It’s Not on the SBAC

Our student-teacher conferences are in October. Of course, I had several student-teacher conferences in September, and I’ve had more in November. I do conferences any time a concern comes up. It may take time to meet with parents and their children more than once in the fall, but it saves time and trouble in the long run.

It may be surprising, but most of my conferences are not focused on academic issues.

I teach students in a self-contained Highly Capable class. For the most part, my students test above grade level in both math and reading. They have above average cognitive abilities. Yet they don’t always achieve academic success, at least not automatically. A lot of them need extra help. Why?

A major pitfall for many of my students is two-pronged: organization and time-management. My most recent conference was with a girl who spends hours preparing for major presentations—her oral book report, for example, or a research report for social studies. When bedtime rolls around she looks up wild-eyed and says, “But I didn’t do my math!” Or “I forgot to study my spelling!” Or both. Her math and spelling scores were suffering as a result.

Her mom and I talked to her about life skills and the need to manage assignments. We told her she needs to do the math homework first (since she likes this least). She needs to spend a few minutes each day on the spelling (instead of trying to learn all the words for the week in one night, and maybe missing the night).

And she needs to break the major assignments into more manageable pieces. We looked at the template for the Power Point for the oral book report, counted the required number of slides with her, and showed her that if she did one slide each night she could do it easily. It was waiting and worrying that turned the assignment into a monster.

Our conference happened to be at the end of the trimester grading period, so I told her I had to apply those lessons of organization and time-management to myself to get all my grading and report cards done!

She left the conference feeling like she could tackle the tasks of school more easily. Her mom left the conference feeling relaxed and comfortable, knowing that she and I were working together to meet the most pressing needs of her child.

I left the conference realizing, once again, that some of the most important things I teach are not on the SBAC. Or any other high-stakes test.

The two best predictors of success are not inherent talent and academic success. They are

  • having a good solid work ethic and
  • having the ability to get along with other people.

I spend a lot of time teaching my students how to work hard and work efficiently—to challenge themselves, to dig deep, to excel—and at the same time to work smart and do no more labor than they need to do. How to manage their time. How to get themselves and their work organized so they don’t waste time and effort. I explain to them it’s all designed so they have more time for fun.

I also spend a lot of time teaching my students how to work together in teams. How to treat each other with respect. How to collaborate. How to be a leader. How to be a follower. How to “share the air.” How to resolve conflicts. Again, I explain that the better they work together, the more fun they will have.

Of course, the better work ethic they have and the better interpersonal skills they have, the better they will do in college and careers. Who knows, these skills may help them in their future family relationships! I talk to them about the long-term impact of the skills too.

Does that mean I want the critically important life skills I teach to be on some state test in the future? Good heavens no! We have more than enough testing going on as it is.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with Common Core, SBAC, TPEP, and whatever else is requiring immediate attention. It can feel like an unending avalanche of demands. It’s important to take a breath and get some perspective. Teaching isn’t just about academics and grades and meeting standards and bringing up test scores.

Think of all the things you do as a teacher that aren’t quantifiable.

But some days those things are the most important part of your job.

My Test Anxiety


A variety of assessments given to students throughout the year serve to inform teachers on how their students are progressing. The typical pre-test post-test cycle is an important measure of learning. Formative assessments, informally gathered during the course of a lesson or unit help direct instruction. Teachers and students would be a little lost without this feedback loop.

Administrators also gain insight into the success of their program(s) through the careful examination of student data. Results may be used to allocate resources or identify areas that fall outside the norms – pointing towards highly effective instruction or areas that need improvement.

I don’t think that anyone can argue against the value of assessment generally. That being said, there are many people who wonder about the effective utilization of standardized, system-level assessment in schools today. Are we getting an appropriate return on the investment of time and energy (on the part of students, teachers, and administrators)? How much should districts and states spend to gather data on student achievement? How can we minimize any negative impacts that come with high-stress, high-stakes tests?

The NEA recently published a list of awards called apples and onions. Apples are for great players in public education and onions are for not so great players. They gave an onion to “High-Stakes Testing Zealots.” While Arne Duncan says that these tests are “sucking the oxygen out of the room” and NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia says “all the evidence that can be gathered shows that it is corrupting what it means to teach and what it means to learn,” still the battle rages on (NEA Today).

I’ve been wondering about the impact the Smarter Balanced tests will have on my students since I took a pilot test last spring. My sense was that it would be extremely rigorous and time consuming for my students. The Oregonian recently published an article projecting that about 60% of Oregon students will not pass these tests this spring. What will this data tell us? How will we use it to improve instruction?

It is a worthy goal to give students rigorous tests that evaluate their ability to demonstrate conceptual understanding and strategic thinking, analyze information, and make compelling arguments. But do we want to give this type of test to every student every year?

The costs are high in all regards to this type of census-based testing. When I read that Finland uses a sample-based no-stakes national test as a means of informing policy makers I was struck by its simplicity (This article summarizes the point, but the book Finnish Lessons is a fantastic read.). Why test everyone everywhere when a sample population will provide rich feedback to policy makers and administrators? Why make the tests high stakes – for students, teachers, administrators, schools, districts, and states? Yes – we’re actually doing this. Do we really need to gather such a massive amount of data to make informed decisions? How do I justify that need to my students?

The fear that drives this kind of accountability contrasts the notion that schools, districts, and states already take responsibility for the quality of education in our schools. In any event, the use of these kinds of tests to prove otherwise is an abuse of their purpose. These tests are designed to assess student performance – not the performance of the system at large.

The Hybrid Role: Teaching + ____


I am nearing the halfway point in my third year as a hybrid. Sounds like I ought to be part one of the X-Men superheroes (or wait, were they mutants or hybrids?).

This idea of the “hybrid role” is gaining traction with the concept of “Teacherpreneurs,” which the Center for Teaching Quality defines as “expert teachers whose workweeks are divided between teaching students and designing systems-level solutions for public education.”

In my context, that means this year I am teaching two periods of Senior English to just shy of 60 proto-adults, while working with a team of other teacher-leaders to support the professional learning and growth of about 400 bonafide-adults. Theoretically, the main purpose of my job is to serve as mentor and coach for twelve first-year teachers in our district. How to do that, and everything else, is the crux of the issue.

The hybrid role has tremendous power and potential. When I lead professional development about new practices or standards, my colleagues know I’m held accountable to that same learning in my own classroom. When systems-level decisions are being made, I can advocate for practicing teachers in ways that even the most well-meaning administrator might not be able to voice.

One of the great things about my boss is that he believes in the importance of teacher leadership, and each year he has basically said to me “what do you want your job to be?” These roles are new in my district, and that blank slate is exciting but brings a challenge. As I look ahead to next year (already), I’m realizing that there are a few things that a “hybrid teacher” like myself needs in order to be successful:

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The Important Practice of Vulnerability

Lindsey Stevens, NBCT, is a regular blogger for Puget Sound ESD’s CORElaborate blog , where this piece first appeared, and is republished here with the permission of both the Lindsey and Puget Sound ESD.


I just spent another amazing weekend at the National Board Certified Teacher Leadership Conference. This time it was at Skamania Lodge in Stevenson Washington and it was amazing and beautiful. The surroundings were wonderful but even more that the atmosphere, I always leave appreciating what I have gained from this inspiring gathering of professionals. The biggest takeaway I have form this weekend is that I need to continue to be vulnerable in my practice to really be a leader and to impact student learning.

At the conference we were greeted first by the fabulous Katie Taylor. Katie is the Director of Teacher Leadership and Learning at the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP). If you have not checked out or been in contact with this wonderful organization you should find out what they are all about. At any rate Katie was helping us to think about the traits and qualities of teacher leaders in her opening session. During her presentation we were asked to complete the sentence, “Teachers lead when we…” I sat and thought about that for quite a bit before I could fill it in. What do I really do that is true inspiring leadership? It’s not necessarily when I run a training, or when I plan a meeting. I realized that I truly do my best leading when I am vulnerable, when I make my practice, my trials and my tribulations transparent. This is really the only way to ask others to show me what they are doing and to be honest. I really think that vulnerability might just be the most important disposition for any teacher, especially teacher leaders to embrace.

Katie had us examine our leadership in relation to an article from Educational Leadership “Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders” by Cindy Harrison and Joellen Killion. In this article the authors point out the following ten roles for teacher leaders: resource provider, instructional specialist, curriculum specialist, classroom supporter, learning facilitator, mentor, school leader, data coach, catalyst for change and learner. In the activity we were identified how we were and could be any of these roles. Later I began to think about how these roles as teacher leader and my personal insight into vulnerability when hand-in-hand. Each of these roles take a certain level and different kind of vulnerability.

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By Tom

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to take a few minutes to express my gratitude to the people who make it possible for me to do the best job in the world:

Parents: I can’t thank parents enough for supporting what I do in the classroom by doing what they do at home. All I have to do is run off homework and send it home. The parents have to structure a time and place for my students to do it. And then check it so my students can redo it. Neatly. And then make sure it gets back into a backpack. All this while trying to cook dinner after an exhausting day at work.

Custodians: I just finished a science unit with my fourth graders called “Land and Water.” Do the math. There was sand, soil, clay and mud on my classroom floor for six weeks. Yet every morning it was clean again.

Para-educators: The lady who works in my class, Miss Natalya, was once a math professor in Russia. Now she works on our para team, doing all the other stuff that makes it possible for us to focus on teaching; working one-on-one with the neediest students, supervising recess and lunch, and doing crossing duty.

Office Staff: I was on the hiring team for our current office manager. When she came in for her interview, she asked what the job entailed. “You get interrupted for a living,” I replied, and it’s true. These people take care of all the logistics and paperwork for an entire school, when they’re not dispensing Adderall, Band-Aids and ice packs or supervising the kids who stop by to “visit with the principal.”

School Administrators: My principal spends his long days conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, talking to upset parents, conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, setting up the lunch tables, conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, supervising the lunchroom, conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, facilitating meetings, conducting focused and comprehensive evaluations, and supervising the bus lines. Yet he’s always smiling.

District Administrators: There’s a lot going on over at the administration building. There’s curriculum to order, trainings to run, human resources to manage and budgets to balance. My district is blessed with some incredible talent at the district level; they push us to rethink how we go about our jobs and support us while we learn.

Our Association: There’s a reason why we have planning time, dental care, health insurance, collaboration time, teacher-led professional development, National Board bonuses and representation when have a conflict with our administrators. It’s because we have a union.

Educational Service Districts: I never really understood the weird little “ESDs” wedged into the bureaucratic niche between the state and district. But I’ve recently done some work with the Puget Sound ESD and I’ve come to appreciate their work in supporting professional development and advocating for the most marginalized families in our school communities.

The Elected People: School Boards, state legislators and US lawmakers all have a say in what and how I teach. We all have the right – and responsibility – to question what they do, but not one of us can doubt their intentions. Ultimately, the only thing they really want is the only thing we really want: student learning.

Higher Ed: Teachers don’t train themselves; colleges and universities do, and I’ve had the privilege over the years to work with a lot of the people who work in those colleges. I’ve always been impressed with their dedication and focus on training the next generation of teachers.

And finally, CSTP: There’s a whole lot of non-profit organizations focused on education, but my favorite by far is The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession. Their name says it all; they focus on promoting teacher leadership and amplifying the teacher voice on educational policy. And they sponsor this blog!

Your turn! Who did I miss? Who else needs to be thanked?

Putting Our Best Faces Forward

I firmly believe that my job is more than teaching my students in my classroom. It’s more than meeting with their parents and connecting with the staff at my school and my district. Part of my job is making the public aware of positive stories from school.

Recently our district community relations person started emailing all staff every month, reminding them to send her notices of any good news she should share. Every month I try to be aware of things going on that I should highlight for her that would make good news stories.  Over the years my class–alone or with other classes–has been in the paper or on local TV for Decade Days or Amigos Centers or Market Day. I know that in our area, the newspapers are eager for positive stories about our schools, which is heartening!

The last few years I’ve wanted to push that idea even further. I’ve started taking more opportunities to nominate people for awards–even awards that seem like a stretch. Ok, the first one wasn’t so hard. A year ago I nominated our head custodian Thad Bayes for the STAR 101.5 school support staff award, which he won. That was cool.

Then I put together a team from my school to nominate our former principal Joe Davalos for one of the WEA Human and Civil Rights Awards. He won the Community Service Award in April! That was amazing!

This fall I saw an ad in the Kitsap Sun for the “20 Under 40″ award. I read the requirements: the person had to work on the Kitsap Peninsula, had to be under the age of 40, and had to have demonstrated exceptional leadership skills in the workplace and/or community. The award was sponsored by the Kitsap Sun and the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal. They said they were looking for professionals in business, medicine, and education. 

I nominated one of our teachers, Kristy Dressler.

By the way, I went into the Sun website much later to look through the past winners. I couldn’t find them all–they don’t post the winners back to the first year they gave out the awards. But I found very, very, very few representatives from the world of education. I think there were two principals and two private school teachers–a music school owner/teacher and a Montessori teacher. If I’d looked there first, I might have been scared off.

Nevertheless, Kristy won!

The Sun called to tell me the news and I started to cry. I went to Kristy’s room and told her and we both cried. Then she asked me why I nominated her when there are so many good teachers out there.

I have good reasons. First, she’s under 40. There are a lot of good teachers who aren’t! Second, I have been impressed with her from day one. She doesn’t just teach her class. She gets deeply involved with the school, parents, and the community. She trains staff. She works on district and regional committees. She’s a powerhouse. And she was a National Board candidate last year. (By the way, a couple of weeks later we learned she had passed, on her first try. Just another example of how she’s amazing.) Third, of course there are other teachers I could nominate. But I could only do one this year.

I can always nominate someone else next year.

How many ways can I find to shine the public spotlight on my really exceptional colleagues? I’m having so much fun finding out.

NBCT Reflections


A year into being an NBCT, I realize that I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Going into it, I thought it would be a great way to improve my practice, gain the required professional certification in my state, and not least significantly, get a bonus for all of the hard work. There was also the somewhat less tangible prize that seemed to revolve around status and professionalism.

I first heard the call to “lift up the profession” in a presentation NBCT Jeff Charbonneau gave last spring. He spoke about teachers building up teachers and schools through positive talk. This past weekend I attended the Leadership Conference held by CSTP in Stevenson, Washington where I began to learn how to turn that talk into action.

Reflecting after the conference, I realize that National Board Certification is mainly about lifting up the profession. It is absolutely about making teachers more effective in the classroom, but it is also about empowering teachers to lead outside of the classroom. That less tangible piece I mentioned above is taking shape as I begin to participate in the NBCT network. I have a very different idea of what my role can be than I once did.

The journey that started with attending JumpStart and then working through and completing National Boards seems to have been but a prelude. As I come to the top of one small mountain I realize just how much farther the road goes. Traveling this road is a little daunting, but now I know I’m surrounded by a community of varied and vibrant NBCTs and organizations that support teachers.

Thanks to collaboration between WEA, OSPI, and CSTP, more and more teachers from Washington are achieving National Board Certification. If you haven’t already, consider following their lead – talk to an NBCT, you might be surprised what you find out. If you’ve taken that first step, take another – read the Teacher Leadership Skills Framework developed by CSTP. If you are farther down the road, tell your story. What doors has it opened up for you?

Live Blogging from the NBCT Leadership Conference: Part 4

By Tom

Last session!

Today began early – for me at least – with breakfast and a morning session. I led a discussion on blogging with about 20 attendees. After a second round of “networking” we all convened in the large room for the closing session.

It began with Jeanne Harmon giving the context and background for NBCT support in our state. She was there from the get-go and has played a huge role in the growth of Washington’s Accomplished Teacher community.

After Jeanne’s talk, we got up and shared our strengths – a certain skill we bring to the leadership table.

After that, Nasue Nishida, Executive Director of CSTP,  explained the process whereby attendees could apply for leadership grants; a chance to have their leadership ideas funded and put into play.

Next we had the traditional “Pinning Ceremony.” From the first time we had this conference, all new NBCTs receive a National Board pin from another NBCT. It’s a fun way to welcome them into the Accomplished Teacher community.

Then it was lunch, followed by closing comments by Gunnar Guttormsen. Gunnar is an NBCT from the Kelso area. He spoke of his own journey: becoming a teacher, an NBCT and now an administrator.

I’ve gone to this conference every single year and I always leave energized and motivated. There’s a certain energy that comes from a room full of amazing teachers, all of whom are focused on the same thing: making Washington’s education system the best it can possibly be for our students.

Live Blogging from the NBCT Leadership Conference: Part 3

By Tom

First breakout session: Navigating the Systems of STEM, by Al Gonzalez, who teaches middle school in Chimacum, Washington. He’s what you might call a “Techie.”

He began the session by pointing out the fact that most adults now travel to events like this conference with more than one internet-compatible device.

Al acknowledged that teachers are overwhelmed right now, but asserts that a lot of what we do overlaps with other stuff. (Think TPEP and Common Core) He also encouraged us to use technology to ask for help, in particular; places like Yahoo Groups. He uses practically every conceivable form of social media to connect with his students, their parents and other teachers. Technology, of course, can be fickle. To wit: most of the activities Al had planned were based on-lined; yet the room had limited connectivity. Fortunately, Al had plenty of “Plan Bs.”

Al talked about “branding.” Teachers need to establish and maintain their digital identity. We need to think about how we look when someone googles our name. Blogging, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest are a part of our “brand.”

Another aspect of technology is “curating.” Curating refers to the collecting and rendering of the vast amount of information that’s out there. His favorite collecting tool is something called “Feedly.” which he uses to collect information from a vast amount of teacher bogs and other sources.

Al spent some time talking about advocacy. Starting at the classroom level, he invites legislators into his room to co-teach or just visit. And then he blogs about it. At the district level, he makes sure that school board members, as well as the superintendent, know what’s going on in his classroom. He videotapes a lot and posts on YouTube, showing what his students are doing in his room. We had a nice discussion of various platforms for displaying student learning on-line.

The last thing Al discussed was grant writing. His best advice is to contact district administrators and have them forward grant proposals his way. He reasons that grants proposed to teachers are going to be exponentially more competitive, since there are so many teachers. Administrators, on the other hand, are less numerous; the grants they have access to are therefore less competitive. He’s raised nearly $300,000 by writing grants, most of which went directly into his own classroom.

This was a fun session. All is obviously way farther down the road than most of us in terms of implementing technology into his classroom.


Live Blogging from the NBCT Leadership Conference: Part 2


By Tom

The first Group Session! After lunch we all moved into the next room for the grand welcome. One of our own bloggers, Maren Johnson, got things rolling with an introduction to Twitter, encouraging everyone in attendance to tweet out updates from the conference. We learned how to post tweets, retweet, use hashtags, and so on. Everyone went immediately to their phones and iPads and got busy.

Cindy Rockholt, conference co-chair, then took over, orienting all of us to the upcoming activities. Each session presenter stood up  in turn, introducing themselves and giving a quick blurb about their session. (Including me. It’s tomorrow and it’s on blogging.)

Beth McGibbon, the other co-chair, then took the helm. She guided us through an activity designed to familiarize people to the unique relationship in Washington State between OSPI, CSTP and the WEA. All three agencies have a stake in promoting and sustaining National Board Certification, yet each has a distinct role.

The WEA’s roll includes Jump Start and Home Stretch, both of which are focused on supporting candidates during their certification. The WEA also runs an Ambassador program, which is focused on encouraging teachers to consider National Board Certification.

OSPI plays three roles in NB Certification. They handle facilitator training and cohort coordination so that candidates have a quality experience during their candidacy process. They also handle the conditional loans, helping candidates afford the process. Last, but definitely not least, they run the stipend program, delivering a well-deserved bonus to Washington’s NBCTs.

CSTP’s purview is teacher leadership and advocacy. They help NBCTs find themselves as leaders and build their own capacity in the roles they choose. They also amplify teachers’ voices on education policy. (One of CSTP’s teacher advocacy projects is the very blog you’re reading.)

The big news of the day, shared by Michaela Miller and Cindy, was about the new certification numbers for Washington State. We have 946 brand-new NBCTs this year, bringing our state total up to 8285. 14% of the teachers in Washington are now National Board Certified!   Not only that, but thanks to heavy recruitment, 34% of our new NBCTs work in challenging schools: 53% of them work in STEM fields. In addition, Washington State now has nine of the top twenty school districts in terms of percentage of NBCTs.

Katie Taylor, NBCT from CSTP took the stage. She introduced the Teacher Leadership Framework, a tool designed to help teachers identify the knowledge, skills and dispositions for leadership roles to which they find themselves attracted. Participants had a chance to delve into the Framework and discuss their interests in teacher leadership, as well as the challenges teachers face as they move beyond the walls of their classroom.

If you haven’t looked through this document, I highly recommend it. I was in the room when it was conceived and written back in 2009.  The basic impetus was the realization that NBCTs have demonstrated their expertise in the classroom and were now being asked to take on leadership roles, for which they may or not have the skill set. It’s important for our profession, therefore, to identify what those various roles are and list the essential knowledge, skills and dispositions they require. Thence the Teacher Leadership Framework, which is now used across the state, principally by school districts that are trying to develop a leadership corps.

Now it’s off for “snack time” and then to the first breakout session.