Is My Job At-Risk?

If you look at the trends in education these days, it’s hard to believe that public schools will continue to need professional teachers in the future.

First of all, there’s the movement toward scripted curriculum. Not only is the content provided, but the exact lessons are dictated in excruciating detail: here is the question to ask and the kind of answers you can expect, here is where you should pause and for how long, here is the activity to do and the results you should expect to see.

Of course every scripted curriculum demands that you present it with fidelity. That’s become one of my least favorite words.

All of this is driven, of course by the research-based education movement. Someone did research somewhere to demonstrate the effectiveness of this particular curriculum program but ONLY if it is done the exact same way as it was done in the research test. If you, the lowly teacher in the classroom, do it a slightly different way, then all bets are off. There is no guarantee that your presentation will be “research-based.” And we can’t have that.

So who needs the lowly teacher? All we need is someone who can read. And follow directions. And smile for the camera. Because really all we need in front of the classroom is a talking head, just reading off a prompter.

That’s nonsense.

When I first got my teaching credential, I spent a semester substituting. I sat in smoke-filled teacher lunchrooms and listened to veteran teachers complain about Sesame Street. “That show has kids expecting to be entertained!”

I didn’t say anything. I was brand new, and a substitute. But I thought, “If you were sitting in a room for six hours, wouldn’t you want to be entertained? If there wasn’t something going on that was interesting and exciting and engaging and fun, wouldn’t you—as an adult—raise Cain? Riot? Walk out? Complain to the board? So how can you expect more from kids?”

I decided early on that teaching wasn’t just a skill to learn. It was also a performance art. I needed to pay attention to my audience, to read their reactions and be responsive to them.

That attitude makes following a scripted curriculum remarkably difficult. I ask the first question and get all kinds of answers. If I wait a moment, I get more. With a longer pause, I can usually tease out even more.  The answers I get usually include the ones the curriculum says I can expect, but I may have other interesting ideas to pursue. At this point I haven’t even gotten past step one and I’m already apt to go off into divergent thinking with my group.

Telling me how long to pause? At times I have followed the directions and watched the class’s attention drift. So I cut the pause short. That seems obvious to me, that I would use my judgment. Sometimes I can give a longer pause, sometimes shorter. It won’t be the same from one year to the next. It depends on the students, the day, and even the time of day.

I will give every curriculum activity a try. But I’ve started an activity and had it clearly not be suitable in my classroom with my particular students. I make sure I have alternative activities on hand that I can pull out as needed. I’ve taught gifted classes since 1983, so I am used to having to supply differentiated curriculum for my students.

Now, of course, if I pull out alternate activities, that means I’m going off-script and not teaching the curriculum with fidelity.

True. I’m just doing a better, more appropriate job. After all, meeting the needs of my students is more important than reading every word in the script.

Second, there’s the movement toward online education. Two of my fifth grade students are taking high school algebra this year through PEAK online. You can find everything from Khan Academy to MIT Open Courseware on your computer. Washington state offers a variety of digital learning opportunities for our students. (You can go to the teacher resources page on my web site and scroll down to the links section for even more.)

If students can learn everything on their computers, won’t they just stay home in the future and do all their studies online?

Well, first you have to read Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Fun They Had.”

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The check out a research brief  by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The study compared the effects of an online Algebra I makeup course to a typical classroom course. The researchers found that the students performed better in the standard in-person course. Students who took the course online rated the course as harder and indicated more negative attitudes about math after taking the course.

My two guys are doing fine in their online course. Of course, they adore math, they live and breathe math, and they are already extremely skilled in math. They represent a very small slice of humanity. And they are taking sitting side by side the online class together so they aren’t working at a computer alone. I hear them giggling conspiratorially occasionally.

Why is it that the students in the study did better in a typical classroom than taking an online course?

I can tell you that as a general rule my students need me because I pay attention to them. I respond to them. I adjust my instruction to meet their needs on a moment-by-moment basis.

So take that, scripted curriculum. Take that, online curriculum.

You’re not taking my job away from me any time soon.

 

 

Less in an Era of More

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There is a lot of stress in schools today. Principals are stressed trying to do everything they used to do and then do TPEP on top of that. Teachers are stressed trying to cover an increasing volume of material and make sure that all of the assessments they are giving are pointing them towards all of their students meeting all of their standards. And the kids… they’re in a pressure cooker that we created for them. The stress can be palpable when you walk into a classroom.

I’m a 4th grade teacher, so this has me concerned. What do we hope that our students walk away from 4th grade thinking and knowing? How do we think about the experience of being nine and ten in an elementary classroom? When I see my students out in the world of grown-ups they seem so little. Even years later when I see them around town I am confronted with the fact that these are really young children. It’s strange, but in the little bubble of school they seem older. It’s all business, and they’re almost in 5th grade for goodness sake – and then it’s off to middle school! Better be prepared because it’s now or never: got to get a job or go to college after all.

Or not. Maybe it doesn’t have to be so intense. Maybe if we don’t hit the ground running on Monday at 60 miles per hour we can still make it where we want to go. Maybe there is still time to be a kid.

Last week I realized that I needed to slow down. I have relationships to take care of with my students that make my teaching more or less effective. Those relationships have been strained by the pressures in our system. At the end of last week we met as a school and I heard the principal and the teachers talking about stress around the building. It wasn’t just me. We looked at behavior referrals, which spiked on Mondays and Fridays and we started to think about ways we could make more successful transitions into our work week and then back out of it.

This week I began the day on Monday with special interest projects. We relaxed into the classroom. Kids had choice and they were excited about both the power to choose and the activity itself. We spent about 30 minutes at play. There was no standard being targeted. We were just warming up, just out for a Sunday drive.

Later in the morning, the principal came in during a math lesson. He was struck by the fact that every single student maintained a sustained engagement during the time he was in the classroom. It felt different to me too. I’m going to put the brakes on every once in a while. I’d like us all to enjoy the ride.

The Critical Friend (and why we all need more of them)

NBCT Joanna Tovar Barnes

This guest post is courtesy of Joanna Tovar Barnes. Joanna is a NBCT in EMC Literacy. She teaches third grade at Lydia Hawk Elementary in Lacey, WA. Her areas of professional interest include English Language Learners, social justice and integrating art, science and social studies into elementary curriculum.  She facilitates for North Thurston School District’s National Board cohort.  When not teaching Joanna travels the world seeking culture, food and understanding.

When I first heard my role at the Teach to Lead Summit in Long Beach, CA was a “critical friend” I wrinkled my nose and thought “that doesn’t sound like a good thing, who wants a critic?” The term ‘critical’ conjured up images of a group of reporters dissecting a starlet’s wardrobe choice or a food critic berating a chef for his uninspired appetizers. “The Critical Friend asks probing questions” the organizers of the event said, “They make suggestions about possible resources, and offer a fresh perspective on a problem.”  I unwrinkled my nose a little and thought “Ok, maybe I can be a critical friend.  I can do those things. That sounds helpful instead of scary. Also, maybe I need more of these ‘Critical friend’ people in my life.”

I think the opposite of a critical friend could be called an ‘echo-friend’. We all have them. You go to these friends when you want your conclusions validated, not questioned. When prompted they say things like “you’re absolutely right!”, “of course” and “obviously”.  “I’m right and she’s wrong, right?” I ask “of course you are” my echo friend nods knowingly.  I feel better.  My own conclusions were echoed back to me and now I feel justified, reassured and comfortable. No questioning or suggestions, no discomfort.

Here’s the problem with the echo friend; eliciting this kind of feedback leaves us right back in the same place we started with our problem.  In fact, now that our choices have been validated we are even more firmly rooted in the patterns that got us to our frustration point when we sought out our echo friend.  I admit that sometimes I don’t want to go deep and think critically about big problems, I want to vent, or have someone tell me I’m right. However, I can’t be surprised when I still have the same problems with no new strategies to tackle them when I’m done with my echo-session.  If I want to move forward in my problem solving I need a critical friend.

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Teach to Lead Summit participants work together to process problems they face in their work. Teams and their critical friends use a logic model over two days to identify causes, outcomes and next steps.

From my time at Teach to Lead I am beginning to formulate some important steps in the art of being a critical friend. (it’s a good thing)

  1. A critical friendship begins with connection

Ok, we know that the critical part can help us move forward with a problem but that ‘friend’ word also really matters. As a teacher leader I’ve found that if people don’t know you and see you as a person outside of the current context they are less willing to accept critical feedback. People need to know that their critical friend is just that; friendly. That they assume positive intentions and competence and are there to be helpful.

I try to share something that tells people who I am professionally and personally. “I am passionate about social justice and interested in bilingual education” gives a quick glimpse into who I am at the core as a teacher and person.  It makes me vulnerable and encourages the person I’m working with to do the same.  I also present something I am still working to understand such as “I’m still learning about the new National Board component too, let’s look at the directions together”.

  1. Next it’s time to listen

The listen part is where the connection you built will allow you to get at what the problem is through how much the other person shares, which details they include and how they frame the problem.  Without the connection you may not hear much, or you may hear only a small window into the problem at hand.  You may need to go back and establish more of a connection before they will tell you more. Listening carefully will help you know which questions to ask. But hang on! There’s an important next step.

  1. Before questioning it is helpful to validate

Remember the echo friend we sometimes seek out? You’re going to want to meet that need too by acknowledging that this problem is frustrating, complex, etc.  You can use some counseling 101 phrases like “That sounds really frustrating.” Or “There are a lot of different needs you’re having to think about.”  This part matters because now you can strengthen your connection as a friend and you can meet their need to be validated. If we weren’t a critical friend we’d stop here.  But here’s where the magic happens and we become something more than an echo friend. Here’s where we push our friend forward.

  1. Time to ask some questions

I know enough to know I know very little about the art of questioning.  Luckily I have some awesome role models when it comes to this. Peers, friends and coaches who have challenged my thinking with thoughtful questions that at first made me huff, and then made me think much more meaningfully and deeply about something.

If you’re like me and are just starting to question critically maybe some sentence frames can help you. “I wonder…” “What if…” “Why do you think…” are some of my standbys because they’re open enough to allow the person wrestling with the problem to say something about them but encourage deeper investigation of one element of the problem.

  1. Now you can suggest resources

Oh boy, what you’ve been waiting for. Now you can tell them how to solve their problem if they would just…wait! Do not start telling them what you would do.  This is not about you. (I can’t help it, it’s the bossy older sister in me) It’s about them and their problem.  You can help by suggesting a resource you know of that might hold a missing piece of the puzzle, or someone who is struggling with a related problem.  The suggestion part needs to be connected to what you heard initially and when you questioned.  It’s important that the person you’re working with knows you’ve been hearing them when they shared.

Here’s the cool thing about the role of critical friend-you can do it with anyone starting right now! Just start connecting, listening, validating, questioning and suggesting.  If you’re an echo friend already, you have a connection and must be someone they trust to listen.  The next step for you will be questioning. I’ve pulled this trick on several people in my life since the Teach to Lead Summit.

I’m getting better at finding my own style of critical friendship and am recognizing when I see someone else who has mastered it and I seek them out to be one of my CFs.  If we want to move forward in our understanding we need to embrace the discomfort of someone giving us more than an “uh-huh.” We all need more critical friends in our lives so we can become better educators and people.  Isn’t that the point?

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My amazing Teach to Lead Summit group who I served as a critical friend with our logic model.

Tell Your NBCT Story

imageEvery National Board Certified Teacher has a story. This is mine.

As an elementary teacher I’m responsible for teaching every subject, which includes social studies. And in fourth grade social studies focuses on Washington State. One of the concepts that my students have always struggled with is the Rainshadow Effect. Over the years I’ve tried everything: different videos, different texts, relief maps, you name it. The results have been discouraging. When I assess my students, they generally don’t understand the Rainshadow Effect.

There was a time in my career when I would have simply let it go. After all, the Rainshadow Effect will never show up on anyone’s standardized test. It’s only social studies, for crying out loud; give it a shot and move on. If they get it, great; if they don’t, they don’t.

But I couldn’t let it go. The Rainshadow Effect isn’t just a random meteorological phenomenon covered in chapter three of our textbook. It explains the major differences in the regions of our state, which is what chapter four is all about. It also explains the main differences between the Plateau Indian tribes and the Coastal tribes, which is the essence of chapter five. Not only that, but the Rainshadow Effect is one of the main reasons for all the dams along the Columbia River, not to mention the fact that Central Washington is a major producer of fruit, which largely explains its large Hispanic population. Chapters eight, nine and twelve.

The Rainshadow Effect is a big deal and I’ve been determined to get it right.

This year I tried something different. I put a fan on one end of a table in the front of the room. I asked five volunteers to place their backpacks in a large pile on the middle of the table. Then I took a wet sponge. “The prevailing wind, represented by this fan, blows wet air toward the Cascade Mountains, represented by these backpacks. When the air hits the mountains, it has to go up. When air rises, it gets cold, and cold air can’t hold water very well. That’s why I’m squeezing this sponge and that’s why these backpacks are getting wet. As the air passes over the mountains, it goes back down and warms up. Warm air hold water better. That’s why I’m not squeezing the sponge anymore, and that’s why there’s less rain in Eastern Washington. That’s the Rainshadow Effect.”

I discovered the same thing Annie Sullivan discovered 119 years ago: pouring cold water on something increasing student achievement. For some reason, my students loved watching the backpacks get wet. And they now understand the Rainshadow Effect. All of them.

Washington State spends $50 million on stipends for NBCTs. That number could nearly double in a few years, and with education funding moving to the front burner this Legislative Season, some people in Olympia (where it rains a lot) are going to be asking whether we’re getting our money’s worth.

There are different ways to answer that question. Some people prefer data, and the data certainly looks good. My problem with the data is that it’s too limiting: it focuses too much on test scores. Teaching kids the Rainshadow Effect will never show up in that data.

I prefer to justify our National Board stipend by telling stories. Because every National Board Certified Teacher has a story illustrating how the process made them a better teacher. When I went through the process I became a better teacher, a teacher committed to student learning. A teacher who knows the subject matter and how to teach it to kids. A teacher who is responsible for managing and monitoring student learning. A teacher who learns from experience and a teacher who is a member of a learning community.

What’s your story?

Part III on Change: Levels of Abstraction

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During an teacher leadership workshop I was leading a few years ago, a veteran teacher said this to me:

“It feels like every time I go to present a new idea to my principal, she shoots it down just because it’s coming from me. It’s like she says ‘no’ just because I’m the one with the idea. I keep thinking that if she heard it from anyone other than me, she’d give a different answer.”

My response: “You’re probably right.”

That doesn’t make it fair or valid, but the reality of human interactions is that there are times where who is doing the talking matters. As I got to know this particular teacher and his situation, it was pretty clear that he and his principal had a history of conflicts…most of them petty…which colored their relationship. Wrong as it might be, the principal was saying “no” because of the messenger and his track record, not the message itself.

Being skeptical or “resistant” to new ideas or to changes in practice is not a bad thing. We should allow ourselves time and space to think, process, and make decisions about the new. However, we also ought to be mindful of what exactly it is we are resisting.

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Part II On Change: Us vs. Them

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Binaries are comfortable for people: good or bad, right or wrong, us or them.

To collect and classify what we know into an either or an or makes us feel to be on more stable ground: if we can classify it, it won’t surprise us. By ascribing the big label (us or them, for example) we can line up assumptions about who and what falls into that category, and assumptions in our world today are given as much power as facts, if not more.

It is the us versus them binary that I hear about the most in my past work as a union representative and now as our EA president. And, because of my role within our district (I mentor new teachers and I also design and lead professional learning for both teachers and administrators) I am in the strange situation of seeing the line between us and them become very blurry. On both “sides,” I work with caring, professional, student-centered educators who are struggling to do the right thing. Likewise, on both “sides” I can cite examples of weak integrity, manipulation, and poor conduct. Neither “side” can be classified by a convenient set of universals.

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The Tyranny of the TTWWADI and Why Change Is So Hard

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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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Teaching “Banned Books”

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This week is the annual Banned Books Week, where educators draw attention to the dangers of outright banning books in public schools and libraries. The list of “frequently banned and challenged books” tends to circulate, commonly eliciting a chorus of “Really, somebody has a problem with Judy Blume?”

While I believe than any book a public library can get its hands on ought to have space on a shelf somewhere in public access, I don’t think that elementary schools ought to be teaching Fifty Shades Darker even if it is written with the vocabulary and syntax of a fourth grader (so I hear…)

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Professional Development—The Long View

I’ve reached the point in my career where people have started to ask me, “And when are you going to retire, Jan?” After all, a lot of my friends and contemporaries have quit teaching. What am I still doing here?

I see the shiny new teachers, just out of the box, full of energy and enthusiasm. I must look so old to them. (“But wait! Inside I am still shiny!”) They are up to date on all the latest instructional strategies and educational jargon. They are ready to take on the world. (“Me too! I still want to take on the world!”)

I remember my initial certification program at San Jose State in the (gulp) 1970s and my earliest professional development classes. My career began in the days of Assertive Discipline and Madeline Hunter. I can’t begin to recount all the different permutations of trainings I have been through since then to improve my teaching skills and classroom management. Just in the last few years it’s included extensive GLAD training and PBIS training.

From my perspective here’s what I can say about all of them. They were all introduced with great fanfare as a sweeping solution for the whole school or district. They all had positive aspects. They were all eventually superseded by the Next Big Thing.

Here’s my take-away. I eagerly adopt the best of each program and incorporate it into my practice. (Notice, I carefully make professional decisions about what works best in my particular classroom culture.)  I am totally willing to work with the school or the district on whatever system they adopt for as long as they want to use it. And then I wait. Because I know the Next Big Thing is bound to come along eventually.

In the meantime, if I find a better Next Big Thing, I promote it to my admin.

Does that make me jaded? I don’t think so. I continue to learn from each new training, I keep adding to my tool kit, and I keep looking for even better new options.

Meanwhile, I synthesize what I’ve learned from multiple trainings over the years. For instance, GLAD wants to have the walls “dripping with language.” But I learned early in my career that having a lot of visual clutter on the walls badly distracts ADD/ADHD kids. It makes it hard for them to focus. So, for example, instead of keeping my Cognitive Content Dictionary on huge swathes of butcher paper on the walls, I write the information on the white board and erase it when I’m done. Meanwhile, I require my students to copy all the day’s dictionary information off the whiteboard into a composition book that they keep in their desks. An added bonus is that they have access to their vocabulary words all year! I’ve modified other GLAD strategies too, so I can use them and still keep my walls pretty clean. People walk into my room and comment on how calm and organized everything looks. I believe my room helps my students be calm and organized too.

All that training, all that synthesizing, all that experience pays off over time.

The research says so.

The Learning Policy Institute recently published a review of research into teacher effectiveness as teachers become more experienced. They said that as teachers gain years of experience, you can expect to see positive gains in student achievement. What was interesting for me to learn was that, while the steepest gain was in the first few years of a teacher’s career, the gains “continue to be significant as teachers reach the second, and often third, decades of their careers.” Not only did students do better on standardized tests with more experienced teachers, but they had other positive outcomes, like fewer absences.

Besides supporting increased student learning in their own classrooms, experienced teachers also help support greater student learning for other teachers in the school. They benefit the school as a whole.

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Of course they do. This last year I met with multiple brand-new and fairly-new teachers to help them with multiple issues from technology questions to classroom management to how to deal with parent issues to how to craft a particular lesson. Most of those meetings weren’t formal. A lot of them started in the hall or workroom. Individuals shared a problem, I offered help, and they accepted, or they approached me and asked for help. At the end of the year, I got thank you notes, but not for any specific problem-solving. For the hugs and smiles and sense of support I offered.

Hm. Maybe I have good reasons to stick around.

 

NBCT Policy Summit

imageIn 1999 I was a relatively young National Board candidate. There were about 30 of us going through the process in our state, aspiring to join the seven or so Washington State NBCTs. Someone sponsored a reception in Seattle and then-governor Gary Locke was the featured speaker. While explaining his proposed 15% NBCT bonus, he remarked that someone in the Legislature asked him, “What if all of these candidates pass? How will we afford those bonuses?”

To which he replied, “What a wonderful problem to have.”

Well, here we are, seventeen years later, and it’s still a wonderful problem to have. The 15% bonus never really caught fire, but we do get an annual $5150, double for those who teach in high-needs schools. The wonderful problem, of course, is that there’s so many of us. Those seven NBCTs have swelled to over eight thousand, which is wonderful, but the price tag for those bonuses has swelled to over $50 million, which is kind of a problem.

To solve this wonderful problem we’ve decided to have our third NBCT Policy Summit, an event which brings NBCTs together, along with stakeholders from the Legislature and various state boards. It’s scheduled for November 19th in SeaTac.

Why a Policy Summit and why now? Three reasons:

First of all, you’re probably aware that Washington’s education funding situation is a work in progress. If our students are lucky, this could be the year when our legislature finally figures out how to provide an equitable way to fund all schools. But that’s going to involve a close look by those people at everything we spend on education in this state. Including the National Board bonus, which has become a serious amount of money.

Furthermore, that amount has hit something of a false plateau. That’s because the NatIonal Board revised its assessment process two years ago, so there’s been virtually no new NBCTs for the past two years and won’t be for another year, when candidates are finally able complete the whole process. However, we’ve got over 2,000 candidates in the pipeline and if most of them certify and a lot of them teach in high-needs schools, that $50 million could nearly double, resulting in some serious sticker-shock.

Finally, ProTeach, the default second-tier certification in our state, has been taking some heat of late. Teachers who have gone through it seem to have a dim view of the whole process, to the point where representatives at the most recent WEA RA voted to have the union look into getting rid of ProTeach. That would leave National Board Certification as our only second tier certification, something it was never designed to be.

So there’s some serious problems to solve. And we need your help. By now, if you’re an NBCT in Washington you’ve receive multiple emails inviting you to the summit.

Answer one of them.

We need your help figuring out what the future of National Board certification in Washington – including the bonus – will look like.

We’ve got a wonderful problem to solve.