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The Setting: A first year teacher and mentor meeting during a planning period. The mentor was in to observe earlier in the week, and is back to debrief. It’s late in the year and while the teacher started off with some significant challenges, they’ve improved substantially as the year progressed.

Novice Teacher: Hi thanks for coming. I know we planned to talk about the lesson you observed 3rd period on Tuesday, but I feel like I have to talk about Charleston in class, I can’t figure out what to do about it. All these different race related issues keep coming up and I just don’t know how to bring them up in class.

I want to talk about Charleston and I want to talk about Baltimore. I care about my students and I want them to understand how current events are informed by history. That’s our whole course theme, how events of the past inform current events, but I just don’t know how to do it.

Mentor: We can definitely talk about this. Thanks for letting me know it’s been on your mind. What makes these events hard to bring up in class?

Novice Teacher: I just don’t know how to have this kind of conversation with the kids. It’s hard to talk about this stuff and I don’t just want to pay lip service to it.

Mentor: What might happen if you bring it up?

Novice: Things could get totally out of hand. I don’t want my students calling each other racist. I don’t want them calling me racist! The last thing I need is a parent complaining about my class. What would the principal think if he heard that I’m talking about Charleston instead of teaching the curriculum?

This is a very reasonable concern. Teacher education programs do not spend a lot of time helping pre-service teachers handle controversial issues in class. In some cases the new teacher may have been explicitly instructed to shy away from controversial issues for a variety of reasons: parent concerns, sticking to the curriculum, or the importance of preparing students for their exams. Additionally, teachers don’t want their students to be upset, so it can appear easier to just not bring up hard conversations. A new teacher may also fear for their job security as new teachers are regularly hired on one-year contracts. It can make a lot of sense to keep your head down and just teach the curriculum, but this teacher is having a bit of an identity crisis about that.

In most classes it’s reasonable to expect some controversy, however. Controversial issues can take many forms regardless of the content area, so  it would make sense for the mentor to attempt some connection to areas where the teacher is already working with controversy, and then build a bridge to the new topic.

Mentor: This can be a pretty controversial issue. Do other controversial issues come up in class, and how do you handle those situations?

Novice: Sometimes, like when we cover the Civil Rights Movement. This is different though.

Mentor: What makes this different?

Novice:  It’s one thing when it’s history. The Civil Rights Movement is academic to most of my students. They don’t really feel it, but you can’t just dismiss the church shooting in Charleston as a product of a different time. That happened this week. That’s a lot harder than saying “those old white guys in the south used to be racist, but we have a black president now.” It’s more emotional to talk about current issues. The conversation could get really heated with some of my students and I don’t want them getting out of control.

Conversations about race can definitely get heated and the teacher is reasonable to be concerned, especially if this is their first time bringing the topic to their students. It is also possible that the new teacher does not have many techniques for diffusing difficult situations. The mentor would do well here to reassure the teacher that there are ways to structure class discussion to discourage outburst and keep the conversation measured. There is still more work for the mentor to do before they plan the actual lesson though. The teacher still needs to come to the conclusion that they will bring the topic to the class.

Mentor: What might your students think if you don’t bring these issues up?

Novice: What do you mean?

Mentor: Right now it seems like you have two options. Take some time to discuss Charleston. Or don’t discuss it and keep going with the lessons you have planned. You’ve talked about your concerns with bringing the shooting into your class, what are your concerns about not addressing those topics?

The mentor here changes tactic. It’s very easy for the teacher to imagine their situation going awry from something they did, in this case bringing up issues of race and race-based violence. The teacher imagines that if they do this thing, then it will get out of hand, and they might lose their job. Better to not rock the boat and keep their head down.

When the mentor switches to the other side of the equation by asking “what might your students think if you DON’T bring these issues up?” This is a key benefit to the mentoring relationship, the mentor’s prompting can help the teacher imagine a set of circumstances that they would be unable to imagine on their own. The teacher is now forced to reflect on what happens if they maintain the status quo, something that is easy to ignore without the mentor.

Novice: I’d feel like I’m ignoring important current events. That I’m acting like it didn’t happen.

Mentor: What’s wrong with that?

Novice: That’s like saying it doesn’t matter, but it does matter. Our whole district mission is to prepare students for college, career, and life. And the life part is pretty important. In social studies I want students to be able to read the newspaper, or watch the news and understand what’s going on. Not just by understanding the news itself, but everything else that goes into it. Potential biases, the importance of using multiple sources, and the long historical context that makes current events happen. They need to know that Charleston wasn’t an isolated event. There’s history here. They need to know the history of the 16th Street Baptist Church. They should know that Alberta Williams King was killed while playing the organ at church. There’s a deep history of racism that connects all these events. I mean, what’s the point of history if we don’t connect it to modern issues?

The mentor’s change in approach shifts the conversation dramatically. Now the teacher’s sense of self, and their purpose for teaching are potentially on the line. This is a critical point in a new teacher’s development. In order to be effective in the highly autonomous role of classroom teacher, a teacher must have a sense of identity. Your sense of identity and your values are what you fall back on in difficult situations. When you have to improvise, you do so based on your core values. Thus it is essential that a teacher develops a set of values they can rely on. This teacher clearly values her student’s ability to make sense of current events in a historical context.

Mentor: What is the point?

Novice: There isn’t any.

Mentor: So what are you going to do about it?

At this point it’s a safe bet that the teacher and mentor have come to an agreement that the teacher will be bringing up Charlestown in class. The teacher now likely needs more practical support alongside the previous emotional support the mentor provided. It would make sense for the mentor to work on co-planning the lesson the novice will teach. This could take a number of forms including advice on facilitating challenging conversations, setting discussion norms, and roleplaying particularly difficult situations. It would also be wise for the mentor to encourage the teacher to inform her principal about the class, and possibly even invite the principal in. A possible lesson could include generating students’ questions, providing the students with a few sources on the topic, a mini-lecture on the historical context of racial violence in the U.S., and a discussion about current issues. (Each of these could be done by devoting a couple days to the topic.) The specifics of a lesson would depend greatly on the students’ age, the course, and the students prior knowledge and lived experience with race and racial violence.

Throughout this mentoring conversations it is important to note that the mentor is not dictating what the novice teacher should or should not do. It is not a mentor’s place to create a carbon copy of the mentor’s teaching style, moreover, they are helping the novice create their own identity. The teacher led with their desire to bring up the topic, but wanted guidance on how to make it work. This means that it is essential for the novice teacher to come to her own conclusion about how to address the topic. Once the decision is made, the mentor works to support that choice.

There are issues like Charleston every single year. They are not always as tragic, but there will always be an event that occurs in the world that is off the curriculum. Controversial issues come up in every classroom. It is essential that we find time to help students discuss and process how they experience the world around them. My previous district’s mission was explicitly to prepare students for “success in college career and life.” The Boston Public Schools have the same essential statement. The Los Angeles Unified School District claims their mission is to “educate all students to their maximum potential.” These mission statements require that teachers go beyond the curriculum.

Teachers must be flexible to respond to their students needs and interests, yet this can be challenging for a novice teacher who needs more skills to be effective. With a mentor’s support, guidance, and perspective a novice teacher can take on challenges they would not otherwise take on. The mentor accelerates the novice teacher’s growth.

In the world of education new state and federal guidelines are typically met with large helpings of skepticism, resistance, and resentment. This has been the case with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, and a majority of other policy roll outs in recent years. With this pattern in mind, I was understandably wary when the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced new state standards for mentoring and induction that will go live for the 2015-16 school year.

The new guidelines were finalized in April and now that I’ve had a chance to review them in detail, I’m happy to say that I’m excited for the potential impacts. DESE put together a strong set of program guidelines that move Massachusetts closer to standards of best practice that the New Teacher Center supports, without creating an unreasonable financial burden for school districts. The new guidelines primarily improve alignment to educator evaluation standards, increase support for mentors and beginning educators, and require districts to report their program details to DESE. Within each of these categories are meaningful program minimums that still allow for substantial local control when it comes to program specifics. This has the potential to ensure a broad and substantial level of beginning educator support without being overly restrictive.

Improved Alignment to Evaluation Standards:

The previous mentoring and induction guidelines were created before Massachusetts’ switch to new methods of evaluating teachers and the revised mentoring standards bring mentoring in line with evaluation. There are numerous changes in the 2015 guidelines that make explicit connections to the new evaluation standards, improving clarity all around. These alignments focus on the role of mentoring in educator preparation, evaluation, and ongoing professional development.

For educator preparation the guidelines define the relationship between a student teacher and their supervising practitioner to be similar to mentor/mentee relationship. This sets some implicit (and explicit) guidelines for the kind of support a student teacher should expect from their supervising practitioner. This is helpful because at the moment the support a student teacher receives is dependent on their paired practitioner and the guidelines established by their specific teacher preparation program, leading to very different results from person to person. The new mentoring guidelines also establish protocols for performance assessments for pre-service teachers based on the standards they will experience in their first years of teaching. This is an important step to increasing the reliability and validity of pre-service assessments and districts hiring beginning teachers should not have a clearer picture of their incoming staff.

In terms of evaluation and professional development, the new mentoring guidelines make a brief, but important mention that a teacher’s professional development should be linked to areas identified in their evaluation. Additionally the guidelines define mentoring as a form of ongoing professional development thereby creating a formal link between mentoring and goals for improving an educator’s effectiveness. This is a powerful statement that was missing from previous versions of the guidelines and it should serve to further validate the mentor’s work.

Increased Support for Mentors and Educators:

The biggest change here for districts are the requirements that mentors receive ongoing training and support for mentoring as well as a requirement that both new educators and mentors receive release time in order to conduct observations and other core mentoring work.

The requirement for ongoing training and support for mentors is crucial. I know that in my own experience as a mentor I needed to develop a very new skillset for working with adults. Many of my teaching skills carried over to mentoring, but there are unique skills and competencies that one needs to work with adults in a mentoring capacity. I remember a time when describing my work as a mentor and a colleague said, “that sounds great, you just tell people what to do all day!” That could not be further from the truth. I would have been a terrible mentor with that attitude. A strong mentor needs to be seen as a collaborative partner in the beginning teacher’s development. Since the mentor holds no evaluative authority, the work must be done with both parties’ consent. The mentor does not have the same authority with their beginning teacher as a teacher does with their students. Therefore a mentor needs to cultivate a new mindset for how to approach their work. This takes dedicated time and practice. It is encouraging to see the guidelines recognize this need.

The release time for both parties is equally critical. One of the most powerful ways for a mentor to support a new teacher is through observing the teacher’s practice and debriefing the experience. This cannot be accomplished when the mentor works full time in another capacity. The mentoring will always take a back seat to the mentor’s primary job. Additionally it is critical to a new teacher’s development that they are able to observe other teachers and broaden their set of experiences. Both of these activities require that the mentoring experience be given dedicated time. The mentor must have the flexibility to work with a teacher’s highly restrictive schedule and the new teacher needs time to put aside other priorities and focus on their own development. Without that sacred time the work will always be supplanted by other responsibilities like teaching, lesson planning, or grading.

It is important to note that while the new mentoring guidelines specify release time, they do not specify the nature or amount of that time. This is a key area where districts could invest heavily in their mentoring programs to ensure robust support for their beginning educators. A superficial amount of release time could technically fulfill the requirement without significantly improving the level of support a mentor or educator receives. I am hopeful that districts see this as an opportunity to make meaningful improvements to their mentoring programs.

Mandated Reporting:

In reality the component for mandatory reporting is quite small. The report itself is fairly superficial and only asks districts to submit basic statistics on their programs such as the number of teachers served, the number of mentors, who receives mentoring, and similar numerical or yes/no data. The reporting is interesting, however, when situated in the New Teacher Center’s model for evaluating a mentoring program’s impact. The data that DESE is asking for now fall squarely in the “Counting” category but those data provide the foundation for accessing the more detailed information on program quality and teacher retention in the future. I hypothesize that after a few years of requiring this counting data, DESE will expand their reporting requirements to include measures of program quality and teacher retention. This is a very positive change from the current situation where no reporting is required and districts typically do not evaluate their mentoring and induction programs.

DESE also added a bit of accountability to the reporting by providing the option for DESE to delay review for a district’s Title II Part A application until DESE receives the district’s mentoring report. This is a strong sign of support for the value of mentoring. Title II Part A typically represents a large portion of a district’s funding for professional learning and improvements in teacher quality. In Washington State, my mentor department was funded largely by Title II Part A funds. These funds are generally critical to a district’s professional development plan, and by linking them to the mentoring report, DESE is further strengthening the link between mentoring and professional development. This may be a bit of a rude awakening for some districts that are not in the habit of collecting these data, but the report is by no means onerous and the data should be fairly straightforward to collect.

Analysis:

I see these new guidelines as overwhelmingly positive for improving support to beginning teachers. Some of the changes are small, however, the guidelines move Massachusetts closer to the New Teacher Center’s standards for high quality induction and they show a thoughtful approach by allowing for a large degree of local discretion.

Personally I wish the guidelines went even further to require more robust new teacher support, but I respect that many districts may not be able to financially implement the kinds of changes it would take to hire and support full time mentors in their district. The current guidelines strike a reasonable balance while moving the program minimums in the proper direction. This is an encouraging move from DESE and perhaps in a few years DESE will be in a position to move the guidelines even closer to the New Teacher Center Standards.

I hope that with these new guidelines requiring mentor training, release time, and annual reporting, that districts will find ways to invest more heavily in their mentoring programs. The guidelines bring Massachusetts quite close to the New Teacher Center’s model of full-time mentors with a 1:15 mentor:mentee ratio and this seems like an excellent opportunity to make the additional investments to get there in full. Many districts will already be making significant investment to bring their programs in line with the new guidelines and with a little more investment they could offer a truly robust level of support for their beginning educators. Hopefully these new mentoring and induction guidelines will also lead to greater new teacher quality and retention across the state.

In the winter of 2013 I was presented with an opportunity: I could become an instructional mentor (IM) at 0.4 FTE but to do so I’d have to give up two of my classes and work the reminder of the year in a split mentor/teacher position. I was excited to mentor new teachers because of how influential my own mentor had been, but I wasn’t sure about the timing. That year I had four sections of AP World History and a pilot class that I was designing combining 11th grade AVID and IB Theory of Knowledge (TOK). I was not eager to leave any of my students, but I knew that I couldn’t leave the AVID/TOK class due to the unique relationships involved as well as the pilot nature of the new course. I was also afraid of betraying my AP World History students by leaving them with a long-term substitute only three months before their exam.

Despite my concerns, I knew this would be a foot in the door for a possible full time mentor position the following year, which I was definitely interested in. I was additionally concerned that, due to the split position, I wouldn’t be an effective teacher or mentor, thereby letting down the students I left, the students I retained, and the new teachers I would be mentoring. In the end I agreed to take the position, aware of the potential challenges. We don’t get to pick when opportunity knocks.

The split position was immediately challenging. Because of my insistence on keeping the AVID/TOK class, I taught AP World History periods 1, 2, and AVID/TOK 7th period at my high school while doing IM work during the middle of the day. This meant that I could only meet teachers between 2nd and 7th periods (essentially 9:15AM-1:30PM) and I had novice teachers across the district at four other schools, not to mention continuing responsibilities at the high school. If a teacher needed me to observe a particularly difficult 7th period class, I simply couldn’t do it. I had one teacher with 1st and 2nd periods as planning, so we always had to meet after school which was inconvenient for her and limited my ability to provide appropriate support. As a result, the mentoring relationship never fully developed. I often had to artificially end meetings to return to school and more than once I returned late to my 7th period AVID/TOK class because of traffic in town, leaving my AVID students frustrated and underserved. You can’t simply be five minutes late to a class of students the way you might be able to with a meeting of adults.

In addition to the scheduling challenges, I found it difficult to find time to work with the rest of the IM team. I couldn’t always make team meetings, or they had to be scheduled around my own highly restrictive schedule. I missed out on the micro-moments of interaction where you informally ask a team member for advice, or help them problem solve a particularly challenging situation and I never felt like part of the team even though everyone was extremely welcoming. There simply was not enough contact time.

My attention was continually divided and I could never do my best work as either teacher or mentor. Both roles are intellectually demanding and I was always swapping from one mindset to the other. The cost is too high in both time and focus to be constantly switching back and forth. I found myself regularly eating lunch in the car on the way to a meeting, and doing most of my lesson planning and grading at night because my planning time turned into travel time. I felt disconnected from my school, my students, and the other mentors.

The semester of the split position made the choice to move completely out of the classroom easier. The experience helped me realized that in order to do my best work I needed to fully commit to either mentoring or teaching. I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to mentor a 0.8FTE while continuing to teach the AVID/TOK class but this was simply out of the question as each role demands full attention for quality performance.

Districts often make split positions for teachers due to cost or enrollment, hiring a teacher at two schools to help them work full time. To a certain extent we are helping the teacher by getting them greater FTE (and consequently more pay) when we wouldn’t be able to otherwise,  but when we hire a teacher at 0.4 FTE at once school and 0.6 at another we neglect the significant cost incurred by travel and switching roles. Reimbursing a teacher financially for travel, does not refund their lost time for planning and building relationships. When I was split between mentoring and teaching it required more then 1.0FTE to do both roles properly.

That experience is exacerbated by the rigidity of the teaching schedule and the multiple responsibilities that teachers have beyond their standard workday. You can’t be flexible and meet a student or parent before school if you’re physically teaching at a different location in the mornings.  You can’t integrate into a staff culture at two buildings then their staff meetings are scheduled at the same time. You make a choice to be more involved with one building and your relationships at the other suffer for it. When a district sets times for parent/teacher conferences you simply have to choose a school. This negatively impacts everyone in the equation.

To make matters even more problematic, novice teachers are typically assigned the lion’s share of split positions. To an extent this is understandable; as teachers gain seniority we want to honor that commitment by assigning them more desirable positions, but this means that novice teachers who already need more support are put in a more challenging position than the veteran. Additionally, novice teachers are unlikely to be in a financial position that allows them to refuse the additional FTE at a second school and work part time in favor of developing their practice. In an extreme case I supported a teacher with 0.5  total FTE who worked at three different buildings spanning students from 1st grade to 12th grade. She is an extremely strong educator and made the experience work, but only by working far above and beyond her assigned FTE for no additional compensation. She worked beyond full time hours for half time pay. Her professional growth and her sense of accomplishment would have been much accelerated in a more supportive teaching assignment at a single school.

A better option than the split position would be to find other ways to fill out a teacher’s FTE  at a single school. I appreciate that finances and a given teacher’s endorsement can make this challenging, but it would go a long way to showing support for a new teacher. The current structure of compensating teachers solely by the number of sections they teach allows for little flexibility in work assignments.

It would be particularly supportive for a school or district to commit to hiring beginning teachers in a full time capacity even when they teach fewer classes. The additional time could be then spent in collaboration, observing peers, co-teaching, or working with a mentor or coach. This built in time would also respect that beginning teachers need additional support to do the same level of work of the veteran teacher. It is unreasonable to expect the beginner to operate at the same standard as the veteran, however, that is precisely the environment that a beginning teacher finds when they begin work. I respect that this is a challenging and expensive solution, however, rates of teacher attrition, particularly in large, urban, poverty-impacted districts are simply unsustainable. Providing a more inviting initial experience would help teachers remain in the profession longer to build their skills. It would also go a long way to building loyalty with a district or an individual school.

I appreciate that the split position really is the only option at times and I had the luxury of choosing my split position for career advancement as opposed to ensuring that I could pay rent, but we need to know up front to expect reduced effectiveness. I’m glad that my evaluation at the time was not linked to my students’ test scores. How can we reasonably provide the same evaluation for a teacher who is full time at a single school and a teacher split between multiple locations? The split teacher simply cannot provide the same level of focused attention. The split position should be explicitly noted in a teacher’s evaluation, or they should receive an additional stipend to acknowledge the particularly challenging assignment. Splitting a teacher’s FTE should be a last resort and not standard practice.

For all the exploration of the learning process from understanding the impact of students’ past experience, to conducting brain scans during learning, to exploring the concept of the zone of proximal development, there is remarkably little work on what it means to teach.

We can explain teachingbrainwhat it means to give a lecture, or facilitate an experience, but are those activities explicitly teaching? Is it teaching when a child helps their younger sibling understand the rules of a game? Is it teaching when an adolescent helps their grandparent use Skype for the first time? Is there a difference between the child helping their sibling and what occurs in the classroom of a trained professional teacher? In The Teaching Brain Vanessa Rodriguez answers yes to all four questions. Those are all teaching interactions, however, they are each teaching at varied levels of complexity and development.

Rodriguez’s core claim is that classroom teaching is substantially more complex than we imagine it to be. Teaching, unlike learning, is inherently an interaction between teacher and learner. One can learn independently, but you can never teach in isolation. Teaching, like other skills, also has varying degrees of complexity from the reflexive level that primarily uses the midbrain, to high levels of conceptual abstraction requiring a strong understanding of intersectional relationships. This could explain the difference between teaching someone rote memorization of capitol cities and teaching someone the complex power relationships between black citizens of Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department.

This explanation of teaching as a complex interaction represents an important shift from only examining the cognitive demands of the learner to examining the relationship between the cognitive demands on both learner and teacher simultaneously.

In addition to the complexity scale, Rodriguez lays out five areas of awareness that a teacher can grow in order to become more effective as helping others learn new concepts. Each area of awareness can be developed from a very basic level to a highly nuanced and complex level.

  • Awareness of Learner: This is most commonly discussed as a teacher’s knowledge of their students. If I understand that my student loves skateboarding, I can potentially serve them better by making explicit connections between the content in class and their love of skateboarding.  If I do not have this knowledge, I may miss opportunities to engage them in the class.
  • Awareness of Teaching Practice: This awareness is also commonly discussed. This would be a teacher’s understanding of their own pedagogical abilities. This could be thought of as the teacher’s toolbox of techniques and their ability to self-assess their pedagogical skill or classroom management. An example could be that I am aware that I like to facilitate discussion in my social studies classes and I’ve developed particular methods for engaging students in discussion of relevant topics. This area is commonly seen in teacher evaluations.
  • Awareness of Context: The awareness of context is often where we begin to differentiate good teachers from more average teachers. This would be the idea that a teacher may adapt their plans in light of an event or respond to student experience. For example a teacher may abandon their lesson plan when a particularly important current event occurs so that they can help their students explore it. This would be a teacher that takes advantage of “teachable moments” to provide highly relevant instruction.
  • Awareness of Self as Teacher: In my experience this is an undervalued awareness and I only found it actively mentioned in mentoring scenarios. This awareness is understanding how your individual nature impacts your teaching. This means an understanding that my race, gender identity, and cultural background all have an impact on my teaching. This was explicitly brought to my attention in my first year of teaching when a Jewish student specifically asked for my advice on a sensitive topic because I’d identified my Jewish background to the class. It is possible she may have not felt as comfortable coming to me otherwise. Additionally that same piece of my identity may have negatively impacted other students, but regardless of my desires, it has an impact on my teaching that I need to be aware off. My ability to speak Spanish has other unique impacts that I can be aware of.
  • Awareness of Interaction: This last awareness is where Rodriguez introduces particularly new ideas. She claims that it is not sufficient to understand the learner and understand the self, but we must be aware of the unique interaction that occurs when the teacher interacts with a given learner or group of learners. The challenge here is that each interaction is unique and can be highly impacted by the other four categories. My interaction with a given student may change dramatically in a new context and in order to be effective I need to understand that awareness. My interaction with a group of students can also be impacted by my knowledge of their backgrounds and by my awareness of my self as a teacher. This is a highly nuanced awareness and depends significant exploration to fully understand.

Beyond simply naming these categories of awareness, Rodriguez posits that each one has varying degrees of complexity and a given teacher can develop their skill and level of awareness through practice. This is where her research becomes particularly useful to me and my interest in developing new teachers.

As a mentor, I struggled at times to help teachers find a clear way to develop their practice. Many districts use Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching, however, the framework highly emphasizes Awareness of Learner and Awareness of Teaching Practice without significant mention of the Awareness of Context, Self, or Interaction. Additionally, Danielson makes the assumption that the highest degree of teaching skill is for students to be independent yet does not allow for varied contexts where it may be desirable for the teacher to take a more active role, for example during the introduction of new concepts or content. With some additional work to flesh out descriptors and examples for the five areas of awareness at varying levels of complexity, one could have a powerful structure for understanding various pathways to teacher development.

That being said, I would caution against handing such a structure to a teacher, particularly a beginning teacher, and ask them to go develop their awareness. Developing Awareness of Self as a Teacher may include significant introspective work that is best facilitated by a coach or mentor. Additionally the Awareness of Interaction would require extensive reflection and analysis of teaching moments, likely best captured on video and collaboratively analyzed. As such, the five areas of awareness, and their levels of complexity, would be a powerful structure for a new teacher mentor, principal, or an instructional coach. This would provide the person assisting the teacher’s growth with a vocabulary and guidance beyond their own personal experience and as the mentor/mentee role is in many ways a teaching interaction this framework could guide the mentor or coach as well in their own development.

Often in my work as a mentor I found myself searching for meaningful vocabulary to describe the importance of awareness of self. The structure outlined in The Teaching Brain would be helpful to better categorize and explain how to develop. Additionally, the concept of varying cognitive complexity allows for discussions of teacher development even when the classroom appears to be running smoothly. I’ve seen evaluators struggle to discuss improvement when teachers are doing well, and the awareness of self as teacher and awareness of interaction can be continually developed because we change, our students change, and there are always new interactions when we encounter new people in new contexts. This is also not limited to the teacher/student interaction and could be explored as interactions between peers or supervisors in the appropriate context.

I had the opportunity to speak with Rodriguez to explore her ideas further and she is in the process of examining how the brain reacts during the teaching interaction for both teacher and learner. Humans can teach and learn by instinct, and we are continually teaching each other, yet we have little understanding of teaching itself, or what differentiates the highly skilled master teacher in the classroom from the untrained lay person.

We each have an experience with “that one great teacher” who moved us in a particular way, and we can say with confidence that there was something that made the teacher stand above the other teachers, yet we can seldom put that experience into words. My high school English teacher Nancy Jones held me accountable for the quality of my work, but there were also innumerable other interactions we had and decisions she made that are intangible or invisible to me. Something she did put me in a place to be ready to hear her feedback and the integrate that feedback into my own practice. It would be incredible to be able to name and identify those intangible components to better learn from her example and other master teachers.

Teaching in the United States suffers from a powerful lack of credibility. Providing teachers with scripted lessons, fast tracking certification with minimal training, and evaluating teachers based on compliance undermine the concept that a teacher is a highly trained professional. Perhaps through further development of Rodriguez’s initial work we can better understand teaching as a complex interaction between teacher and learner that is highly tailored to the individual’s needs. Perhaps by better understanding that interaction, we can more effectively name the qualities of excellent teaching and, more clearly honor and praise teachers for the work they do.

Excellent teaching should not be magical or random. Excellent teaching must come from training, reflective practice, and dedication to the craft. In order for that to occur we need to better understand teaching itself. With The Teaching Brain, Rodriguez has made an excellent beginning and opened the door for many years of additional research.

Education reform is overflowing with suggestions for what to do. It’s easy to find new ways to differentiate, new ways to incorporate student response, and improved methods for increasing student engagement. Suggestions, recommendations, tips, and tricks abound each one adding to an educator’s tool box, knapsack, and quiver. The implication being that the more robust your repertoire, the more capable you are to meet student needs. Sensible.

A quick scan of Edutopia alone will return more options than a single educator could implement in five years of practice. Randomized student response and cold calling students both improve student participation substantially. Project Based Learning is a fantastic change in practice that requires a lot of work and preparation that can improve outcomes for students. Sometimes, however, it’s what you don’t do that has the most impact.

I’ve written about “Andy” before. He was a student in my AP World History class and I’ve continued to work with him during his time as a running start student. In particular I’ve been working with him on writing for the college application process.

He was asked to respond to the following prompt as part of an application: [Our] students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (100 to 250 words)

Andy was initially a bit perplexed about how to respond so I encouraged him to just write a bunch of ideas and then we’d come back to it and sort out the mess. This was part of our general pattern of working together. Write a bunch of rough stuff and we’ll work it out later. He came back with the following two paragraphs. I’m including them with his permission:

When I was just a bit younger, I was apathetic to education. Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might. The ceaseless snorts and guffaws that erupted from my math teacher did little to improve my feelings about algebra. In the midst of this rather bleak time, I met Mr. McCormick. Mr. McCormick taught AP world history. As much as I disliked math, it was still leagues ahead of my disdain for history.

However, Mr. McCormick introduced something new. He brought a human element. He showed me to the idea that a teacher could care, and in doing so was the first person in years to tell me that if I wanted to build rockets, I should try. While seeing the stars reaffirmed my desire to work in the space industry, I would have never been using the telescope had Mr. McCormick not shifted my attitude to what it is now. I believe that I have intellectual vitality, I have the hunger to learn and the need to improve the world. I’m not sure I would, had it not been for Gabe Mccormick.

I don’t remember the interaction. Andy’s statement that he wanted to go to space didn’t impact me. To me it was one in a series of things kids say: “I want to be an astronaut.” “I want to be a senator.” “I really need to pass this class.” There’s a huge category of things kids say that begin to just wash over you as an educator. My response was likely automatic.

“Mr. McCormick, I want to be an astrophysicist.”

“Cool, go for it.” And then I’d move on.

To me I was acknowledging his participation without making a big deal out of it. To him I was validating his dream.

“Tell a kid to give up on his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.”

What if we reverse the pattern? Tell a kid to pursue his hopes of being an astronaut enough times and he just might.

As educators what we say carries weight. Often far more weight than we imagine. In the way that every one of an artist’s brush strokes are intentional, so should an educator be intentional with their language. In education we talk a lot about how to encourage kids and the danger of negative interaction, but it was never real to me until Andy described it this way. My sentence impacted his life. I gave an automatic response. How much more impact would I have made if my response had been deliberate? In conversation with him about it I asked him what made the difference. He said simply, “You didn’t laugh at me.”

How many other people did laugh at him? How many times does a student offer up a desire to be president, or a scientist, or a rock star and get laughed at? Some students are resilient enough to keep going, or they have support at home, or from peers, but not all of them.

When a student becomes vulnerable and shares their desires our responsibility as educators is to help them see the possibility. I don’t encourage lying to students or misleading them about realities, but far be it from me to shut the door for them. Some of our students only have their teachers for guidance.

Willpower. Not necessarily a new concept. I’ve been thinking of willpower primarily as the ability to activate self control. When one has high willpower they are better able to resist temptation, restrict behavior, and work through the push to act impulsively. I also thought that willpower was fixed. Some people have a lot, some people have a little bit, and that’s all you get. After spending six hours with Kelly McGonigal as part of the New Teacher Center Symposium, I’ve learned that I held an incredibly impoverished view of willpower, how to activate it, and how to grow my own capacity for willpower. After one day, her work on willpower has completely invaded my life.

For McGonigal (a psychologist) willpower encompasses the regulation of three primary impulses: I won’t, I want, and I will. These three components work as a unit to create a willpower system that we activate differently. We may activate willpower to decline dessert, to encourage ourselves to jump off a high dive, or to maintain focus on a long term goal.  All three of these impulses require the work of the prefrontal cortex in different ways and based on our experiences and our neural pathways we are more or less adept at activating different aspects of our willpower.

With a base definition out of the way McGonigal proceeded to add her own definition for willpower layered on top of that three part system, framing issues of willpower as a competition between different versions of our self. These different selves exist concurrently and it is through our willpower that we balance their competing influences in order to create the best version of ourself. The version of ourself that best aligns with our values. By recognizing and accepting this duality we can best leverage and grow our willpower. This is an incredibly empowering concept of willpower as it honors one’s current status and expects growth and change will occur.

Willpower with a Growth Mindset

Central to the entire framework that McGonigal established is the assumption that willpower is a growable skill. In short that Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset for intelligence is immediately applicable to one’s willpower. There’s been research lately around willpower that we have a finite amount of it, and once depleted it needs to be restored. McGonigal did not refute this, however, she made it very clear that this store of willpower, while finite in the short term, is expandable in the long term. This is an extremely important distinction because it means we can get better at leveraging willpower and McGonigal used a muscular model to explain the concept.

In the muscle model of willpower we have to work our willpower much in the same way we develop physically. This means that we can begin to develop our willpower now. It’s an easy misconception to think that we need to fix something before we work on a difficult task, but part of the point of developing willpower is that difficult actions get easier when we take action. It’s the whole point of the growth mindset. Jumping off that high dive looks extremely intimidating until you do it the first time. Do it once, and it’s immediately much easier to do again. The other key component is that we need to see failure as progress. When you’re weightlifting, you regularly push your muscles to the point of fatigue and the recovery day is where your body rebuilds itself you get stronger. You only know your max deadlift by hitting your max, and then failing the next rep. The same goes for willpower. You need to get to the fatigue point in order to know where your limits are, then you recover, recharge your energy, and come back stronger. This can be easily leveraged by setting up willpower challenges for yourself in the same way you’d design a muscular or cardiovascular workout. It’s absolutely fantastic to think that this will work for my willpower in the same way that it works for my posterior muscle chain.

The last important piece of the growth mindset framework for willpower is that the feedback loop has to focus on effort and growth. You improved your ability to resist refined sugar by 10%? Fantastic! Honor that growth and keep growing. Set the next benchmark. You worked really hard to avoid that cigarette, but finally gave in? Honor the effort you put in. You probably resisted longer than you did last time. Respect that you tried, and try again next time. Beating yourself up for failure won’t help. In fact, beating yourself up over failure or relapse completely undermines the growth mindset and often encourages us to double down on the coping mechanisms or behaviors we’re trying so hard to change. We need to act from a place of compassion and forgiveness for ourselves.

Willpower Requires Self-Connection and Compassion

This is where McGonigal’s talk seriously opened a crack in my reality. I could easily accept that willpower is potentially infinite and we can develop it through practice. That concept fits for me right next to my thinking about a growth mindset, but when I hit the failure wall with willpower I’m pretty quick to apply some guilt and try to shame myself into correcting the behavior. The theory goes like this: I hate that I procrastinate, so if I give myself the third degree when I procrastinate then I’ll be motivated to stop procrastinating. Right? Wrong.

Turns out that doesn’t work. When we apply shame or guilt to an action (or lack of action) we encourage ourselves to apply the coping mechanism that we already use and we run back to familiar neural pathways. When I berate myself for procrastinating I make it more likely that I will continue to procrastinate because I want to avoid the feelings associated with thinking about procrastination. Simply put, you can’t shame or guilt yourself into improvement. You need to honor the fact that the self that wants to procrastinate and the self that wants to change that behavior coexist in you. This may be frustrating to think about the self that procrastinates, but it also means that your best self already exists. You just have to activate it.

In order to facilitate this process McGonigal claims that self compassion and forgiveness is the proper path forward. By practicing self-compassion we can be mindful of our stress, suffering, and failure, without perseverating on them. This allows us to act from a position of non-attachment and without judgment. (McGonigal definitely has some semi-covert Buddhism going on in her work.) By doing that we can perform what she calls “self-mentoring,” meaning that we can advise ourselves as a mentor or coach would: maintaining big picture perspective, and encouraging corrective action instead of perseverating on our failures. This is extremely important because it’s so easy to spiral in on ourselves and dwell in our perceived failure without performing the necessary actions to correct for that failure. By removing our self-attachment, while still acting from a position of self-compassion we can remove judgment, which can be paralytic, and act.

Know Yourself

The cherry on top of the self-compassion sundae is self-connection. If willpower is making decisions that align with our long term goals when those goals conflict with short term rewards, then we can only properly exercise our willpower if we understand our long term goals. Similarly, if willpower helps us maintain a personal agenda when other try to hijack it, we need to be sure enough of our personal agenda that we are confident that the agenda of others is inappropriate. Therefore in order to use our willpower effectively we need to know ourselves and understand our goals.

I did not initially expect this, however, it became immediately clear when McGonigal explained it by saying that when we feel a weak connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our current self, while if we feel a strong connection to our future self we are more likely to make decisions that benefit our future self. Said another way, if we don’t know what we want in the future, we ignore it, and focus on the present. This immediately highlighted the importance of self-reflection to our ability to grow our willpower. If I want to stop eating sugar, and eat some celery instead, I need to have a very clear image of the long term benefit of eating less sugar. Without that clear image I’m weighing an immediate, concrete, desire to eat sugar against a vague image of “I want to be healthy.” This vague goal simply cannot compete against the concrete desire for sweet things.

To this end McGonigal introduced a practice of vividly imagining self defining future moments from a self-compassionate perspective. She described it as creating future memory. Want to get fit? Create the most detailed image of yourself being fit as you possibly can. What will you look like? Where will you exercise? What will you eat? How will it taste? What will it smell like? What does it feel like to be covered in sweat? What’s it going to feel like when you do push-ups until you fatigue? The more completely you can create that future memory, the more clear your target is for your willpower. By concretizing (new vocab word!) your long term goal, you make it easier to make decisions that lead you do that goal and you begin thinking about the process by which you can achieve it. You’re building pathways that support your willpower to replace your current neural pathways.

Conclusion

Willpower is about control. Physiologically, It’s about using your prefrontal cortex to rationally control your midbrain urges. In more everyday terms it’s about subordinating your immediate urges in favor of your more long-term goals for yourself.

It turns out this is pretty difficult. Those immediate impulses are strong, and there are a myriad of internal and environmental factors that encourage us to act on impulse. We are well trained to listen to our midbrain In order to more reliably act in support of our long-term goals we need to practice and grow our willpower. This includes creating a concrete image of our future self, thus allowing more equal competition between long-term goal, and immediate impulse. We also need to reframe willpower and failure within the framework of a growth mindset. This allows challenge to become a growth opportunity, and failure becomes a learning experience. Lastly we need to practice a mindful acceptance of our failures as observation without judgment. This will allow us to understand the influences that cause us to submit to impulse while viewing ourselves with compassion, thus helping us to stop perseverating on failure, and encouraging positive action.

This five hour talk has seriously invaded my life. It’s only been a couple days and I already know that I will continue to reorganize and apply the information to my work as an instructional mentor, my work as a spouse, and my work as a human being. There are significant portions of McGonigal’s work that I’ve omitted (like her excellent presentation technique and her focus on the role of the physical in developing willpower) for the sake of space, and I’m sure, as with Mindset, I will be continually revisiting these concepts.

We’re coming up on the semester in my district, and it’s a good time to take stock of the year so far and think about opportunities to make changes.  So far nearly all of my teachers have been working in triage mode, responding reactively to address needs as they arise, always working to prevent getting overwhelmed.  They tend to move from one problem to the next with a high degree of presentism.  Similarly, I’ve been working reactively with my teachers, targeting those teachers that I perceive to have the highest needs, and trying to get everyone to a baseline of “this job is doable” before deeply pushing practice.  I want to change this in the second semester both for myself and the teachers I work with so that we can push a more philosophical and transformational approach to developing a teaching persona.

To this end I’m scheduling midyear reflection meetings with each teacher. In each of these meetings I’m specifically blocking out time to move our discussions away from the day to day issues and to look at first semester holistically, then setting focus areas for our work in the second semester.  In light of my previous thoughts on structuring discussion, I’ve put together a template for the discussion, something of a hybrid between open discussion, and a formal protocol.

The process works as follows with room for individual variation:

Step 1: Begin with an informal post winter break check-in to reestablish the teacher/coach relationship.

This is a quick way to reconnect and remind teachers that I am focused on supporting them as an individual person within the teaching role.  They are a human being first, and a teacher second.  A trusting relationship is essential to all of our work together, and therefore I need to remember to deliberately inject micro moments of relationship building into the process.  I cannot simply jump straight into the work and assume that a relationship will follow.  I need to intentionally build collegiality and trust so that my teachers will feel comfortable being vulnerable with me.

Step 2: Explain purpose of mid-year reflection.

The purpose of the meeting is to explicitly step away from the day to day, reactive, work of teaching.  Put aside the discipline issues, step away from evaluations, and put down the grading.  By stepping back like this we are able to get a more holistic perspective to the work, and we can move in a more proactive direction.  This wider perspective is commonly lost on teachers, and they are unable to see bigger patterns in their work due to a myriad of immediate needs.

In addition to the shift in focus, the timing of the meeting is highly intentional.  I am a big proponent of making change immediately once a need is identified, however, some changes (such as a change to grading system) need to wait until the semester.  Additionally, my teachers with semester classes have a chance to completely reset the structure of their course.  With a structured conversation that reflects on first semester, and makes plans for second semester, I can help teachers put their desires into practice at a logical time while continuing to act against the sentiment of, “next year I’d like to…”

Step 3: Move into a reflection on successes to date.

I specifically address successes before areas of growth because of how infrequently my teachers discuss their own success.  Whether from a sense of humility, high standards, or a lack of perspective my teachers rarely lead with discussing their successes.  Self-critique is far more common.  While thoughtful critique of areas of growth is extremely important, it is also important for my teachers to be able to identify and name their areas of strength.  This serves to boost teacher morale at a difficult time in the school year, as well as to improve teachers’ reflective accuracy.  Appropriately identifying areas of strength and success, is equally important to identifying weaknesses when building a teacher’s ability to self- assess.

In practice, I find that teachers have many more success than they initially give themselves credit for.  By taking the time to think critically about success, and not just failure, we can investigate how to maintain successful practices, and how to extend those patterns of success into new areas of instruction.  This serves as an important foundation for creating longterm patterns of growth.

Step 4: Ask teacher what they would like to add to their list of successes.

I’ve found great success wording the transition from discussing success to growth as “now that you’ve identified your success so far, what would you like to add to the list?”

This question does two things that benefit the teacher.  Initially, this wording honors the list of success and places value on them.  There is an agreement between teacher and coach that the previously identified successes are valid.  This confirmation is an important piece of feedback that helps teachers improve their self-reflection.

Secondly, there is an assumption inherent in the question that it is possible to grow the list of success, thus reinforcing a growth mindset.  This is a subtle move, and extremely important.  Continued growth is an essential component of success, and I want the teacher to work from an assumption that these are workable goals.  When I, as a coach, assume that my teachers are capable of growth, it makes it easier for them to grow in those areas.  This is also an act of modeling.  I show that I operate with an assumption of continued growth, and teachers can take that into their working in the classroom to help students grow.

Step 5:  Explore how to begin making progress toward those new items.

This is the step where we move from the reflective stage into practical planning.  We prioritize from the collaboratively generated list of ideas, and start to lay out the steps by which these areas will be developed.  This step is highly differentiated based on the specific needs of the teachers, but the goal is to turn the plans for growth into a reality.  The process can vary from a few simple interventions where a teacher needs exposure to new ideas, or it can be a more involved process that requires a teacher to think deeply about their identity as a teacher, and what that means for how to structure their classroom.

So far this process is going well.  I am only part way through my caseload, and I am seeing meaningful gains.  For some teachers this includes managing difficult teaching assignments, for some it is establishing more collegial relationships with their co-workers, and for others it is finding the personal strength to forge their own path despite external pressure to conform.  I am hoping that these midyear meetings will establish the focus I found lacking in the first semester.  I also hope that from our first semester work my teachers are empowered with the skills needed to work through many of the smaller issues with teaching more independently, thus allowing me to focus on developing their persona as a teacher and honing the more philosophical aspects of the profession through the second semester.

It’s that time of year again. Students and teachers are anxiously preparing for winter break, a much needed respite from the day in, day out, school routine. Meanwhile, governments, and media are pouring over the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam.

Do a quick search on the PISA exam and you’ll find all kinds of articles wondering “Are American Students Falling Behind the World?” or “Can’t We Do Better?” These aren’t terrible questions necessarily, but they’re misguided.
“Can’t we do better” is not an interesting question to me. Yes. We could do better on the PISA exam, and other international exams. More compelling is figuring out whether we should; whether this is the proper target for our energy.

Assessment informs instruction and you get what you measure. This makes sense. If you measure how far you can run without stopping, that’s what your subject will improve on. Your speed may not improve, but your ability to run long distances without stopping should. If you measure students test scores on an exam, that’s what will improve. Should we improve our scores on an exam? Well, that depends on what the exam measures. What’s most important is to ensure that our measure aligns with our intended outcomes.

Let’s stick with running for a bit. Imagine that Jane is trying to get faster. She wants to run a mile in under six minutes. As a coach, it stands to reason then that I should measure how fast she can complete one mile of running and include interventions that will help her run a faster mile time. Measuring how quickly she completes a 5K run, or measuring how far she can run without stopping do not provide the data that lets me know if she’s progressing toward her goal. Just because I’m capable of collecting these other kinds of data, doesn’t mean I should collect them. In fact if I measure data that does not inform the goal (such as distance without stopping) I may try to implement interventions that hinder the initial goal. Strength training is essential to improving times over shorter distances, less important to increasing a runner’s endurance.

The same holds true in education. I need to set goals for what I want to improve in education and measure accordingly. At every level of education, from the individual classroom, all the way up to Arne Duncan’s office, the first question has to be: “what do we want to improve?” (The follow up question is “how do you know that’s the right choice,” but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Do we really want to improve PISA scores? Does PISA measure the data that we want? Is that the best goal we can come up with? I really hope there’s something more interesting that’s getting discussed at the Department of Education. You want to improve PISA scores? Ok here’s a freebie: figure out what the test measures. Teach it. Go home satisfied.

My challenge to education reform is that we can do better. Measuring changes in test scores is certainly easy, but they tell us little. Learning is an extremely complex system the is influenced by countless variables including, but by no means limited to: parents’ education level, income, age, physical health, mental health, peer group, and class size. Let’s work on developing more complex measures of student learning. I’m much more interested in whether students can create a reasoned argument, if they are curious, if they have the social-emotional ability to sustain effort, if they have a growth mindset, and if they’re interested in developing their community. Ability to take a standardized test does not inspire me.

I’m missing the argument for why PISA is a good assessment. Everywhere you look there’s a push for better scores, but no reflection on the value of those improved scores. We’re making an assumption that improving these scores will tell us that education is solved, and that’s simply untrue.  Shanghai tops the chart regularly, and their students work in an extremely competitive environment centered entirely around improving scores on exams. Singapore also scores well on PISA and their government spends large amounts of money on consultants to help shift focus off of standardized exams in order to build in more time for discussion and student-centered education. There is evidence that some of Japan’s intense bullying in schools is a reaction to extreme academic pressure to succeed. Is this what we want to create?

PISA scores are easy. We can count and stack rank anything we want. I am suspect of an easy solution to a complex problem. Improving our scores on international exams won’t fix our education system. In fact, when controlling for child poverty the United States scores extremely well already. Ability to follow instructions, and do what you’re told is not invaluable, however it is not enough. We need citizens capable of critical thought and if we want our students to improve their critical thinking, we should model it for them by thinking critically about how we measure academic achievement and how we define successful education.

I would normally say that I don’t believe in protocols for structuring discussion.  Oh they work.  But I don’t need them.  They work for other people.  I know how to participate in and lead discussion. I don’t need the strict structure.  In fact, the strict method of a protocol just gets in the way of quality conversation.  My mind got changed last week.

As part of a series of professional learning my district has the fortune of working with Mark Church from the Harvard Project Zero and Visible Thinking.  The first part of his work is rooted in the power of protocols for structuring conversation around difficult topics.  In our first session Church had participants practice a protocol for sharing aspects of our practice (in this case a success).  It works in groups of at least three participants as follows:

  1. The presenter tells the story of their success (3 minutes)
  2. The listening group members ask clarifying questions of the presenter (5 minutes)
  3. The listening group members discuss why the presenter was successful (5 minutes)
  4. The presenter reflects verbally on what they heard in step 3 (3 minutes)
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for the remaining group members

I entered into the protocol with minimal faith in it’s effectiveness, however, being a good student, my group committed to following the protocol with fidelity.  I was very happy to have my initial cynicism proven wrong.  In both the listener and presenter role I learned a great deal about myself and my colleagues and found the protocol to be extremely effective.

When I was in the listener role I discovered how one of my colleagues defines success.  For her success is a partnership.  When she collaborates, or when she can find teamwork she is successful as a mentor.  She is successful when the whole group succeeds.  As she was describing her success in step one I immediately found myself relating her story back to my interactions with her and many puzzle pieces began to slide into place.  This process helped me understand how central collaboration is to her, and this should help me work more effectively with her in the future because I understand her values more completely.

The listener role also helped me definite my own success to share when I took the presenter role.  Initially I was unable to come up with a success that I though was worthy of discussion.  When my colleague shared her success, and defined her process for helping her teacher, I was able to apply that to my own practice and redefine what I thought of as “good enough.”

The presenter role was much more difficult than the listener role for me.  I found that in order to share a legitimate success I had to be extremely vulnerable and trust my teammates.  This is where the protocol proved its worth.  Since I knew that I had time to explain my story (3 minutes) and that there was built in time for clarifying questions (5 minutes), I was confident that my colleagues would not get the wrong impression, and if there was a miscommunication it could be rectified.  This knowledge helped me relax into the process and allowed me to share more authentically.  Additionally I found the time when the 2 listening members of the group to be incredibly empowering as my colleagues found more aspects of success in my story than I had initially identified.

The result of the entire process was that I was able to understand my own success more completely and I was better able to see the value in my colleagues’ work.  This is an enormous gain for very minimal output.  I am confident that if Church had said “share about your successes” we would have had a much less productive conversation.  The protocol forced me out of my comfort zone by forcing me to listen without responding, and by forcing me to share about my successes, and I am better for it.

Nancy Jones taught English during my junior and senior years at Interlake High School.  When I had her she’d been teaching since the opening of the school in 1962.  My senior year was her last year at the school.  She was notoriously difficult and had a reputation for being a very tough grader.  She would regularly use words that left students (and often colleagues) scratching their heads.  This woman did not suffer fools.  I’ve been extremely privileged in my education.  I’ve been blessed with powerful educators at all levels of my formal and informal schooling.  Nancy Jones is the single greatest teacher I have ever had and I never told her.

Dear Ms. Jones,

Thank you for dedicating your life to teaching belligerent and uncooperative teenagers.  Thank you for being unwilling to accept mediocrity.  Thank you for your deep commitment to equity and equality of educational opportunity.  Thank you for never surrendering.

In my junior year of high school my motivation for quality was strictly limited to “good enough for a B” because that was the threshold for my parents leaving me alone.  (I discovered this threshold during my freshman year.)  I had a firmly established policy of putting in the absolute minimum amount of work to get a B, and by my junior year I was seriously testing the line.  To this end my pattern was to quickly write up an essay the night before it was due, turn it out without revision, and see where the grade fell.  I generally had no trouble landing in the acceptable range.  Until I hit your class.

In your class I tried this method and was met with words that changed my world: “You need to rewrite this.  I know you can do better.”  This rocked me to my core.  I’d never had a teacher hold me accountable for my best.  Good enough was always good enough and here you were telling me that I would have to work hard, and that through working hard I would improve.

Reworking that essay forced me to examine my understanding of the purpose of writing assignments.  I was firmly rooted in a fixed mindset that linked my writing ability to doing the least work and earning the highest grade.  I thought my work was excellent because I did well with little effort and you were telling me otherwise.  When you handed back the paper and made me revise it, you reminded me that the lowest acceptable level of work is one’s best work.  You also showed me, in no uncertain terms, what it really means to have high standards.

At the time I thought you were being mean.  I thought you were being a hard grader.  I thought you didn’t like me.  I didn’t realize that your insistence on nothing less than my best came from a place of unending compassion and caring.  I know now that you believe each and every human being capable of deep thinking and excellence.  I know it because you never dumbed things down.  You never lowered your standards.  You never gave in to protestation, and you, without fail, always called out students like myself who were disrespecting your class through mediocre effort.

Ms. Jones: I learned how to work hard in your class and I am forever grateful.  I learned the importance of universal respect in your class.  I learned not to suffer fools.  I cannot, at this moment, name all of the books we read in your class, (I do remember that you called me out for not having read Pride and Prejudice when I tried to skate by on another essay.) but I do remember your presence, your compassion, and your never-ending pursuit of the best in everyone.

Since your class I’ve become a social studies and AVID teacher, including three years at Interlake, and I am now mentoring novice teachers as they begin their work.  Your lessons and beliefs stay with me every day, from the continual demand for excellence, down to the specifics of how to write strong analysis.  Your legacy lives in the students’ who, like myself, are forever bettered as a result of your work.  Thank you.

With eternal gratitude,

Gabriel McCormick class of 2001

PS: No, this letter is not a rough draft.