What I Learned From Finland


Whenever I go to a conference I act selfish. I’m there only to improve myself as a teacher and bring new ideas back to my own classroom. It was with that attitude that I attended a session at last weekend’s Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington DC. It was about education in Finland. The presenter was a man named Pasi Sahlberg: a real, live Finn, apparently with a Finnish name.

“Finland,” I thought, “Those guys are supposed to know what they’re doing. If I can’t get some teaching ideas from a Finn, then who?”

I was completely wrong. Continue reading

T&L 2015: Teaching & Learning, Teaching & Leading

Despite my best intentions of “live blogging” (which I really don’t know how to do) at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C, the confluence of too much to learn, a really old laptop and spotty wi-fi gave me permission to just sit back and learn. Warning: lots of links ahead…each worthy of exploring!

My singular focus at this conference was on teacher leadership and creating systems that will develop and sustain teacher leadership. I started on Friday with a session about Teacher-Led PD, then was a panelist in sessions to promote teacher voice through blogging (with David Cohen, Ray Salazar, Renee Moore and Daniela Robles…whose collective resumes are astounding) before being on another panel about how NBCTs can use their own leadership stories to help other teachers find their own pathways, where I also shared about CSTP’s Teacher Leadership Skills Framework, and mentioned the work of the Auburn SD and Camas SD Teacher Leadership Academies.

Saturday was a day for learning, first about a unique partnership between the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), NEA and NBPTS. This “trifecta” of sorts parallels our big three here in Washington state (CSTP, WEA and OSPI) and the power of bringing those three partners together at the national level was evident. This partnership helped to produce the Teacher Leadership Competencies. Like CSTP’s Teacher Leadership Skills Framework, the Teacher Leadership Competencies point out that there are unique skills necessary for effective leadership, and takes the added step of differentiating these skills for instructional leadership, policy leadership, and association leadership. These competencies are also deconstructed into leveled scales that describe what teacher leadership performance in these various skills might look like.

I also had the opportunity to spend a little time in a workshop facilitated by Leading Educators, which focuses on supporting teacher leadership skills for promoting change. In particular, the publication “Leading from the Front of the Classroom” (among others) offers much food for thought about creating systems of teacher leadership that are sustainable.

Lots to read, lots to think about. Good thing I had a cross-country flight to digest it all.

There was much more at the conference, including plenary sessions that were webcast live and were recorded (currently available if you click on the scrolling banner at the top of teachingandlearning2015.org). Visit there and take a look!

Last but certainly not least, at my group panel session about amplifying teacher voice through blogging, I met a handful of teacher-bloggers when the five of us panelists broke into small groups for discussion. Take a look at what teachers across the nation are writing about:

T&L 2015: Teacher-Led Professional-Based Learning

Some initial reflections from my time so far at the Teaching and Learning 2015 Conference in D.C.: 

The first big takeaway: teacher leadership positions need position in the system.

Ad-hoc or “anoint and appoint” teacher leadership simply does not last.

In other words, for teacher leadership to matter, it has to have a place…a permanent place…in a district’s system, hierarchy, contract and culture. It cannot be something someone does for a while because they’re good at it: rather, it must be an expected part of the system.

The first session I attended was “Teacher-Led Professional-Based Learning,” hosted by Lucy Steiner, Mark Sass and Chris Poulos. The info they shared built upon a foundation based on the Pahara-Aspen work (aspeninstitute.org) which explored teacher leadership and building systems that work. Their goal: to help teacher, their schools, unions, and districts implement collaborative, job-embedded professional learning that leads to better student learning.

The panelists shared a shocking statistic: across the nation a school district will often spend six to nine thousand dollars per teacher, per year on professional development. Their point was simple: that investment, often on “outside” experts, wasn’t paying off. Instead, districts and systems would be better off investing that money back into their own system through teacher-led, job-embedded professional learning. Mark Sass put it succinctly: “workshops just don’t work.”

From this particular session, I’m bringing home this key learning, among other great ideas. In their research, this team uncovered the key needs around teacher professional development that works:

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I Oppose SB 5748

By Tom

There are two students in my class with attendance issues. They sit three feet away from each other. One student is the son of a banker and his mother is able to stay home with him when he’s sick, like recently when he missed about a week of school with bronchitis. His mom emailed me once or twice a day with updates on his health and requests for assignments so he wouldn’t fall too far behind. 

The other student also has health issues that affect his attendance. His mother has a low-wage job and doesn’t have the time – or the computer – to contact me twice a day when her kid is out sick. Not only that, when I called her in this week for a conference to talk about how her son was falling behind and how important it was to get her son to school “each day no matter what,” I quickly discovered that the root cause of everything was the fact that they were about to become homeless and she was at her wit’s end trying to figure out where to go and where to put their stuff while they couched-surfed for the foreseeable future.

As I was winding up my conversation with this desperate mom, racking my brain; trying to come up with resources that she hadn’t already contacted, the Washington State Senate was busy passing SB 5748, a bill that would tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

When I heard about the bill, I immediately thought about those two kids, sitting three feet away from each other, both missing too much school, but with very different family situations. And I thought about how their physical proximity in the classroom belies the enormous difference in the level of support they receive from home and ultimately, their academic achievement level.

I doubt there’s an amendment to that bill that would take into account the living standards of the students taking those tests.

As we enter the Testing Season, it’s important for stakeholders to understand the enormous impact family life has on the performance of our students. It’s all fine and good to expect the best from both of these boys – and I do – but to expect their best to be comparable is simply unrealistic.

Accountability is important; for students, teachers and administrators. But please, hold me accountable for what I can control: how I plan my lessons, how I deliver those lessons, how I assess my students and how I communicate with their families.

I’m hoping the House will defeat their version of this bill. But I’m also doing everything I can to get all of my students to come to school each day so I can teach each of them the best lesson I know how to teach. 

And I’m also trying to find that mom a place for her family to live.

Teaching and Learning 2015…

public domain image

This morning I begin the cross-country trek to the other Washington for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference. I’m lucky to be attending both as a panelist for two sessions (one on blogging, one on cultivating teacher leaders through NBCT initiatives and district support systems) as well as a participant.

It was at last year’s T&L that Secretary Duncan shared the vision for Teach to Lead. While my natural skepticism initially pinged (was this just hollow teacher patronization in a climate of rampant teacher vilification?), after seeing the work of teacher leaders who are moving this initiative forward…and after attending the Teach to Lead Summit in Denver…I believe that this work is genuine. It helps, also, that this year’s T&L schedule is filled with sessions centering on cultivating and sustaining teacher leadership at various levels.

I know that whenever NBCTs get together in our Washington, I always learn and return home with new ideas and energy, and I’m confident that T&L will do the same. Many other Washington teachers will be attending T&L as well, including my fellow storiesfromschool.org writer Tom… who through great fortune is stuck with me as a roomie yet again. Tom and I will no doubt be writing here to share our reflections about T&L in the coming days!

Balancing Teacher Leadership



This guest post is contributed by Shari Conditt, 2015 ESD 112 Teacher of the year. An NBCT, she is her union’s co-president and facilitates a NBPTS cohort for her district.

Sometimes I feel like I’m balancing on a tightrope, fifty feet in the air holding a yellow notepad in one hand and a hot mocha in the other.  Teacher leadership is a lot like that.
I work in a small, rural school district as a full time teacher.  I see over 120 students a day and teach two different AP courses. I developed my district’s national board cohort, a program I created in my district to facilitate teachers as they seek certification.   I am also the teacher’s union co-president, a position I’ve held for the past eight years. I’ve bargained four contracts, implemented TPEP, and worked extensively to mentor teachers and am now in the midst of trying to help teachers as we have a massive shift in our district due to the construction of a new high school.  Despite all of this work, I’ve remained incredibly positive and determined to provide our teachers with as many supports as possible.
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Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, Erin Marzwick, Betsy Cornell, Beth Spaulding, Mark Gardner, Shari Hills Conditt liked this post

PLC, Vulnerability and Student Work


Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky to participate in Professional Learning Communities with creative, student-centered, and dedicated teachers; the kind of teachers whose classrooms I would be happy for my own offspring to someday join (and let’s be honest, we all have those in our buildings for whom that sentiment isn’t true).

We shared lesson and unit ideas, we problem-solved the struggles our students presented, and the combined experience and innovation in the room each Friday meant that after nearly every weekly PLC I walked out with new ideas, strategies, or perspectives. Our PLC structure is supposed to follow the DuFour model, and with the focus of our building (and state) shifting toward monitoring meaningful student growth, that PLC model aligns well in theory.

My current PLC includes five of us, and three of us are teaching the course for the first time ever or for the first time after a several-year hiatus. While our classroom student growth goals aren’t worded precisely the same (we’re English teachers after all… and even the text of a student growth goal should convey voice), we’ve all focused on the broad concept of substantiation of claims, whether in analysis of literary or informational texts. This fits nicely with that giant elephant in the room known as the Senior Research Paper, which is a graduation requirement for our twelfth graders and requires proficiency at exactly that skill.

A while back, we took that big step across the threshold that every PLC must eventually broach: examining student work. In our case, a couple of us were sharing student work samples from the Senior Paper.

We tentatively distributed copies accompanied by disclaimers and pre-emptive apologies that built in a crescendo to the eventual appeal of please don’t judge my teaching by my students’ comma splices and inconsistent verb tense.

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Highly Capable and the Legislative Budget

Recently a teacher came to my room asking for advice. She had a little girl reading well above grade level, and she wanted to know how she could address her needs. We talked about options, and I shared some of the materials I use. She left feeling like she could better meet the needs of her exceptional student.

I teach fifth graders in a self-contained class for highly-capable students. My kids are bused to me from all over my district. Teachers in my school come to me for advice, but teachers in other elementary schools in the district do not have a HC teacher in their building as a resource. It’s not as easy for them to get help.

When I first arrived in this state in 1989, having a program for gifted students was optional for districts. The state had a pot of money set aside for gifted education. Districts that opted to offer a program could design a program that suited their needs—focusing on grades three through eight, for example—and then access state money.

These state funds, by the way, did not cover the cost of the program my district offered. My district ponied up the rest of the money.

Then a couple of years ago the state made Highly Capable part of Basic Education. Now every district is required to have a program for HC students. The program must run K-12. And according to McCleary, local levy money can’t be used for Basic Education.

Oh, yeah. The pot of money the state kicks in hasn’t really changed much over the years.

Wait a minute!

  • The participating districts have gone from voluntary (around half) to all required to have programs. Many are building programs from scratch.
  • The participating grade levels at each district have gone from some selected grade levels to all grade levels, K-12. I believe that’s an increase for every district in the state!
  • And after McCleary, districts can’t use local levy money to shore up any missing dollars.

Obviously, the districts need more money for quality programs to meet the needs of their Highly Capable students.

I’m on the executive board of WAETAG (Washington Association of Educators of Talented and Gifted). We saw this change in the law coming and realized teachers would need training. We worked with Whitworth College to train a cadre of WAETAG teachers as professional development staff to work with ESDs and districts to offer classes in Nature and Needs of Gifted, Differentiation, Critical Thinking, and Creative Thinking.

Attending those classes is, of course, voluntary.

Teachers who have HC students in their classroom need to be trained in HC students’ special needs and in how to meet those needs. It’s not fair to place HC students in a teacher’s classroom and tell the teacher to meet their needs without that training. (Most teacher training programs do very little preparation in terms of HC education. My original certification program in the 1970s? I think it had about a paragraph!)

I’m glad HC students are recognized as Basic Education students. I think they need targeted funding that meets their special needs. I think the legislature needs to fully fund both HC students as well as the professional development of their teachers.

Owning the Wheel


“Let’s not reinvent the wheel.”

I used to hear this a lot when I worked in the business world. Yes, absolutely we would all think… that’s been done already. Let’s not duplicate the work that someone has already done.

I often wondered why we didn’t say this more in education. Every state had their own standards and their own tests: there was an incredible amount of duplicated energy. Even district assessments varied from neighboring town to town.

Then we got the Common Core and I thought “Finally!” we’re going to do the work once, and it will be done well, and we will share it. I really didn’t think it would matter if the standards were more rigidly fixed than the previous state standards, because the energy we would all save seemed worth it.

Then we got (or will get) the tests. These have been created without district or state oversight. No parents, no teachers, no principals, or district superintendents will be able to easily modify these tests. No superintendent of public instruction for a given state will be able to easily modify much of anything about the tests – and that’s an optimistic appraisal.

So now I’m starting to wonder about that wheel.

Maybe we do need to recreate the wheel. In the end, at least then we have our own wheel. Ownership matters. All of the sudden we realize we’re riding in the backseat of the car. I wasn’t expecting this when Common Core arrived.

What if we all started with Common Core – what if we adopted Common Core – but then we raised it as our own baby? Each state could make changes, and though they would be weighty decisions they would be possible. Or maybe we could share custody with all of the other states. Perhaps state superintendents could meet every couple of years to propose and then decide on changes.

The assessment piece is even more problematic. Though we might all strive for the same goals, judgment of success is subjective and complex. Coming from the American roots of local control over local schools it just seems like a great distance to have traveled. I think we’re going to need a set of wheels to get that back.

Evaluations and RIFs: Moving Too Quickly…


Substitute Senate Bill 5744 establishes a procedure for the layoff of teachers in the event of reductions in funding or decrease in enrollment. The gist: when faced with reductions in the certificated teacher force (RIF), a district must consider a weighted average of the two most recent annual evaluations of a teacher (weighted 60% on the current year, 40% on the previous year) and only use seniority to break a “tie.” The bill digest helps break it down and reviews the pro and con positions; the bill passed out of the Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education with support from Senators Litzow, Dammeier, Fain, Hill and Rivers and a dissenting vote from McAulliffe.

When I read this, I thought I must have missed something…as I was sure there had already been some kind of legislative action tying teacher evaluations to reductions in force. I was right: It is here, way down in section 8a of the “TPEP Law” 28a.405.100 (parts of which I by now have committed to memory, for better or worse).

The current law does state that “beginning with the 2015-16 school year, evaluation results for certificated classroom teachers and principals must be used as one of multiple factors in making human resource and personnel decisions” and also states that nothing in the law as written “limits the ability to collectively bargain how the multiple factors shall be used in making human resource or personnel decisions, with the exception that evaluation results must be a factor” (RCW 28a.405.100 8a). This section also defines “human resource and personnel decisions” as including reduction in force.

All of which leaves me to wonder why we need SSB 5744.

I believe that when implemented as intended our new teacher evaluation system with eight criteria, four tiers, and a strong foundation in scale-referenced and evidence-supported assessment of teachers, will help teachers grow and refine their practice. Prematurely attaching state-level RIF language to a new system still in nascent stages of implementation adds a veiled threat to something that is in most places still in the “we’re kind of starting to get the hang of it…maybe” phase.

I’m not inherently opposed to what the bill suggests. I think it’s kind of clunky and bit micro-managey…I’d of course rather see local control of personnel decisions. However, the overall premise is one I’m okay with. What I’m not a fan of is the haste in adding a new twist to a system not yet fully formed. Instead, why don’t we leave the new evaluation system alone for five, eight, ten years (!!) so we can get it working as intended. Then, once the bugs are ironed out and the challenges are addressed, we can consider how to (or whether we even want to) clarify the already existing mandate that teacher evaluations be a factor in human resource decisions.

My worry is that this is just the kind of twist that might serve to derail (or at minimum, distract from) the good work that so many districts are already doing to make teacher evaluation a tool to improve student learning.