Practice Meets Policy

Balancing Teaching and Leading


Posted on October 27, 2015 by

By Tom White

I’ve never had an existential crises. Frankly, I’ve never had the time for it. But this past year has caused me to do a lot of thinking about my role as a teacher leader and how it aligns with – and conflicts with – my role as a teacher.

Teacher leadership, according to my personal definition, is when a practicing teacher goes beyond working with his students and does something to affect change in the broader context of education. Teacher leadership is incredibly important; policy and executive decisions are being made all the time and everywhere by various stakeholders, many of whom have never taught and most of whom aren’t currently teaching. It’s imperative that current, practicing teachers are at the table when these decision are made.

But there’s an inherent problem built into teacher leadership: time. Actually two problems: time and energy. Most decisions are discussed and made during the workday, and those days are usually not in July. Teachers are expected to be elsewhere during those times, and if they’re aren’t elsewhere it’s because they wrote elaborate plans for someone who’s far less qualified so that their classroom culture doesn’t completely collapse while they’re gone.

For me, that has always been a major barrier for teacher leadership. I’ve always tried to take on no more than I can handle.  But I’ve also tried to take on no less than I can handle; because I firmly believe in the value of having a practicing teacher working with other stakeholders on important work.

But then this year happened. (more…)


Stop Confusing Assessment and Accountability


Posted on October 24, 2015 by

“While some tests are for accountability purposes only, the vast majority of assessments should be tools in a broader strategy to improve teaching and learning. In a well-designed testing strategy, assessment outcomes are not only used to identify what students know, but also inform and guide additional teaching, supports, or interventions that will help students master challenging material.”


The above passage is from an October 24 United States Department of Education  Fact Sheet about “overtesting,” which tacitly acknowledged that the “accountability and assessment” movement in public schools has surpassed ridiculous proportions. The first page of the Fact Sheet even contained a half-hearted mea culpa that the federal powers bore “some of the responsibility for” the current norm of “unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students,” which has ended up “consuming too much instructional time… creating undue stress for educators and students.”

I absolutely agree that “overtesting” is a major problem. The Fact Sheet calls for a cap of 2% of instructional time being devoted to standardized testing (which still amounts to between 20 and 22 hours of standardized testing per kid, per year). This is a start, I suppose.

My bigger issue, though, comes in the paragraph I included at the top of this post. Specifically that opening clause: “While some tests are for accountability purposes only.”

I want to make this clear: No test should be used “for accountability purposes only.” Ever. Period.


Positive Behavior Supports


Posted on October 18, 2015 by

This year my district adopted Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), so our teachers got several days of training. In August I attended an unpaid PD day, mostly as a show of support for my new principal. (Remember my article last year “TPEP Is Killing My Principal”? He resigned in the spring. He’s now working for a small private school—and looking a lot more relaxed.) We had a second day of training right before school started and a third in September.

The feds recommend PBIS on their site ( One goal of the Department of Education is to decrease expulsions and suspensions. After all, students who are out of school for discipline issues are not likely to make academic gains while they are gone.

On one hand, PBIS focuses on teaching and modeling correct behaviors and offering tons of positive support. On the other, it mirrors RTI in that it helps schools identify Tier I, II, and III level behavior and the types of interventions appropriate at each level.

My class helped make videos of how to behave on the playground, in line, and even at the sinks outside the bathrooms. They love watching themselves show off how to do things right! Our school now has common expectations for the halls, lunchroom, recess, cafeteria—with the entire staff is using the same language, from the four expectations to the numbered noise levels.



Unfortunately, this year we are struggling with a number of Tier III students. So far PBIS isn’t a magic solution for those students.

Our principal, counselor, and interventionist are dealing with emergencies all day, every day. Experienced, seasoned teachers are strained and strung out. Teachers that last year I encouraged to go out for National Boards are equally strained and strung out. As much as we want to fix everything immediately, it’s impossible to effect big, systemic changes overnight.

Under PBIS, my classroom is both a time-out space for students to write reflection sheets, and it’s a haven for emergency evacuations. Late in September, while I was working with my math group, I looked up and realized there was a bunch of “littles” in my room. The dozen second graders had entered so quietly I hadn’t noticed! They were sitting crossed legged in the front of the classroom, hidden by the big fifth grader desks. Their teacher had sent them to my room for safety.

I peeked my head out the door. Three administrators stood there, observing one small student. The administrators said it wasn’t safe to bring my class through the hall to lunch. I had to find another solution, for them and for the second graders suddenly in my care.

How can we solve the problem at our school? We’ve met with district administration and our union president. Multiple district administrators have spent extended time at our building. We’ve received extra support in terms of additional trained personnel. We are working on problem-solving every way we can.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to do small things that might make appreciable differences.

I have one little guy who is a frequent flyer in my classroom. Call him Greg. He comes in often to fill out a Time to Reflect sheet. He’s not very cooperative. He’ll knock over a chair or make rude noises.

But I saw him in the office with an ice pack a couple weeks ago or so. I said, “Oh, honey, what happened?” He told me he hurt his eye. I said I was so sorry and gave him a hug. He melted into me. The principal gave me a surprised look—that was not his normal interaction with adults. But she said, “Good for you, Jan.”

A few days later I saw him in the office again. I said, “Hey, Greg, how’s it going?” It turns out he’d earned a reward and was in the office to collect. I told him how proud I was of him and gave him another hug. He clung to me again.

Now whenever I have a few extra minutes I stop by Greg’s classroom. I kneel by his chair. I ask him to read to me or show me what he’s writing. (His teacher is delighted that I’m giving him this extra support—I did check!)

This week when I said, “See you later,” Greg said, “No.” Surprised, I asked if he didn’t want me to come by any more. It turns out he didn’t want me to leave.

Ok, Greg is not a Tier III kid. He’s a Tier II. But he’s the one hard-to-manage kid who’s frequented my classroom. And if I can be one more adult building one more positive relationship with one more kid in my school, it can’t hurt.

And I also bring brownies for the staff room.


Secrets Student Share Help Me to Help Them


Posted on October 11, 2015 by


This guest post comes courtesy of Irene Smith, an EA ELA NBCT in Yakima, Washington, who teaches English Language Arts, Social Studies and more to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the Discovery Lab School.  She and her students produce a full length Shakespeare play every year, and she is currently writing a companion text for The Tempest.

You may find this strange.

I collect students’ notes that they pass to each other. Sometimes I catch them passing their little missives and keep them. Sometimes I find them left on a desk or floor, tucked into a drawer or left on a filing cabinet. My students are aware of my fixation with their notes. Sometimes they even purposefully pass one in class in hopes that I’ll collect it in order to find the “Hi Mrs. Smith!” folded up inside. Some students purposefully intercept or find notes to bring to me.

I never read the notes aloud. I just save them until I’m alone to see what the message is. Mostly they are of relative unimportance- I m bored L. But not infrequently, they are full of mystery and angst.

Middle school students are careless, but I suspect they may sometimes leave these notes in order to let me in on their secret communications, to become more closely acquainted with their private worlds, and to help me understand them better.

Dear people at my school, I’m so sorry I’m weird. I’m sorry I don’t fit in. I’m sorry I don’t look pretty like all of you.


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Caution: Disillusionment Phase Ahead


Posted on October 9, 2015 by

Next week is our first support group meeting.

By name it is a “New Teacher Workshop,” but I know what it really is. When we gather those dozen newly-minted first-year teachers together, it isn’t going to be a time for “digging into the framework” or “unpacking standards” or “doing a data dive” (whatever that is). Instead, we’ll have an hour or two, with snacks and school-appropriate beverages (this time) where we can just be in a room with the only other people who understand what we’re facing: the October-January “Disillusionment Phase.”

This chart may be familiar to some. It originally came from Ellen Moir in 1999 as part of the Santa Cruz New Teacher project, and described her observations about first-year teachers:

Phases of first-year teachers' copy (1)

Image Source:

You’ll notice I’ve lumped myself in with that crew, even though I’m solidly “mid-career.” The reality is that I am a novice in my new work of working with novices, and I too am facing that roller-coaster of feelings: we’ve sped swiftly past the “survival” stage and the track is pointing down, down, down.



Teach to Lead: The Hidden Work We Do


Posted on September 27, 2015 by

This weekend in SeaTac, educators from nearly twenty states assembled for the Washington Teach To Lead Summit. Teams brought leadership ideas in various stages of incubation, and staff from ED facilitated a guided thinking and planning process to help take abstraction and organize it into more refined, defined, actionable planning.

One thing became clear very quickly: teacher leadership is messy, complicated work that often is the hidden engine driving meaningful change.

My role here has been to be a presenter and a “critical friend” for a team to assist in their thinking and project development. I had the incredible privilege of working with a team from here in Washington state as they tackle a unique but important struggle around which they want to leverage teacher leadership.

The kids and community around Marysville, Washington suffered tremendous trauma with the violence of almost a year ago. One school in particular realized that traumas such as this, as well as the often hidden and cyclical traumas that often occur in children’s lives, have a direct impact on students’ ability to succeed in school. A team from Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary came to the Teach to Lead Summit to help refine their project, which aims to proactively equip these young students with knowledge, skills, and strategies to handle the complex emotions that come with traumas, whether connected to the recent shared community trauma or the private struggles that happen at home. These educators know that test scores, too often The Measure of school effectiveness, only tell a tiny chapter of the story: these educators know that in order for academic achievement data to show growth, a child needs to be in the physical and emotional place to even learn in the first place.


Welcome to the dark side. . .


Posted on September 12, 2015 by


We are thrilled to have guest bloggers from time to time at Stories from School, and this offering is from Michelle Carpenter who is a MC-Gen National Certified Board teacher in Walla Walla, Washington. She teaches fifth grade and blogs about teaching, running and motherhood.

When one of our own is going into administration, we’ve all said it. “You’re going to the dark side?” “You are switching teams?” “You’re going to become THEM?” I’m just as guilty as the next.

For years, I have been told, “You would make a great administrator.” Not only did I not know what that meant, I didn’t know to ask, “What do you mean by that?” Normally, I just smiled and carried on, assuming that my organization and Type A personality was what they were referring to. I was always the one willing to take on any given task.

The fact is, when I started to continue my education, I felt a shift inside. I know that we need to view teachers as the experts; even when they might not see themselves as such. We need teachers to step up to leadership roles and be the voice for our students. We need to reach beyond our comfort zones and start having conversations with school board members, legislators and community members. They must be in our schools to understand the demands facing education today at the grass roots level. I knew I could do this and was feeling more and more confident in my ability to do so.
When I earned my Masters Degree and Professional Certification, I did a lot of reading, research and paper writing. I gained useful knowledge from that experience. It was when I earned my National Board Certification, that I felt the true change in me and how I positively impacted the teaching profession.

I was being asked to look deeply at my teaching. To question how I was affecting student’s learning and to think about how I could improve. I couldn’t do it alone. I needed colleagues, mentors and supervisors to help me understand the right questions to ask. I suddenly realized that there wasn’t one right answer, but there were a TON of right questions available to ask! During this time, I found myself in the position to do the same for my fellow colleagues pursuing their National Board Certification. I knew that I didn’t have the answer to their queries, but I could certainly offer some questions to help them seek an answer. I felt more “professional.” I knew that I had skills to share. And I felt more confident taking on district leadership roles.

One of my high school teachers, who I had remained friends with, kept planting the seed in my ear. “You are a great leader. You should take it to the next level.” I thought that meant chairing committees, mentoring teachers and continuing to earn those clock hours. I did all of those things. I enjoyed all of those things. But still, I just didn’t want to become one of “them.”

I’ve been doing this long enough (20+ years) that I have seen a lot of demonstrations of what administration means. I take the good and leave the rest. In fact, I’ll be honest. For the first 10 years of my career, I thought I knew what was best. And I did — for my lil’ class of 25 students. But I certainly wasn’t considering the larger picture or the players involved. That’s what time on your feet and in front of those eyes does for you. I have had administrators who were heavy handed, who were more bosses than leaders and controlling. I’ve had administrators who stayed in their office, didn’t have a voice and avoided the hard conversations. I knew education was changing and that none of the above were making a positive change in education.

And then we got a new principal in our building, and I felt, well … INSPIRED. Inspired to push my limits, to look deeply at my teaching with colleagues and to dream big. I spent the summer listening to and talking with a wide network of people — people who work at the community college, people who work at universities and people within our own district. The picture was becoming more and more clear. Education needs leaders who empower others; who weren’t afraid of tough conversations and who have a vision of change they are willing to sustain. National Board Certified teachers have been trained to do this.

I took advantage of leadership seminars, started reading books and looked into administrative programs. I earned scholarships to pay for my continuing education and I am currently enrolled at Gonzaga University moving full steam ahead. I know that the certificate at the end is going to be awesome. But this journey–right now–is pretty amazing in and of itself. I am meeting new people, seeing things from a new perspective and am taking this experience straight back into my classroom each and every day. I am using my skills from the National Board certification process with purpose. I reflect on conversations I’ve had, think about how it impacts student learning and am finding my voice in this changing role. Teachers need advocates. Teachers need to feel empowered. I can do this.

I may be going to the “dark side,” but it’s my plan to light that side up with clarity, inspiration and hope. What started out as a flashlight, has gained power and is becoming a flood light. At whatever level I work at, I know I can be the change and continue to provide the best education possible for students. Because at the end of the day, we are only at our best when we are on the same team with clear goals, reflective practices in place and effective communication.

I know I am going to make mistakes along this journey. How I learn from those and improve from those experiences are what count. It’s going to be hard. I’m sure there will be disappointments, frustrations and pure exhaustion. However, I feel the responsibility to my four sons; my current 24 students; and the thousands of students I’ve had and that are coming in the future. Ensuring the best education possible and having staff members that share the same vision because they are believed in, makes this calling even more important to me.

So as I heard this fall, “You’re going to the dark side?” I said, “There is no dark side. I will always be a teacher, no matter what the title. I’m following my heart. We are all in this together. The only way to change is to have people who are willing to light up this team. When administrators and teachers are leaders, students will always prevail. I’m in. Are you?”

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Yes, Recess Does Matter


Posted on September 10, 2015 by

As Seattle teachers are engaged in their first strike since the 1980s, one sticking point has been the amount of time the district wants devoted to recess (hint: it’s less, not more).

If you make the mistake that I’ve made and scrolled down to read the “comments” under some of the new reporting of the strike, you’ll see the typical union- and teacher-bashing, and of course, an utter lack of civil discourse or respect for divergent points of view. You’ll also see that a few commenters hone in on the idea of recess: some brand it as an add-on the union penciled in to maintain the guise that they “care about kids,” while others agree that recess is but frivolous play time…a lost opportunity to force more learnin’ into ’em.

Spend a morning in a typical elementary classroom and you’ll start to understand that recess is far from frivolous play time. If the quivering energy of a roomful of seven-year-olds could be bottled and sold, we’d never need to drill a drop of oil again.

Yet, the “play time” that recess provides is not just about getting energy out so that the kids can focus. It’s also not just about granting the teacher the rare opportunity to sit down, return parent phone calls or emails, or (if they’re bold enough) sprint to the restroom.


Charter Schools are Unconstitutional


Posted on September 7, 2015 by

AR_Const_1878_p001By Tom White

It’s been quite a week in the world of Washington Education policy. We’ve got teacher strikes going on in Pasco and Whidbey Island, with another one looming in Seattle. Meanwhile, the State Supreme just ruled that Charter Schools are unconstitutional, three years after voters approved them, one year after the first one opened, and two weeks after eight new ones opened across the state.

The timing obviously could have been more convenient, at least for the families who are attending those charter schools. On the other hand, the court may have timed it just right, picking Labor Day weekend to send a subtle message to charter school supporters.

I have never worked in a charter school, nor will I. However, about five years ago I was part of a group that spent a week looking very closely at a handful of charter schools in and around The Bronx. I was the only teacher in the group, and as we toured each school, the others marveled at how “high-performing” everything seemed to be. And they were. Kids were working hard, adults were working really hard and test scores were great.

But there was also a sense that things were fraying around the edges. Teachers were working from 7 AM until 5 or 6 PM, and were on-call for homework assistance until 9 or 10 PM. Sick leave consisted of having your colleagues cover your classes. They worked most Saturdays, in addition to a three-week “Boot Camp” in the summer. I asked one teacher if she was planning to have a family while working in her school and she just laughed; “I don’t even have time to take care of a cat!” Worst of all, there was absolutely no job security. It was entirely up to the principal whether you returned next year.

The time and effort that these teachers put in was simply unsustainable. Consequently, the turnover rate was around fifty percent per year. In other words, these charter schools were a union waiting to happen.

But that’s the whole point of charter schools.  They’re supposed to be public schools that operate outside the jurisdiction of school districts. Which really means outside the constraints of teacher unions, since most school districts would be more than happy to have their teachers putting in the same time and energy as charter school teachers.

The State Supreme Court ruled that charter schools are unconstitutional because they aren’t “common schools.” They take public funds, yet aren’t run by elected officials. The Court obviously realizes that if they were run by elected officials (the local school board) they would become district schools and subject to the collective bargaining agreement between the district and its corresponding education association.

In other words, charter schools, which essentially operate by exploiting the talent and effort of their teachers, are not constitutional.

I’m not sure what happens next. But if I had a kid in one of those schools, I’d be studying my options.


Labor Day and Your Union


Posted on September 6, 2015 by

One of the reasons that I absolutely cannot read the comments below the Seattle Times or other newspaper-website education articles is that inevitably some poster will sweep all logic and truth to the side and state that the single greatest threat to public education is the evil teachers’ union.

Yes, I will admit, we teachers are an evil bunch and should be prevented from assembling in groups (such as in a “teachers’ lounge”) and are thus forced into isolation in our separate classrooms lest we communicate with one another and scheme out ways to improve the system. We’re all in it for the power, fame, and glory, of course.

I will admit that I do not always agree with my union, its positions, or its tactics. I have also been a building rep for my local for as long as I can remember: I’ve sat at the table to craft contract language that is fair for both labor and management, and I’ve helped to ensure that due process is provided to teachers both in need and under investigation.

Like every holiday from Christmas to Memorial Day, Labor Day has been reduced to an excuse for mass consumption and “slashing prices!” at retail outlets everywhere. It’s easy to forget the roots of Labor Day, and despite the name people often confuse it to be a holiday honoring our military (like Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day). The reality is, Labor Day celebrates and honors the efforts of early workers’ organizations to ensure fair and reasonable workplace practices.