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Advancing teacher quality in Colorado

Friday, April 15th, 2011

This post was submitted by Sandi Jacobs. She is vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) a non-partisan, non-profit research and advocacy group committed to increasing the accountability and transparency of the institution that have the greatest impact on teacher quality: states, teacher preparation programs, teacher unions and school districts. Jacobs spoke at the monthly Hot Lunch event on Friday, April 15.

Colorado doesn’t have Race to the Top funding – but it still could be running in the lead when it comes to teacher policy – if the state decides to stay in the race.

Listen to Hot Lunch talk podcast
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Podcast length: 39:55.

Colorado may not have made the final cut in the competition to secure federal funds for Race to the Top.  But in SB10-191, Colorado passed potential national model legislation requiring annual evaluations for every teacher and principal in the state, based at least 50 percent on student growth measures, and including multiple measures of teacher effectiveness, career ladders with pay for the most effective teachers, and tenure decisions based on effectiveness.

Is the state’s cutting edge teacher reform agenda running out of gas?

SB10-191 reflects an important shift in thinking about teacher quality.  Policymaking around improving teacher quality to date has focused almost exclusively on qualifications – teacher credentials, majors, degrees, licensing.  But that is changing.  Accountability for student learning and research confirming the strong impact teachers can have on student achievement are beginning to move the field towards a decidedly performance-based focus on teacher quality.

Given the tremendous impact teachers have on learning – teachers are the single most important school-based determinant of student achievement – the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) believes that no strategy state and districts take on is likely to have a greater impact than one which seeks to maximize teacher performance.

NCTQ’s 2010 State Teacher Policy Yearbook finds that how effective teachers are at fostering growth in student achievement is starting to find its way into developing policies on how teachers should be evaluated, compensated, promoted, granted tenure or dismissed – with a number of promising and important new state laws and regulations on the books (if not yet worked out in practice) focused squarely on teacher effectiveness.

According to our analysis of state policies, Colorado is poised to be a leader in each one of these policy areas.

Colorado is one of 21 states requiring annual evaluations of all teachers and one of just 10 states requiring that growth in student achievement be the preponderant criterion in teacher evaluations. When it comes to tenure, Colorado is one of only four states with a policy requiring that evidence of student learning be a decisive criterion in such decisions.

NCTQ argues that accountability for teacher effectiveness goes hand in hand with accountability for the teacher preparation programs that train educators.  So we also follow trends in state policies related to tying accountability for teacher preparation programs to teacher performance and student achievement, where Colorado is one of 14 states articulating requirements for holding teacher preparation programs in their states accountable based on the academic performance of students taught by their graduates.

What are the policy implications of an evaluation system that truly measures teacher effectiveness and acts on the results, both with regard to individual teachers and the institutions that prepare them for the classroom?  The consequences in Colorado and across the nation could be far-reaching and profound; changing not only much of what is now standard practice in the teaching profession, but the success of other important education reforms that ultimately depend on effective teaching.

Colorado is to be commended for its gutsy and forward-thinking “Great Teachers and Leaders” legislation.  But the recommendations just released by Colorado’s Council for Educator Effectiveness, and what the State Board decides to do with those recommendations, are what will likely determine whether Colorado will stay a leader in this race, or if the state’s cutting edge teacher reform agenda is running out of gas.

Popularity: 19% [?]

Hire well, then trust your teachers

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Editor’s note: Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.

I split my 18-years of teaching between public and private schools (three schools and close to nine years in both “worlds”). Twenty years ago I had the chance to support and study the 1990 alternative licensure law in Colorado that welcomed new folks into the teaching profession, often without taking the usual education courses; this more flexible process felt similar to the way many of us had been hired in our first jobs in private schools.  I hoped it would be one of many approaches that had worked well for independent schools and that might be adopted by public education.

In Another View #68, “A skeptic on SB 191 takes a closer look” (Sept. 26, 2010), I raised a few concerns about the new law.  Here are two more, in which I put on my private school hat—and ask those hammering out the details of and implementing the Educator Effectiveness legislation, please keep these points in mind.

And to assure you this is more than theoretical, I know an incredibly talented young public school teacher who might move to a private school next year.  So that this teacher continues to work with young people, I celebrate such a change.  However, it will be public education’s loss.  I ask that we keep such gifted educators in mind as we take our next steps to put SB 191 in place.

We want public education to attract wonderful teachers.  Ask a number of terrific teachers in private schools if they would consider switching.  In most cases the pay in public schools is greater.  But in my experience a far majority who have found a good place to teach would not be tempted.  Yes, you’ll often hear: I don’t want that kind of class size or teacher-load, or the frequent discipline issues I hear about.  It would keep me from being the teacher I want to be. I am aware this can seem snooty, even a bit selfish.  You might say you have little patience for such an attitude.  OK, but it goes further.  Please bear with me.

Private school teachers will also say they enjoy the freedom to develop and teach the curriculum that they think best serves their students, without interference from the state, or the district—or from their own principal, who feels so pressured by test scores that the school begins to lose its way, to forget its mission.

In fact, a large percentage of independent school educators are devoted to their school in large part because of their belief in its mission—which will not change with a new governor, legislature, or superintendent.  And they are glad to be in a school environment where families and students are there by choice.  It is hard to overstate the many intangible benefits this produces.

OK, you say, but what does this have to do with SB 191?  How would implementing this bill affect a 22-year-old’s decision about whether to seek work in a public or private school?

Hiring

If Colorado fails to implement SB 191 wisely, I believe it will be one more roadblock to attracting bright, committed folks to teach in public schools.

The new attention given to teacher evaluation may put the cart before the horse.  Improving who enters the profession will pay far more dividends down the road than how we evaluate that six or fifteen-year veteran.  If we want people with the intellect, skills, and values that will make a powerful difference for students for many years to come, we need to expand—not tighten—the alternative licensure path, and we need schools of education to undergo huge changes—or go out of business.

The bright, motivated learner who has succeeded in some of our strongest liberal arts school entering the classroom through Teach for America and The New Teacher Project will certainly need mentoring and evaluation.  But who he or she is as a person at age 22 is ultimately more important than what checklist an administrator uses to see if a teacher is doing the job.

“How do we attract the best teachers?” That was the question posed by David Gregory, host of Meet the Press, to Bruce Stewart, former head of Sidwell Friends (the private school the Obama children attend in Washington), when NBC devoted a week to education reform issues last fall.  Can we bring “the best and the brightest” into teaching?  Stewart’s response:

“When I began teaching in the ’60s, we had that population of people.  And since then, because greater opportunities have opened up for young women and for minorities, there’s been a great brain drain from American schools.  I think we want to get those people back. If you look at Singapore, look at Finland, the reason they consistently are testing their population of students in the top levels of international exams, it’s the quality of their teaching force.  They all come from the top third of their colleges, universities.  In the United States, our tendency today is to have that pool of teachers coming from the bottom third of college and universities and from the bottom third of those classes.  That’s something we need to reverse and to change.”

I never minded the extensive application process at a good private school, which in one case—once I was one of their final candidates—included coming for a day, teaching a class, visiting other classes, meeting with the principal, dean, and department chair, having lunch with potential colleagues—being sized up by everybody, it seemed.  Quite a number of folks had read my file, had specific questions to ask about my past teaching; it was clear the school had talked with previous principals and employers.  I respected the time and care that went into the process.  This was the judgment stage, the critical determination if I was likely to be a good teacher in this setting, a good member of their team.

Once hired, there was a level of trust and respect that told me: you’re one of us. Yes, I was observed and evaluated.  It was not a job forever—I wasn’t vetted for a life-time job on the Supreme Court!  But I never felt that the real “judgment stage” had now begun.

Once SB 191 is in place, will teachers entering our public schools be given this vote of confidence?  Or will it seem that the evaluation process is based on mistrust—we really aren’t sure about you, we can’t assume we have hired well, so we now need to supervise and micromanage in a way that –well, sorry if you find this demeaning, but this is what the law demands!

Please forgive the analogy to the automobile industry—two weeks after I wrote how upsetting it is to be treated like we’re on an assembly line and we can be MORE PRODUCTIVE if we have LARGER CLASSES!  But take Toyota and the huge expense and damage to its reputation with all the recalls this past year.  The “new” Toyota insists it will care about “quality control” from day one.  It sure would seem cost effective!

In education, it would be a step backwards if we start with the assumption that our teacher training programs produce a defective product, and therefore we aren’t sure we want this “car” on the road.  (Yes, this introduces legitimate questions about our schools of education and teacher preparation—but that is a separate issue.)  Won’t it be less costly, and more responsible, to hire—in two stages: first, with great care, but then, with real confidence in the new person we bring in–ready to roll?

A warning then.  Let’s not create a system that assumes we hire with considerable indifference and then get serious about measuring if we have good folks in our classrooms.  We will not attract good new teachers to public education if our first message is: we do not trust you!

Cheer them on!

Another reason for my skepticism about this latest obsession with teacher evaluations: In the debate about teaching as a career some are “born” into versus one where you can learn the craft, I lean to the former.  Not a popular view if you think we should focus on “Building a Better Teacher,” to borrow a headline from last spring’s New York Times Magazine (March 2, 2010).  And sure, we do need to take the teachers we have and provide them with strong professional development, new tools and technology, and evaluations that reveal their shortcomings and new ways to better meet their students’ needs.

And yet many veteran educators like me would say we have known when some people “had it”—and when some did not.  Those who, in my view, were “born to teach,” who “had a gift,” were not perfect.  Though not universally loved, they were highly respected.  On a scale of 1-10, they were 9’s and 10’s.  And such men and women were probably there by year 2 or 3 in their careers.

I am thinking of teachers like Jane, Jim, Louise, John, Jack (colleagues, English teachers), Mike (history, fellow baseball coach), another Jane.  I think of Kathleen, today a celebrated master teacher, but when she began, 15 years my junior, I sensed she was already a better teacher than I was at age 37.  And here in Colorado, I think of many more, including C. and E. and L. and J.

And M, 30 years my junior, also “born” to teach, embodying all the kindness, humor, intellect, passion, and curiosity one could ask for, along with the right degree of goofiness to click well with middle schools students.  Several good friends too –and you know who you are.  10’s.  Among the best in the profession.

I doubt teacher evaluations would have helped them.  Yes, such teachers could help others, and often did—or will.  But it would be my hope that exceptional folks like them, who early in their careers demonstrate a special talent, should be rewarded with the appropriate trust and autonomy (which many will insist are bigger incentives than another $10,000).  In direct contrast to the recent push to monitor and supervise and judge, I say:  Let them close their door! Ask them what they need so the profession, or at least public education, does not lose them.  Don’t swamp them with unneeded observations.

I overstate. Yes, of course, keep that door open in another way: administrators and colleagues should visit and enjoy their classes; what they see will assure them, or remind them, of what their students are capable of when focused and challenged.  Learn what works from these teachers.  Visitors should follow up with meaningful conversations about what they saw; any good teacher is thirsty for another pair of eyes.  (I emphasize conversation, as opposed to my recent experience: an email from the administrator who sat in the back and took notes, and merely related what she observed.)

In such discussions no doubt our best teachers will be more self-critical than self-congratulatory, disappointed that they did not do more to compliment the soft-spoken student who made a rare contribution, that the conversation did not go deeper, or that those two students seemed to tune out for five minutes.  Two-way discussions, where the gifted teacher asks what the visitor saw, eager to hear another adult’s perspective on L’s focus, if B’s whisperings to his buddy seemed related to the task at hand, if that group of three in back was paying attention—and how else the brief disruption by K could have been handled. Still learning.  Teachers of this caliber are proud of their classes and are glad to open their doors; they chew over visitors’ comments—and use them to improve.

But it is not clear this is what SB 191 has in mind.  We must not create a system that is condescending to these folks.  I hope we see how petty it can feel, for our very best, to have the observer note “needs improvement” on item 24g from a three-page checklist of “skills to demonstrate.”

Nine of the 17 teachers I mentioned above were or are in private schools.  Fellows like Jack and Mike found a home and stayed 40 years at Emma Willard and Rice Memorial, respectively.  The many administrators who came and went over those years must have known their good fortune to have such educators on their staff.  The trust and respect Jack and Mike received surely played a role in their saying: I can teach here. I can have a good life here. I will stay.

As we look ahead 40 years, we’d like such terrific teachers to enter and stay in public education. Let’s make sure we don’t turn better teacher evaluation into unneeded exercises of micromanagement based on mistrust.  For if we do, we might drive a number of today’s best young teachers away—and off to teach in private schools.

Popularity: 15% [?]

I write the papers that make the whole world sing…

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Think that students are all doing their own work?  Try this truly stunning first-person piece from a hired ghost writer for, well, anything:

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

It’s pretty shocking stuff.  The amount of straight cheating and plagiarism that happens at an undergraduate level is both remarkable and has probably existed in some form throughout time.  However, technology has now enabled students to find someone to do their work who is geographically distant, qualified, affordable, and highly-skilled.

And I could not help but shake my head at the following:

I, who have no name, no opinions, and no style, have written so many papers at this point, including legal briefs, military-strategy assessments, poems, lab reports, and, yes, even papers on academic integrity, that it’s hard to determine which course of study is most infested with cheating. But I’d say education is the worst. I’ve written papers for students in elementary-education programs, special-education majors, and ESL-training courses. I’ve written lesson plans for aspiring high-school teachers, and I’ve synthesized reports from notes that customers have taken during classroom observations. I’ve written essays for those studying to become school administrators, and I’ve completed theses for those on course to become principals. In the enormous conspiracy that is student cheating, the frontline intelligence community is infiltrated by double agents. (Future educators of America, I know who you are.)

Yikes.

Popularity: 6% [?]

Can’t you NOT meet a nice young lawyer…

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

Among the tensions in higher education are expensive professional schools supplying graduates with higher debt loads than their industries can bear. Recent revelations include legal graduates describing their law schools as ponzi schemes and paper mills, as detailed in this piece. Some background:

Law school, always the safe choice, became a more popular choice. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of LSAT takers climbed 20.5 percent. Law school applications increased in turn.

But now a number of recent or current law students are saying—or screaming—that they made a mistake. They went to law school, they say, and now they’re underemployed or jobless, in debt, and three years older. And statistics show that the evidence is more than anecdotal.

One Boston College Law School third-year—miraculously, still anonymous—begged for his tuition back in exchange for a promise to drop out without a degree, in an open letter to his dean published earlier this month. “This will benefit both of us,” he argues. “On the one hand, I will be free to return to the teaching career I left to come here. I’ll be able to provide for my family without the crushing weight of my law school loans. On the other hand, this will help BC Law go up in the rankings, since you will not have to report my unemployment at graduation to US News. This will present no loss to me, only gain: in today’s job market, a J.D. seems to be more of a liability than an asset.”

Law students suffer given the burden of the loans incurred at law school (one student even included his law school in a bankruptcy filing, asking that they “admit that your business knew or should have known that Plaintiff would be in no position to repay those loans”). But they are not alone. Education has a similar problem.

While there is still plenty of demand for teachers, the disparity in the cost of some teaching credential programs compared to the salaries available to teachers can be enormous. While most public universities offer the ability for aspiring teachers to become credentialed, many private schools have excessive costs for people who aspire to a teaching career. A few years ago I asked a group of teachers their primary concern outside the school’s walls. Almost unanimously, they named their educational debt – which several felt was an impediment to continuing in the profession.

Locally, DU’s Morgridge School of Education’s Teacher Education Program has a cost equal to its long title: an estimated $34,791, including roughly $20,500 in tuition and fees (it’s private). For a comparison, look at Metropolitan State’s Alternative Licensure Program, with tuition of $4,900 (it’s public). Forgetting for a minute the lost wages while one pursues a teaching certificate, to which of the above would you direct an aspiring teacher, knowing that DPS’s starting salary is $37,551? How much better would the private program need to be? How do you measure it?

It’s not an easy time for higher education, and teacher preparation is a complex problem. Teacher salaries are unlikely to rise substantially, despite both ample need and common sense. And yet it remains deeply unclear how much traditional licensure programs — and the accompanying time and money — truly help.

The lack of a correlation between an advanced degree and teacher quality is well documented, while TFA and others seem to be doing quite well with a five-week intensive course instead of the 12+ months of study. So why do we have so many private programs that encourage teachers to take on debt levels that are often unsuitable for the profession – even with financial aid? To borrow from the litigious student above, doesn’t the leadership at these programs know that they may be burdening students with loans that can force considerable hardship?

Given what is likely to be a lengthy period of slow economic growth, expect a growing desire for students of all stripes to avoid debt loads that are unjustified by their chosen profession. In private business (such as law), we are likely to see some market adjustments to reach an equilibrium. We can all get by with a few less lawyers.

In public education however, there is less of a suitable market mechanism. We need the public school teachers that we need. We owe it to aspiring teachers to make sure that their noble professional choice does not come with crushing debt — which means we need better programs for fewer dollars, or less-expensive alternative paths.

Teaching is an enormously difficult profession for numerous reasons – the debt incurred to teach should not be among them.

Popularity: 4% [?]

Reformers’ homework?: An unqualified response

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

I came across a new Huffington Post column by education professor Gary Stager that got the mental gears grinding. The author was dismayed by a Washington Post piece in which urban reform leaders (including DPS’ own Tom Boasberg) call for specific teacher policy and charter school reforms. The piece has been labeled as a “manifesto.” (You may recall that Kevin Welner wrote a somewhat thoughtful response to Boasberg et al. here at Ed News Colorado — one worthy of honest disagreement that stirred a fair share of controversy.)

While there’s the response from Welner, on another plane came this other response sympathetic to his that I found at the same time more revealing and more confounding. In his column, Stager insists that the co-authors of the manifesto

are unqualified to lead major urban school districts. Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are not qualified to be a substitute teacher in their respective school districts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could not coach basketball in the Chicago Public Schools with his lack of credentials. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they advocate schemes like Teach for America sending unprepared teachers into the toughest classrooms armed with a missionary zeal and programmed to believe they are there to rescue children from the incompetent teachers with whom they need to work. In public education today, unqualified is the new qualified.

Stager — whose own website promotes him as an “out-of-the-box” education thinker — then goes on to assign a Progressive reading list of Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol and Gerald Bracey et al. to help the dominant “Reform™” advocates eschew high-stakes accountability and testing, and get beyond the notion “that there is only one way to create productive contexts for learning.” Why does that sound like a straw man to me?

Now it may be to my detriment, but I’d never heard of Dr. Stager before reading his column. And I’m nearly certain he’s never heard of me. Given his position as an education school professor, I very well may lack the requisite credentials to hold a contrary opinion. I admit I haven’t read most of the books he highlights, nor in most cases did he give a compelling reason to change that fact. Nonetheless, hopefully I’m not utterly “unqualified” to raise a few pertinent questions:

  • For one who has proclaimed that education is not suitable for students as a one-size-fits-all enterprise, what is so threatening about the existence of: a) Teachers trained outside the established university education system and b) Charter schools that offer different types of programs?
  • If established Progressive educators already “know how to amplify the enormous potential for children,” why have their decades of dominance over the profession yielded little or no discernible progress? Why should they continue to be entrusted with so much power, without so much as an acknowledgment of the stagnant conditions that have given such tremendous life to the “Reform™” movement?
  • Why should parents and other citizens embrace the proclaimed vision “of sustaining a joyful, excellent and democratic public education for every child” while simultaneously being preached down to for a lack of expertise? Why should low-income parents satisfied at the results of have chosen to send their children to “charter-based obedience schools” like KIPP or West Denver Prep be motivated to listen?
  • If it is so much better for our educators simply to be “qualified” (aka credentialed by a state-recognized university education program), why are so many “qualified” Colorado educators not equipped to teach younger students the research-based basics of reading? Why are so many “qualified” elementary teachers not properly equipped to teach basic math skills?
  • Would the Big Picture model touted in the column have spread so far to serve so many students if not for public charter school laws and the innovators who worked outside the system to make it happen? What percentage of educators employed by Big Picture are traditionally licensed?
  • If it is the contention that research doesn’t support the dominant “Reform™” paradigm, and that one-size-doesn’t-fit-all, could widespread support be found among Progressive education professors to scrap the high-stakes No Child Left Behind regime in exchange for a system that empowered students and parents with universal choice–since research consistently shows the effectiveness of vouchers in satisfying parents and improving student learning?

Humble questions from an unqualified someone.

Popularity: 7% [?]

Humanize schools

Monday, October 11th, 2010

Sabrina Stevens Shupe is an education advocate and former Denver teacher. This is cross-posted from her Failing Schools blog.

One main reason I stopped believing in the dominant narrative about school reform is because I experienced firsthand how top-down policy churn impacts teachers’ ability to focus on our actual work. When people who are too far removed from the classroom attempt to control what’s happening there, problems arise. Standardization becomes virtually irresistible, because it makes it so much easier to perform “quality control” (which then ends up being more about conformity than actual quality). And of course, there has to be some way of tracking what’s going on, so documenting and reporting on your work becomes an urgent responsibility. This documentation has to be friendly to the non-educators who increasingly run schools, too, which means it will most likely be reductive in nature.

That, of course, has the unfortunate consequence of turning principals and district personnel into paper pushers, teachers into paper generators, and students into numbers (the flip-side of what politicians call “accountability”). For example, there were several days last year where virtually all of the teachers in our school had to hire substitutes to cover our classes while we worked elsewhere in the building, administering tests and finishing forms in order to meet district and state reporting deadlines. While there are some great substitutes out there, for the most part, sub days are days lost to instruction. It’s simply not the same to have a stranger step in and attempt to pick up where you left off with your students. (And it doesn’t help the substitutes any when bored, stressed out, over-tested kids look at them and think “PLAYTIME!”)

It’s bad enough that teachers often have to take this kind of work home in order to have time to complete it and plan good lessons– that depletes our energy, which makes us less alert and able to respond to children’s learning needs during the school day. But when these requirements (along with the time lost to testing) literally steal instructional time, it becomes all the more important for us to stop and examine if what has been sacrificed is worth what’s been gained.

Apparently, what has been gained is very little (for the kids, anyway– if you make tests or data tracking systems, you’ve gained quite a bit!). All of these attempts to track and verify what is going on in classrooms have not delivered meaningful improvements in learning. The first 30+ years of this experiment with increasingly centralized control and oversight has been a period of increased dropout rates and high remediation rates for new college students. Twelfth-grade scores on our most well-reputed test (the NAEP) have moved just one point in reading and two points in math. As someone who was personally told to spend time on worthless assessments that generate graphs at the expense of meaningful ones that diagnose reading difficulties, I’m not surprised.

This is counterproductive. How can we hope to improve schools if teachers and principals are forced divert serious attention away from their mission (educating students) and toward satisfying the demands of powerful adults? (And am I the only one pained by the irony of sucking up instructional time in an attempt to make teachers prove they’ve improved instruction?)

Instead of devoting ever more resources to propping up these false accountability systems, why not invest in people? Start with building up schools of education and raising professional standards for teachers (rather than trying to skimp at the front end and then compensate for it with external rewards and punishments later)**. The best school systems have highly trained, highly respected educators who are then given the freedom to use their expertise to create powerful learning experiences (aligned to a set of lean but important standards). The leaders of those school systems are themselves career educators*, who understand the nature of teachers’ work and can offer meaningful support  and guidance. There is absolutely no reason why we couldn’t build that here, but it would require us to stop looking for shortcuts (replacing teachers with cheaper interns, scripting curriculum, etc.) and give educators the respect and trust we deserve.

*I also find it ironic that the “let’s make schools like business” crowd has ignored the work of Jim Collins. His book, Good to Great is especially instructive in this area. He finds that companies that are able to make the transition from goodness to sustained greatness almost always (90% of the time) grow their leadership from within, and they give employees the flexibility to be creative as long as they adhere to the company’s mission. Micromanagers are bad managers.

**ETA: Most who know me have already inferred as much, but I’m not at all suggesting that there are serious deficiencies in teacher training programs to begin with. One huge trend many teachers will note is the extent to which they’re prevented from doing the great things they learned in ed school because of the nonsense they have to do for their school and district leaders. However, there are certainly some programs which are better than others. I feel we need to make sure all programs offer comprehensive training (balancing content and pedagogy, for example) and are thoughtfully planned, rather than trying to marginalize the entire group of them and promoting “shortcut” programs at their expense.

Popularity: 6% [?]

Remembering who I am

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Cross-posted from the North to South Education blog

In the first orientation with my school district, I learned that I would be sized up. That students will look at me, judge me, and ask, “How far can I push him? How much can I really learn from him?” A large, kind football coach reassured me, “and looking at you…yeah, you’ll get sized up.” So now the question becomes, how much am I willing to change so when students size me up they realize they can’t push me around; they have to learn in my classroom? How much am I willing to change for the sake of educating others?

Now, I’ve got the face. It took me a while, but I learned it—the cold-hearted, nothing you say or do will disrupt me, I’m here to teach and teach alone, don’t mess with me face. Never in my life have I felt the need to learn such a look. Never in my life have I wanted to learn such a look, but as every good species does, I adapted to my environment.

For those readers that know me, this may come to no surprise, but I could only play this game for so long. Two weeks into the school year my insides would churn just driving up to the school where I had to be someone I didn’t want to be. This churning had driven other teachers out of the school. Three Teach for America teachers, had quit within those first few weeks for many reasons, but from what I’ve heard, a lot of it came from that “churning stomach”*.

Dissatisfied with how I was feeling, one day after school I decided to run on the Mississippi levy. Two steps on the levy and I felt my body explode with energy. It seemed like every step I took was a release of the person I had become and a release of the frustration of that change. The facade I built around me began to shed with that run, and by the end, I once again felt like I was showing the true skin of Garrett. For the first time in the school year, I felt like life was going to turn around.

It was soon after that run, I had some of my best days in the classroom. I decided to be myself—laugh and love, but it was all centered in the context of urgent education. At first the students were confused, but I felt great, and I think they were happier knowing the teacher was happier. Inappropriate behavior or partial commitment to education was not tolerated in the classroom because we would be denying ourselves an opportunity to grow.

I have run 4-5 days a week since this turn around as a reminder of who I am.

I still have poor days, generally when my lessons are poor, and I have wonderful days, generally when I prepare wonderful lessons, but at the end of the day, I try to be comfortable in who I am and what I’ve done.

So as I sit with my feet in an oxbow lake of the Mississippi river and as the sun paints its colors in the sky through a sunset, I feel lucky, lucky that this world may not just be adapting to one’s environment, but also, perhaps even more importantly, allowing the environment adapt to you.

* This is a high rate of leave from TFA teachers in an area and does not represent the actual rate of drop out.

Popularity: 2% [?]

Student teaching prep week

Friday, August 27th, 2010

I started student teaching today, but I think that instead of discussing this exciting milestone in my life, I would like to offer some exposition to this week. This year we have a new principal at my Wildly Diverse High School (the name I have assigned to my high school where I am student teaching), and as a result many changes have taken place from last summer until now.

In a school that attempts to teach about 3,500 every year, there were 40 new hires, many of which were first or second year teachers. Additionally, nearly every department chair was replaced. Murals were replaced, mottos changed, and ideas altered.

The first day of our preparatory week, our principal gave us an hour-long speech. He said there were problems at Wildly Diverse High School, but that was no excuse. He told us to ignore other responsibilities in favor of doing our jobs – in other words, in exchange for teaching our students. Success for every student does not appear to be just a slogan to him, but something worth striving for – a high, but still reachable goal. I found his excitable, energetic demeanor inspiring.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the talk though, was instead his focus on how to teach. He discussed taking two or three core skills the students need to focus on – tone, square roots, grammar, etc, and pounding those skills into our student’s heads. Teaching our students a little bit is better than teaching them nothing. He discussed how teaching the test was a good thing, a goal, an obvious answer to a question of curricula.

This was the first and most overt example of politicking I have ever experienced for a specific type of educational doctrine from someone who was in a position of authority over me. It was a little off-putting. I do not necessarily disagree with my principal’s philosophy, but I certainly found it slightly off-putting, this explicit educational directional road map for the rest of the year.

Sure, my Wildly Diverse High School has problems – what high school doesn’t? My question is who should be the one to dictate how we are instructed to teach? Administration? Politicians? Teachers? Students? Honestly, I do not know.

All I know is that as I begin my first semester teaching in a real-life school this week, and I am doing all I can to scrap by. Should I be worried about this sort of thing? Should I put my nose to the grindstone and focus on my 104 students? Should I speak my mind and live with the consequences? I am not sure how to assume leadership roles while simultaneously recognizing my role as a teacher with absolutely no job-security. As a student teacher, I haven’t even received a paycheck yet!

This is a tricky balance. Which side do I lean toward more?

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Becoming a person of influence

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Cross-posted from the North to South Education blog.

Today marks my 8th day in the classroom as an urban educator! Within the first two weeks, I experienced all of the craziness of schedule mistakes, mis-communication from administration, and new classes beginning on the second week (yes…our schedule was switched and we began a brand new class on the second week of school…), but the most amazing part of the first two weeks was my wonderful students. So far, we have had insightful discussions about the goodness of life, whether or not certain wrongs are unforgivable, and whether or not hate speech should be regulated. I’ve been amazed by how much students enjoy sharing their opinions on topics such as philosophy and politics. Not only do they enjoy sharing their opinions, they have very good opinions to share!

However, I’ve also been amazed by how low skilled some of my students are. In reading their reflections and grading their pre-year assessments, I’ve recognized a huge gap in my students’ skills and knowledge. On their practice ACT exam, the average score for my seniorswas a 13. I definitely have my work cut out for me this year.

As a teacher, I have become a person of influence in my students’ lives. They want to know my opinion about everything from movies to religion. Furthermore, my opinion about who they are matters to how they see themselves. Today, the class was participating in a Socratic seminar about The Kite Runner. All of the students had written a reflection and I was walking around the room, monitoring who was contributing to the conversation and who was zoned out. One of my students, M, has a lot of behavior problems and is constantly distracting other students. I walked around to his desk, asked to read his reflection, and whispered to him, “You know, this is a really good reflection. You should share this with the class!” Less than a minute later, M raised his hand to contribute his opinion with the class.

Later in the discussion, I walked to another student, S, and asked to read his reflection. S is always quiet during class, and I know that a lot of the time he checks out of the discussion, even though he’s very smart. I read S’s reflection and said, “S, that’s an awesome opinion. I know that everyone else would like to hear it too.” Once again, a couple minutes later, S raised his hand and contributed his opinion to the class–which everyone clapped and cheered for, because it was really good.

Lastly, during a debate we were having in class, one of my lowest students, R, was having a hard time grasping the argument of the reading, so I read it with him and the rest of his group. I asked R to paraphrase the paragraph that he read and then asked him to pull out the argument. With just a little bit of prodding, he articulated a well-crafted argument. In many classes, R would have not contributed his opinion, but today he chose to stand up three times during the debate and argue his case.

I’m learning that everything I do in class has an effect on my students–everything. I have to choose to be intentionally positive with my students, vocalizing their strengths and when they do things well. From what I’ve seen, students respond so well to positive praise, even the kids that are the hardest to reach. If these kids can start to see their self-worth in the first two weeks, imagine where they’ll be in the first two months!

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Thoughts on classroom management

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Editor’s note: Nate Reaven is one of four rookie teachers contributing to the “North to South Education” blog, posts from which are being used periodically by EdNews.

The question of classroom management has become an issue lately at my summer school. I have always heard of classroom management as something to corral the animals.  I have heard classroom management as the fence surrounding the acceptable, and keeping the unacceptable out of reach. Now, while I just made that simile up, I think it adds value to what it means to have a well-managed classroom.

A fence with a hole will be exploited immediately by the animals inside. Similarly, if I create a hole in my classroom management, my students will exploit this until the end, sealing my downfall as a quality teacher immediately. If I treat one student with any hint of favoritism, or another student with any hint of personal dislike, my students will no longer trust me, and instead attempt to try me as a person, as oppose to challenging themselves as students.

For some reason this does not feel like the silver bullet that I am looking for in my classroom management. So often I have seen teachers fall victim to the “New Teacher Disease,” where they are only able to rule their classroom with discipline and negativity. Instead of praising students for intelligent answers, they will call out students for speaking out of turn or not raising their hands. They believe that a quiet classroom is a good classroom.

I have never really subscribed to this paradigm. I believe that students inherently want to succeed. True, it oddly seems to be cool to be unintelligent amongst urban youth these days, but I sincerely believe that when given the right motivation and finding the right teacher, that intelligence can be seen as the right path to go down. But a student cannot become a passionate learner in a quiet classroom.

Take a second. Think to yourself about the most excited you have ever been in a classroom. Were you silently reading or writing in a corner only academically and intellectually interacting with yourself? Were you listening to the teacher drone on about simple or complex sentences? Or were you instead working on a project? Were you in class interacting with a friend or two about how to make a volcano? Or, were you jumping out of your seat because of the way the teacher expressed their ideas?

I’m not sure what your answer was, but I would bet that it was probably during a time when you were using your hands, your body, your voice and your ability to express yourself. Not just writing down your thoughts and showing them to only your teacher.

Unfortunately, for those new teachers that have contracted the “New Teachers Disease,” this means that their classrooms need to be a tiny bit chaotic (if chaos can be tiny that is). And I welcome that. If my students are not yelling, they are not learning (okay, that might be a little hyperbolic, but wouldn’t that be more fun?).

I guess what I am trying to say is that you need to get your students excited about learning. If they are bored, they will act out. And then they will not be excited about anything except finding a way to get through that hole in your classroom management-fence.

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