My Post-Election Lesson

220px-us_marshals_with_young_ruby_bridges_on_school_stepsI had plans for last Wednesday.

We’ve been studying historical fiction and I was planning to teach my fourth graders about Ruby Bridges. I was going to have them write an historical fiction piece about her first day at school. But as I was getting ready for school, my voice of reason reconsidered. Somehow the idea of telling my diverse group of students about a six-year-old girl who endured a storm of racial epithets didn’t seem appropriate after what happened Tuesday night.

But another part of my mind pushed back. I could have pointed out that Ruby had every right to be at that school even though she didn’t feel welcome. I could have explained that American citizenship doesn’t have degrees; the Muslim kid in my class who was born two months after his parents fled Libya is just as American as his 55-year-old teacher who’s a direct descendant from a Jamestown settler.

I could have pointed out that Ruby had her classroom to herself. None of the other families wanted their children to study with her. Many of them left the school altogether, not unlike what will happen when the Department of Education begins to push for “School Choice,” a thin veil for a voucher system, sold as way for poor families to enroll their children in private schools. In reality, of course, the only beneficiaries are those families who are not only able to transport their kids to private schools, but affluent enough to make up the difference between their vouchers and private school tuition.

I could have pointed out that only one teacher in Ruby’s new school would agree to teach her. I could have shared how teachers aren’t perfect. Like most humans, they can be petulant and small. Even now, we can sometimes dispense with restraint and politesse and gripe about the amount of resources we pour into our ELL programs or the lack of Christmas carols during the Winter Concert. And while it’s one thing to notice that our Hi-Cap programs, honors classes and high school orchestras are dominated by Asian Americans, it’s another thing altogether to complain about it. I could have warned my students that restraint and politesse will probably be in decline throughout the near future, even in their teachers.

I could have done all these things, but I didn’t. On Wednesday my kids were stunned. Some were terrified. Their families came from virtually everywhere: Mexico, El Salvador, Columbia, Ukraine, Libya, Eretria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and Korea. They may have come to America for economic opportunity, but they came to our community because they feel welcome. Now they aren’t so sure.

I didn’t teach them about Ruby Bridges. I couldn’t. Instead I taught them about the Pig War and let them write historical fiction pieces about that. The Pig War, I explained, was a stupid little event in which American and English settlers on San Juan Island weren’t getting along very well and nearly took up arms after an American farmer shot an English pig that wandered into his yard. (In an irony lost on my students, it was President James Buchanan that smoothed things over and prevented the actual war.)

They had fun with their stories and it was just the distraction we needed. And although I told them the Pig War happened in 1859, I didn’t tell them it happened one year before an election that was more divisive than one we just endured.

Nor did I tell them what happened after that election, which was way worse than anything Ruby Bridges endured.

Post Election Perspective from the Classroom

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There are days in a teacher’s career where you question your value or whether or not you can continue to do your work. Today was not one of them.

Today reinforced why my work matters. Today reinforced how important my work is.

I teach American Government. Believe me, this work isn’t for the faint-hearted. My goals have always been to create an engaged citizen who values analysis and research and recognizes bias and perspective. In an election cycle, the significance of this work becomes immediately apparently.

So I did my work. We discussed the liberal media, the conservative media, the aggregate polls, the junk polls, PACs, SuperPACs, image and the political process. On Election Night, I was glued to the news and my fingers were attached to my phone, updating my twitter account and asking questions to my students using an advertised hashtag. Finally, the election arrived. For government teachers, the election is the political amalgamation of the Super Bowl and Olympics.

This isn’t my first election as a teacher. In fact, I began my teaching career in the fall of 2000. I vividly remember telling my students on Election Day 2000, “We should know the results late tonight.” Well, we all know how that turned out.

The 2004 election was a bit trickier. We were in a war and Americans were still reeling from the effects of 9/11. The 2008 and 2012 election drew youth to the polls. My students were excited to discuss those elections and the candidates. My students mobilized for these candidates.

This election was different. I know this isn’t news to anyone but as a government teacher, I didn’t find my students incredibly interested. We did begin our discussion a year earlier, tracking the primary candidates on the board. Several of my students attended the caucuses and asked questions. A few even went to local rallies. But when the dust settled after the primaries and convention, students didn’t ask many questions or offer many opinions unless I prompted them. However, when prompted, my students respectfully recognized that they held different opinions from one another. I held a debate viewing party at school and students showed up and engaged in conversation. I knew that my students held diverse perspectives on the candidates so I thought I was prepared for how to discuss the outcome of the election. I realized that I wasn’t.

I threw out my lesson plan as my students rolled into class today. I witnessed pleased students happy with the outcome walk in and sit down next to those who were crestfallen.  Regardless of their division, in front of me, they appeared united.  They wanted to know more and sought first to understand. I began our class with the conclusion of Lincoln’s First inaugural Address. My theme quickly emerged as “the Better Angels of our Nature.” I steered the class into a discussion regarding what we’ve learned about campaigns in the past and how the meshes with what we saw occur. My students shared civil discourse and even as we moved into “What questions do you have for our President-elect” I became acutely aware of how real the outcome felt for them. They asked questions about financial aid funding, free trade agreements, military spending, freedom of worship, and social welfare programs. They sought answers to questions that many adults hadn’t considered. The bell rang and class ended but my work did not. Throughout my day, students came to see me, wanting to know more, wanting to understand, and they sought both dialogue and an ear. I offered both.

As I think back about my day, I realize just how important teaching is. Our job allows us to develop students into adults that can engage in civil discourse. We can role model for our students how to accept diverse opinions without fear of jeopardizing one’s own beliefs. We can exhibit respect, acceptance, tolerance, truth, and compassion. If we can do this, our young adults will learn from us how to act and respond to one another.

Today, my work mattered.

Data without Numbers

During the last teacher evaluation workshop I led for principals and teacher leaders, I closed with this quasi thought-experiment for them to ruminate on for the couple of weeks until our next meeting:

What if a law were passed that kept the TPEP student growth requirement but prohibited the use of any form of number or percentage as a means of showing of student growth: How might a teacher be able to demonstrate the impact of practice under such a law?

My intentions are simple: How else besides charts and percentages might we talk about student growth? As an English teacher, finding and using meaningful quantitative data was something I always wrestled with. I did eventually find a way to reduce my students to a number in a way that I felt was valid and productive. (Further elaboration here as well.)

However, as I coach both teachers and administrators in our continued intentional implementation of our evaluation system, it is clear for both groups that the pressure to generate numbers has remained great…and in many cases, has felt hollow if not contrived.

In our operationalized definition of data, we’ve come to rely upon information that is easy to communicate sometimes at the expense of information that means a dang thing at all. A graph, a chart of figures, or a line of numbers is pretty easy to pull together if we’re held more accountable for producing numbers than we are for thinking about what the numbers might communicate.

Particularly when we consider the statewide requirement that teacher evaluations include an examination of student growth data, the stakes feel oppressively high and the worry about producing inadequate or “bad” data is palpable in many conversations I have with teachers. I do want to point this out, though: The wording of the student growth rubrics (SG3.2 and SG6.2) which apply to every single classroom teacher in the state of Washington. Both those rubrics state this:

PROFICIENT: Multiple sources of growth or achievement data from at least two points in time show clear evidence of growth for most students. (Source)

Sure, there are some vague words in there: “multiple,” “clear,” and “most.” What isn’t there is pretty obvious to me: A requirement that growth be represented through a number.

When I think about my career, the most clear and convincing artifacts of my impact on student growth came during my candidacy for and renewal of my National Board Certificate. In both of these cases, the way I demonstrated growth was by contextualizing patterns of student work within my own deliberate practice, and then reflecting on the exact changes in student performance (not necessarily changes in score) that proved I had indeed contributed to student growth. This evidence included student work samples but was convincing because of the analytical narrative and reflection on practice that accompanied it all.

While I am a strong proponent for National Boards as a voluntary professional growth experience, I am not advocating for a National Board-like model for yearly teacher evaluations. I do believe however that the kind of longitudinal narrative analysis of student work I did during my candidacy and renewal was at least as convincing as any table of numbers I might have been able to produce for the same sets of kids.

Numbers have an important place, and as I said, the right numbers can paint a meaningful picture of growth. However, numbers should not be the only conceivable (or permissible) vehicle for communicating student growth in our evaluation. We need to be sure to make room for the premise that sometimes the best way to illustrate student growth might actually be to tell our story.

National Board Policy Summit: A Salary Proposal

butterI’ve been on more committees, task forces and planning teams than I care to remember. Many of them were productive and well worth my time. One particular team produced this, which was awesome. If that experience represents the apex of my career as a committee member, then the low point – the nadir, if you will – came when I led a task force charged with choosing the interior color of our school. After 45 minutes listening to a debate on the relative merits of “Warm Butter” vs “Morning Lemon,” I fled. I can’t even remember which name for yellow we chose.

I’m sure everyone has a “committee story.” In fact, turn to the person next to you and share an experience you’ve had, positive or negative, which entailed working on a committee.

OK, eyes back up here.

If there is one committee whose work I respect more than any other, and whose final product received far less fanfare than it deserved, it would have to be the Washington State Compensation Technical Working Group of 2012. Yes, that is a mouthful, but those people, all sixteen of them, came up with this report. Read it if you want, but the part I want to focus on is this:

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This is their proposal for a teacher salary schedule. For our purposes, we’re going to ignore the actual dollar amounts; that’s a topic for another time. What’s more important are the numbers below the dollar amounts. Those are the factors by which the base salary is multiplied to arrive at each of the ten salary figures.

I also want you to notice the columns. This model provides a salary increase for teachers who complete their ProCert, a feature that’s sorely lacking in our current schedule. The whole point of ProCert, as I understand it, is for teachers to prove that they’ve reached the second tier of their professional growth. In other words, they’ve shown that they are more valuable than they were when they started. Compelling teachers to fork over upward of $600 to complete an assessment proving their increased value, and not paying them more after they’ve done that just doesn’t seem fair. This model corrects that.

It also adds a column for National Board Certification, instead of our current practice of adding a bonus on top of a regular salary. I like that for two reasons. First of all, it bakes the bonus into the salary schedule, making it more permanent and less subject to the ebb and flow of the economy. It also implies that every teacher should aspire to NB certification as a career goal; there it is: on the bottom right corner of the table, waiting for and calling out to everyone.

As I’ve shared recently, about 100 teachers will gather later this month to focus on two issues: the future of second-tier teacher certification in our state, and a sustainable model for rewarding National Board Certification.

In my view, the salary model above – the one pounded out by the Technical Working Group of 2012 – serves as a good starting point for the discussion. I have a few qualms with it; like the fact that there’s no yearly raise, only big jumps ever four or five years, or the fact that there’s no raise at all after year 10; but like I said, it could certainly serve as a starting point in the discussion.

And what a discussion it’ll be. The policy summit is on November 19th. Stay tuned to this blog for more information before, during and after the event. And if you made plans to attend, I’ll see you there!

And I promise we won’t talk about yellow paint.

Is My Job At-Risk?

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

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

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

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

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

That’s nonsense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Less in an Era of More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NBCT Joanna Tovar Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. A critical friendship begins with connection

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

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

  1. Next it’s time to listen

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

  1. Before questioning it is helpful to validate

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

  1. Time to ask some questions

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

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

  1. Now you can suggest resources

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

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

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

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

Tell Your NBCT Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your story?

Part III on Change: Levels of Abstraction

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

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

My response: “You’re probably right.”

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

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

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Part II On Change: Us vs. Them

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

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

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

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