Goals for a New School Year: #ObserveMe


I first spotted the #ObserveMe hashtag on a leisurely scroll through my Twitter feed. This piqued my curiosity. Who’s observing me? What are they observing? As I spiraled down the internet, I found that Math teacher, Robert Kaplinsky, is challenging educators to rethink the way we pursue feedback by making it easy and immediately obtainable. It’s simple. Make a form that says something like “Hi I’m ____. I would like feedback on the following goals:_____”. There is no right way to set up your #ObserveMe sign. Then, adjacent to this invite place a reflection tool. From reflection half-sheets to QR codes connected to google spreadsheets, a teacher can embrace any way that is easy (and I’d argue most meaningful) for them to receive this feedback.

I discovered that while #ObserveMe isn’t quite trending yet, it’s catching fire even at the university level. In teacher prep, some professors are using it as a way to model to preservice teachers the need for a clean feedback loop. Today’s teachers are constantly working to fight the isolation that can happen in this profession. We are also always looking for ways to improve and receiving meaningful feedback on our instructional moves is hard to find. Here’s what I like about Kaplinsky’s challenge to teachers.

It increases the frequency of feedback. With #ObserveMe, I don’t need to wait for my administrator’s scheduled visit. I don’t need to wait for end of unit or end of course student reflections. I don’t need to wait for my instructional coach to find time to come into my classroom. I don’t need to wait for a colleague to get a sub so they can meet with me about student learning. In fact, this has the potential to give me more, real, immediate feedback from a variety of perspectives than anything I’ve seen this far in my eleven years of teaching.

ObserveMe-5-300x232It forces me to have a growth mindset. If this sign is on my door, I am telling the world that I want to grow. I am inviting anyone to come in and comment on my instruct. Yeah, that’s a little scary. But it’s a healthy risk that models vulnerability and openness to others. Who could pop in? A visitor. A parent. The librarian. Another teacher on planning period. I’m both thrilled and terrified at the possibilities. The #ObserveMe challenge reminds us that teaching is relational and we need all types of perspectives to help us grow. This model is based on trust. By opening myself up to the community, I am making them a part of my learning process and saying that I value their voice in my growth.Alissa

It will definitely impact students. If we begin the year with this signage, we are modeling the culture of learning we are trying to cultivate in students. We should be getting feedback that we can implement the next day. I will have concrete date for how I implemented my feedback and can brag about that to my administrator at my evaluation (wink, wink). This has the possibility of transforming my instruction and hopefully inspiring the observer to work on something in their classroom.


So far, a handful of teachers in my school are ready with their signs (they gave me permission to include below). I’m hoping our vulnerability will encourage others in the school to jump on board, foster deeper conversations about goal setting, and improve our practice.



Anyone else up for the challenge?

If you’re on Twitter, post a picture and use the hashtag


Happiness in the Classroom


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

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

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

Continue reading

Summer Learning: PLCs


One of the most profound professional development activities I took part in this summer was attending the Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute in Seattle with a large number of colleagues from my new building and across my district. We’ve all heard about PLCs and we’ve all been part of PLCs, but there were definitely some missing pieces in my understanding and implementation. (Read a short history of PLCs.) Maybe my story resonates with your experience.

A few years ago, I’m not quite sure how many, there were a set of four questions posted in the largest conference room at the district office, which also served as school board’s default meeting location (among other uses). Maybe they’re familiar?

  1. What do we want students to learn?
  2. How will we know if they have learned?
  3. What will we do if they don’t learn?
  4. What will we do if they already know it?

Good questions, but I had no idea where they came from or how I could use them. In fact I was a little suspicious of them because of the mystery that surrounded them. These questions seemed to show up everywhere. They were part of a number of school improvement plans and inexplicably appeared on collaboration forms my team was asked to fill out after working together.

A few years ago I was swept up in the Finland frenzy and was particularly struck by how much time teachers were able to collaborate during the regular school day. I already knew from my own experience that teachers needed more time to work together and I suspected that this was probably one of the reasons why the schools in Finland did so well. I joined a couple of PLCs and worked with teachers at my grade level, teachers from other schools, and teachers from across the grades interested in co-learning in my school. Still, I wasn’t totally clear on what the difference was between a group working together and a PLC. When I heard there was a conference on PLCs, I put my name in even though it was far off in the middle of the summer about nine months away.


Spencer writes a blog entry after the conference

So I’m here to tell you that I now believe that those four questions above are the secret to transforming public education. I wont be able to recreate the three day workshop with multiple keynotes and breakout sessions presented by some of the leading experts on PLCs working in education today, but I will explain those questions.

First of all, those questions form the cornerstone of the work that teachers in PLCs do together. They were articulated by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour. For further reading check out their books on PLCs.

Question 1: What do we want students to learn? This question is meant to be answered by teachers who collaborate together and work at the same grade level(s). These teachers must look at the standards and decide together what they guarantee that each of them will ensure that ALL students learn. What is non-negotiable? What, if not learned, would be disastrous for that student? Teachers need to commit to teaching those things as priorities. Not everything is of equal value. Teachers clarify and prioritize the standards together taking into account the intent of the standards and the needs of the students. This step can not be skipped, nor can it be mandated by above. This is where the team makes commitments to one another.

Question 2: How will we know if they have learned it? Now the teachers teach with the same objectives. They teach the best way each of them knows how. They decide on common formative assessments that will be given at approximately the same time. And when they have given those assessments and evaluated them, they come together to share their findings.

Question 3 & 4: What will we do if they don’t learn? What will we do if they already know it? These are the intervention and enrichment pieces, but there are a couple of important points to clarify if the PLC is to function properly. Firstly, we need to get vulnerable. Someone on your team will teach that particular concept most successfully and someone will teach it least successfully. Though there might be a nicer way to say that, this is where we feel threatened so we have to confront it. It must be visible so that the student learning can be addressed and this takes trust. Fundamentally, the teachers involved must see themselves as members of a team. Teachers in a PLC are not running side-by-side in a marathon, but rather rowing in the same boat (This was literally Rick DuFour’s analogy at the institute and it is a powerful shift in thinking). Secondly, the teachers need to take action with the information they obtain from looking at the results. That may include learning from the teacher who demonstrated the highest levels of student proficiency. It may also include having that teacher lead the intervention group for all of the students who have not learned. Nobody can meet the needs of all of their students by themselves. If we aren’t working as a team we don’t have a chance.

This process runs repeatedly and cycles through the key learning objectives for the students.

Time will be required and because we know it is a scarce commodity creativity will be necessary. One of the best ideas I have heard on creating time is to (occasionally) move the 30 minutes teachers are required to be available after school and combining it with the 30 minutes they are required to be there before school. In some cases you may be able to add an all-school activity to kick in another 15. All of this can be done without impacting buses, students, or families and could take place on a regular basis (with some contact negotiation).

This is the technical/structural shift, but the cultural shift may be the toughest to make (and hardest to recognize). This was brought to a very sharp point by Dr. Anthony Muhammad when he asked us to examine the achievement gap and equity from our own mindsets as well as within the de facto mindset of the system in general. More on this in another post…

Teacher Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder why.

The First Day of School

Like so many teachers, I nervously plan, re-plan, and then overplan the first few days of school.  I want my students to feel like this is their class, not my class.  This helps create a positive learning environment that is based on mutual respect and trust.  However, for most of my teaching career I’ve started the first day of school with the course syllabus.  When I left student teaching and landed my first high school teaching job I was told, “Don’t smile until November,” and “Set the rules on the first day so that there is no question as to who is in charge.”  Admittedly, I thought that I could do that.  I could easily tackle the rules part but the whole not smiling axiom just didn’t work for me.  A smile communicates warmth and I certainly didn’t want to create a classroom where students felt that I was cold and uninterested in them as individuals.  So I smiled and then went through the rules.  And I’ve continued to do just that for sixteen years of my teaching career.  Until this week…

On Wednesday, I’m changing it up.  Instead, we’re going to do some relationship building.  If our classroom is going to be focused on teaching and learning, then we’re going to have to build a classroom community based on trust and respect.  So instead of going through the rules immediately,  we’re going to focus less on the “how “ of this class and more on the “who” is in this class.  My high school students are going to be diagnosing their learning styles and committing to habits that support those styles.  The juniors in U.S. HIstory will be creating infographs that demonstrate key events in their lives and word clouds that depict who they are and the things they hold dear.  My goal is that together we will work to create products that depict who we are so that we can create the foundation to our classroom relationship.

If ever you’re in a job interview and you’re asked, “What is your greatest strength?” and you don’t answer, “My connection with students,” then it is entirely likely that you will not get the job.  I’ve sat on many interview committees over the years and admittedly, if I don’t hear that sometime during the interview, I’m not likely to recommend a candidate to be hired.  It’s not that I have a script that I want a prospective teacher to follow or that I am willing to overlook other issues with an interview once I hear that magic phrase, but ultimately, I believe that our connection with students is what allows teachers to access and activate student learning.  Teachers who focus on relationship building first, content, second will inherently find more success in helping that content stick.



Best Teachers Ever

The first teacher I really remember was Mrs. Hester. She was absolutely rigorous, absolutely strict, and one of the most fun teachers I ever had. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. She was the first person who inspired me to be a teacher. I think I’m still channeling her.

The thing is, I was super lucky. I had multiple memorable teachers.


Mrs. Garland in sixth grade not only taught me math but she read the most incredibly vivid stories, stories I still remember. Mr. Spivey in seventh grade made grammar and writing both comprehensible and fun. Besides teaching us how to speak Spanish, Sr. Isidro Jesus Maytorena y Robinson shared with us what it was like to grow up in rural Mexico. Our junior high librarian took us to the Stanford library and let us tour the rare book section.

Then came high school. Mr. Meredith and Mr. Rigley demanded higher and higher levels of writing. (When I got to college I tested out of most of the required composition classes because of what they taught me.) Mr. Bradburn taught my whole sophomore English class how to speak in public without fear. An amazing feat! Mr. Barley and the other geometry teachers team-taught a fluid set of three classes we could move up and down within; meanwhile the teachers wrote their own geometry textbook. M. Keplinger had us speaking French from the first day of school. Miss Allshouse ran the Model UN and the Asian History Club and let us make dinner at her house. Mr. Viera would NOT let me leave the room until I understood each day’s physics lesson.

Sir Isaac Newton said he saw further as a scientist because he stood on the shoulders of giants. I feel like I had a similar experience. I am a better teacher because I grew up in the classrooms of giants.

As I start school next week, I won’t begin the year alone. I will be accompanied by all the great teachers who laid the foundation for my own education.

Now seems like an ideal time to remember and thank them.

Teacher Induction Programs

Over the next two weeks, thousands of teachers, new to teaching or new to a school district will gather in excitement to learn details about their new jobs.  Many of those teachers will find themselves deflated in hours.  All too often, new teacher training days end up as Intro to Human Resources 101, far from focused on the realities of teaching and learning.  I’ve been witness to such programs and I’ve wondered, what did these teachers get out of this day?  Did we just curb their enthusiasm for this job?  Did teachers feel supported and mentored and were we (those who put on the training) good stewards of our practice?  After all, we know that supporting new teachers can lead to a reduction in attrition and can go a long way for a new teacher and a district.

So how do we balance the paperwork and the practice?  What should a new teacher induction program look like?  What goals do these programs aspire to meet and how will they evaluate when those goals have been met?  

Admittedly, until about six months ago, I hadn’t put much thought into this.  I’ve attended our new teacher meeting each year.  I’ve seen the revolving door of district staff and administrators introducing our newest staff to the paperwork, policies, and website.  I’ve been part of that revolving door, advocating for National Board Certification and working as a mentor teacher over the years.  For the most part, I thought that we had done a nice job introducing the new teachers to the must know information for the job.  And then I learned about the Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) program.  

BEST is a program designed to help administrators and mentors support novice teachers as they make the transition into the classroom.  This program was designed by OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) and funded by the state legislature.  The program has three goals:

  1. Reduce educator turnover.
  2. Improve educator quality for student learning.
  3. Ensure equity of learning opportunity for all students.  

You will notice that nowhere do you see — “4.  Learn how to put in for a substitute teacher when you are sick.”  

When our district hired several novice teachers, our assistant superintendent applied for and received a BEST grant.  The BEST grant partnered our district with our local ESD to support  a year-long mentoring project with our novice teachers.  One of my colleagues, Malinda, dove into the work of BEST and attended several academies and conferences, so that she could better understand what supports were needed.  Malinda brought back to a team of administrators, instructional coaches, and district support staff a set of standards, created by OSPI and CSTP for Teacher Induction Programs.  I should preface this by indicating that I’m not a BEST mentor and I have not been thoroughly trained by our state’s BEST program.  However, I’ve seen the impact of that training and having witnessed our first teacher induction program as a result of BEST training,

Our team of instructional coaches, human resource coordinators, building and district administrators came together and studied the standards.  We worked independently to see where we were in approaching those standards and we learned quickly that we were deficient in several areas.  To respond, our team came together every two weeks for several months to create a game plan for how to meet those standards.  Although BEST helps support novice educators, we wanted to ensure that we were supporting veteran teachers who were new to our district, too.  Malinda worked diligently to keep us focused on the standards and after months of work, the team established a game plan that included strengthening our hiring process, partnering with local universities, and developing a standards based teacher induction program.

Our new teacher induction program kicked off this week.  It is no longer a one day, rotating door meeting.  Instead our new teachers began their career in our district with a focused, five day training.  Our new teachers (novice and veteran) worked with district administrators, building administrators, instructional coaches, and peer to peer mentors.  They met together as a team of new teachers and were also broken into smaller teams, based on buildings/grade levels.  They worked to establish procedural plans and assessment goals, and also learned about curriculum and instructional materials.   And when the week concluded, the music was cued and the lyrics “Money, money, money, money” by the O’Jays blared while our Payroll Staff handed out paychecks to our new teachers for the week’s worth of time/work.  I heard shrieks of excitement and even an “oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh!”

So was the work worth it? I sure hope so.  It’s too soon to measure whether this induction program is going to meet the three BEST goals. That will be better assessed later in the school year.   But anecdotally I feel that we are on our way.  I witnessed those smiles and heard those conversations.  I spoke with a new-to-us teacher who indicated that he could see our district’s vision being emulated in the staff’s passion for teaching and learning and the work that had been put into planning for the week.  Our new teachers felt valued.  

A growing attrition rate coupled with a teacher shortage requires that schools and districts critically examine the supports that are in place for new teachers. Supports must include thoughtfully planned, goal oriented, standards based teacher induction programs.  If we want to keep good teachers teaching we must demonstrate that we value their professional growth at the onset.  Let’s keep these teachers enthusiastic about the work that lies ahead and give them the tools early on so that they may be successful in accomplishing those goals.  

Second Tier Certification in Washington: A Year of Reckoning

Conroy DuringMy youngest son recently announced he was thinking about becoming a teacher. “What are all the steps you have to go through?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “First you need to get into college. Then you’ll spend your first two years taking general courses designed to give you a rounded education. After that you’ll apply to the college of education at your university. They’ll want you to have pretty good grades and they’ll make you take a basic skills test to make sure you have a decent foundation of knowledge and skills.”

“That sounds reasonable,” he said.

“And once you get into the program you’ll focus on classes that train you how to teach. You’ll learn about child development, lesson planning, classroom management and how to sequence instruction. You’ll also spend a lot of time out in classrooms observing and teaching small groups and short lessons. You’ll write a lot of reports on your observations and reflections. During your last semester you’ll take over someone’s classroom and teach full time. During all of this you’ll get lots of feedback and help from the teachers you work with as well as the faculty from your college.”

“Is that it?” Continue reading

Read Those Standards!

CaptureI recently celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary, and as it happened, my wife and I attended a wedding three days later. While watching the wedding my thoughts naturally turned to the differences between a wedding and a marriage. It’s one thing to promise everything to your spouse; it’s another thing altogether to renew that promise year in and year out.

Those same feelings returned the following week while working with a massive group of National Board candidates. I was a trainer at Jump Start, WEA’s pre-candidacy program for teachers pursuing National Board certification.

One of the many activities through which we lead our candidates is deceptively simple. We have them read their standards. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is, after all, (as the name implies) grounded in standards. In fact, the NB spent the first five years of its life focused on writing those standards – 25 sets in all – so that teachers would have something rigorous to which to aspire.

The process of certification is essentially providing evidence that one’s practice aligns with those standards. Therefore it’s incumbent upon each candidate to thoroughly understand those standards.

And because those standards aren’t going to read themselves, we make them read their standards, closely and thoroughly.

But here’s the thing: It’s impossible to read a set of standards and completely retain them. After all, a set of National Board standards is roughly the size of a thick magazine. With no ads or pictures.

So what I try to do each summer is re-read my standards. Front to back. And I usually do. It’s not what I’d call great literature, in the order of Faulkner, Twain or even Richard Brautigan, but it’s not bad. In fact, you might even call it inspirational.

So I’m challenging you to read your standards. Set aside a few hours before school gets crazy, go online, download them and go for it. You’ll be glad you did.

Think of it as a renewal of vows. To your profession and to your students.

Lesson Plans vs. Professional Development


Thanks to the internet, I have hopelessly messed up some of the most (supposedly) tasty recipes ever posted: Homemade breads….desserts including many species of cookie…a few things involving breading and frying various other foods…

It is foolish for me to believe that merely following a recipe will net the kinds of results I see on the Food Network.

That, along with my roles as a mentor and leader of teacher PD, is why the headline “Give Weak Teachers Good Lesson Plans, Not Professional Development” caught my eye when it posted in Education Week recently.

The article made a few valid points, including this: Often, the least-effective teachers are so because of ineffective planning, ergo starting with stronger lesson plans is a great remedy. By “least-effective,” I’m talking the lowest 5-10% of the struggling corps.

Unfortunately, that valid point gets buried by this statement toward the end: “Giving teachers lesson plans is also cheaper and easier to scale than other interventions aimed at improving student achievement.”

I can follow a simple recipe, sometimes. I will never be Wolfgang Puck by just following a recipe. What do people who want to truly excel at their cooking do? Take classes. Get a mentor or coach. Collaborate with a peer. If I’m stuck on using a recipe, maybe I need to learn to cook without one…or better yet, learn to write recipes I and others can follow.

I’m a big believer in planning. I have never, not once, used a lesson plan written by someone else. That’s just me, not a wholesale indictment of “planning via Pinterest.” I simply cannot wrap my head around someone else’s script and make it work. I’ve tried, but I end up completely rewriting the recipe on the fly… my students tend to be picky eaters.

The point in all this: Yes, good lesson plans are a must for some teachers just starting their careers, wading into a new grade level or content area, or who are struggling to be effective. The lesson plans should be the starting point, though. Only through deliberate practice, peer support, and (gasp!) well-designed professional development, can we move beyond the recipe. The false dichotomy of “lesson plans” or “professional development” suggested by the article (which also cites that studies reveal almost no impact of PD on test scores) ignores the very real truth that well-structured PD whose practices are implemented with the support of peers, teams, or instructional coaches does in fact have a research-supported positive impact on student learning.

Lest we scrap our PD budgets and start just printing recipes for everyone… let’s remember that we have some pretty talented cooks in our kitchen already. We can, and should, learn from them. “PD” doesn’t have to mean sitting in the cafeteria to watch a PowerPoint. What “PD” looks like has evolved to be much more job-embedded and meaningful…and much more powerful than a few lesson plans printed out from TeachersPayTeachers. When it comes to PD making a difference, the quality of and follow-up provided in concert with the professional learning we experience is what transforms the recipe into a meal to remember.