Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My Student's Speech.... and Promise to Herself

Every once in awhile, something happens in your classroom that reaffirms why you do what you do with your students every day, something that makes all the sweat, tears, aggravation, and hard work worth it. I was fortunate enough to have such an instance happen to me last week with a special student. At the end of a particularly long and difficult school day, this student presented me with a speech she had just written for herself in the Media Center, saying I inspired her to write it. I have retyped some of it below with her permission:

My Speech

Ever since I was a little girl, I always seemed to put myself down and tell myself that I just couldn't do this. But now that I'm moving onto high school, I've learned from other people and teachers that you should always have confidence in yourself and say, "I can do this." You should NEVER say, "No, I can't go on anymore. I can't do this." You shouldn't say you're stupid either. You just say that because either your friends say that to you or some other people, like for example your parents, older sisters, or brothers. You should never try to act like someone else just to make your friends think you're cool because you have those bad grades of yours. Those people aren't going to help you in anything later on in life!

Maybe they're the ones that are going to get their college degree and you're the one who'se gonna get left behind for listening to them. I know that later on in life as an adult, I'm gonna look back at those days and say, "Oh my God! I can't believe I was that immature!" I will just look at those younger teenagers that act stupid and foolish because I know that's what I do now ... the bad words, acting all stupid and cool, and trying to be a person that you're not. But now I realize that what I'm doing right now isn't worth it. I don't want to be the one left behind and working at McDonald's. I want to have a good career and make my parents happy so I can feel proud of myself. I want to have a good life and tell my children that they shouldn't be doing the stuff I did, like skip class, be tardy to class, or be disrespectful to the teachers ... and stuff like that.

Now what I'm going to do is just pay attention to myself and not get influenced by others because I definitely know that they're not gonna help with paying for my car or paying for my house and food. I'm going to succeed in life and get through high school -- and make it!!

She then signed her name, dated the speech, and wrote, "One day I'm gonna look back at this and smile."

I then asked her to have each of her teachers and the principal read and sign her words. Another teacher ashed her to keep this letter to herself in her binder and read it every day.

The last day before spring break, the principal read this letter with the student in the morning and came to visit me. She said, "Don't ever doubt the difference you are making with this kids."

It is precious moments like these, my friends, that truly remind me WHY I teach. I thanked the student for writing such a beautiful letter and having the courage to share her words with the adults who care so much about her.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Importance of Teaching Math & Science, Especially to Girls!

Yes, we are in the 21st century. Yes, we'd like to think that gender equality now exists, especially in the workplace. If that is true, why are so many of middle school female students embarrassed when they succeed at science and math? And why are women still so prejudiced against in the professional fields of math and science? The interesting New York Times article below from today sheds some important light into this controversial issue that is worth consideration and exploration, especially as a teacher.


Bias Called Persistent Hurdle for Women in Sciences

A report on the underrepresentation of women in science and math by the American Association of University Women, to be released Monday, found that although women have made gains, stereotypes and cultural biases still impede their success.
The report, “Why So Few?,” supported by the National Science Foundation, examined decades of research to cull recommendations for drawing more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields.
“We scanned the literature for research with immediate applicability,” said Catherine Hill, the university women’s research director and lead author of the report. “We found a lot of small things can make a difference, like a course in spatial skills for women going into engineering, or teaching children that math ability is not fixed, but grows with effort.”
The report treads lightly on the hot-button question of whether innate differences between the sexes account for the paucity of women at the highest levels of science and math.
Five years ago, Lawrence H. Summers, then the president of Harvard, sparked a firestorm when he suggested that “there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude” reinforced by “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.”
The association’s report acknowledges differences in male and female brains. But Ms. Hill said, “None of the research convincingly links those differences to specific skills, so we don’t know what they mean in terms of mathematical abilities.”
At the top level of math abilities, where boys are overrepresented, the report found that the gender gap is rapidly shrinking. Among mathematically precocious youth — sixth and seventh graders who score more than 700 on the math SAT — 30 years ago boys outnumbered girls 13 to 1, but only about 3 to 1 now.
“That’s not biology at play, it doesn’t change so fast,” Ms. Hill said. “Even if there are biological factors in boys outnumbering girls, they’re clearly not the whole story. There’s a real danger in assuming that innate differences are important in determining who will succeed, so we looked at the cultural factors, to see what evidence there is on the nurture side of nature or nurture.”
The report found ample evidence of continuing cultural bias. One study of postdoctoral applicants, for example, found that women had to publish 3 more papers in prestigious journals, or 20 more in less-known publications, to be judged as productive as male applicants.
Making judgments about an individual’s abilities based on his or her sex is a classic form of discrimination, said Nancy Hopkins, an M.I.T.biology professor who created an academic stir in the 1990s by documenting pervasive, but largely unintentional, discrimination against women at the university.
Even if male math geniuses outnumbered female geniuses 3 to 1, Dr. Hopkins said, it would be reasonable to expect one female math professor for every three male professors at places like Harvard and M.I.T. “But in fact, Harvard just tenured its first female, after 375 years,” said Dr. Hopkins, who, famously, walked out of the room after Mr. Summers made his controversial remarks.
The university women’s report cited research showing that girls’ performance suffers from any suggestion that they do poorly at math. In one experiment, college students with strong math backgrounds and similar abilities were divided into two groups and tested on math. One group was told that men perform better on the test, the other that there was no difference in performance between the sexes. Their results were starkly different: in the group told that men do better, men indeed did much better, with an average score of 25 compared with the women’s 5. In the group told there was no difference, women scored 17 and men 19.
Any suggestion of advantage based on sex affects results, the research shows, even where there is no cultural stereotype.
In an experiment ostensibly testing “contrast sensitivity ability” — a made-up skill — men and women in a group told there was no difference between the sexes in such sensitivity rated their own ability equally. But in a group told that men were better at it, men rated their skills far higher than women did.
Teaching girls about how stereotypes affect performance, the report found, can diminish such effects.
In a separate survey of 1,200 female and minority chemists and chemical engineers by Campos Inc., for the Bayer Corporation, two-thirds cited the persistent stereotype that STEM fields are not for girls or minorities as a leading contributor to their underrepresentation.
Many in the Bayer survey, also being released Monday, said they had been discouraged from going into their field in college, most often by a professor.
“My professors were not that excited to see me in their classes,” said Mae C. Jemison, a chemical engineer and the first African-American female astronaut, who works with Bayer’s science literacy project. “When I would ask a question, they would just look at me like, ‘Why are you asking that?’ But when a white boy down the row would ask the very same question, they’d say ‘astute observation.’ ”
The university women’s report found that girls have less confidence in their math abilities than boys with equivalent achievement levels. Because most people choose careers where they believe they can do well, the report said, girls’ lesser belief in their skills may partly explain why fewer young women go into scientific careers. Both the university women’s report and the Bayer survey stress the need for more female mentors and role models.
But even as women earn a growing share of the doctorates in the STEM fields, the university women’s report found, they do not show up, a decade later, in a proportionate number of tenured faculty positions.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Better Mentoring = Better Teaching

I came across a thoughtful and well-written commentary piece from Education Week today that I wanted to share with you all. I hope it helps to emphasize the importance of mentors, critical friends, and meaningful colleagues as essential to every new teacher's classroom experience.

Better Mentoring, Better Teachers

Three Factors That Help Ensure Successful Programs

For more than a decade, clear and consistent research has shown that the quality of teachers is the most powerful school-related determinant of student success. Capitalizing on this now-large body of evidence, many education leaders have begun to invest in new-teacher mentoring. It’s a smart bet.
When mentors are well-selected, well-trained, and given the time to work intensively with new teachers, they not only help average teachers become good, but good teachers become great. And because new teachers are most often assigned to the poorest schools and the most challenging classrooms, instructional-mentoring programs provide a powerful lever for closing the teacher-quality gap and ensuring that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, have a real opportunity to succeed.
In the more than two decades that my organization, the New Teacher Center, has been helping districts and states develop comprehensive instructional-mentoring programs, we’ve seen some programs soar, some struggle, and many fall somewhere in between. We recently reviewed a number of these programs and identified three critical factors that seem to be making a positive difference:
Finding the right teachers to be mentors. This is the sine qua non of a high-quality instructional-mentoring program. The mentors’ effectiveness ultimately determines to what extent programs will support new teachers in helping kids succeed. Successful mentors have many important aptitudes, but above all they are exceptional educators with a track record of fostering significant student learning gains in diverse settings. The path to finding the right mentors, however, is complex. Many districts don’t have the structures in place to assess who their most skilled educators are, or which of their teachers are having a strong, positive impact on student outcomes. Even in districts that are able to identify their high-performing educators, there can be resistance to recruiting these master teachers away from their classrooms.
There are some programs, however, in which school and district leaders allocate the time needed to develop systems that identify top-performing educators. They also put a priority on communications about the longer term and stress the larger-scale gains that can be made through effective mentoring. These are the programs that are hiring the highest-caliber mentors—and realizing the greatest gains in student learning.
Aligning instructional-support efforts. Think of instructional support as a communal tree that’s supposed to be watered once a week. Although many well-intentioned people may want to water it in the hope of fostering growth, the tree is more likely to drown than to thrive if no one coordinates these individual efforts. The same holds true for instructional support.
One of a mentor’s chief jobs is to help a new teacher close the “knowing-doing” gap by learning to apply knowledge of best practices to daily classroom routines. The rise of various instructional-support models in many school systems, however, often forces new teachers to navigate dozens of different perspectives, frameworks, and pieces of advice on teaching. A lack of coordination among these myriad advisers—literacy and math coaches, university supervisors, data specialists, special education counselors, technology coordinators, and many others—can result in conflicting messages that overwhelm beginning teachers and exacerbate attrition rates.
Programs seeking to address this issue have integrated mentoring into the district’s larger learning goals and human-capital strategies. They try to ensure that all messages, tools, and strategies aimed at supporting teacher development are consistent and aligned. When this is done, new (and in fact all) teachers are better able to make sense of the various layers of information they receive, to understand clearly the expectations being placed on them, and to develop a personal road map for improvement consistent with a single, unified vision for quality teaching.
Partnering with principals. The job description of principals has been evolving away from operations and management and toward instructional leadership. Yet only a few emerging structures are in place to help them make this transition. Most principals still report that they don’t know how to conduct an effective classroom observation, and many have never received information on how to transform school conditions in ways that allow new teachers to flourish. The education system at large has not yet stepped in to provide the tools, training, or guidance necessary to help fill these critical knowledge gaps.
When mentoring programs partner extensively with administrators, however, they provide an entry point for addressing these problems. While maintaining confidentiality with their new teachers (a key element in developing mutual trust), mentors can support the principal’s understanding of effective observation and coaching strategies to use with new teachers, while they also learn about and create action plans for applying the principal’s instructional vision and priorities in the classroom. The mentor and the principal, working together, can also discuss and implement other induction-related activities that help the school advance teacher growth.
The exciting news is that a number of districts have already identified and begun to build on these factors for success. The recent book New Teacher Mentoring: Hopes and Promise for Improving Teacher Effectiveness, which I co-authored, profiles four districts on the cutting edge this new brand of thoughtful implementation of instructional-mentoring programs. What they’re doing, detailed in the book, may provide ideas for others.
Boston, for example, has revamped its entire process for teacher recruitment and is working to align a districtwide mentoring program with the Boston Teacher Residency program. The aim is to fill traditional gaps between teacher preparation, recruitment, and induction.
Chicago is seeking to overcome historical roadblocks to collaboration in large urban districts and make consistency of instructional support a reality. Its plan involves ensuring that mentors, principals, and content coaches all share the same instructional-support strategies.
Mentors in Durham, N.C., support only one or two schools at a time. This gives them heightened opportunities to help new teachers with instructional skills, while also working with principals to create school conditions that better enable new teachers to succeed.
The New York City Department of Education, which has integrated teaching standards into school accountability measures, has empowered former mentors to provide training in the standards’ use. This has allowed principals and staff members to concentrate on helping all educators improve their effectiveness—rather than just assess progress periodically.
These are only a few examples of efforts being made in these and other school systems to implement instructional-mentoring programs and integrate them into districtwide visions for change. Reports from those involved indicate that not only are such activities beginning to gain traction, but they are also showing surprisingly strong results.
Districts that once had revolving-door relationships with their new teachers have cut attrition rates in half. Entire cohorts of beginning teachers have begun to foster student gains similar to or greater than their veteran peers’ results. And mentors are reigniting their own passion for teaching.
When mentoring programs thrive, schools systems are also more likely to develop a comprehensive vision for assessing and supporting instructional excellence and to reconfigure their evaluation and tenure structures around that vision. More important, they have a much greater chance of transforming their schools into vibrant learning communities capable of helping all teachers, and all students, succeed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Teaching Students to Listen .... and THINK

In the past few years, I have had the opportunity to visit dozens of classrooms in several cities, including those in urban charter schools and many with new teachers.  Several of the schools follow an approach similar to the one outlined in The New York Times article I have mentioned previously: what I would term a focus on "the art of classroom management."  

The "star" teachers often have that distinctive style advocated by Doug Lemov: a quick pace, a set of extremely obedient students, and in the best cases, a sense of respect for one another and even excitement about being in school. There is, in these classrooms, little time wasted on transitions and well-developed routines help maximize the time spent on what is assumed to be student learning (that is, "the material"). Sometimes it is fun to be there: the kids have the routines down, the teacher really loves the kids, and it all just flows naturally.

I do not underestimate the importance of this, believe me. All the great theories of learning in the world are useless if the kids are throwing spitballs (or burning pieces of paper in the back of the room, as used to happen in my building).

The problem that I have observed is that in many of these schools, great classroom management is mistaken for great teaching, when in fact, it is simply a prerequisite.  There are so many classrooms where the teacher has everything under control, and the kids are focused, but they are just working on worksheet after worksheet, or repeating phrases that the teacher is telling them ("Evaporation is the process by which a liquid becomes a vapor"), with the naive belief that this actually means something to the students.  Maybe they even play a game of bingo to remember that phrase, but no one seems to realize that the children do not know what it really means. There is often no opportunity for the students to wrestle with ideas, solve problems, or even just think about the material in a meaningful way. Isn't this what the heart of teaching and learning is supposed to be??

So while I heartily applaud the efforts of Lemov and others to develop a common language around the art of classroom management (just as I think Teach for America is right in helping new teachers go into the classroom better prepared to create orderly and respectful environments for learning), I am more than ready for the next, more difficult step: creating classrooms in which students are expected to THINK.

Don't get me wrong -- it is being done, and I have had the opportunity to see handfuls of classrooms where this kind of genuine, difficult learning is happening. It is not an either/or thing, but it does require a serious focus on three focal points: respect for the importance of classroom management, an understanding of what learning actually looks like, and what evidence we need to examine to see whether children are actually learning (Hint: it's not a Scantron or standardized test, either).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Teaching Students Respect and Critical Thinking: What Really Matters

As I have been following the email conversations of my former Harvard graduate school peers over the past few weeks, I cannot help but notice the many references to Teach for America (TFA). While I have not been a part of TFA myself, many of my current and former colleagues have been -- and have myriad opinions on the program. One such teacher started her career with TFA in Arizona for seven years and has now been teaching for over 18 years! I often associate TFA with new teachers who dedicate a couple of years to urban or rural teaching before going on to bigger and better things. Thus, it is refreshing to hear that many TFAs are now middle-aged veterans in education.  

The summer before you are placed in your school, TFA offered a six week crash course in a variety of educational theories and a brief stint of student teaching. My colleague told me, "If I knew then what I know now, I would have been far more daunted by the notion of six weeks of anything preparing me for the classroom.  For me, the strength of the organization was and has always been the sense of purpose it instills in people looking to make a difference in the world. When you find yourself in a parish that in less than a month has been devastated by Hurricane Andrew, you really need to ride that wave of enthusiasm. But whether one follows a traditional or non-traditional path to certification, the real work always begins in the classroom."

Like my colleague, I also believe that while classroom management is vital, teaching is truly an artform. Even veteran teachers hone their craft every day. My colleague has been around long enough to see old ideas become new again and the pendulum swing in both directions on time honored issues of debate, but one thing never changes, she says. "It is the lesson I learned from TFA and from all the great mentors that have come since. We must inspire our students. They will think critically if we challenge them to do so. That is the real work of respect." I could not have said that better myself.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Just Imagine....

Now that my students are finally done with standardized testing (at least until they take the Science MSAs next month), I cannot help but think about how schools should really run, where our priorities as schools should really be, and what kinds of teachers our students really need.

Imagine if you were working with really great teachers who did not blame the kids and who were working as hard as you are and together with you. Imagine if the principal came in your room and engaged the students around what you were teaching as you were teaching as way to show that he or she was really looking at what students were thinking and truly enjoying their thinking. Imagine that parent meetings were held in local churches and community centers. Imagine that kids were trusted by the teachers and administrators. Imagine that students had a voice in running the school. Imagine that students were held accountable for not being kind to one another.

Given the context of most troubled urban schools, I know it sounds like I am on another planet entirely, but if the race to the top and testing cannot make some of these things a reality within tough urban schools, then all the money, racing around, and pointless testing is not going to make one heck of a difference. Case in point -- a former classmate of mine taught in what was considered at the time one of the 10 worst schools in New York City. Some of what I described above existed in a few of her classrooms. Graduation rates, dropout rates, grades, test scores, and other data all indicated that the school was not serving students ... at all. 

Now that same school, which probably is not doing much better than it was 10 or 20 years ago, is probably churning out bad No Child Left Behind test scores. No surprise here. My point is that people knew that the school was not serving students, and nothing was done to change that harsh reality (Whether or not we choose to blame anyone specifically or the teacher unions here is a whole different discussion). The teachers who were doing great things every day in their classrooms were not lauded or appreciated; often, they were in hiding and in complete isolation within their four walls. The big change effort in this particular school was an expensive dropout prevention program that involved giving away TVs and stereos. Whoop-dee-do.

 National standards will not do it; neither will holding curriculums to state and/or national standards. We have done merit pay for teachers. We even fired all the teachers in Rhode Island for goodness sake. Testing, of course, suffocates us. We need skillful people, autonomy, free will, more time to plan, community connections, and skillful, empowering leadership, not stifling management.

But what else? What else does it take to fundamentally overthrow everything that is backwards about our educational system to fully serve our students who need it most?? And are we willing to take this step? I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What Really Matters in Teaching & Learning - Some Thoughts

The article I have previously mentioned from The New York Times a few weeks ago is quite similar to an article that was recently published in The Atlantic Monthly. This particular article focused on the person who is in charge of teacher selection for Teach for America. Teach for America (TFA) evidently has compiled lots of information on what makes a great teacher and how to tell. The final step of the TFA selection process is a 5-minute lesson. Interestingly enough, I applied for TFA as a senior in college in 2004 and was rejected (on account of already going into the teaching profession and getting certified).

In both articles, there seems to be this sense that someone has it all figured out. The key to unlocking student learning and discourse has been found, according to these cases. I do not think they do at all, in fact. I do agree that there are small things that can make a positive difference how things work out in a classroom. Regardless, I think both articles really did not say much about student learning, which is a much more complex affair. Also, the examples in both articles did not strike me as example of extraordinary teaching, the type of teaching that puts the learners in charge, thinking hard, working together, and enjoying themselves. Hmmmmmmm............

To me, the articles focus more on the individual teacher working in the isolated classroom, with the ultimate goal of making his or her students do better than most of the other students in the school based on test scores. Neither article said much about the context surrounding teachers, as if the school and the community do not matter much (I guess, in many schools, ideas about bother really are not developed and put into action. Routine and rules do the thinking, sadly).

Here's another take on the article. A student teacher I know in DC is working in a small charter school with middle school students and a very dynamic, student-centered teacher. The student teacher created centers where students work independently for at least half of a block period. She has caught on quite well on how to manage a very complex classroom structure, and the students respond very positively to her. She's doing a fine job. There are times when she could use her materials to get more thinking out of the students by changing her questions and changing the types of work she's assigning the students. 

This teacher claims she had read The New York Times article. She and her student teacher were watching a piece of video tape together. Basically, she was having students read, and she would ask some questions along the way. The student teacher saw the same sort of shallow questioning and rushing over material that I had seen before. As they were talking about the tape, she said that she had read the NYT article and had tried a new strategy based on what she had read. She was cold calling on students to read, as suggested by the article, which made every student follow along better because they did not know if she was going to call on them. 

Indeed, that might have been the case, but there is a difference between following along and understanding and enjoying and thinking new thoughts in any classroom. The student teacher was still seeing her mentor teacher rush over material for the sake of an assignment that required them to read and do too much in too short a time. The materials were good. Her assignment was fine. But what was happening in the moment on the tape with the students was not very good, if by good we mean that one could get excited by students' thinking. Isn't that what learning is all about?!

Both articles that I read seemed to miss this point. What do you think??

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Research for Better Teaching Continues....

I LOVE engaging in ongoing dialogue with fellow teachers. One of my favorite graduate classes from Harvard, T440: Learning and Teaching with my advisor, Professor Eleanor Duckworth, continues to have an email listserv that alumni regularly post to. I would like to share with you a series of recent posts about the Research for Better Teaching initiative in Acton, MA and the New York Times article I blogged about last week. 

I know these thoughts got the wheels turning in my brain, and I hope they do for you too!

Posting 1:

Hi folks,

We came across the Skilful Teacher from the Research for Better Teaching based in Action, MA. My district is keen to adopt this for our teaching framework.  have you come across schools or districts in the US or outside that are using the Skilful Teacher on a system-wide approach? Thanks.

Posting 2:

Stoughton High School distributes it (as well as the Wong's excellent "First Days of School" which many, myself included, view as a bible of practical advice) to all faculty. "The Skillful Teacher", in particular some of its charts, is referred to during year 1-2 mentoring meetings but not much integrated otherwise. During one casual lunchroom discussion, the book chanced to came up and I recall teachers both new and old disparaging it. I didn't feel that way (I'm a bookaholic). The issue as I see it is that you can't really learn to teach from a book. Teaching is a craft, observing practitioners, having time to talk with them about what they do, and one's practice especially in the presence of skilled mentors who can offer productive feedback (scarce indeed), is what really develops a skillful teacher.

Posting 3:

Along those lines, I just read an article from the NY Times, "Building a Better Teacher" that I think is quite interesting and worth the read. Teachers (new and old) might find Lemov's 49 techniques very helpful to develop and hone their teaching skills. Lemov also offers workshops on these techniques in the Boston area for those who prefer to see the techniques in action.

Posting 4:

I'm glad you brought up this article, because I would love to hear people's thoughts on it. On one hand, I agree that there are specific things new teachers can do that would enhance their ability to "manage" a class. I also appreciate the debunking of the myth that "those who can't, teach" implicit in the acknowledgment of the difference between content knowledge and content knowledge for teaching.  I also appreciate the attention given to the fact that teachers are taught and mentored, not born or "built" as in the article's title.  There's also acknowledgment of the implementation gap between what we know we should do and what we actually do.

However, I worry that the focus on raising test scores as a measure of teacher excellence overshadows other important goals of education, like fostering a love of learning and intrinsic motivation.  I'm also unconvinced that these strategies work for all students and in diverse classrooms.

Posting 5:

Hi all,

I recently looked that The Skillful Teacher and The NY Times article as part of an alternative urban teacher preparation program I am helping to develop. I think the points Bonnie outlines are critical. Raising student test scores seems a punitive rather than constructive approach to changing the focus from teaching to learning. I believe that a teachers should be taught to look for and to understand all the ways in in which student understandings should shape their teaching. I think teacher preparation needs to leave behind  "I taught it, they don't know it, I'll have to re-teach it" (we could have another discussion on what on earth re-teaching means) and become "What are all the ways I can help expand student understanding?" I think it is important to teach teachers how to assess student understanding - not for the purpose of grading, but for the purpose of gathering information to inform their teaching.  So my question  is, will it help teachers if we hold them "accountable" through a VARIETY of student learning assessments IF the point of those assessments is to provide appropriate intervention and support for the teacher? Is it possible to develop an accountability system that automatically feeds back to support structures for teachers such as opportunities that provide time to collaborate and to look at student work together? If there were regular LASW Rounds (ALA Steve Siedel) the schools would be a place that nurtured and empowered rather than criticized and immobilized teachers. IF the $ and the politics are after accountability - can we create the right types of accountability?

Posting 6:

Hello everyone,

I also read the NYST article with interest and, like Bonnie, thought there was much of use there.

I am glad to hear you voice these your thoughts, Susan. I have to admit to a little bit of frustration -- not with your remarks, but with what I think some of us on the left, educationally speaking, have to say about testing. Yes, if it is the ONLY measure of learning, and done only at the end of things, it is misleading and unfair and relatively useless when it comes to knowing about students' learning. BUT, if it is one of MANY measures, and is used as a means of ongoing assessment rather than, God forbid, teacher pay or rating of neighborhood values, then we can get some value from tests as A source of data that is useful if not definitive. Accompanied by other more reflective efforts (e.g. Carini's descriptive reviews of children and reviews of children's work, Collaborative Assessment, descriptive feedback with students, etc) then we might actually find ways of getting what we value funded by the government, out in the public domain and (could it happen?) valued by the powers that be.

Posting 7:

Nice dialogue and so much value in it.

I read the article right after I had heard Arne Duncan speak at Harvard.The hot-button" issue at his lecture
was teacher accountability. Specifically, thtension surrounded the government's initiative, "Race to the Top" and making schools compete for federal dollars. My big take-away from both is that student test scores are never, ever the only benchmark for teacher effectiveness, but they are certainly an indicator to be considered among other factors, especially when there is chronic low performance across the board.

I work in an urban public high school where low test scores are common and
student engagement and rigor are constantly strived for-less often attained. Teachers "freak" about being held accountable for all the contexts that influence student assessment:  no parent involvement, poverty, homelessness, drugs/alcohol, emotional and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities with no support, the list goes on and on.  I'm a new teacher, but I see those that work so hard to make even incremental difference and I see those that, quite honestly, use the aforementioned contexts to excuse their own rigor.

I feel the ultimate assessment of teacher effectiveness and student achievement is going to be data-driven, so it will be important for teachers to have a voice at the table to determine how we can collect data from the many types of assessment we know demonstrate the value of what we do.

Posting 8:

I am so pleased to see all the discussion here and elsewhere about teachers' views on teaching and teacher excellence and school reform and accountability, and I wish we could all be in the same conversation!  Right now in my inbox I have messages from two facebook groups devoted to this discussion, Teachers Letters to Obama and Rethink Learning Now, as well as several from T440.  We could have so much more power and so much more interesting a discussion if we all linked together!  So I am recommending that people join those two groups on FB and any others you want to recommend, and cross post anything that seems intriguing so we share and spread the word.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A sincere thank you to all teachers.....

In April, I will be running the American Odyssey Relay, which is a 200-mile endurance relay fro, Gettysburg, PA to Washington, DC that goes through many historic parts of the Civil War. The mileage is split among 12 runners riding in two vans. I have done two similar relays in DC (Yeah Ragnar Relay!) and am very excited for this adventure. Our team captain, Berford, is a wonderful person and leader who is equally as passionate about running and marathons as I am.

This evening, I received a touching email from him thanking me for the work I do in the classroom every day. I would like to post it here for your reading pleasure and to sincerely thank each of you who have chosen the difficult and often thankless teaching profession:

Hey Kay,
Teaching has to be one of the most difficult yet most rewarding professions in the world. I commend you and the thousands of other teachers (especially the good ones) who are out there working hard every day to make sure that our future generation is getting a quality education. I've often wanted to teach but I just don't know if I have the patience to do it. Maybe I can teach college or advanced level classes in high school because the students in these settings tend to be 'more serious' and really want to be in school.
I have all the respect in the world for teachers like yourself because you are working with kids who already have 'an uphill battle' in life. Unfortunately, many kids don't have good home environments and no real role models to help guide them. For you to take on the challenge to teach these 'often forgotten' children says a lot about you as a person and a lot about your character. It's funny, I haven't formally met you yet but I already view you as an inspiration and role model! :)
My personal experience may be somewhat similar to the kids that you teach. I grew up in inner city Houston and not in the best environment. I pretty much always attended sub-standard schools (well I should say that they were underfunded). Unlike many of my friends who I grew up, I had an intact family (both parents and 4 wonderful big brothers) and WONDERFUL TEACHERS who recognized my individual talents--which mainly was in the area of math & science. Consequently, I manage to fluorish academically amongst an environment of crime and drugs.
With all that being said, I would like to say 'thank you' for all of your students and for our  'movie star and athlete' struck society who don't have a clue of who the real difference makers in our society are (i.e. you and the countless other teachers out there).
Standardized tests don't prove much of anything in my opinion. I've seen far too many students who can pass tests but can't fill out a simple application. Nevertheless, continue to do your best and be the 'kick ass teacher' that I know you are!
Have a wonderful day! :)


Yes, there should be more teacher appreciation in every day, but we'll take what we can get! This letter is one such gem.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Emotional detachment is hard to do!

Yes, I get way too personally invested and emotionally attached to my students. I am guilty as charged! I know I care too much about them, think too much about them, invest too much time in them, and expect myself to do the best I can to make a true connection with all 120 students too much of the time. Is this realistic? No. Will I give up on this unachievable goal? Absolutely not. I am extremely stubborn (in case you haven't realized that by now!).

You know the situation is bad when I dreamt the world was ending last night due to 42 impending terrorist attacks and the people (aside from my husband!) whose safety and well-being come to mind first were my students' faces. Whenever a teacher begins to have their students invade or haunt their dreams, you know the situation is bad!

In the past two weeks, I have had several difficult interactions and teachable moments with students who I feel very closely connected to. I have mentioned one such student before. Last week, he decided to try to cheat on a test, which I immediately caught before it happened and read him the riot act about. In our conversation, I said to him, "Don't ever disappoint me again ... Actions speak louder than words." What mattered to me more than his verbal apology was the quality of his work that followed. He really got serious, buckled down, and now has the highest grade in a class of many gifted students. Yes, I am proud of him, and yes, I am still trying to detach and establish firm boundaries with him. But I think it is working slowly but surely ...

Then came another student yesterday who decided to ask for a bathroom pass but was instead found in another teacher's room and then the library. This is a student whom I have grown quite fond of and have always seen quality work from and been able to fully trust. Boy, did I express to him my utter disappointment with our conversation, parent phone call, and follow-up with the office about cutting my class. While he is currently giving me the silent treatment, I know he has learned his lesson and will never try such a lie again.

My husband has been telling me for years that I am too nice and available to my students. He believes that I can be too much like their friend and not enough like the adult I need to be. I admit, this is an area I have always struggled with but believe I have really progressed and improved on. For whatever reason, I teach a very difficult group of boys this year who are much more sexually explicit and inappropriate than in years past -- and need to have firm, clear, and non-negotiable boundaries. My girls, in comparison, are much easier. "But that's the teenage boy," my husband says, "they want to jump on anything that moves!" True, and I guess this reality is what makes teaching middle school all the more of an adventure and challenge. Ha!

Inevitably, the questions begin. What am I already doing to establish firm boundaries with my students to help them see me as an authoritative adult and not someone who could pass for their age? How do you continue to establish an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect in the classroom while having to routinely admonish a handful of seemingly impossible students? What is the perfect balance of fair and firm? Does this change every day depending on the class and lesson?

To try to better answer these questions, my co-teacher and I sat down yesterday and decided to reinvent the wheel and completely redesign our discipline policy, especially for one of our classes. We call this our class's "Plan for Success." In this system, if a student violates any rule, his/her name is written on a small white board (without even having to verbally draw attention to the student). If the behavior continues, the student receives a check next to his/her name, which means he has to complete a written reflection sheet and receive a phone call home. The third step is a second check with a detention, and the fourth (and final) step is an office referral. Our goal is student buy-in with this process, consistency with consequences, and prompt follow-through to prevent the kids from trying to play us off each other.

We have also used a positive reinforcement system where we award tickets to students displaying good behavior, study strategies, participation, hard work, and effective effort. A weekly drawing is held each week for a prize pull in each period. I would love to hear other positive reward systems that have worked for you teachers out there!

In the meantime, I need to take a deep breath, know that I am doing all that I can, and remember that I am the adult in every situation in my classroom. The best thing I can do for my students is to be the adult who models respect, hard work, and appropriate, mature behaviors that I want my students to practice daily. In doing so, I will recognize my own limitations and seek to start every day fresh and new, with the high hopes and confidence in my students' ability to achieve -- and become whomever they want to be. And hopefully, I can learn to emotionally distance myself from them and know that they are not my own children.