Everybody’s Talking About Equity, but Nobody Knows the Meaning of the Word.

A title aptly pulled, by Dr. Ronald Ferguson, from lyrics to Mose Allison’s Everybody’s Crying Mercy.

This particular talk was structured as three mini-talks followed by some panel discussion all linked to a convening of graduates from Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program. Each of the speakers is a graduate of the program and a current urban superintendent. A full video of the talk can be found on the Harvard Askwith Forum website.

The speakers included Dr. Jennifer Cheatham from Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, Dr. Joseph Davis from Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri, and Dr. Steven Zrike the receiver for Holyoke Public Schools in Massachusetts. Each superintendent in turn outlined their perspective on equity and a description of the work they’re doing to improve equitable experiences for each and every student in their respective districts. The three then convened as a panel to address audience questions.

Madison Metropolitan:
Superintendent Cheatham began by directly linking equity to excellence. Cheatham presented a claim that in order to understand equity we must first develop a common understanding of academic excellence for students, educators, schools, and administration. Once  we define that standard of excellence, equity work then becomes the task of ensuring that each and every person in the system receives what they need to attain excellence. When framed this way, equity can be focused on ensuring success in a tangible way.

In Madison, Cheatham is particularly focused on leveraging discipline disparities by limiting punitive measures and establishing a system of restorative justice in their place. This is a strong example of one way that central administration can lead through explicit policies and her initial results appear very promising.

I resonated strongly with Cheatham’s emphasis on setting a clear focus for equity work based on a foundation of shared vision. Too often I’ve experienced equity work being displaced or put on a back burner because the work is hard or abstract. By establishing a very clear shared vision of the work, participants are increasingly able to engage. Additionally, Cheatham emphasized the importance of a sustained focus citing that work for educational equity requires dedication and it can’t simply be one of a laundry list of initiatives. Everything that schools do must attack disparities in order to make movement.

Superintendent Davis from Ferguson-Florissant School District began by naming what everyone was wondering. He sought out the Ferguson-Florissant superintendency specifically because of the political issues that arose after Michael Brown was killed. Davis focused largely on his transition out of his previous district and into Ferguson-Florissant making sure to note the importance of smooth transition to ensure continuity.

Davis emphasized the importance of taking time to listen to a wide range of stakeholders in an effort to understand the existing issues before making sweeping change. That being said, Davis made clear the importance of taking action and his office is focusing on adjusting policies that create roadblocks to equity and growing leadership capacity for tackling issues of equity.

Davis’ definition of equity was very clear and concise saying that it is: “about where we put our resources, [how we] identify needs, and provide to those in need.”

Dr. Zrike is in a somewhat different situation given that he is a state receiver of a “Level 5” turnaround school district. As such Zrike has the opportunity to move very quickly with a unique degree of freedom. Despite this unique freedom, Zrike also mentioned the importance of listening to the community and cautioned against moving to quickly.

In his remarks Zrike agreed that equity and excellence are inextricably linked to one another, yet he emphasized that it is impossible to fire your way to excellence. As such he is taking responsibility for the current staff and the community with the explicit goal of making Holyoke’s schools the first choice for all members of the community.

As an example of the institutional inequities, Zrike cited that while the district is 80% Latino and 20% white, preparations are already underway (in October) for the St. Patrick’s day parade, while there are no systematic preparations for Latino heritage month.

Like the other two superintendents, Zrike has a clear vision that equity means something specific. In this case he defined it as “all kids engaged in cognitively challenging work,” and it is the school district’s responsibility to ensure that the cognitively challenging work is taking place.

There was a consistent message across all three superintendents that the work of equity is extremely challenging because it involves a distribution of resources and in order to sustain the work strong, courageous, and confident leadership is required. That being said, all three superintendents also cited that in order to effectively address issues of race and racism, school districts need to bring in experts. Davis was the most direct saying that while he has a set of life experiences as a black man, that does not necessarily make him an expert on dismantling racist institutions. He needs additional expertise for that and the other two superintendents immediately echoed his thoughts.

Additionally, each of them expressed a sense of urgency to the work citing local and national issues and the importance of taking direct action. Many districts talk in bold, yet vague, terms about pushing for educational equity and it was encouraging to see three superintendents cite specific examples of work they are doing in order to bring more equity to their respective districts. Cheatham cited the implementation of new restorative justice processes, Davis discussed moving high quality teachers to the neediest schools, and Zrike described programming to re-engage students who have dropped out of schools. Each of these items represents a specific action directly focused on developing a more equitable student experience. Each superintendent is relatively new to their position and I look forward to seeing their progress and sustained focus over time.

November Learning’s Building Learning Communities conference (BLC) offers participants the opportunity to “join colleagues from around the world who care deeply about bringing the best innovative and practical learning resources to our students,” saying that the conference will “provide [participants] with inspiration, practical skills and expand your professional network with educators from around the world.” BLC does exactly what it says it does. The conference offers a fully stocked smorgasbord of new ideas, resources, and possibilities. After three straight days at BLC, my OneNote pages and Twitter mentions runneth over.

This is not the worst problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless. In the face of overwhelming information I have a strong instinct to hole up with my prior knowledge instead of opening myself to new ideas.

The three days are absolutely packed and each day offers a full-conference keynote followed by 5 sessions of 90 minutes each with no substantial breaks. There’s a sense of great value (540 minutes of structured learning time per day is a lot) but, with three straight 9 hour days I didn’t make it through a full program on any day. Instead I chose to take one session off each day to network, eat lunch, or process my learning, and I’m glad I did.

Logistical concerns aside the conference had a stated goal, so to what extent did BLC live up to its mission to provide inspiration, practical skills, and an expanding professional network?


I’m definitely inspired as a result of the conference, most directly as a result of the keynote addresses. Keynotes exist to provide some thematic framing to a conference and to inspire so it makes sense that I found them inspiring. It was particularly encouraging to see a theme of continuous educator growth emerge from the six keynote presenters. Dylan Wiliam was the most extreme saying that teachers who do not believe they can continue growing should be fired, but each presenter shared a message that we need to honor teachers’ continuous growth, highlighting that evaluating teachers is not the same as growing them. This aligned directly with my own perspective that while teacher evaluation is important, it is meaningless if we do not take actions to improve all our teachers’ abilities.

I was also inspired by Jennie Magiera’s statement that every educator should have an IEP. Wilian echoed this by saying that every educator should have something specific that they’re working on in addition to any district goals or initiatives. I like the idea of explicitly naming what an educator is working on so that we can encourage collaboration, and as a way to help remove the stigma of working for improvement. I hope to find a way to authentically incorporate a practice like this into the professional learning structure in my district.

Beyond the keynote addresses, I was also inspired by a session highlighting the work of students in the Model UN class at Thomas Edison CTE High School in Jamaica Queens, New York. These students, fed up with simply talking about the world’s problems as “constant redundant tragedy”, choose to do work to change create positive change. Through three years of this class they’ve connected with a girl’s school in Pakistan helping them to raise money for walls and to construct working solar panels in order to provide more reliable power to the school. One student went so far as to say “Model UN made [him] want to be a mechanical engineer,” how many students leave their senior year social studies class saying that?

This is not an AP class. This is not a gifted and talented class. This is a regular class of seniors where their teachers got out of the way enough so the students can find their own path to creating impact. Most inspiring was the student who, described the importance of a class where “you can state your opinion and [there’s] not a teacher telling you ‘no you can’t do that’, but a bunch of students saying ‘yes we can do this.” This was a powerful reminder that our students want to engage with meaningful work and that by getting out of their way adults can help facilitate excellence. We won’t find excellence by limiting students to drill and kill worksheets. If we open doors for them and let them cut their own path they will walk through those doors and blaze that trail. We can help them remember that we have their backs while letting them lead.


If this segment is measured in the number of online tools I was introduced to than this conference goes to 11. In session after session presenters flew through a mind blowing arsenal of possible tools ranging from the broad (Twitter, WordPress, Google+, Paper by 53) to the specific (Verso, Prism, HitRecord, 5 Card Flickr); not to mention a host of links to thought leaders, videos, blogs, and MOOCs. The online resources are legion.

I do not, however, measure practical success by the number of tools I am exposed to. I measure it by the number of resources I’m likely to use, and that number is fairly low. The number is not low due to a lack of quality. I expect that many of the tools that presenters recommended are quite excellent, but I didn’t work with any of them long enough to find out if they fit my style. I found more value in the sessions that explored one or two resources instead of the resource samplers. One session in particular provided an overview of the Influencer Framework and while it was only an introduction to the work, I feel like I know enough to do something with it. By contrast, another session introduced me to for all of thirty seconds before moving on to the next resource. I don’t know very much about the tool and I am frankly unlikely to go back and vet each resource I was exposed to.

The resource dump sessions feel a lot like being sprayed with an information hose (credit to Walter Parker for the metaphor) and by the end of three days of getting hosed, I’m feeling rather wet and I just want to change into dry clothes and curl up on the couch. It can be frustrating to unexpectedly attend a resource dump session and I left a few feeling a bit ambushed. Though this session format is rather inefficient, I see potential benefit to these sessions and it would be great if they could be identified in the schedule, allowing participants to make more informed decisions. One or two like this would have been fine. Five was far too many.


Despite the packed schedule, the conference did well here, or perhaps, I did well. There was little about the conference that actively pushed or encouraged me to network with others and it would have been very easy for me to go through the conference session by session without any meaningful human interaction. Similarly, few presenters encouraged dialogue during their sessions and there were minimal opportunities for personal interaction in the interstitial moments between sessions.

Despite these constraints, I made a choice to actively pursue networking throughout the three days. To this end I actively tweeted during sessions and I’m coming away with 20-30 new followers on Twitter and while it’s not a huge number, it’s more than I would have if I’d simply taken notes silently.

This active Twitter presence paid off a couple more times. On the third day, while tweeting Jamie Magiera’s keynote, I received a direct message from Chris Davis asking me if I wanted to be interviewed for his podcast. He specifically asked because he’d seen me tweeting and liked what he read on my blog. It would have been easy to decline, saying I had a session to go to, one I was excited to attend no less, but I chose the interview over the session. This interview then led to another opportunity when Chris connected me with Bob Greenberg and I did a short video for the Brainwaves Video Anthology. (I’ll embed my video when it goes live.) None of these opportunities would have come up just by taking notes and attending the sessions one after the other. I had to actively pursue networking in order to make it happen. It was a good reminder about the importance of planning and intentionality.


BLC definitely has it’s own feel. It’s a bit like stepping directly into Alan November’s brain. There are tons of ideas bouncing around at light speed and some of them are bound to slam into you. The conference is not without its faults, yet from within the chaos patterns emerged when I allowed them to. There were consistent messages about the value of students owning their own learning and the importance of continuous growth. It’s a shame, however, that most of these stories of authentic student learning and continuous growth were delivered in a fairly straightforward lecture format. Keynote speaker Jennie Magiera went so far as to let us all know that she was self aware of the problematic nature of communicating with nothing but her voice and some slides, but continued using the dominant form nonetheless. I look forward to when we use what we know about best practices for students with adults as well. This takes a level of intentionality on behalf of presenters to treat their sessions like a classroom or a learning experience, and not just an overview of what they do. Are we interested in exposing educators to new ideas, or do we want to help facilitate a more substantial change in practice? The conference had the former in spades and left me looking for the latter.

I fully expect that the conference will have more impact on me than I can name at this moment. It’s very likely that I will keep revisiting my notes from the various sessions to explore the ideas presented to me. For example, I know that Amy Burvall’s presentation on remix and mashup has me thinking about concepts of blending and appropriation in education. I’m not leaving with specific, named, or explicit pieces of learning that I plan to implement. The learning is more abstract and ethereal at the moment, but perhaps it will coalesce over the next few months.

“Let us begin by rethinking the position that urban schools are failing.”

(Not failing? Are these guys nuts? How can they possibly think that urban schools are successful?)

“On the one hand, urban schools are producing academic failure at alarming rates; at the same time, they are doing this inside a systematic structural design that essentially predetermines their failure. This is where the urban school reform rhetoric has missed the mark. It has presumed that urban schools are broken. Urban schools aren’t broken; they are doing exactly what they are designed to do.” (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, 2008, p. 1)

art_of_critical_pedagogy_coverSo begins Jeffery Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell’s book, The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools. From this powerful opening their position is clear. Urban schools exist within a system of structural oppression and inequity, however, instead of telling the story we all know so well of failing students, underfunded schools, and frustrated adults, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell counter that narrative by providing examples of hope and success in the face of structural oppression. As the title suggests, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell examine how by using a combination of high quality pedagogy and critical theory (deemed critical pedagogy) we can change the dominant narrative and provide a humanizing education to urban youth.

The authors intentionally write directly to the practicing teacher yet acknowledging that while they “have written this text to appeal to practicing teachers as well as teacher educators, [they] recognize that it remains a text that will primarily be accessed by teacher educators and university-based scholars.” The authors also acknowledge the challenge  of writing texts that are theoretically sophisticated and immediately applicable for teachers. With The Art of Critical Pedagogy I think they got close to that mark. The text is definitely theoretically sophisticated and even if it is not immediately applicable to a teachers’ context, there is enough hear that a group of colleagues could draw the appropriate links from the structures Duncan-Andrade and Morrell present to their own curricula. A key component of this text’s accessibility is chapter 2 in which the authors provide a phenomenal summary of key components of critical pedagogy theory. Each pedagogue is presented with enough depth and enough clarity that the distinctions are easily understandable. Chapter 2 alone could be used very effectively as a primer on critical pedagogy before going on to read Freire, Darder, Giroux, or any of the others mentioned in more detail.

The authors place themselves firmly in Paulo Freire’s footsteps stating their book: “reports from a theoretically informed, inquiry-based practice that is a direct response to Freire’s (1997) call for critical and reflective journaling of the pedagogical process.” (preface) In doing this, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell solidify their theoretical roots while engaging in praxis to turn theory into practice. This is what makes The Art of Critical Pedagogy unique. This combined role of researcher and practitioner positions the authors to uniquely straddle academia and urban schools, allowing them to bring academia to the schools and to bring the schools to academia. The authors live and model the reality that they envision for their students.

Beyond the strong theoretical foundation, The Art of Critical Pedagogy is essentially an example of praxis and the heart of the book (chapters 3-6) comprises a series of case examples where the authors used critical pedagogy in order to improve academic outcomes for urban youth in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Each case example has unique characteristics, but in each case the authors are able to actualize their theory by combining access to the traditional academic curriculum while also helping students access culturally relevant content and skills. This allows students success by mainstream values (defined as white and middle class) while maintaining their cultural identities. This is the key of critical pedagogy, students see multiple forms of success and do not have to choose between them.

In addition to helping their students find success while maintaining their own identities, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell see to actively refute the narrative of the failing urban high school student. Throughout the text the authors describe intentionally teaching students to reflect on and understand the structures that act on them, explicitly teaching their students critical theory using Freire, Gramsci, and Solorzano & Delgado-Bernal with “underachieving” high school students. These readings alone would be a refutation of the narrative of failure and apathy that dominates discussions of urban youth.

Another example of how Duncan-Andrade and Morrell look to challenge dominant narratives, increase their students academic skills, and help them maintain their cultural identity is through the use of content relevant to urban youth culture. Thanks to voices like Chris Emdin and his #HipHopEd discussions, it is increasingly less controversial to use hip-hop in the classroom, however, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell situate hip-hop directly next to traditional poetry texts. In doing so they allowed the students to draw comparisons between the texts thus helping close the distance between the students’ culture and the culture of power; without abandoning either. Comparative analysis of Shakespeare, John Donne, The Fugees, and Tupac promotes border crossing and tolerance by “helping students arrive at an implicit understanding of what they have in common with those they have been taught to perceive as different.” (p. 52) By helping their students create connections to the traditional canon through hip-hop, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell provide them with authentic reasons to understand the work which will help them find academic success.

Duncan-Andrade and Morrell could have stopped with their class linking hip-hop and poetry. It had great success. However, they went beyond this by accessing students through sports and their local communities. Most compelling to me is the chapter on engaging students in participatory action research for social change through the Doc Ur Block project. All too often the standard narrative is that research is academically challenging and low performing students need to master the basics before they can do this more challenging work. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell explicitly refute this by engaging students as primary researchers. If our work is to develop a humanizing pedagogy that helps marginalized and oppressed people become knowledge producers (Freire), how better to do it than by putting them front and center in the research process? Instead of their traditional status as research subjects, the authors asked their students to be researchers. This is the same basic premise as gifted education looking for students to “own their learning” and create authentic intellectual work. By structuring the research project within students’ community Duncan-Andrade and Morrell engaged their students in very high levels of academic work in which they conducted community surveys, facilitated class discussions, and presented their work to authentic communities of their classmates, graduate students, practicing teachers, and community members.

Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s claim is the same one John Dewey wrote one hundred years prior in 1907: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” Our most disenfranchised students need the most work with engagement. Remedial drills will not make up the gap. All of Duncan-Andrade and Morrell’s structures are paralleled by the Buck Institute’s structure for “Gold Standard Project Based Learning,” a structure often cited for increasing challenge for academically gifted students. Struggling students in urban schools are equally deserving of an academically rigorous, relevant, and authentic school environment.

The authors do not pretend that their work is a panacea to the challenges of urban education. In none of the cases did they fully redefine the schools they taught in. They do, however, have a proof of concept that needs to be taken to scale. Much like Freire’s request for additional work documenting critical pedagogy in action, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell make an explicit call for more work in the area with more writing on the practical components of conducting critical pedagogy that humanizes the oppressed. I wish I’d had this book during my second year of teaching. I had a group of students that I struggled to reach and I think the critical pedagogy described by Duncan-Andrade and Morrell would have served them well. I was experimenting at the edges, asking students to write their own poetry and including examples from hip-hop, but I did not have an awareness of the need to actively empower students and intentionally teach them about the hidden curriculum of schools. I used the techniques as a hook for engagement, but I did not go beyond that into more fundamental learning. Current school systems do not make critical pedagogy easy to implement, but the authors have proved it can be done.  Through collegial support and active coaching currently practicing teachers can make the necessary changes in order to support their students.

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.


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.