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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Better Way to Assess Teachers?

It is no surprise that many teachers grimace when they hear the Obama administration propose "pay for performance" mandates. This administration's Race to the Top program calls for just that, for teachers to be evaluated based on their students' test scores. Intrigued and anxious about this idea, I stumbled across a well-written but controversial article in The Washington Post last week that discusses this issue. I have to say that I agree with most of Michele Kerr's points, though I do see why so many readers had issues with her logic and seeming lack of emotional intelligence. Where do you stand?

The right way to assess teachers' performance

By Michele Kerr
Friday, June 18, 2010; A27 

The Obama administration's Race to the Top program demands that teachers be evaluated by student test scores. Florida's legislature passed a bill in April to end teacher tenure and base pay increases on test-score improvement; although Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed that attempt, legislatures in Colorado, New York, Oklahoma and other states have also modified regulations regarding tenure with an eye toward Race to the Top. Teachers protest, but they are dismissed as union hacks with lousy skills, intent on protecting their cushy tenured jobs because they could never cut it in the real world.

I'm a first-year, second-career high school teacher, a "highly qualified" teacher of math, English and social science, a standing I achieved by passing rigorous tests. I'm not a union fan, nor am I in favor of pay increases based on seniority or added education. Like many new teachers throughout the country, I was pink-slipped and am looking for work, so I don't have a cushy job to protect.

I'm not your typical teacher. But I believe I speak for many teachers when I say I'm willing to be tested on student performance, provided certain conditions are met. So let's negotiate.

I propose that:

(1) Teachers be assessed based on only those students with 90 percent or higher attendance.
Without the missing students, the tests won't yield a complete picture of learning. But the tests' purpose is to yield a picture of teaching, which isn't the same thing as learning. Teachers can't teach children who aren't there.

Results will reveal that many students miss this attendance requirement. Put that problem on the parents' plates. Leave it out of the teaching assessment.

(2) Teachers be allowed to remove disruptive students from their classroom on a day-to-day basis.
Two to three students who just don't care can easily disrupt a class of strugglers. Moreover, many students who are consistently removed for their behavior do start to straighten up -- sitting in the office is pretty boring.

Yes, teachers could misuse this authority. But if teachers are evaluated by student learning, they must have control over classroom conditions. Then the administration can separately decide what to do with constantly disruptive students or those teachers who would rather remove students than teach them. But keep the issue away from measuring student performance; leave it as a personnel call.

(3) Students who don't achieve "basic" proficiency in a state test be prohibited from moving forward to the next class in the progression.

Students who can't prove they know algebra can't take geometry. If they can't read at a ninth-grade level, they can't take sophomore English -- or, for that matter, sophomore-level history or science, which presumes sophomore-level reading ability.

Not only is it nearly impossible for these students to learn the new material, but they also slow everyone else as the teacher struggles to find a middle ground. By requiring students to repeat a subject, we can assess both the current and the next teacher based on student progress in an apples-to-apples comparison.
If Race to the Top is to have meaning, we have to be sure that students are actually getting to the top, instead of being stalled midway up the hill while we lie to them about their progress.

(4) That teachers be assessed on student improvement, not an absolute standard -- the so-called value-added assessment.

I suspect that my conditions will go nowhere, precisely because they are reasonable. Teachers can't be evaluated on students who miss 10 percent of the class or don't have the prerequisite knowledge for success. Yet accepting these reasonable conditions might reveal that common rhetorical goals for education (everyone goes to college, algebra for eighth-graders) are, to put it bluntly, impossible. So we'll either continue the status quo at a stalemate or the states will make the tests so easy that the standards are meaningless.

Yes, some students are doing poorly because their teachers are terrible. Other students are doing poorly because they simply don't care, their parents don't care, their cognitive abilities aren't up to the task or some vicious combination of factors we haven't figured out -- with no regard to teacher quality. No one is eager to discover the size of that second group, so serious testing with teeth will go nowhere.

That's too bad. We need to know how many students are failing because they don't attend class, how many students score "below basic" on the algebra test three years in a row, how many students fail all tests because they read at a fourth-grade level. We need to know if our education rhetoric is a pipe dream instead of an achievable reality blocked by those nasty teachers unions. And, of course, if it turns out that all our problems can be solved by rooting out bad teachers, we need to find that out, too.

So if we're going to evaluate teachers based on student results, let's negotiate some reasonable terms -- and let's not flinch from whatever reality those terms reveal.

The writer, a Stanford teacher program graduate, taught geometry, algebra and humanities at Oceana High School in Pacifica, Calif.

Full article and readers' comments available at:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Small Schools" -- Worth the Money?

It is no shock to any public educator that students tend to experience a great deal more of academic and personal growth with smaller teacher-student ratios. While the "small school" movement has lessened in popularity due to sheer costs of maintaining additional faculty members, the article below provides an interesting perspective on the effectiveness of smaller, more personal high schools. Sure, it is wonderful to provide students with options for attending high schools, especially for those who want to escape the anonymity of larger, much less personal high schools, but is the expense worth it? And can the cost of all those extra administrators and other support staff truly be justified? What do you think

Study Finds Success in NYC's 'Small Schools'

At a time when reformers and philanthropists have largely turned their back on the “small schools” movement, a major study of New York City high schools has found that students are more academically successful in smaller, more personal high schools that they choose for themselves than they are in larger, more traditional schools.
The report released last night by MDRC, a New York-based research group, focuses on the 1.1-million-student school system’s effort from 2002 to 2008 to shut down 20 large, failing high schools and replace them with 200 smaller schools where students might be more likely to receive the attention they need. Researchers found that students who ended up in the small schools were more likely than peers in other kinds of city high schools to be on track by 9th grade to graduate in four years, to stay on track for three more years, and graduate from high school on time.
“This is the first convincing evidence that the ‘small schools’ model can be effective at improving student outcomes,” said Brian Jacob, a professor of education policy and economics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “It’s incredibly important.” Mr. Jacob advised the researchers on an early version of the study.
The new study was financed by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was an enthusiastic early supporter of New York City’s small-schools initiative and others around the country.

Sparse Evidence

Like New York, many districts in the late 1990s and the early 2000s began to replace large, comprehensive high schools with smaller schools.
Many such efforts were spurred by the Gates Foundation, which poured nearly $1 billion into small-schools programs before deciding in 2008 to move in a new direction after some of those efforts proved disappointing. (The Gates Foundation provides funding to Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)
One such disappointment was the high-profile closing of Denver’s Manual Arts High School, which closed in 2006, after persistent, poor academic performance.
And the handful of studies up until now on the topic of small schools were mostly descriptive or anecdotal.
“Nobody really had strong systematic evidence about the effects of those schools,” said Gordon L. Berlin, MDRC’s president. Mr. Berlin and others said the new study is important because it tracks a large-scale improvement effort, involves mostly disadvantaged students, and uses a more rigorous research methodology to compare students who were randomly assigned to their top-choice schools with those placed elsewhere or in regular city high schools.
“I hope this will lead to a conversation which involves the re-evaluation of small schools,” said Charles Payne, a social work professor at the University of Chicago. “In the ’80s, the talk about small schools focused on relationships, and that seems to have taken a back seat now to things like turnarounds.”
Use of various “turnaround” strategies to improve troubled schools is a policy prescription heavily promoted by the Obama administration.
But other experts expressed more skepticism about the results of the MDRC study.
“I don’t know how much of this is about choosing and how much is about small schools,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, a professor of public policy, education, and economics at New York University and the director of its Institute for Education and Social Policy. “What would have happened if students were choosing large schools of choice?”

Home-Grown Schools

The study zeroes in on the 123 small schools that opened in New York City after 2002. Dubbed “small schools of choice” by the researchers, those nonselective public schools all enrolled 550 or fewer students in grades 9-12. Drawing mainly from disadvantaged student populations, most of the schools were located in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
While the schools incorporated a variety of themes, such as coastal studies, sports management, and media studies, all were required to offer features common to the small-schools movement. Such features include an “advisory” period to provide for closer attention by a teacher to a small group of students, partnerships with the local community, and common planning times for teachers.
From these and other schools, 80,000 rising 9th graders each year are required to pick 12 as their top choices. Based on those student lists and schools’ geographic locations, students are then assigned, via a centralized-placement system, to a high school.
When a school is oversubscribed, the system randomly assigns students. The researchers used those “mini-lotteries” to assign students to either control or experimental groups. Randomized studies are considered a powerful means of determining whether an intervention causes an effect because students are not handpicked or self-selected.
Since not every school was oversubscribed, though, the researchers based their findings on a much smaller final sample of 21,000 students, roughly half of whom landed in a top-choice school. The rest attended a mix of other kinds of city schools, some of which were lesser-ranked smaller schools.
Overall, however, the control-group schools were much older and larger than the “small schools of choice.” More than half the students in the comparison group attended schools with more than 550 students, according to the report.

Perspective on Numbers

While the students entering small schools were academically and demographically similar to their control-group peers upon entering high school, they were more likely, by the end of 9th grade, to be on track to graduate, the study found. In the small schools, 58.5 percent of students had passed enough courses to be on the four-year graduation track, compared with 48.5 percent of the students in the control group.
By the end of the fourth year of high school, the graduation rate for small-schools enrollees was 68.7 percent, compared with 61.9 percent for the control-group students. A larger proportion of the small-schools graduates had also earned the state’s Regents diploma, which requires students to earn a higher passing score on state exams.
The researchers also found that the positive effects were similar for students from a variety of subgroups, including minority students, males, and those with a history of poor achievement.
Some researchers disagree, however, on how to think about the 6.8-percentage-point difference in graduation rates between small-schools graduates and their counterparts elsewhere in the city.
Mr. Berlin said the difference is large, given that the results come from randomized studies, which rarely show large effects in education. It’s one-third the size of the graduation-rate gap that separates black and Hispanic students across the city from their higher-achieving white peers.
But David C. Bloomfield, the program head for educational leadership at Brooklyn College and a professor of educational leadership at City University of New York, said the magnitude of the impact was “relatively small for all the attention that has been lavished on these schools.” The small schools all received $400,000 in startup grants over four or five years, as well as technical assistance from intermediary organizations such as New Visions for Public Schools—help that many experts credit as a key to New York City’s good results.
The Gates Foundation, which ultimately invested $150 million in the New York small-schools effort, issued a prepared statement yesterday calling the findings “great news for New York City students and for all school reform efforts dedicated to increasing college-readiness rates and grounded in improving the quality of the interaction between students and teachers inside the classroom.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Honoring Our Military & All Those who Serve our Country!

Last week my aunt passed along a heartwarming true story I immediately knew would be worth posting. While not directly related to my teaching, it reminds me of the constant sacrifice on the part of all our armed forces to ensure our safety every day. This year, I taught many students whose parents are veterans, currently serving abroad, or work in a nearby army hospital. This one's for you!


The airline captain writes: My lead flight attendant came to me and said, "We have an H.R. on this flight." (H.R. stands for human remains.) "Are they military?" I asked.

'Yes', she said.
'Is there an escort?' I asked.
'Yes, I already assigned him a seat'.
'Would you please tell him to come to the flight deck? You can board him early," I said.

A short while later, a young army sergeant entered the flight deck. He was the image of the perfectly dressed soldier. He introduced himself and I asked him about his soldier. The escorts of these fallen soldiers talk about them as if they are still alive and still with us.

'My soldier is on his way back to Virginia,' he said. He proceeded to answer my questions, but offered no words.

I asked him if there was anything I could do for him and he said no. I told him that he had the toughest job in the military and that I appreciated the work that he does for the families of our fallen soldiers. The first officer and I got up out of our seats to shake his hand. He left the flight deck to find his seat.

We completed our preflight checks, pushed back and performed an uneventful departure. About 30 minutes into our flight I received a call from the lead flight attendant in the cabin. 'I just found out the family of the soldier we are carrying, is on board', she said. She then proceeded to tell me that the father, mother, wife and 2-year old daughter were escorting their son, husband, and father home. The family was upset because they were unable to see the container that the soldier was in before we left. We were on our way to a major hub at which the family was going to wait four hours for the connecting flight home to Virginia.

The father of the soldier told the flight attendant that knowing his son was below him in the cargo compartment and being unable to see him was too much for him and the family to bear. He had asked the flight attendant if there was anything that could be done to allow them to see him upon our arrival. The family wanted to be outside by the cargo door to watch the soldier being taken off the airplane. I could hear the desperation in the flight attendants voice when she asked me if there was anything I could do. 'I'm on it', I said. I told her that I would get back to her.

Airborne communication with my company normally occurs in the form of e-mail like messages. I decided to bypass this system and contact my flight dispatcher directly on a secondary radio. There is a radio operator in the operations control center who connects you to the telephone of the dispatcher. I was in direct contact with the dispatcher. I explained the situation I had on board with the family and what it was the family wanted. He said he understood and that he would get back to me.

Two hours went by and I had not heard from the dispatcher. We were going to get busy soon and I needed to know what to tell the family. I sent a text message asking for an update. I saved the return message from the dispatcher and the following is the text:

'Captain, sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. There is policy on this now and I had to check on a few things. Upon your arrival a dedicated escort team will meet the aircraft. The team will escort the family to the ramp and plane side. A van will be used to load the remains with a secondary van for the family. The family will be taken to their departure area and escorted into the terminal where the remains can be seen on the ramp. It is a private area for the family only. When the connecting aircraft arrives, the family will be escorted onto the ramp and plane side to watch the remains being loaded for the final leg home. Captain most of us here in flight control are veterans. Please pass our condolences on to the family. Thanks.'

I sent a message back telling flight control thanks for a good job. I printed out the message and gave it to the lead flight attendant to pass on to the father. The lead flight attendant was very thankful and told me, 'You have no idea how much this will mean to them.'

Things started getting busy for the descent, approach and landing. After landing, we cleared the runway and taxied to the ramp area. The ramp is huge with 15 gates on either side of the alleyway. It is always a busy area with aircraft maneuvering every which way to enter and exit. When we entered the ramp and checked in with the ramp controller, we were told that all traffic was being held for us.

'There is a team in place to meet the aircraft', we were told. It looked like it was all coming together, then I realized that once we turned the seat belt sign off, everyone would stand up at once and delay the family from getting off the airplane. As we approached our gate, I asked the copilot to tell the ramp controller we were going to stop short of the gate to make an announcement to the passengers. He did that and the ramp controller said, 'Take your time.'

I stopped the aircraft and set the parking brake. I pushed the public address button and said, 'Ladies and gentleman, this is your Captain speaking I have stopped short of our gate to make a special announcement. We have a passenger on board who deserves our honor and respect. His Name is Private XXXXXX, a soldier who recently lost his life. Private XXXXXX is under your feet in the cargo hold. Escorting him today is Army Sergeant XXXXXXX. Also, on board are his father, mother, wife, and daughter. Your entire flight crew is asking for all passengers to remain in their seats to allow the family to exit the aircraft first. Thank you.'

We continued the turn to the gate, came to a stop and started our shutdown procedures. A couple of minutes later I opened the cockpit door. I found the two forward flight attendants crying, something you just do not see. I was told that after we came to a stop, every passenger on the aircraft stayed in their seats, waiting for the family to exit the aircraft.

When the family got up and gathered their things, a passenger slowly started to clap his hands. Moments later more passengers joined in and soon the entire aircraft was clapping. Words of 'God Bless You', I'm sorry, thank you, be proud, and other kind words were uttered to the family as they made their way down the aisle and out of the airplane. They were escorted down to the ramp to finally be with their loved one.

Many of the passengers disembarking thanked me for the announcement I had made. They were just words, I told them, I could say them over and over again, but nothing I say will bring back that brave soldier.

I respectfully ask that all of you reflect on this event and the sacrifices that millions of our men and women have made to ensure our freedom and safety in these United States of AMERICA.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Dumbing Down of Society......

Politics aside, this article from last week is compelling (and depressing!) from an educational point of view. As an English teacher who constantly emphasizes the importance of knowing high level vocabulary to her eighth graders, the article is also extremely disheartening. What do you think?

Language mavens exchange words over Obama's Oval Office speech
By the CNN Wire Staff

  • Nearly 2,700 words with little jargon
  • People understand spoken and written word differently
  • Payack gives Obama "Solid B"
(CNN) -- Language experts weighed in Thursday after poring over the nearly 2,700 words of President Obama's Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil disaster.
"It was straightforward and easy to understand," said Ron Yaros, assistant professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, referring to the explanations of the crisis and its possible solutions. He divided the speech into 1,200 "idea units," each of which represents a point the president was trying to make.
He then looked at how many of those idea units contained jargon -- unexplained terms that the average person might not recognize -- and found none in the 65 idea units that explained the problem.
Of the 417 idea units that discussed what Obama planned to do, "I found only one idea unit that probably would be potentially confusing to a nonexpert. That was the term 'relief well.' He never explained that."
BP is digging a relief well that is expected to intersect with the blown-out well in August. At that point, BP plans to pump heavy drilling fluid into the runaway well, ending the flow.
"If you look at the entire speech, and you look at the amount of jargon, it came out to 1.5 percent," he said.
But Obama's speech may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday by Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor.
Tuesday night's speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Payack, who gave Obama a "solid B." His Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.
He singled out this sentence from Obama as unfortunate: "That is why just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation's best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge -- a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation's secretary of energy."
"A little less professorial, less academic and more ordinary," Payack recommended. "That's the type of phraseology that makes you [appear] aloof and out of touch."
Yaros disagreed, supporting the quality of the president's explanation for spelling out the efforts under way, even if they have not succeeded in ending the flow.
"He's just trying to be transparent," Yaros said. "We can't cure cancer, but I'm comforted to know that the best researchers in the nation are devoted to finding a cure."
Payack found these three sentences insensitive: "Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it is not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years."
"You shouldn't be saying that in Katrina-land," said Payack, referring to the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast. "New Orleans lost a third of its population [to evacuees who did not return]; it's still recovering."
But he praised Obama's phrase "oil began spewing" as active and graphic.
Obama's nearly 10th-grade-level rating was the highest of any of his major speeches and well above the grade 7.4 of his 2008 "Yes, we can" victory speech, which many consider his best effort, Payack said.
"The scores indicate that this was not Obama at his best, especially when attempting to make an emotional connection to the American people," he added.
Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence "added some difficulty for his target audience," Payack said.
Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, was unimpressed with Payack's criticism of the sentence length.
"I think we can all agree that those are shockingly long professor-style sentences for a president to be using, especially in addressing the nation after a disaster," Liberman wrote on his blog.
"Why, they were almost as long as the ones that President George W. Bush, that notorious pointy-headed intellectual, used in his 9/15/2005 speech to the nation about Hurricane Katrina, where I count 3,283 words in 140 sentences, for an average of 23.45 words per sentence! And we all remember how upset the press corps got about the professorial character of that speech!"
Yaros challenged the value of Payack's analysis. "There's a tremendous amount of difference between analyzing the written word and interpreting the spoken word," said Yaros, a former science reporter who studies how to make complex topics understandable.
Payack acknowledged Thursday in a telephone interview that his analysis is indeed based on a written version of the speech, but said that does not necessarily render it invalid. "With the internet, probably as many people read the transcript as heard it," he said. "To think it's not read and analyzed by tens of thousands of bloggers is looking at the old model."
Yaros countered that he doesn't just count words and sentences, but instead measures the audience's comprehension of news content.
Liberman said the "grade level" calculation had been debunked as "a mindless bit of math" that does not take into account the skill with which words were chosen or delivered.
Yaros, too, declined to rank the speech by grade level. "In my opinion, placing a 'grade level' on 2,698 written words that are spoken (with a variety of delivery aspects such as pauses, emphases) does NOT accurately represent the importance of clear explanations about the KEY information presented in the speech," he said in an e-mail.
"In other words, I could confuse you with my introduction and conclusion, but if -- in the middle of my talk -- I specifically addressed and answered your concerns, then I have adequately communicated what you CARED about."
Full article and video of Obama's speech is available at:  

Monday, June 14, 2010

An Unexpected Note = Why I Love Teaching

I have been really emotional the past few days. It all started when I realized what an amazing group of 8th graders I will be losing this year; they truly are gems and amazing young people, for the most part, of course. Final exams began last week.

After administering my second exam on Friday afternoon, I found a handwritten note on an index card folded into a student's exam sheet. It turns out that this note was from an aforementioned student I have had a tumultuous relationship with all year, which all began with him receiving an infamous call home for calling me an inappropriate sexual twist on my last name.

The note read:

"To the best teacher I have ever had,
Thank you for everything."

He then signed his nickname. I was shocked and immediately burst into tears.

This truly was a student I spent a great deal of time and energy on throughout the year. Since we had started on the right foot and seemed to make an instant connection, I wanted the negative name-calling experience to be a learning one for him moving forward. At times, he seemed to take my "lectures" and special attention well; other times he was verbally dismissive and even said how much he "hated" me to his peers. He ever made fun of another student for "spending so much time with me." Still, I was determined to get through to him and continued to set high expectations for all of his academic work, words, and actions.

Interestingly enough, though he was never able to publicly announce his appreciation (He only signed his nickname in my yearbook in lieu of a message), this student clearly got something out of all my time and energy working with him. The fact that this reluctant, stubborn student took the time to write a simple note meant the world to me, proving once again the importance of sticking with even the most difficult and seemingly unappreciative students.

Before he wrote the note in class, he wrote on his exam packet how much he hoped his "wonderful English teacher" would give him an A on the assignment, and I decided to write him a note back letting him know how much I really enjoyed teaching him this year. He responded with the special note, and I decided to write him an email thanking him. Sometimes it is even the shortest, simplest gestures and words that mean the most.

In my email, I told this student how much I hoped he'd keep in touch and let me know how he is, though I know in reality he may not feel comfortable staying in touch. High school will be an extremely busy time for him, but I hope that whatever challenges lie ahead for him, he will remember our conversations and my class with a smile. I know I will never forget him; he undoubtedly taught me a great deal about myself and helped me improve my own teaching tremendously.

So, here's to you, my talented, difficult student, for showing me why I love teaching and having the guts to thank a teacher who wasn't afraid to not accept anything less than your best. I wish you all the best always.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Our county certainly has something to be proud of!

Amid the craziness of final exams, preparation for 8th grade promotion, interviewing candidates to be my co-team for next year, and making last-minute plans for our Six Flags trip, it is always encouraging to receive an uplifting and motivating email from the big wigs in the county. Here is one such note from our superintendent from today:

June 10, 2010
To my colleagues,
I want to share some great news with you—Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has the highest graduation rate of any of the 50 largest school districts in the nation, according to a report released byEducation Week this morning. The Diplomas Count 2010 report calculates the MCPS graduation rate at 83.1 percent, 2.4 percentage points higher than last year’s rate. This is the second year in a row that MCPS has had the highest graduation rate on this list.  Fairfax County Public Schools has the second-highest rate at 82.5 percent.
Obviously, being the highest-performing large district in this report is something to celebrate, but ultimately, the graduation rate is more than just a statistic: It represents thousands of students who have a brighter future because they’ve earned a meaningful diploma. For the past two weeks, I have attended many of our high school graduations and I have seen the pride and fulfillment in the faces of our students as they walk across the stage. I have seen parents beaming with joy as they watch their children reach this important milestone and take the next step toward a successful future. Regardless of what your job is at MCPS, you have played an important role in making this day happen for them.
The news is even brighter for our students because, each year, more of them are graduating prepared for rigors of college and the workplace. Over the past several months we’ve had much to celebrate. More students than ever are taking and passing Advanced Placement classes; their SAT scores are at an all-time high; and collectively the class of 2010 has earned more than $230 million in college scholarships, an increase of nearly $50 million from last year. Of course, you also should take great pride that MCPS is one of five finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education because it is an external validation of your commitment and your success.
On behalf of our students and our community, I thank you for your dedication to the students of Montgomery County and congratulate you on a job well done. 
Jerry D. Weast, Ed. D
Superintendent of Schools


Kudos to all MCPS teachers, staff, parents, and community members who made this achievement possible! We truly do make a difference in our students' lives.

Monday, June 7, 2010

End of Year Chaos!

It's that time of year again -- the dreaded time of year when the end is in sight (yet still so far away), students think it's already summer vacation, the weather is becoming excruciatingly hot in the classrooms, teachers are counting down the days until the year's end, and everyone in general is at their wit's end. I am no exception to this great June phenomenon. I wish I was. 

Luckily, I have already accepted the fact that I will be running around the school like a crazy person for the next week, trying to somehow put our 8th grade promotion together with my co-team leader, organize 200+ kids for a Six Flags trip, run a poetry reading assembly, keep my students focused, oh, and try to actually teach and review for the English final exam. A tall order? I think so. Am I nervous it will all not get done? Honestly, I'm terrified.

You know it's bad when my husband asks how my day was, and I cannot help but just stare at him blankly. And I am NOT one to keep my mouth shut or my face expressionless. 

"That bad?" he asks.

"Eh, probably worse," I reply.

"Well, just think, next week, you'll really have earned your summer vacation," he retorts.

Ha! I then start thinking about all I have going on this summer and quickly stop myself. What's the point in stressing? One day at a time, Kay, one day at a time.....just keep swimming, just keep swimming!

I have a horrible habit of checking my school email at home, which usually just further increases my anxiety and insanity levels. Occasionally, though, amid all the junk in my inbox, there is a rare complimentary student or parent email that helps me realize why I put up with what I do on a daily basis. A former student had the heart to make my evening with this note:


Have you been running lately? I know the Susan G. Komen Race has been going on; did you walk in that? I know that is a very big and important part of your life. I would always love to come into class and see all your medals and numbers posted up on the wall. I would always count them and just be amazed at how passionate you were for them! You are such an inspiration to me because you whatever you put your mind to, you can achieve it with great success!

I hope you have a great rest of the year! I hope to come visit very soon!


So remember this, fellow teachers -- just keep swimming, take one day at a time, and keep your head held high. No matter what kind of day you have, remember that you have made a difference in the life of a child. And let's face it; what greater gift is there in life?!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Very Disturbing Update From Our Superintendent

It is no secret that countless school districts have been devastated by severe budget cuts this school year, my district being no exception. We are fortunate to have a superintendent who truly fights for the best interest and needs of his teachers and students, no matter what. Even with his adamant support, though, harsh financial realities still exist.

On Thursday afternoon, our superintendent sent an email to all of his staff members that made me want to cry. You can see why:


June 3, 2010

To My Colleagues,

When I released my budget recommendation in December, I made it clear that we were facing unprecedented economic times in Montgomery County and that we would very likely have to make some difficult decisions for Fiscal Year 2011. The time for those decisions is upon us and I want to share this information with you as quickly as possible.

As was reported in The Bulletin on Tuesday, June 1, the Montgomery County Council passed a $2.1 billion budget for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) last week, which is nearly $160 million less than what was requested by the Board of Education in February. This reduction includes a $137.7 million budget cut proposed by the County Executive in March, and an additional $24.4 million cut agreed to in the closing days of the budget process. The district had already begun to take the necessary actions to meet the County Executive’s recommended cut, including the reduction of more than 400 positions, an increase in class size, the elimination of any salary adjustments for our staff, and a delay in retiree trust fund payments. The additional $24.4 million budget reduction includes a $19.7 million cut to the operating budget that will, unfortunately, necessitate some additional difficult decisions.

My recommendations for further reductions are being transmitted to the Board of Education today and may be found by clicking here. The memorandum outlines my recommendations for additional budget reductions, many of which were part of the list of possible cuts released in December. These reductions include additional cuts to staff and operations that will, no doubt, have a significant impact on all of our schools. I am not recommending any furloughs for our staff and it is my sincere hope that most of the employees displaced by these cuts will find positions elsewhere in the system. However, it is very likely that we will not be able to find positions for some members of our MCPS family. We will work with the Office of Human Resources and Development, and the employee associations to help staff through this transition.

This has been a very challenging budget season, perhaps the most difficult in all my years as a superintendent. Making budget cuts is always hard, but doing so as our system is experiencing perhaps its greatest period of academic growth makes it even harder. However, we must continue our pursuit of academic excellence for all students. As was outlined in an editorial in Wednesday’s Gazette, our graduates are better prepared than most for college and the work world, and that is because of the tireless dedication of our outstanding staff. Even though we must make some difficult adjustments in the coming months, I am confident that you have the talent and the tenacity to continue your outstanding work.

Please enjoy these last weeks of the school year with students and know that you have the respect and admiration of many across the county, the state, and the nation for the work you do every day.


Superintendent of Schools

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Response to a Failed School Leader

Though I am hundreds of miles away from my school district this weekend at my college reunion, the dire state of affairs in my school building is never far from my mind. Yesterday afternoon, our school's union representative called me, wanting honest feedabck and input as to what is really going on in my school. I was more than happy to give her an earful.

I followed up our conversation today with an email that addresses some of my specific concerns with the way our middle school is being poorly run. Luckily, I am only one of many staff members who are finally allowing their concerns and voices to be heard. And believe me, this is only the beginning of our conversation:
Throughout this past school year, our principal has lead our staff solely through bully-like fear and hostile intimidation. She continually arrives to weekly ILT meetings late and unprepared. In fact, two different Associate Superintendents arrived at leadership meetings this past semester thinking we were having an ESIT meeting when that was not on the schedule. Last Tuesday, our principal was so keen on pushing through a new unrealistic student monitoring system that she did not even bother to listen to the concerns of even her most valued staff members. Instead, she pushed ahead, cut off members of her leadership team mid-sentence, and caused everyone to leave the room with horrified looks on their faces. As the meeting was held in my room, she cornered me at the end, putting me unfairly on the spot and asking me what I thought of her proposal. I voiced my concerns, and since that was not what she wanted to hear, she thanked me and left the room. I suggested to her to please meet/talk with the leadership team again before our next staff meeting. Her response? A long, confusing email again pushing her agenda that half-heartedly asked for ILT feedback. Is this professional or the least bit acceptable? I think not.
Our principal leads her staff through "gotcha" observations and meetings. She also has "moles" in the building in the form of specific teachers and paraeducators who "spy" on classroom teachers and report concerns back to her on a regular basis. One such "mole" claimed that all of the teachers she was working with had students and classrooms that were out of control. Our principal responded the next day by showing up to one such teacher's overcrowded 7th period (of over 32 very needy students with no other adult in the room) and making a full unannounced formal observation on him during a non-evaluative year. As one can imagine, her comments were far from positive.

My co-teacher, who has been at at school for over 18 years, says she has seen our principal act this unpredictable and crazy before, right before she starts to "clean house" and try to push out everyone in the building who are not fully aligned with her unrealistic views of how the school should be run. She has already started the process this spring, as she put handfuls of staff members in very difficult surplusing positions and even asked two leadership members to unfairly step down from their positions in surprise behind-closed-doors meetings.
Even though I have only been at my school for a handful of years, I can honestly say that the school climate and moral in our building has never been lower. Staff members have suffered more illness, are beyond stressed, and are at their wit's end with the administration, especially with our principal. She continues to prove how incapable and incompetent she is in running a middle school. I am appalled at her lack of expertise, skill, common sense, and judgment every day. How on earth has she stayed in this position for over 13 years??! She should be ashamed to call herself a school leader. I can honestly say that I have learned more from her on how NOT to run a school than anything else. Is this anyway to run a school??!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

This is what makes it worth it....

In the middle of a very chaotic week at school, I received an email from a former student last night that put everything in perspective. I had the privilege of teaching this student for two years. Even with all the hardship, hard work, and lack of positive feedback teachers receive on a daily basis, emails like this make it all worth it:

Hi Mrs. L,

I just wanted to inform you that I have been accepted as a member of the 2010-2011 BP Fashion Board! Thank you so much for your wonderful letter of recommendation! You are so thoughtful and I am so happy to have a great resource and amazing teacher like you to help me with these very important tasks.
I will come to visit very soon! Have a great rest of the year!
All My Love,

Your former student
P.S – English has been my highest grade the whole year!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Importance of Trust & Communication

It is no secret that there is a severe issue of professional trust and communication in our middle school, particularly between the administration and teachers. At our leadership meeting today, our principal proposed a plan for a new tedious and overwhelming logistically-heavy monitoring system that is just plain ineffective and excessive. In fact, this system undermines what we as teacher leaders have been trying to do -- and have been succeeding at -- for the past several years with our teams of teachers and students.

As she laid out her new monitoring plan, our principal continually shut others' opinions, insights, and ideas down, often not giving even the most respected members of our leadership team the courtesy to finish their own sentences. She could see that no one was supporting her idea, so rather than hear us out, she decided to shut us down. What resulted was intense anger, bitterness, and resentment on the part of everyone in the room against her, including the other two administrators.

Since the meeting happened to take place (for the first time) in my classroom, the principal stayed behind and wanted my honest take on things. I spoke my concerns to her and asked her to develop a clear, specific plan to move forward and address each of the legitimate concerns raised in the meeting. I asked her to seriously consider the student monitoring tools our teams and departments already have in place, which have been largely successful in the past three years, and how they can be refined and reworked.

By later in the evening, our principal had sent out an email to her leadership team about the "big picture" of all of this. Now do not get me wrong; I do find value in tracking EVERY student's progress, regardless of how basic or advanced they may have scored on a recent assessment. Reteaching, reassessing, and adapting the curriculum to best suit the needs of our individual students are ALL essential parts of good teaching and learning that I strive for every day in the classroom. Isn't it time our administration began to stop trying to micromanage our efforts and start legitimizing, praising, and validating what we do each and every day on the front lines???

Here is our principal's response. How would you choose to move forward with her? I welcome your thoughts and comments, as always.


I want to write you a follow up to today’s meeting. I know that this is the end of the year, there’s a lot to get done, and we are all under a great deal of pressure. I know that the ideas and hand-outs I shared were pretty overwhelming, and I really do apologize. These are not the kind of things that we normally begin in May and June, but neither can they can wait for the summer.
We have expressed frustration over time when there isn’t consistency,  clarity, and communication about our processes and expectations. We recognize our need to focus on instruction and to design and implement lessons based on the needs of the students. We say that the goal of our SIP and of the school is that each student meets and exceeds the academic goals. If those aren’t just words, then it means we need to do exactly what we said today and what many folks already do: plan and deliver daily instruction based on the indicators and tweaked from one day to the next by assessing (e.g. exit card, Activote, et al) whether or not the kids “got it.” I know that most folks do a form of this already, sometimes in a visible, concrete manner but most often by “sensing” or “watching body language.” The problem is that the information is global, it doesn’t necessarily tell us how widespread the confusion is,  and it lets kids easily get lost until some bigger assessment is given. When students don’t get key concepts, skills, or processes taught in one lesson then confusion is only compounded in subsequent lessons.  In terms of the county Math and English data points, we are not consistent across the school about how we analyze and use the results. Moreover, these and other big assessments are far too infrequent to give teachers the kind of immediate, constant feedback needed to adjust lessons from day to day or week to week.
I ask you as leaders in the building to think about where we are as a school and what we need to do. We are uncertain about meeting AYP, we have significant achievement gaps on all measures between African American and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts, and we cannot do more. As a Leadership Team we have to work differently and smarter; we cannot work any harder. More importantly, we need to empower each teacher to own and know whether their students “get it” at the end of the lesson, to monitor this with great frequency, and adjust instruction in a timely manner to address the needs. When we expressed the need to have teachers “own” the data, this is precisely what it means. It means to assure that each teacher not only knows what is happening, but more importantly feels responsible to do whatever is needed to really make sure that each student meets and exceeds the goals.  
Thanks. I invite your comments and feedback.