequate motives in the past. I just think that there was not the kind of expectation, systemically, that the design of teacher-learning deserved the same attention we’d expect to be given to the design of student-learning.

Here are the things that I think too much teacher professional development gets wrong… despite the best of intentions. Continue reading

Caution: Disillusionment Phase Ahead

Next week is our first support group meeting.

By name it is a “New Teacher Workshop,” but I know what it really is. When we gather those dozen newly-minted first-year teachers together, it isn’t going to be a time for “digging into the framework” or “unpacking standards” or “doing a data dive” (whatever that is). Instead, we’ll have an hour or two, with snacks and school-appropriate beverages (this time) where we can just be in a room with the only other people who understand what we’re facing: the October-January “Disillusionment Phase.”

This chart may be familiar to some. It originally came from Ellen Moir in 1999 as part of the Santa Cruz New Teacher project, and described her observations about first-year teachers:

Phases of first-year teachers' copy (1)

Image Source: http://www.carnegiefoundation.org

You’ll notice I’ve lumped myself in with that crew, even though I’m solidly “mid-career.” The reality is that I am a novice in my new work of working with novices, and I too am facing that roller-coaster of feelings: we’ve sped swiftly past the “survival” stage and the track is pointing down, down, down.

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TeachtoLead: Tacoma

Something I like about teaching in my district is that I feel like there is a clear balance of expectations and autonomy for a classroom teacher. I know what my standards are, as well as what “curriculum” and anchor works of literature have been approved, but I also have the autonomy to design instruction that fits not only my students’ needs but also my own teaching style.

Stepping into teacher leadership often means stepping into a much grayer zone. There are usually some expected measurable outcomes, but there is much more (or at least more noticeable) reliance on my creativity, influence, and problem solving than I have experienced in my career in the classroom. In my classroom, when I’m stumped about how to best teach a standard for a particular novel or unit in my classroom, Google can help me find mountains of ideas from fellow teachers: throughout the country, it is a safe bet that dozens if not hundreds of teachers have taught the same content to similar kids, and I can sort through their work to design lessons that match my kids’ needs.

In my role as a teacher leader, there is not the same kind of easy-to-access banked expertise just yet. Finding philosophy around teacher leadership is a piece of cake; finding specific ideas in the “just tell me what I need to do!” moments is much tougher. Continue reading