Leveraging Technology: Support vs Distraction

Our phones are powerful tools.

They are computers in our pockets more powerful than most of the science fiction I read or watched growing up ever conceived of. Even Star Trek the Next Generation had stacks of iPadish computers full of data on the Captain’s desk—each only held so much data. Now, something a little larger than a deck of playing cards holds or has access to more data than the entire ship they flew in threw galaxies.

I love technology. I combined my English major with a computer science minor and assumed it would be a practical and useful piece of my education. It largely has. Most of what I learned is outdated now, but the minor taught me how to think in different ways and provided me a comfort with technology in general. I learned quickly that technology’s broad offerings could distract me easily and therefore made a personal mantra: technology must support what I’m doing not distract me from it.

Humans are highly prone to distraction. Recent brain science shows regions light up and fire when we are distracted by multiple stimuli, and that concentration uses glucose at different levels, and is thus more effort and exhausting. It makes sense that we, especially teenagers, would choose distraction over concentration, even to our own productive detriment.

I keep thinking of the Jimmy Kimmel sketch in 2015 where Christopher Lloyd in his Back to the Future character holds a smartphone and says, “This tiny supercomputer must allow astrophysicists to triangulate…” and Jimmy Kimmel interrupts to say, “no, we use it to send little smiley faces to each other.”

My teaching has always involved technology. The only room I’ve taught in in 14 years without a set of computers is my first, I’ve taught with a smartboard for nearly a decade, I keep my curriculum as public as I can (minding copyright) on my website (which is also my plan book) so students and parents have continual access, I’ve used online classroom environments, and I’ve required students to turn in papers or projects digitally.

Ironically, as my district (and most surrounding districts and the national educational conversation) adopts and repeats the phrase, “leverage technology,” I’ve found myself pulling back from using technology. My mantra has remained the same: technology must support and not distract, but my experience and observations in the classroom lead me to believe technology does not agree. It seems more and more that technology is inclined, and even designed, to distract and not support productive work or learning.

Tech insiders seem to agree. The glamour and glitz and impressive largeness of technology continues to dazzle society. Many parents, teachers, community members I know and work with believe in technology with a faith I find confusing. I’m sure this post will garner me the label of luddite, etc. But I don’t use social media (in any form) because it is a black hole of distraction for me. It keeps me from the things I value: my students, my family, good literature, the immediate world around me. I know it is the great connector for many people, but for me I’ve never felt more superficial and isolated than when I followed my graduate school cohort to Facebook. Turns out pictures of meals are boring no matter who posts them. I stuck with letter writing (letter emailing). I recognize this is a personal choice, and not one made by the majority of culture.

But I am not a luddite. I use a computer and smartphone every day. I teach fully online classes at my community college. But I do believe that if educators use technology such as this nature sound map (recently promoted by my district), and never take students outdoors (even in urban centers) to listen and categorize and be present in the actual world, not just the virtual, we risk doing serious damage.

As Marshall Mcluhan said, “the medium is the message.” This is not a bad/critical/negative thing. But it becomes dangerous when forgotten. Shouldn’t part of the conversation (at least) center around deciding what technology best serves our educational outcomes? Maybe it is for many, but in my experience the devices eclipse the outcomes, and I increasingly find students struggle to use devices without distraction, and I find I turn to it less and less for lessons, despite being asked to include it more often.

The Worldwide Woes of Rural Education

It’s no secret that there is a shortage of teachers entering the workforce in Washington (OSPI has a page on this). But have you seen the news from rural China? Recent articles explain how education in rural China is in a crisis. Due to the developmental divide between urban and rural areas, and the low wages for teachers, young Chinese teachers entering the profession have little incentive to work in rural areas, far from the conveniences of the larger towns and cities. Likewise, wealthier rural families send their children to schools in more urban areas for better opportunities. Meanwhile, the students who remain in rural schools suffer from ever-decreasing quality of education, high teacher turnover, and limited programs of instruction.

Yunnan Rice Fields

I wish these articles were as exotic and foreign to me as the locale would suggest, but, line after line, I kept seeing a parallel to my own teaching context.

First of all, Chinese villages are inconvenient, with transportation issues for students and teachers. Transportation is a problem in rural Lewis County, too. Some students who attend my small, rural school in Southwest Washington, ride the bus for more than an hour from their remote homes. And, teachers who want to eat at a nice restaurant, shop at a large store, or get the oil changed in their car will have to drive at least forty minutes from our little neighborhood. Okay, it is probably worse in rural China, but who wants to drive forty minutes for fast food?

Another parallel? Rural Chinese teachers have little or no social life. Likewise, although many young teachers take rural teaching jobs in our region, it takes very little time before they realize that these remote, depressed areas are not exactly conducive to meeting other young singles. They have to travel for socialization, and, let’s face it, first-year teachers don’t have the time or money for the traveling.

Yamdrok Lake, Tibet, China

Other Chinese programs have cropped up to create incentives for teachers and young college graduates, even if they have no long-term wish to teach at all. These young people are encouraged to “volunteer” to perform a service for less privileged populations. They often start out enthusiastic and effective, but rarely last as teachers. They are a temporary fix that leaves needy rural students feeling abandoned after a short time.

This is a problem in our school, too. We have several positions filled by people who would not normally qualify for the jobs. For instance, our secondary special education teacher is a long-term substitute without prior experience in special ed. This is her second year. That would be especially terrible, but we are lucky, and she is doing a super job. But how fair is it that someone is doing a job they were not trained to do, without receiving benefits? She doesn’t plan to stay in the job.

Riffe Lake, Mossyrock WA

Another program that China is developing is a pipeline for rural educators, starting with high school students. They are incentivizing young people, getting them to promise to work in rural areas in exchange for their college education. This is where the parallel ends. I wish we had incentives for young people in rural communities to go into teaching. Our rural county is lacking in high school programs for future educators (such as Recruiting Washington Teachers), and that is especially frustrating.

Look, it takes a certain kind of educator to work in a poor, rural area. We are remote. We lack conveniences. Plus, we have kids that need us desperately due to poverty, homelessness, and domestic issues. We have diverse populations with needs that are sometimes hard to meet with limited resources and staff. It is hard to come from somewhere else and fall in love with this community, despite its beauty and the charm of the people who live here. Candidates for teaching jobs need to be up to the challenge.

My idea of a solid solution is our own local pipeline. I can imagine some of my current students as future teachers in rural Washington. They would know what they were getting into. They would understand the rhythm of the place. They would know the people. They would speak the languages. They wouldn’t mind the drive “out town,” which is our particular colloquialism for the big cities of Chehalis and Centralia. These kids would be perfect for the jobs. And we need them- desperately.

Lewis County Blueberry Fields

But this is not China, and no one is offering them money to become teachers and come back home to teach. In fact, we struggle to get programs for these promising students to earn college credit in high school. Unlike most urban schools who can attract teachers with advanced degrees to teach college courses in a high school setting, our teachers are often teaching several subjects, some of them far removed from their original major. Like rural China, our best students leave us for the better offerings of larger towns, such as Running Start or schools that offer more AP courses, clubs, or arts programs.

So, despite having students who would be excellent future teachers, we are losing the opportunity to give them an early start on that journey, to win them over to the joys of rural education.

Because it is joyous.

It would take so little to solve so much. Before it is worse, before we seem even more like rural China, we need to get our policy leaders to incentivize the education of future rural teachers.

National Board Certification, the Second Time Around

Shelly Milne

Lately, I have been reading a lot about the importance of helping students develop a growth mindset. A student with a growth mindset knows she can grow through hard work and perseverance. Right now, I am totally embracing the concept of the “not yet” mind set. Thank you, Carol Dweck, for celebrating the idea of encouraging students to ‘stick with’ hard things. This concept is especially important to me because I have been a National Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescence English-Language Arts (EA ELA) since 2004, and three years ago I decided to attempt certification in new area.

After renewing my certification in English-Language Arts, I moved to the position of Library Media Specialist in my building. As a Jump Start trainer and year-long National Board candidate support provider, I started reading the standards for Library Media Certification, and, yes, I saw some connections to my language arts standards, but I also noticed other areas that were unique to Library Media. I started thinking, “I need to learn these new standards and work on a second National Board Certification.”

Now achieving National Board Certification in Library Media is important to me because, after spending over three years working as a Teacher-Librarian, I realize the role and importance of Library Media Specialists is not fully understood. I earned a Library Media Endorsement from Antioch University three years ago, and before that experience I didn’t really know the significance of the role either. Earlier this school year, I was asked to cover another teacher’s class. I said, “I would, but I have a 5th grade library class coming in at that time.”

I was surprised when I heard this response, “We’ll get someone else to cover the library, so you can cover a core language arts class.” Fortunately, I have been around awhile, so I felt comfortable saying, “No, I am going to stay with the class I prepared to teach because I am doing important work in the library.” This attitude that library media is an extra add-on that isn’t as important as core classes is something I would like to address as a teacher-leader and earning my Library Media Certification will help me with this task.

I may be feeling anxious about finding out my scores, but working on a second certification has reminded me of just how much courage it takes to open up your practice for evaluation. It’s more than just a considerable time commitment. As a National Board Candidate, you tell assessors what you did; how and why you did it that way; and share student results and your reflection on the process. Then you send in your work and wait…and wait…and wait some more. Waiting for the score report where assessors tell you how much evidence of accomplished practice they found in your written commentary and other submitted artifacts. No teacher wants to read the words: shows little or no evidence of accomplished teaching practice.

So like all candidates who are waiting for their scores, I am nervous. As a National Board support provider, I am also nervous for the candidates I have been working with for the last three years. I know first hand how much energy, time, and commitment they have invested in this process. When they started in 2014, they didn’t know what score it would take to certify, but they were willing to open their practice to scrutiny and start the journey toward certification. I have the utmost respect for the pioneers of the NB 3.0.

I have been rehearsing what I will say to people if I don’t certify on my first attempt in this new certification area. When people ask I plan to remember the work of Carol Dweck and simply say, “Not yet.” This mindset is actually not a new concept for me. I have always embraced the “not yet” mindset. Not yet just means I am continuing to grow. As a 30+ year educator, a growth mindset makes sense. In over thirty years in this profession, I have never completed a school year, and yelled at the end, “I nailed it! All of it!” This teaching thing is complex. Like all accomplished educators, I always end the year reflecting on where I nailed it, and where I missed the mark.

So even though I am a little nervous as I anticipate Score Release Day on December 16. I do know this if my score is 110 or more, I will celebrate with all the thousands of new NBCTs across the country, and if my score is 109 or less I am still going to celebrate the growth I have experienced so far after digging deeper into what an accomplished Library Media Specialist knows and is able to do. After seeing my scores, I will do what I have always done. I will roll up my sleeves and decide what I need to learn, understand, and show in my next attempt because that’s what accomplished teachers do every single day.

 

Biography: Shelly Milne is National Board Certified Teacher in Early Adolescence English Language Arts. LA. She certified in 2004, and renewed in 2012. Four years ago, she moved from a 7th grade Humanities classroom teacher at Cashmere Middle School into the position of teacher-librarian. She earned her endorsement in library media from Antioch University. She is currently a National Board Candidate in Library Media. She provides candidates with yearlong support and works as a Washington Education Association Jump Start Trainer. She’s also member of the National Education Association Jump Start Team.

Your Salary and Why “Staff Mix” Matters

 

OSPI recently released its response to the EHB 2242 requirement that it provide salary grid recommendations for districts in the legislature’s new plan for funding educator salaries.

As a refresher: At it’s simplest, the legislature required that starting salaries at entry-level must be at least $40,000 per year, maximum salaries can start no higher than $90,000 per year, but regardless of those numbers, the average salary (allocation) per certificated staff member will sit at $64,000. In other words, no matter what a district chooses to pay its teachers, the state will only provide that district $64K per FTE cert staff.

By doling out a flat rate per teacher, the “staff mix” component of how schools were previously funded has been eliminated.

This is something all educators in Washington need to take notice of.

Staff mix is based on the reality that a district with more experienced staff (who receive higher pay on any salary schedule) will need a higher state allocation than a district with less experienced staff placed lower on that schedule. The Olympia School District did a great job of articulating the problem with eliminating staff mix: Districts staffed with experienced teachers will not receive adequate funding to pay teacher salaries. The illustrative scenarios below are drawn directly from the OSD’s communication about the fiscal impact of the loss of staff mix on their district alone:

  • DISTRICT A has 100 teachers, and all 100 are early career teachers. As a result, District A receives more than adequate state funding to staff its schools. In fact, it receives more than it needs.
  • DISTRICT B has 100 teachers, with roughly 50 more experienced than average and 50 less experienced than the state average (not the district average). District B received exactly the right amount of state funding to adequately fund salaries.
  • DISTRICT C has 100 teachers, with roughly 70 on the more-experienced side and 30 on the less-experienced side. Provided only a flat rate per teacher, the district cannot afford to pay salaries for experienced staff.

It’s a mess: When the state funds based on an average (rather than staff mix), those 90K salaries are a smokescreen for the unfortunate reality that such a model basically requires that large numbers of teachers cycle out of the profession well before they achieve that 90K salary in order for the state’s flat-rate model to be sustainable. A compensation model that banks on high rates of teacher turnover in order to even work doesn’t seem like it is addressing the actual problem of compensating teachers in a way that recruits and retains the best. The only other guaranteed option is to simply pay every teacher the exact same salary. That might seem the simple and logical solution, but let’s pause to consider the impact this would have on recruiting and retaining quality teachers who in other work sectors in the real world would expect their pay to increase with added experience, training, and expertise.

(While we’re on the topic, here are my thoughts on why it matters to pay teachers more.) 

The OLD salary allocation model, even with its flaws (including small numbers), at least based salary allocations on who that school actually employed. That allocation, based on actual staff numbers and experience levels, meant that even two districts with the exact same number of teachers, might receive different total allocations from the state because one staff might have a different “mix” of teachers with different levels of experience or advanced credits.

While responding to the legislature’s mandate to produce model salary grids for districts to consider, Superintendent Reykdal makes the point succinctly: “In the absence of a ‘staff mix’ factor that was eliminated by the Legislature beginning next school year, drafting a sample salary grid for districts has little meaning” (Source) If the state only funds $64K per teacher, per year, there is no “prototypical salary grid” that will make sense given that every single district in the state has a different staff mix.

I reiterate, it is a mess. In the coming legislative session, we as educators need to help our leaders understand what a mess they’ve created…and that restoring staff mix to the funding formula is a simple, do-able solution.

The Teacher Leader I Want To Be

I laid awake in bed at the Omni Shoreham. Light seeped through the cracks of the door and laughter drifted up from the courtyard. It wasn’t so much the time zone that kept me awake. I couldn’t turn my brain off. I often can’t turn my brain off.=

This time though, I was thinking about what I’d learned today sitting around the table with teachers, principals, coaches, and district leaders mulling through the Teacher Leader Model Standards and Professional Standards for Educational Leaders. The day’s conversations lingered and added to some of the thinking I’d done with the CSTP Teacher Leadership Skills Framework. I was incredibly grateful to Katherine Bassett (NNSTOY) and those at the Aspen Education Program who thought I should be part of this conversation.

I couldn’t stop thinking: What kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of teacher leader are you trying to be, Hope?

My first “formal” leadership position was team lead my second year of teaching. That same year I was recruited to join a new Equity and Diversity committee. The following year I moved to a new school but quickly found myself leading some curriculum design work. By my 5th year of teaching, I’d served on a district curriculum design team, as a senior team lead, a senior project lead, a Daffodil Princess Coordinator, was offered a job as a litearcy coach (Um, how was I going to tell experienced teachers how to teach?!), and was an NBCT. Fast-foward, add English Department chair, ASB teacher, inquiry group lead, and a few more formal and informal teacher leadership roles in there and you’ll be all caught up to 2017.

I was busy but fulfilled. I learned to work with a variety of personalities. I learned how to navigate a school system. I gained a stronger sense of purpose. Most importantly, I had examples of the kind of leader I want to be…and the kind of leader I despise.

As I contemplate what type of teacher leader I want to be, I am acutely aware of my own hypocrisy. On the one hand, I don’t care about titles at all. On the other, it deeply bothers me when I’m asked so what else do you do besides teach? I find myself stumbling to make up titles for the ways I contribute to the growth of my grade level team, my department, my school and my work with Teachers United.

A title doesn’t make you a good leader. And that’s definitely not the type of leader I want to be. So who do I want to be?

I want to be the type of leader that inspires others to come alongside and follow. The kind of leader who is in expert in instructional and content but doesn’t have to tell everyone about it. The type of leader others know they can come to when they need help creating a lesson plan, a reality check, or a laugh. I want to be the kind of leader who is both well-planned and prepared, but prepared and planned enough to be organic. I want to be the type of leader that doesn’t demand more than they’re willing to give. The leader who checks their emails thoroughly before responding. The leader who thinks about how their choices will marginalize or include others. The leader that knows when to step in and when to step back. The leader who understands that leading is an ongoing learning process. The leader that sees current promise in others and predicts their future greatness. The leader that sees the big pictures and pays attention to the tiny details. The leader who is constantly considering the role race, class, and gender norms play in that moment. I want to inspire. I want to always remain reflective. I want to be the kind of leader who learns from her mistakes. I want to a leader that is humble enough to ask for help, and willing to seek out the wisdom of others. The kind of leader that doesn’t have to talk about how great of a leader they are (I recognize the irony of this blog post).

Don’t get me wrong. I have aspirations of being sharply dressed, breaking out a Tweetable quip, and using big words. I want to remember the name of the author who wrote that one book and recognize Katie Couric when I see her dressed in a blue sweat suit (yes, that happened). But let’s not get carried away here.

Most importantly, I want to be the teacher leader that is a part of a team that shares power, distributes responsibilities and is accountable to one another. They build teams. They are committed to building partnerships with everyone who has something to lose or gain in the work. When I think about my favorite leaders, the ones who modelled and continue to model, this is who they are. They know their why and they never stray from it.

 

Why Self-Contained Gifted?

 

Earlier this year a friend of mine, a colleague, a coworker I admire, told me she loved me, she thought I was a great teacher, but she didn’t believe in self-contained gifted classes. She didn’t support what I do as an educator.

She believes my students belong in gen ed classes with everyone else.

At the WAETAG conference some of us on the board overheard attendees talking about differentiation: “This is just good teaching. We can do this in regular classrooms. Why would we need special classrooms for highly capable students?”

Everything I do IS just good teaching. It’s the good teaching every teacher does in their classroom, just meeting the needs of their students.

Here’s the difference. What I do is good teaching at the academic and intellectual depth my students need. It’s good teaching at the pace my students require.

Think about Zones of Proximal Development.

Think of putting fourth graders into first grade classrooms. That would be ludicrous, right? While the teacher is working with the first graders on “What I can do with help,” the fourth graders are well past the “What I can do” and into the “I’m bored and trying to amuse myself” zone.

That example may seem like hyperbole, but in a very real way it is not. Students who test two standard deviations above the norm, who are in the top 2% of the population, who historically received (from the world of psychology) the unfortunate appellation “gifted”—those students are not just bright kids in a gen ed classroom. They are children who, intellectually, belong grade levels above.

One traditional solution is acceleration. It’s well researched and demonstrates good outcomes. It works well with students who are not just academically advanced but socially and emotionally mature as well. Illinois recently signed into law the Accelerated Placement Act which “requires Illinois public school districts to adopt and implement policies on acceleration that, at minimum, provide opportunities for early entrance to kindergarten and first grade, opportunities for accelerating a student in a single subject area, and opportunities for “whole grade” acceleration (sometimes referred to as ‘grade skipping’)” [emphasis mine].

Another solution is self-contained classrooms.

Every year I have several students who are academically advanced but who are socially and emotionally immature. In some cases very immature. One of the defining characteristics of gifted is “asynchronous development.” Gifted students are out of the norm in terms of their development when compared to their age peers. That can mean they are out of the norm in more than just the realm of intellect. Which is why you can have a fifth grader working at the intellectual level of a 15-year-old but acting emotionally like a five-year-old.

Whole grade acceleration would not be appropriate for those immature students.

In the self-contained classroom, we provide academic acceleration within the classroom while students stay at their grade-level school and continue to interact with their grade-level peers. More important, our program allows them “to learn with and make social connections with same aged peers who think and learn in the same ways they do” (National Association for Gifted Children) in ways that can’t be replicated in a gen ed classroom, where there just aren’t enough of them in one place to achieve critical mass.

In my classroom, my students not only find the depth and speed of delivery that meets their intellectual needs, but they also find their tribe. They find peers who understand their advanced vocabulary. Who get their quirky jokes.

Meanwhile they enter a world where they aren’t always the first one done or the one with the right answer or the one with the best grade or the one who leads the group. Instead of being the “best” in the class, they become “normal.” It’s a humbling experience.

So let me share some other conversations, also from this fall.

Early in November I asked my students, “What do you like about this class?” There were lots of specific answers, but about half repeated a single theme: “It’s hard.” “It’s challenging.” “I’ve never been so stretched.” Some students raving about how challenging the class was were new to the program this year.

A couple of weeks later in mid-November I got a connect request on LinkedIn. I didn’t recognize the name or photo. So I went to the profile page.

“Robert” was the CEO of an IT company in Seattle. I was really confused. What did a CEO of an IT company want, connecting with an elementary teacher? I googled the company. It was an awesome company. Oh, what the heck, I thought, and I clicked “accept.”

The next day I got an email, not from “Robert” but from “Bobby,” a former student from 1990. He invited me to a party where I could see him and a bunch more of my former students. Of course I said yes!

At the party there was lots of reminiscing about the class they remembered from 27 years ago. Everyone had a different story to tell. But the one thing they all agreed on: “You made us work hard.” “I’d never worked so hard.” “I learned how to work hard in your class.” “After that, everything was easier—because I knew how to work hard.”

By the way, they just remember me as the one who made them work the hardest because I was the last teacher they had in the self-contained program. Then they went to junior high where they no longer received services all day, every day.

Finally, at the end of November, the mother of a new student in my class came to talk with me. Her husband is in the Navy, so the family moves a lot. She says she’s already dreading their next move because, “I’ve never found a program the caliber of this one. We’ve had our children in cluster groups in regular classes, and we’ve had them in one day a week enrichment programs, but we’ve never had them in self-contained gifted classes. The difference is stunning. This year my kids don’t just get piecemeal support. They get all-day every-day stretching in every subject. It’s amazing! I never want to leave.”

My students, my former students, and my parents all agree on the value of self-contained programs.

Not just this year, but every year.

Making a safer classroom for students’ gender identities

On the first day of school this year, I asked my students – 6th graders – to write down their personal preferred pronouns on an index card, along with other info about themselves. I demonstrated writing mine (she/her) on the document camera, and gave other pronoun examples: he/him, they/theirs.

I got a few blank stares, and a few clarifying questions. Mostly I saw expressions that belied the feeling, “Uh, why are you asking me this?” (Or so I assume.)

I was posing this question to them because asking about others’ preferred pronouns has become common practice in more and more of the other spheres of my life. Why wouldn’t I introduce this practice in an art room, where I want to foster trust, and create a safe space for sharing essential aspects of ourselves?

As a cisgender woman (I identify as the same gender that I was assigned at birth), sometimes telling my pronouns feels tedious (“Nothing surprising here…”). But I agree with the idea that our society is a safer, better place for everyone when we all define and redefine our gender expression throughout our lives. 

My students are young – eleven years old, mostly. They are growing up in a world that has categories for gender expression that certainly weren’t available to me in my small town in the 90’s, when I was in 6th grade. Language is continually evolving and shifting as our collective understanding of gender shifts: labels like “gender-non-conforming,” “non-binary,” even “transgender,” are relatively new. The term “intersex” might not be new, but understanding of it as an identity is changing.

When I read students’ index cards later, I was touched by the fact that they simply did it – they wrote down their preferred pronouns, even if it felt like a “No duh,” and maybe that act, alone, got them thinking about gender in new ways. I regretted not having them share their pronouns with others in their table groups – that’s at least as important as telling me. I made a note to myself to do that part differently on the first day of school next year.

A few weeks later, we were watching a short video interview with the artist Louie Gong – he talks about his identities. This idea, that we all have many identities, was new to many of them. I used some examples, “Maybe you identify as a young person, as a Muslim, as a boy, as a skateboarder, as an East African.” The concept that identities are overlapping, and not necessarily fixed, connects to their understanding of their gender. You might be “he/him” today, and “they/them” next September.

I haven’t yet seen examples of students explicitly exploring their gender identities in their artwork, but then again: when was the last time I made artwork directly about my own identity as “female”? Maybe it’s creeping in, in their sketchbooks, or in questions I hear about whether the people in their drawings look “like a girl” or “like a boy”?

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction outlines the rights of WA state students around Gender Identity and Expression. “Students have the right to express their gender at school – within the constraints of the school’s dress code – without discrimination or harassment.” But how do we prevent discrimination and harassment?

Students also have a right to use restrooms and locker rooms “consistent with their gender identity.” A federal decision in 2016 requires all states to commit to these policies to protect transgender youth, or risk losing federal funding. 

My school has a single gender-neutral, single-occupancy bathroom available to students – it’s near the main office, and I used it one day last week. I noticed some discreet graffiti along the doorframe inside. “Hey queers.” “If you’re cis and straight, don’t use this bathroom.” I moved in to look closely and saw more. “I want to die” was followed by a suicide hotline number in different handwriting.

How do we develop students’ empathy and understanding for others’ gender expression, and for their own? A gender-neutral bathroom is a great start, institutionally, for protecting the needs of transgender students. I’m also heartened by the ways that queer students are showing up for each other – through sharpie messages on the walls, and otherwise. But we need classrooms, and hallways, and locker rooms that are safer and more welcoming of all of our unique gender expressions and bodies.

I’m looking for more ways to expand students’ understanding of their own gender identities, and I hope that creates more appreciation for others’ evolving selves.  

Two Chairs

Two chairs always sit outside my classroom door. Sometimes more; never one. It is my “office” where much of the real impact of being present with students happens. Here is where I meet, knee-to-knee, to talk with students about the worries and troubles of their lives; the things making them late for class, dull-eyed and even duller-spirited. Words between us are sometimes whispered, sometimes cried out in anguish and sometimes only said with the slow body language of a slight nod and downcast eyes.To write this blog, I flipped through my now two-decades-old book. In nice, quiet, rural America…

“Someone I love was raped last night at a party at our house. I want to beat up my father because he was too drunk to help her.”

“That guy my mom is dating? He keeps coming into my room at night.”

“I can’t breath when I am taking a test.”

“Those are cat scratches, I promise.”

As their teacher, I can help with the test anxiety issue. That I can do. Let’s talk about anxiety management.

The other “Big Three” sexual, physical and mental abuses. CPS calls made, perhaps an investigation. And then often nothing….Rarely do I see a child removed from their home. Far more often, the child’s world is disrupted for a moment and then it is back to life as normal.

It is obvious my students need a counselor for the trauma. But wait. We do not have one. Being a K-8 school, we are not required to even have one. Levy dollars would have to be spent to hire a counselor. Levy dollars in high poverty, rural schools are hard to come by. They are reserved for things like collapsing roofs and cracking foundations. These are things people understand and know how to fix. Mental health issues? Collapsing children with cracked foundations? Not so easy to understand. Or fix.

According to Washington State law, high schools are required to have at least one counselor. Apparently suicidal feelings, deep depressions, and good old garden-variety panic attacks are only for whose main concerns are dating and driver licenses. If only that were true. These issues, sadly, are in my book too.

There is not a lot of room for jealousy by the K-8 schools of high school counselors. According to the RCWs (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=28A.410.043), the role of a school counselor is defined by our state is “a professional educator who holds a valid school counselor certification as defined by the professional educator standards board. The purpose and role of the school counselor is to plan, organize, and deliver a comprehensive school guidance and counseling program that personalizes education and supports, promotes, and enhances the academic, personal, social, and career development of all students…” (emphasis added).

I just got the first of my own five children through high school and launched into college. I know what goes into that process. The job description of a school counselor? That is a tall order for ONE person to accomplish for sometimes over a thousand students. How could each student’s personal development be supported, promoted or even enhanced? How can they help those that are struggling the most when counselors are being asked to do all of the other tasks on their plate? What will be the result if they can’t?

Beginning in 1995, a long-term study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html) or ACE, explores just that question. It is composed of a simple questionnaire about negative incidents that may have occurred in childhood. The results showed that the higher the participant’s score on the ACE, the greater the risk of experiencing poor physical and mental health, and negative social consequences later in life, higher blood pressure, depression, and more prison time, just to name a few. Children who live in poverty are drowning in ACE. They do not even begin to have the resources they need to get to the surface of the water.

Back to my chairs. I am not a counselor. I cannot speak as a counselor. I can refer my students and their families to one. The nearest full time counselor is 31 miles away – about $36.00 a month just in gas to get there and back once a week. Life choices are often calculated in the cost of gas money, when every dollar is precious. The nearest counselor specializing in childhood trauma is 102 miles away.

It is often the same students sitting knee-to-knee with me. I speak with them. I tell them how their brains work, that the neuronal tracks they lay down now through the thoughts they CHOSE to think are what they will have to rely on throughout their lives. They must chose wisely, even when those around them may seemingly not be. I speak to them of their inherent worth simply because they exist, their strengths and the power that is theirs if they decide to claim it. I tell them they are NEVER at fault for what has happened to them. They are not the trauma they have experienced, but the survivor sitting in front of me. I speak with them, but not as a counselor.

Our rural children of poverty are facing issues that would pull many a well-adjusted adult under water. These are big things, painful things, things that are forming their lives and the world as they will forever see it. These are things over which they have no control and are drowning in. There must be better help for them beyond the life preserver of two little chairs outside a classroom.

Teaming to Our Strengths

My first year in education, I worked as a Paraeducator in a Designed Instruction classroom. At the time, I didn’t know how deeply that experience would impact my practice as a classroom teacher. I spent one year in that DI classroom. In that time, I instructed students one-to-one on reading and life-skills, and also worked with the whole class to build a boat, to learn independent living through grocery shopping and cooking, and also coached the Special Olympics basketball team. These were amazing experiences and sparked my initial interest in becoming a certified teacher, but the most important impact came from how the lead teacher worked with our team. I didn’t know how much his actions affected me until I took a position in which I worked in concert with others and realized how much I had learned from him.

Most of us have heard the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.” The same can be said in education. Student success does not happen as the result of one educator’s effort, there is a whole team involved. The way that team works together can make or break a classroom. Thinking back to that first lead teacher I worked with, I learned so much. The most important lesson he taught me, he did not expressly say, but rather he showed me through his interactions with the educational support staff in our classroom and through the respect he showed in both word and action.

As a team we had weekly meetings in which the lead teacher would specifically elicit feedback and suggestions from the entire staff in the classroom as to next steps, what worked and what didn’t work during the week and how we, as a team, could better meet the needs of the students. He recognized that we, as Paraeducators, were the ones working most closely with the kids. We had knowledge of their progress and interests that he did not have, because he mainly taught whole group, while we worked beside the students. He also greatly respected and worked toward each of our strengths, encouraging us to take on roles in the classroom that would have the most benefit to our students and also help us grow in our work. He created an environment in which we all felt empowered and encouraged to work independently and collaboratively. We felt safe and respected and, thus, also treated one another with respect and kindness.

It has only been in the last seven years that these lessons have really come into focus for me. Not only do I work in a team with sign language interpreters and a bilingual specialist, I also act as an advocate through our local education association for my co-workers throughout the district. Most often, when my colleagues come to me for something related to the association, it deals with interpersonal issues with their co-workers and their working environment. Many are Paraeducators, who feel disrespected by the lead teachers with whom they work and consider their environment to be hostile.

Recently, as a board member, I met with the Paraeducator Board to develop Paraeducator Standards and discuss alternative routes to certification. Inevitably our focus always falls on the element of our work that relates to the creation and implementation of training for administrators and teachers on working with Paraeducators. This is a massive element currently missing from teacher preparation programs. Teachers are expected to work with Paraeducators and other support staff, but are given little to no guidance on what that work looks like or how that sounds in a classroom. Plus, lead teachers are often given mixed messages from supervisors as to their role in reference to Paraeducators. In most cases, the teacher’s job is to guide instruction in the classroom and ensure everyone understands their roles and responsibilities in working with students and within the general structure of the classroom. Often, however, Administrators rely on teachers to provide supervision, which is not a lead teacher’s role. This can create a heirarchy in the classroom, which empowers the lead teacher, but makes the other staff in the room feel they do not have a voice and are not respected.

As I work with the board to plan training, and I also work with my co-workers to help them find resolution, I remember the lead teacher I worked with when I was a Paraeducator. His actions were simple. He created an environment in which every staff member felt ownership. He did this by using inclusive language. There was no such thing as “mine” only “ours.” It was our classroom. The students were our students. Second, he didn’t assign us roles. He directed us toward positions and responsibilities which best matched our skills and took into account our opinions about what we liked and wanted to do. We had four Paraeducators working in that DI room. Some of us worked exclusively one-to-one with particular students, others of us floated around. He also capitalized on our individual training. That’s how I became the basketball coach. I had played in college. Even though he loved coaching the team, he recognized that I might have some skills in this area that would better benefit the kids on the team, and so offered the position to me. That lead teacher had the ability to see the students and their needs first. He did not wield power, but instead shared responsibility.

I have carried these lessons with me throughout my 19 years in the classroom. Even with years of practice, I still have to be cognizant because it’s so easy to fall into language patterns and roles which diminish my classroom partners. When we work as a team, collaborate, capitalize on one another’s strengths, and empower one another, we create the best environment for our students.

What about in your schools? How do you, as an Education Support Professional or Lead Teacher, navigate roles and responsibilities in the classroom? Let’s start a conversation.

Collaboration in the Classroom: Assembling Teams of Future Heroes

I felt like a superhero this week. I taught collaboration to seventh-graders. I taught them to come to a consensus quickly. I taught them to listen to each other’s ideas and incorporate them into the final product of their learning.

It was lovely, and it was dynamic, but let’s not get carried away. The same students, more likely than not, degraded one another’s opinions outside of class. The same students will groan and mutter next time I put them in groups they did not choose. It takes time and direct instruction to overcome what seems like a natural tendency to avoid cooperation, collaboration, and consensus.

And that’s the problem. How well have we been teaching these skills to our students?

Look at the news, read your Twitter feed, listen to the people around you. Has it always been so difficult for people to come to consensus, to make decisions together for the good of the larger group? I wonder how we got to be so divisive, so eager to disagree with one another. And, when did we become so publicly cruel to one another?

Okay, I’m being dramatic. We have always had problems, especially when it comes to working together. Humans tend to shy away from working outside of the group to which they already belong. Enter racism, homophobia, gender issues, classism… every ism.

As a teacher, I often view the students in my small, diverse school as a sort of microcosm of humanity. I watch as my new seventh-graders self-select the students with whom they are willing to work. I also watch as they openly spurn the others, the ones who don’t fit in their closed groups. Is this basic human behavior? Perhaps. But it can be modified, if you are determined, stubborn, and methodical in your approach to teaching communication, empathy, and cooperation.

Our evaluation system requires us to create environments that foster communication, respect, and a culture of learning. How does this look? Like students quietly sitting in rows, listening to a teacher? Well, yeah, sometimes it does. However, a dynamic classroom environment is often buzzing with lively conversations and debate. And yet, I still meet teachers who avoid assigning “group work” or they struggle to assess communication skills at all.

Shouldn’t we be assessing communication skills? The state standards include speaking and listening. In fact, standard SL.K.1 for kindergarten requires “Participation in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about kindergarten topics and texts with peers and adults and small and larger groups.” By their junior year, our students should,”initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11-12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.” These standards aren’t assessed on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, but that does not make them less important.

So, we know students should be learning the communication skills necessary to respectfully share their ideas. And, we know that we are better teachers when we foster a learning environment that encourages the participation of our students in rich discussions. More than that, I think we all realize that the world could be a better place if we could help the next generation perfect their teamwork and discussion skills. Still, instructing and evaluating collaborative skills is a struggle for most teachers.

Personally, I pieced together my methods for teaching collaboration and consensus to students over the years, using trial and error. My guess is that very few of us have a curriculum for these essential skills.

However, times are changing. Collaboration is one of the touted “21st Century Skills.” Employers want, they NEED, good team players. I’ve been cruising around the website for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Collaboration is one of their “Four Cs.” It’s part of their Framework. They have some very clear materials explaining the need for teaching collaborative skills, AND for how to do it.

In the meantime, if you are not convinced about the need for collaborative skills, check out this article by Danxi Shen, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, ‘Group and Cooperative Learning: Students as Classroom Leaders.”

After brushing up on what collaboration should look like in the classroom, kick back and watch one of those superhero team movies. Superheroes know the value of teamwork. In Justice League, Batman brings diverse heroes together to defeat a threat to all of mankind. When Aquaman resists him, saying, “A strong man is strongest alone; ever heard that?” Batman replies, “That’s not the saying, that’s like the opposite of what the saying is.” My students often think they are better off on their own. My job is to help them see the power they wield in groups.

I guess that makes me Batman.