Live Blogging from the NBCT Leadership Conference: Part 1

By Tom

For the next 24 hours I will be “live blogging” from the 2014 Teacher Leadership Conference at the beautiful Skamania Lodge along the Columbia River about 40 miles east of Vancouver, WA.

CSTP has held this conference every year for the past decade or so. The goal is to welcome new (or old, actually) NBCTs into the Accomplished Teacher community of Washington State and develop their interest in, and capacity for, teacher leadership. Like with most conferences, there’s a combination of whole-group sessions and breakout sessions. And lots of food.

I’ve been lucky to be involved in every one of these conferences since it started, mostly as a presenter, but also as a participant.

This year I’ll also be blogging live from the conference. I’ll try to attend as many sessions as possible and post what I see and hear. Look for frequent updates over the weekend!

To Fix a Broken System: Teacher Leadership

"Columbia river gorge from crown point" by Hux - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

This weekend in Skamania in southwest Washington, teachers from throughout the state will convene because of a series of simple truths:

1. Public education, as a system, needs to change.
2. Teachers constitute the largest number of professionals employed in the public education system.
3. When new initiatives or mandates are levied upon public schools, teachers are those who are charged with enacting these.

This weekend, these convened teachers will be learning about the unique skills and dispositions of being a teacher-leader. It is not quite the same as being a great teacher, and it is not the same as working hard. Like being a teacher, being a teacher-leader involves a complex and often hidden set of competencies.

Why cultivate this? The answer is in the simple truths above…with particular attention to number three: when new initiatives or mandates are levied upon public schools, teachers are charged with enacting these. There are two levels within this truth where skilled teachers can (and do) make a tremendous difference.

First, strong teacher leaders have the skills, dispositions, and confidence to step forward and influence the crafting of new initiatives and mandates. Teacher leaders know that complaining and protesting is not enough… instead, they know that engaging in crafting solutions is a way to improve the system.

Second, strong teacher leaders have the skills, dispositions, and confidence to take all of these mandates (good, bad, and ugly) and process them into practices that positively impact student learning. Teacher leaders know that neither complaints nor mere compliance are appropriate… instead, they know how to distill all the mess into a clear and consistent focus on students.

The USDE’s Teach to Lead initiative is helping to bring teacher leadership to the forefront. However, we have amazing teacher leaders all over the state of Washington whose work should be highlighted as well.

Stories from School readers: What are some teacher leadership success stories that help to prove that we, the teaching force, are the ones making meaningful change in our system? Respond in the comments below!

Photo Attribution: "Columbia river gorge from crown point" by Hux - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -


Accomplished Teachers, Congratulations!


Good teachers get results: students grow, learn, improve…

Throughout this week, teachers all over Washington are getting a different sort of “result”: They learn the status of their TakeOne or NBPTS candidacy portfolio. My hope is that, no matter the result, these good teachers will have learned from this process.

For me, earning my National Board Certification changed two things about me as a professional. First, it helped me understand the importance of reflective practice. Now, as I work on my renewal this year, the near-decade of reflective practice that was cultivated during my years of candidacy has become integral to how I work. The process encouraged me to think deeply and always keep “impact on student learning” at the absolute center of every decision I make.

Second, earning my NBPTS certification opened many, many doors of opportunity for professional and personal learning and growth. I have connected with organizations and individuals that otherwise I would have never known, all because I became a part of this professional network of accomplished teachers. I’ve developed skills as both a classroom teacher and a teacher leader, and this has gradually helped me find a place in my system where I feel I am not only impacting my own students’ learning, but also the learning of my colleagues’ students.

I was the first in my building to earn my National Board Certificate. The reaction from some of my peers was a surprise, since this was a “new” thing to our school culture. When the principal came over the intercom at the end of the day to announce I had certified, one (jaded and consistently negative) teacher even cornered me to say “So you think you’re a better teacher than I am now?”

My response is the one I’ve stuck to: “No, I am a better teacher than I was.” It is not about sorting and comparing teachers; this process is about helping teachers grow.

Congrats to all of you new NBCTs and those who continue your candidacy. Take a moment to reflect not only on what you’ve accomplished, but what you learned as well.

PLCs and Question Four

Our district started the year with a huge professional development day—all morning with the secondary staff and all afternoon with the elementary staff attending an inservice designed to reboot, reenergize, and refine our Professional Learning Communities. Our administrative team from “the hill” flew a guru out from Utah to train us.

I have to admit, I was impressed with her style. Whatever it took to make PLCs work in her school, she made it happen. “You need a place and time to meet all together? I can coordinate that!” “You need pizza and Cokes? I’ll bring it in!” “You need everyone to have laptops? I’ll buy them!”

I was less clear where she found the money to make it all happen. Pizza and soda for every PLC meeting? New laptops for every teacher? Maybe she writes really great grants.

She led us through the process to the inevitable high point—the increase in test scores. The impact on the lowest performing students in math and reading was, again, impressive.

Then we took a break, and I was able to go up with my little sticky note question, “Did the test scores for your top reading and math groups show comparable gains with your low groups?”

When we reconvened she answered my question first. “No,” she admitted. And, she added, in their euphoria over their success, it took a while for them to notice the discrepancy and start to address the needs of their highest students.

It’s a nation-wide issue that, I believe, has been exacerbated by No Child Left Behind. The legislative emphasis is on “meeting the standard.” Politically, that doesn’t give much incentive to pouring a lot of time, energy, effort—and money—into children who already “meet the standard” in September. So what is the result?

In 2008 the Fordham Report showed that the lowest fourth grade reading group posted a 16 point gain over seven years while the highest fourth grade reading group posted a 3 point gain. The lowest eighth grade math group posted a 13 point gain over the same seven years while the highest eighth grade math group posted a 5 point gain.

In our PLC we have four questions. Unfortunately, there is a sense of order to those questions, almost a sense of priority. Often, we never get to grappling with question number 4 until we have thoroughly resolved questions 1, 2 and 3. Those kids on the high end need us to answer the question now, not after they have moved on to college.

The truth is, it is not enough for teachers to ask, “How will we respond if they already know it?” There should be an incentive in the testing system itself, not to bully individual teachers but to acknowledge high-achieving schools and districts.

When the WASL first came out (remember that precursor to the MSP?), districts earned one point for every child who moved from a 2 to a 3 in a test—math, reading, writing, or listening. But districts earned 2 points for every child who moved from a 3 to a 4. That system gave districts an incentive to continue pushing students past simply meeting the standard toward exceeding the standard. I have no idea what the points were used for, and unfortunately the incentive system disappeared almost immediately.

I was sorry to see it go.

I want to see the test scores for the top groups go up as much as any other group. Because right now, those are the children most likely to be “left behind.”

Initiative 1351 Passes. Now what?

By Tom

It took a while for the results to trickle in, but after nearly a week it’s become clear that the voters have decided to lower class sizes in Washington. I voted yes, with all the passion as a 1988 vote for Michael Dukakis.

Why the lack of enthusiasm? Three things: implementation, allocation and expectations.

Implementation: Now that the initiative passed, none of us can expect our classes to suddenly shrink. I certainly don’t. Class sizes aren’t going to get any smaller unless and until there’s someplace to put those extra kids. And in my school, there simply isn’t. Every one of our classrooms is being used, along with the two portables that were brought in over the summer. And it’s the same all over our district. If I understand the Initiative correctly, there are workarounds for schools that don’t have room to create new classrooms; it involves hiring extra teachers until the average class size goes down. It sounds to me like my district will be hiring a fleet of learning support teachers, which is a good thing; as long as we’re careful about how it plays out. This is definitely something all of us need to pay attention to and get involved in. It could be a great thing for our schools or it could be a mess.

Allocation: 1351 is going to be really expensive, which is a problem, since lawmakers don’t run the state like a restaurant. “I hope you enjoyed your lower class sizes, citizens; here’s the bill. I’ll be your cashier when you’re ready.” What they do instead is move money around so that as few voters as possible notice. My guess is that the people who will end up noticing the most will be teachers. I worry about my salary, my benefits and my National Board bonus. I also worry about the state’s ability to pay for other important education programs, specifically those that involve college readiness.

Expectations: Once we get these smaller classes – or whatever workaround we end up with – all eyes are going to focus on outcomes. And I don’t think they’ll be waiting for the class of 2028. In fact, as a fourth grade teacher I’m looking forward to 2016, when I get a class of kids who all came out of 17-student third grade classrooms, all of whom had the benefit of more teacher attention. And my expectations will increase each year. But that’s nothing compared to what “outsiders” will be looking for. And by “outsiders” I probably mean the Seattle Times, who were relentless in their opposition to 1351, both in and out of their editorial page. I don’t seriously doubt that we’ll have the data to show that the Initiative led to student improvement, but I have no doubt that the doubters will be looking really hard to prove that it didn’t. And that worries me.

So I guess it’s time to celebrate. But briefly, because there’s a lot of work to be done to make sure this turns out well.

Class Size—Beyond One Teacher and Four Walls

One year I team-taught in a school where I was one of two teachers for 25 fourth through sixth grade students! In that small class I could creatively meet the needs of a wide range of student abilities, from non-readers to nine-year-olds reading Shakespeare plays with me.

By the way, my students who were non-readers at the beginning of the year read Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang independently by the end of the year. In that one year I had the time to work intensively with their small group, teaching them both phonics and sight reading, and taking them through the first, second, third, and fourth grade readers before they tackled their chapter book independently, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. They loved the book and reveled in their success!

Meanwhile, I also had the time to work with three other reading groups, including the group working on Shakespeare. After we finished reading one of the plays at school, the students watched the BBC production at home, and their parents came in afterwards to say how much their children enjoyed and understood the play. Then they me asked if they could attend the class next time we read a play!

I know from firsthand personal experience how much I can accomplish with significantly smaller classes.

Even if we get smaller class sizes, even if the McCleary decision forces the legislature to fully fund education, even if the money arrives in my lifetime, I do not necessarily expect the ratio to work out to be one teacher, four walls, 23 students.

For one thing, as people have pointed out, to have smaller groups of students per teacher requires more classrooms. The cost isn’t just about hiring more teachers, it’s about building more classrooms. More buildings.

Or maybe not.

When I was in New York years ago I ran into an enthusiastic group of teachers. They worked in a program where three teachers taught two classrooms of children in one double room. That worked out to a one to 20 ratio without building an extra classroom.

The kicker to their program? One of the three teachers in each partnership had to have training in Special Ed.

The teachers said, “Go to reading” or “Go to math.” The kids scrambled to the three points in the huge space for one of three reading or math groups—on grade level, needing help, above grade level. By the way, the groups needing help were having so much fun, everyone wanted to be in those groups! There was support in the classroom for science and social studies. No students left the room for special support services. There was no stigma to getting services.

My only suggestion to them was that one member of the team should have training in gifted education. They thought that was a great idea. I moved to Washington and never heard any more about that program. But I always liked the idea.

Three teachers, four walls, 60 students. Teachers trained in teams with specialists in Special Education and gifted. It’s a way to reduce class size without paying for more classroom construction. (Some remodeling, maybe, it’s true, but nothing more.)

And it’s a way to provide for differentiated instruction all day, every day.



Another Perspective on Class Size: Voting and Commitment

old school

One thing I am constantly learning as I grow as a teacher-leader is that systems are all far more complex than they may seem from the outside. This week at the Washington Educator Conference in Seatac, I-1351 and the McClearly case have been frequent topics of conversation. In particular, I found AWSP’s position on 1351 interesting.

McClearly and I-1351. The two are inexorably linked: both call for improvements to the Washington education system. Both have at heart (I believe) what is best for students and schools in Washington. Both, however, bring many, many dollar signs. As a result, I’m hearing again and again here at WEC that no matter what solution (“solution” = me being optimistic) precipitates from this coming legislative session it will need to include new revenue. That’s polite language for taxes.

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Class Size: My Only Concern


My third year of teaching was my second year in my current building, and it was the second year that this building had been open. That year, I was teaching Speech and Debate for the first time.

I was assigned to teach Speech and Debate in the Band room. At least I had chairs; the first iteration of the room assignment schedule had me teaching in the Choir room. No chairs, no desks, not even music stands.

Only one school year had passed since a brand new high school had opened, and already we were scrounging for instructional space.

Fast forward to today: we now have eight “portable” classrooms plus we passed a bond that has since added eight new permanent classrooms on the end of one wing (as well as an auxiliary lunch room, since we have to feed them all, too).

And again, in 2014, we are struggling to find rooms for all of our students.

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A Response to Spencer’s “Handshake Post”

By Tom White

On Monday, Spencer put up a post about Initiative 1351 in which he described the dramatic decrease in the number of relationships within a classroom when class size drops from current levels to those proposed by the Initiative. While this is certainly a novel approach to thinking about class size and the effect it has on the complexities within a classroom, I have two concerns.

First of all, Spencer seems to treat all relationships within a classroom equally. As if Aaliyah’s relationship with Travis, for example, is as important as her relationship with her teacher. I don’t think that’s true. I can certainly accept that she and Travis should have some relationship, and I agree that having more kids in the room might crowd out that relationship, but the primary relationship for both Aaliyah and Travis is that which they have with their teacher. Therefore, while it’s true that the number of relationships is a quadratic function of the number of people, the number of primary relationships – those between a student and her teacher – increases much more slowly as class size creeps up. While I agree that more students means less attention for each student and I agree that less students per class is preferable, I don’t accept Spencer’s dramatic math.

Furthermore, simply lowering class size doesn’t necessarily mean that instruction changes. I teach 28 fourth graders this year. If Initiative 1351 passes, I’ll eventually have only 25 students in my classroom. I honestly can’t promise that my lessons will be noticeably different with three fewer students. They won’t need to be. I’ll still construct and implement my lesson plans in much the same way, using much the same activities. True, I’ll have slightly more contact with each kid during each lesson, but the activities won’t be much different. I’m well aware that in the lower grades and in high poverty schools, class size will drop enough to actually change the learning activities, but in most classrooms – including mine – we’ll be spending an awful lot of money for pretty much the same lessons.

That said, I’ll be voting yes, mostly as a matter of principle, and I hope it passes, but I worry about the cost.

Class Size – A Math Problem


Relationships are central to teaching, as we all know, and as class sizes creep up the ability of a teacher to have meaningful relationships with students diminishes greatly. Meaningful feedback, one of the most critical aspects of a teacher’s work, is a function of the time available divided by the number of students. Hope made a great point in her post last week that student-teacher ratios are one of the key measures of great colleges and private schools. In thinking about the student-teacher ratio, I am reminded of an interesting math problem known as the “handshake problem.” It’s about relationships – not just student-teacher relationships, but student-student relationships. All of these interactions impact the dynamic of the class.

The handshake problem is a great problem for early algebra students because it is easily understandable, slightly mind-boggling, and it is readily solved with algebra. It goes like this: Given a room with a particular number of people, how many handshakes will take place if each person shakes hands with everyone once?

We know that Person A needs to shake hands with Person B and that this will mean that B has already shaken hands with A and thus does not need to repeat this particular handshake… uh oh. Continue reading