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Teaching

There are times when teachers see immediate results of their work.  Times when a student has that elusive lightbulb moment, or when the student implements a taught skill without prompting.  These immediate validations of a teacher’s effort are infrequent at best, and often quite rare.  Teaching is a long term process in which positive impact is regularly delayed until years after when the student and teacher have lost contact.  Teachers rarely have the chance to understand how their work impacts students in the long term.  I recently received an email from a former student that highlighted just how rare it is to hear from a student after they leave my class.  The way she describes her life, and the impact of my class, was extremely unexpected. The excerpt from her email below has been edited for length and to remove most personal identifiers.

She says:

Hey Mr. McCormick! I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you taught me over the years as my AVID teacher. … the things I learned in your class, YES even/especially AP World have really made an impact on me. Since leaving about midway through sophomore year, I went through the worst of the worst, and became a version of me that I never thought I’d ever become. … I went through the pain of mental, physical, and emotional abuse at that time. As expected, I was in the worst health anybody could imagine.
 
I decided to leave Washington and move back into my grandparent’s house…. I’ve been here for about 2 months [after about a year of being out of school – GM] and I’m already back in school. I’m going to college and I’m in the medical assisting program, I’m the youngest in my class by many years, but everyone looks to me for help! My note taking skills have been recognized by my instructor and classmates, and I have AVID to thank. I really do look back at all the mistakes I’ve made and thank God everyday that education was always something that I took interest in, even if I lost myself for a while. My family is very proud of me and supports me 100% of the way, I hope to one day become a [physician’s assistant] after a couple of years working as an [medical assistant], and my graduation date is set for May, 2014. Wish me luck!   Again, thank you so much for putting up with my nonsense those few years! I love my entire AVID class and I wish them the very best at their last year as [High School] students.

When she left my school in the middle of her junior year, I was incredibly concerned for Carmen.  She had been exhibiting unusual behavior and her grades were declining rapidly from an already inconsistent position.  When she left school I felt like a failure.  I hadn’t reached her.  I was unable to get things turned around to help Carmen get back to the student she’d been in earlier years.  Over time I stopped thinking about her.

When I received this letter from her I was forced to take stock of my self perception.  In a certain way it creates a level of paradox.  Most of the time education is an extremely gradual process by which students build on past experiences and integrate new knowledge and skill, thus creating an ever-developing persona.  At the same time, however, there exists the potential to create extremely powerful catalytic moments that initiate radical change and have lifelong impact.

I would like to think that I helped teach Carmen the grit and individual determination that helped her build back from setbacks that could have completely derailed her life.  While we worked on these kinds of non-cognitive skills in class, she already came to my class equipped in many ways.  Carmen’s determination and perseverance are products of a gradual building process in her life.

With Carmen I did not create an appropriate catalytic moment that caused her to take stock of her life.  That moment had to come from beyond the classroom, and took her down an extremely difficult path.  I was able to set something of a time bomb in her head though.  Education acted as a beacon for Carmen.  No matter her declining grades, her difficulties, or her questionable choices, Carmen always maintained an unwavering faith in the power of self-improvement through education.  I do not know if this was a conscious belief while she was in my class, however, she clearly has that belief now and she can link lessons from my class to her ability to realize her academic goals.  As her teacher I was able to support this through my own unwavering belief in her ability to grow and improve.  Education provides her with hope that change will come.  Combined with her willingness to put in hard work Carmen is seeing her belief become reality.  She recently sent me a picture of her quarter grades and the proof is undeniable:

CarmenGrade

Carmen’s story reminds me that all success is not instant.  Most success is not immediate.  We do not all take the same path, nor do we need to.  Carmen helps maintain my faith in the transformative power of education.  She is the American Dream: a child born of immigrant parents who, through hard work and determination, will create for herself a better future.

Stories like hers are why I remain committed to improving our education system at all levels.  The work is slow, and change is incremental, but change is possible and objectively small victories are worthy of celebration because they are subjectively deeply meaningful.  In the greater picture, one student turning a GED, abuse, and addiction into a degree and work in the medical profession is relatively minor.  In the story of Carmen’s family she will be the first to complete any higher education and she will act as an example to her younger siblings and cousins, dramatically impacting their lives.  In her most recent email, Carmen told me that she wants to become a paramedic so that she can save lives and said “thank you for caring I don’t really have anybody who does.”  The impacts of education are rarely immediately visible, but that does not diminish their value.  Maintaining commitment to the educational process requires perseverance, belief, and an appreciation of delayed gratification.

Last day in Kansas!
(And yes, I made a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” joke when we made it to the airport in Missouri.)

Thursday was only a half day (due to flight constraints on our part), and if my lack of notes from Day 2 was an indication of my lack of engagement, my notes from the day represent a high degree of authentic engagement.  I have more notes from three hours of day three than all seven hours of day two.  I attribute this to two major factors: Knight was back on his A game as a presenter and he was delivering content that was very new to me on a philosophical and theoretical level.  All the issues from day two: resolved.

Knight’s focus for the day was quality communication and he busted right out of the gate with theory and research.  Well… not quite right out of the gate.  There was a forty minute question and review time, but compared to the extremely lengthy review from day two I hardly noticed and it felt like he was busting right out of the gate.

Knight began with a potentially controversial claim: we have a communication crisis.  To me this immediately smacked of a generational bias: Knight’s boomer stodginess against my millennial early adoption of new technology.  I wanted him to defend himself.  I wanted justification for such an audacious claim.  I got what I wanted.  Knight (slightly) backed off his initially provocative ledge into a more nuanced position, recognizing that he’d played a part to get people to pay attention.  He does not discount the usefulness of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of communication that do not require people to be face to face, however he did maintain that the ultimate form of communication is face to face, one on one, in person.

It is important that we interact personally in order to catch all of the nuance of nonverbal communication.  Technology has to be seen as an additional tool, not a replacement for quality discussion.  In my work as a coach the vast majority of my interactions are face to face, and so developing my skill in reading non-verbal queues, effective listening, and building trust are extremely helpful.  Communication is also, of course, not limited to my work and as such I was able to build authentic connections and meaning throughout the day as Knight worked through his “9 Strategies for Communication” which are as follows:

  • Take the Partnership Approach (See Day 1)
  • Listen.  Seriously… listen.
  • Create connection between yourself and others.
  • Build Trust (This was the last one we were able to see due to leaving early.)
  • Find Common Ground
  • Control Destructive Emotions
  • Witness the Good
  • Ask Good Questions
  • Empathy

Take the Partnership Approach really boils down to drinking the Kool-Aid from day one, and I’m willing to accept that.  This is primarily because the Partnership Approach was presented as a fundamental set of beliefs governing interactions between people that extends beyond my work as a coach.  (For more on my thoughts on this read my summary of Day 1.)

The segment on listening was unexpectedly powerful for me.  I’m not the best listener ever.  I’m really good at thinking about a response while other people are talking, I’m very good at interrupting, and I’m a highly skilled self-focuser.  None of this helps listening as it turns out.  Knight outlined some very simple steps to quality listening which essentially boil down to “shut up, externally and internally, and pay attention to the other person.”  Then he made us practice, and that was where he got me on board.  Quality listening takes conscious expenditure of energy and Knight had us deliberately listen to a partner for three minutes.  I was immediately aware of how often I interrupt and talk over other people.  This is a huge area of growth for me personally and professionally and a listening goal is going to go right up with the video goal from the first day.

The connection segment was fairly brief and it focused primarily on summarizing Gottman’s work around relationships and marriage.  This was helpful in that it provides a clear language for how people connect, or fail to connected.  Gottman claims that people make a bid for connection in a variety of ways ranging from the ostentatious (Let’s take the credit card and go nuts!) to the more mundane (Would you like a cup of coffee?)  These bids represent a hope of connection from one person to another and how the other person responded to the bid is extraordinarily important component in whether or not those two people will connect.

This concept immediately shifted my entire mindset on what it means to make a connection and I instantly decontextualized a plethora of connections in my life be they deep, superficial, nonexistent, or stillborn.  I imaged how the bid was presented and received and quickly came to terms with many issues that had been presenting difficulty.  Gottman explains that people react to a bid in one of three ways:

  • They turn toward the bid:  This is an acceptance of the bid, and acknowledges that the bid has value and there is a shared interest.  This leads to positive connections very smoothly and efficiently.
  • They turn against the bid:  This is when someone directly opposes the bid.  This acknowledges that a bid has been presented, but makes it clear that the bid was an incorrect method of approach to a connection.  This does not necessarily shut the door to future bids.  Sarcasm can very easily be misinterpreted as turning against a bid.
  • The third option is that a recipient may turn away from a bid, effectively ignoring the bidder.  This is the most damaging for the relationship because the recipient does not even acknowledge that a bid has been made and the bidder is left feeling immediately devalued.  Turning away from a bid is particularly insidious because it can happen inadvertently when a recipient is truly unaware that a bid has been made.

This was just enough of Gottman’s work that I feel equipped to leverage the language in my personal and professional work, and I am still interested in investigating it further to deepen my understanding.  I see this work on connection playing a massive role in my life.

The last piece I was present for was the segment on building trust.  The whole thing can be summarized by Knight’s equation for trust below:
Trust Equation
Essentially the factors on the top of the equation help increase people’s trust in you while self-focus serves to diminish trust.  This section was very straightforward and served to give names to many of the thoughts I already had around trust and building trust in the teachers I work with.

The three days of Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Conference deeply highlighted the importance of maintaining basics of quality education throughout a session.  Day 1 had everything I needed: community building, challenge, relevance, and choice.  When I lost relevancy and challenge in day 2, Knight lost me as a participant.  When he added them back on the third day, I was immediately reenergized and cognitively engaged.  Despite the difficulties of the second day, I have a strong collection of thoughts, methods, and theories to leverage in my work with novice teachers.  I know that I will be a better coach as a result of these last three days, largely, thought not exclusively, because I can now give name and justification to many of the moves I make.  As an added bonus I can take many of these techniques and theories and integrate them positively into my personal life.

Lawrence, KS Indie Rock Local Music Scavenger Hunt Wrap-Up:
I want to begin by giving huge props to Taryn at Love Garden.  She really outdid herself with the recommendations and I’m leaving with a very positive view of the Lawrence music scene.  Instead of linking just a couple more bands, I’ve opted to list everything I left with in no particular order or classification.  Happy hunting.

  • Y(our) Fri(end) – Taryn’s band that I linked on day 1.
  • The Noise FM – garage rock sounds with higher than garage production values.
  • Heartscape Landbreak – intellectual, somewhat meditative, very cerebral art rock.
  • Hospital Ships – some of the same guys as above, much more accessible and straight ahead indie rock
  • Cowboy Indian Bear – Should be named Bear Ninja Cowboy.  Very ethereal, harmonized vocals over a variety of song structures. Mellow.
  • The ACB’s – Extremely accessible indie-pop.  Un-complex and very fun.
  • Fourth of July – Lo Fi mid-tempo indie rock.  They have a good beat and you can dance awkwardly like all the other hipsters.
  • Olassa – Straight ahead, stripped down, country in the spirit of Emmylou Harris or Allison Krauss.  Lovely.
  • Truckstop Honeymoon – Old fashioned bluegrass, most of the time, with contemporary lyrics.  Extremely fun.
  • Quiet Corral – Lawrence’s answer to Mumford and Sons.  Accessible, listenable, excellent.

Holy Bonus Tracks Batman! (Love Garden was sold out of their records but they have bandcamp pages.)

  • Bloodbirds – Punk rock.  What… you want more?  Ok… it’s fast, loud, and really good.  Happy?
  • Müscle Wörship – More punk rock with a better band name.

Lawrence Kansas

The goal for day one of the conference was to lay the philosophical and theoretical groundwork of instructional coaching, therefore day two of a three-day conference should be the big push on the new learning.  I was hoping to be piled with new information that I would have to spend this blog post sorting through as I processed my thoughts from the day.  Alas, that was not the case.  Quite the opposite in fact.

photo (10)Today was a disappointment and I was significantly less engaged in the content. (See the graph)  In a full eight-hour day I left with only five pages of notes in a small moleskin, and one of these pages is a mind map of the previous day (below).   This significant change in my engagement was primarily due to an inappropriately long time spent on review, information that did not meet my needs, and a generally low level of intellectual demand throughout the day.

We spent over ninety minutes superficially reviewing every single component of the previous day.  I am not opposed to reviewing material, and it is an essential component of learning, however balancing to the appropriate amount is essential.  I will own the fact that by writing yesterday’s one thousand word post I did a substantial amount of review independently that a large number of participants likely did not do.  However, my colleagues agreed that the amount of review was highly unnecessary.

After that ninety minutes on review Knight opened the floor to questions without setting any criteria for the questions.  This went on for nearly an additional hour.  As the questions dragged on, I just kept adding to my mind map to create what you see below, complete with Jim the Knight, Immanuel Kant, and Paulo Freire:

Image After the lengthy morning of review and individual questions ended with a break, I was hopeful that we would come back together for a continued focus on how proper coaching technique.  We did that, but to a very limited degree.  As much as yesterday was highly stimulating and steeped in philosophy, today was intensely tactical.  This was the day to drink the “Jim Knight’s Coaching Method” flavor of Kool-Aid.  Step by tedious step, Knight outlined a granular methodology.  Where on day one he presented the grounding research and philosophy before discussing specifics, he only focused on the specifics today, and these specifics took very little intellectual work on my part.  Additionally the specifics were not well aligned with the particulars of my work with novice teachers, leading to further disengagement.

The biggest disconnect seemed to come from Knight’s assumption that coaches work at the building level and are tasked with working with all teachers, whereas I work at the district level, almost entirely with teachers new to the profession.  From a theoretical, strategic, standpoint there are huge similarities and I can then translate well from his assumptions into my work, however, at the tactical level I was left with a pile of methods that do not relate well to the reality of my position.  Also Knight was frankly working at a very foundational level of tactics that I simply do not need.

Overall Day 2 was a significant letdown.  I started the day highly optimistic and looking to find deep meaning in the work.  Knight lost me initially with the excessive amount of superficial review and unfocused question time, and then he failed to regain my attention by presenting new content that was significantly too straightforward or misaligned to my needs.  While the day was disappointing from the standpoint of learning about instructional coaching, I was able to shift my focus in the afternoon to watch how he presented so that I could clearly identify my issues with his choices and delivery in order to inform my own practice.  Most notably I will look to take more formative assessment during workshop sessions, and then have the presence of mind to adjust my workshop based on the information from that assessment to best meet the needs of my audience.  I don’t want anyone in my talks to feel how I felt today.  I’m remaining hopeful for day three.

Lawrence, KS Indie Rock Scavenger Hunt Part 2:

Today’s highlights from heading back to Love Garden and finding Taryn again is definitely Hearscape Landbreak’s Practitioners of Light and Attraction by the Noise FM.  They fulfill my needs for intellectually elitist art rock and straight-ahead, yet well executed, garage rock respectively.  Enjoy.

Heartscape Landbreak

The Noise FM

Lawrence, Kansas

Day one of an education conference usually goes by quickly.  There is significant time spent on norming, getting to know new people, and establishing the work for the remaining days.  Today was no different: there was a protocol for partnering, setting the purpose for instructional coaching, we baselined potential barriers to adults helping adults, and then launched into Jim Knight’s foundational framework for coaching.  A predictably structured, yet well executed, first day.

Jim Knight sees coaching as a moral imperative to help teachers reach more students.  I appreciate this view of coaching as it aligns powerfully with my vision of quality education: namely that all students improve as a result of a teacher’s intervention.  In terms of delivery, Knight struck an effective balance between compelling anecdotes, such as an audio example of a high school freshman who could not read a simple passage, and deep, evidence-based statistics around implementation rates of new learning with and without follow-up by coaches.  He very succinctly made the case for instructional coaching.

After presenting the need for coaching (a fairly easy sell to a room full of coaches) Knight worked through his “5 Simple Truths of Helping,” outlining the potential hurdles of adults providing help to other adults.  This was primarily reaffirming to me as they were topics I had considered, though Knight’s language gives me a much stronger vocabulary for explaining these concepts to others.  The 5 truths can be summarized as such:

  • In order to change we need an awareness of what to change and an authentic need for the change.
  • Teaching is intensely personal and as coaches we need to speak bold truths in a way that respects teachers’ identity.
  • Teachers, as knowledge workers, have a high need for autonomy and need to construct knowledge for themselves.
  • Coaches must respect teachers’ status as highly trained and experienced professionals and avoid a paternalist role.
  • All parties must commit to the goal, ergo it must be a personal and authentic goal.

These truths provide a strong philosophical foundation for adult education as contrasted with educating youth, and while they are not particularly groundbreaking, they are important to stay mindful of.  It is easy, and highly problematic, to slip into habits from teaching youth, and being able to name these basics will allow me to integrate the truths into my practice.

With the groundwork established we moved into Knight’s approach to coaching which he terms “the Partnership Approach.”  This is framed with seven attributes that all serve the goal of philosophically grounding the coach in the role of a collaborator and partner in the teacher’s work of educating youth.  Where the 5 Truths are intended to cover all work with adults helping other adults, the  Partnership Approach is specific to the role of the instructional coach.  The attributes are as follows:

  1. Equality: Simply put, everyone has equal worth by the simple fact of being a human being.  (Think categorical imperative.)
  2. Choice: More specifically this is limited choice.  Choice provides valuable autonomy, however too much choice can be paralyzing and should be avoided.
  3. Voice: Teachers often report feeling like their opinions have no bearing on their work.  Coaching is a time to increase teachers’ impact in their work.
  4. Dialogue: Specifically the double movement of meaning between coach and teacher in a way that is based on humility, hope, faith, and humanity.  (From Paulo Freire!)
  5. Praxis: This is literally the practical application of theory.  Teachers have to be able to implement the issues discussed.
  6. Reflection: This is reflection with the goal of improvement and the consideration of ideas prior to implementation.
  7. Reciprocity: The basic assumption that both parties in a dialogue are capable of making meaningful contribution.

I’m most impressed by Knight’s heavy inclusion of Paulo Freire’s work from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and his commitment to instructional coaching as a moral obligation.  Freire establishes teaching as an inherently revolutionary act whose purpose is to establish a new, more humanizing, status quo.  For Freire education, an literacy most importantly, is the path out of poverty, oppression, and it is a universal right founded in Kant’s concepts of universal respect for all humans as beings capable of reason.  From reading Knight’s work I did not expect this level of passion for equity and my attitude toward Knight noticeably shifted when he leveraged Freire.

The room full is of coaches and administrators from middle class and affluent districts as those are the districts that can afford to hire coaches.  There is one woman of color, and zero men of color in the group of participants, and Knight is pushing a strong social justice agenda based on equality of opportunity and education’s ability to humanize the most oppressed.  It is encouraging to know that these ideas are not reserved for abstract academia or urban schools highly impacted by poverty (read: High percentage Black and Latino students) and the ideas are leveraged in service of powerful education across all schools.

I left the first day very hopeful for the remainder of the conference.  Through Knight’s presentation, what was previously based on instinct can now be executed in a more deliberate and repeatable fashion.  My most valuable takeaway, however, is intensely practical: I need to film my teachers and myself.  This is, without question, the easiest and most powerful way to establish an honest picture of what someone’s teaching (or my coaching) looks like from an outside perspective and the barrier to entry is extraordinarily low given available technology.  I am giving myself a personal goal to use video in a teacher observation and debrief next week, after I return from the conference.

PS: A big shout out to Taryn at the Love Garden record shop for hooking me up with some fantastic local indie music. Enjoy some beautiful, contemplative, indie rock.

It’s mid-October and the reality of the school year has set in.  The leaves are turning, the weather is getting colder and wetter, and darkness is creeping up around the edges of the day.  School is reestablishing itself as a consistent pattern in students’ lives.  This is when cracks begin to show.  Don’t fear the reset.

Teachers begin the year with the best of intentions: “This is the year that I’ll be planned out a week in advance.”  “This year, I’ll get it will all come together and run smoothly.”  These intentions are even more extreme with new teachers.  The optimistic, excited idealism, while helpful in August preparations, can quickly become battered, and worn by mid-October.  The young teacher easily falls into a repetitive funk, realizing the routines and procedures they established in September are insufficient.  It is a quick step into a swamp of cynicism leading to the laments of Cubs fans the world over: “maybe next year will be better.”

You are not a victim of Cubs’ management.  This is your classroom and you have the autonomy to take matters into your own hands.  Reset the classroom expectations.  Right now.

“Right now?  How do I make the time? I’ve got all this content to cover.”

There is a assumed need to justify time spend on non-curricular topics. We are expected to teach routines at the beginning of the year and there is a perception that once taught, they shouldn’t be revisited.  After all, if it was done correctly, the students should know the expectations.  Right?

It can feel like a step backward to revisit proper bathroom procedure six weeks after you thought you had it established, but we need to remember that anything new takes practice and repetition in order to become habitual. As adults, how often do we need to be reminded to go to the gym or eat healthy before it becomes a normal part of our lives?  Students need time and repetition as well.

Teaching routines, procedures, and expectations is not a deviation from curriculum.  Classroom procedures work in the service of curriculum and help the classroom function more smoothly, allowing for maximum effective use of limited time.  If these routines and procedures break down midway through the year they need to be repaired.  You are not losing time by revisiting routines.  Quite the opposite.

If it is broken: fix it.  A routine that’s slipped from consistent to inconsistent is no longer a routine, and it needs to be reestablished.  Perhaps the routine needs to be modified so that it cam be maintained more easily.  The purpose of a routine for quickly turning in papers is to increase efficiency, and thereby gain more instructional time.  Less time collecting papers equals more time teaching.  If the routine is no longer a time-saver, it needs to be re-taught and the best time to start is right now.  The same goes for any expectations around behavior, respect, quality of work, or using the bathroom.

Starting right away is the best option. You simply go the shortest amount of time with the ineffective routine.  Beyond this, however, beginning to correct issues immediately serves as strong, lifelong, modeling for students.  It is powerful for young people to see an adult take immediate action.  They see that the teacher has high expectations, and the willingness to course-correct.  Having the vulnerability to admit a mistake, and take the actions necessary to fix that mistake is a powerful show of awareness, confidence, and strength.  All virtues we would hope to instill and develop in our students.

It comes down to the central concept of teaching: if you want something done right, you need to teach the right way to do it.  If your students are not performing how you want them to, you need to keep teaching them until they get it right. Regardless of the topic, it takes accountability, persistence, and a willingness to go back and fix issues.  PIck your area for change and start right now.

Long on criticism, short on solutions.  This accusation is not new for Diane Ravitch and her recent book talk (for her newly published Reign of Error) at the University of Washington in Seattle lived up to this assessment.  The bulk of the talk was focused on, as she refers to them, hoaxes of the public education reform movement.  Ravitch listed, sixteen hoaxes spanning government programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, to vouchers, charter schools, and teacher evaluation, leaving little time to discuss solutions.  Overall her focus centered on the narrative that the American public education system is failing.

This is where I am most on board with Ravitch.  The narrative of the education reform movement is: public education is failing, schools are failing, and bad teachers are responsible.  Therefore teacher evaluation is the answer, and in order to be part of the school-improvement discussion you have to accept this premise.  I reject this premise and so does Ravitch.

In her talk Ravitch cited Department of Education data that current test scores are the highest in our history, our high school graduation rate is the highest in history, and our dropout rate is the lowest in history.  These are strong findings.  Instead of adopting the position that our schools are failing and need reform I choose to adopt a growth mindset that our schools, while strong in many ways, can still improve to the point of excellence.  Our work is not done until every student is meeting standard.  Once that is achieved we raise the standards and keep working.

To counter the hoaxes, Ravitch offered up five large, yet simplistic, solutions: prenatal healthcare, medical care for children in poverty, daily arts and physical education, universal early childhood education, and reduced class size.  I have no argument against using these levers to improve education.  These are strong choices and I would love to see them implemented.

I respect Diane Ravitch.  She is one of very few people who began their careers as a supporter of high stakes standardized testing and has, in light of the damning data, recanted her previous position.  Her position is clear to the point of obvious.  These are complex issues and I want a complex, nuanced discussion.  Ravitch is capable of more and her audience deserves it.  It saddens me that the education discussion (if it can be called that) is so caustic that both sides have to resort to extremism in order to get their voice heard.  Neither side listens to the other, and as a result both sides are either yelling past each other or talking within an echo chamber.

I’ve heard the extremes, as have most teachers I expect.  We are bombarded with the extremes of the debate, and educators know that while the system is not failing it has much room to grow.  There are large, and growing, populations of students in poverty who are not being served by our system and that is detrimental to our society.  It is too simplistic, however, to reject online education, Teach for America, and merit pay out of hand.  We need to test ideas, and like Ravitch, revise our positions in light of new information.  Ravitch is not wrong in her analysis, but she oversimplifies.

The unspoken argument underlying all of this is funding.  Any of these solutions require significant increases in how we fund education.  The Gates Foundation has a lot of influence in education because they spend a lot of money on education.  While the entire solution is complex, the first step is easy: If you want to improve education in this country, you need to pay for it.  For too long we’ve been trying to do more with less.

Diane Ravitch began her talk, and begins her book, with a John Dewey quote from 1907 saying: “what the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is harry and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”  It shocks me how relevant this quote remains.  Public education is just that: public.  As a citizenry we have to buy in to the idea that spending our money on other people is to our benefit.  We do better as individuals when we do better as a community.  This is the argument that needs to be made at the highest levels.  Without this core value firmly in place, our education system is unsustainable.

She leans back in her seat with a look smug self-satisfaction.  Here it comes.  You can hear the question before her hand is all the way up.  In the back row of the class she slowly raises her hand high.  Your nerves start crying out like an over tightened violin string.   There’s no missing that hand.  The class sees your eyes follow her hand and they track your gaze to the back of the room.  They know it’s coming too.  The question.  The big question.  The question they all want an answer to, but only she is brazen enough to ask.

“So… why are we learning this stuff anyway? … What’s the point?  Does this even matter?”

[You Freeze]

OK hotshot new teacher: Pop quiz. Do you:

  1. Tell the kid that they’ll need it for the test.
  2. Tell the kid it will help them in college.
  3. Tell them some words about respecting the classroom environment and asking appropriate questions.
  4. Tell them it is part of the curriculum.

You’ve got one shot to get this right.  Succeed and you’ll have established your authority in the eyes of your students and they’ll begin to trust that you know what you’re doing.  Fail this test and you’ll be battling for credibility all year.

Correct answer?  E: None of the above.

“Ok,” you ask. “You’re so smart: how do I handle that question?”  Simply put: You handle that question by answering it directly.  The kicker is, that you need a better answer than all the answers above.

None of the answers above will satisfy this student.  She wants a real answer.  The first two may work for a lot of students.  These students will be motivated by grades and college entrance.  That’s not necessary a bad thing, but these goals breed strategic compliance instead of engagement.  These are the students who do all the work because of the grade, or because those grades will allow them to get into a good college, and only because of these rewards.  These are relying on extrinsic motivation.  Either of these rewards last only as long as you keep measuring them against that target, but they lose impact as soon as the test is over, or once a student has finished the class.  Grades alone do not necessarily create students who strive to learn.  The student asking the questions need more than just the next test to keep her interest.

Answer C is also problematic because it discredits the students’ desire for meaning.  It tells them that to ask “Why” is disrespectful and inappropriate.  Students are conscripts in public education.  In order to get students on board with the curriculum we need to explain its benefit transparently and concretely.  We also need to make that explanation immediately relevant.  We need to explain why this is so important to them that we force their participation for twelve consecutive years.

Answer D is the weakest of the four.  By giving this answer you’ve immediately abdicated your responsibility for the content of your classroom.  With this response someone else is calling the shots, but they don’t know your students, and you’ve just established yourself as someone who needs to be told what to do as opposed to someone who makes decisions based on professional judgment.  The follow up question to this answer is a gigantic “so what?”  The problem is that the vast majority of students will only ask that follow up silently and it will consequently go unanswered.  This answer does not resolve the initial concern and further reduces your credibility.  Not helpful.

Instead of the four options above, you need an authentic and relevant answer.  You need to be able to tell students how the work they are doing in that moment will be a benefit to them in their lives both inside and outside of school.  The students are trying to make the connection between their schooling and their personal lives; however they often lack the necessary context to make that connection on their own.  You as a teacher can provide that context. This student is craving relevancy and meaning from school and learning to write is just as important as learning why writing matters.

The Schlechty Center defines engagement as learning in which “the student sees the activity as personally meaningful,” and “the student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.”  This is essential because engagement is the catalyst for learning.  It takes thorough mental activity in order to learn new material and student who is merely compliant is not activating the necessary higher brain function. (Medina, 2009)

“What’s the point?” should not be a teacher’s most dreaded question.  Quite the opposite.  This should be the most highly desired question because it indicates that the student needs meaning, and wants meaning for the work they are doing.  This question holds you accountable for the relevancy of your instruction the same way a teacher wants to hold students accountable for achieving intended learning outcomes.  If the students are not aware of the purpose for a lesson it is incumbent on the teacher to explicitly provide that meaning.  After all, the teacher is the one who designed the lesson and understands where everything is coming from.

Lastly if you are thinking to yourself that, as a teacher, you may be unable to adequately answer the question of “why does this lesson matter to my students beyond school?” You may want to reexamine what you are teaching.  If there is no point to teaching it, you probably shouldn’t.

I wake up in a mad rush.  I’ve overslept.  I never oversleep on a work day.  What’s happening?  I rush to school in a distracted tornado of coffee and papers.  When I arrive I can’t remember anyone’s name, or even what I was planning to teach today.  This is crazy.  I’m standing in front of the class blubbering and stalling for time, wondering where all my copies are, pouring sweat, and frantically trying to remember the day’s intended learning outcomes.  What is going on here?  This disoriented state persists for a few agonizingly slow minutes.  Then I wake up again.  Three AM on the clock.  It must be late August.

There are unmistakable feelings of excitement and dread at the beginning of the school year, and they can be directly tracked by the frequency of my school-related dreams.  I never dream about school in the middle of the school year, but the dreams always return in the last few days of a break: forgotten lesson plans, missing papers, terrible observations.  It hits every time like clockwork.

It’s that time of year again.  The time when teachers go through their New Year’s Resolution ritual, making all sorts of goals for the upcoming term.  This list can get very long and that makes sense.  We all want to do a better job each time we enter the school-year cycle, and this is the right time to do it: new students, new classes, newly refreshed, and if other teachers are anything like I am, they have a substantial list of resolutions to help direct the upcoming year.

The most common goals I hear are: grading faster, delivering better feedback, creating better work/life balance, making students better readers, and improving the depth of student engagement.  Attached to those broad targets are the myriad of small items that make up the daily work of a teacher such as refining the late-work policy, improving pacing, predicting difficult lessons, establishing routines, getting to know students, and the like.  These lists often border on the endless.

The sheer volume of topics that a teacher can tackle leads quickly to over-committing to making things better.  Teachers are often optimists, and they’re usually willing to take on a huge number of tasks in the name of student improvement.  This is rarely ideal though.  Over-commitment leads to too many obligations and instead of getting everything done, nothing gets accomplished and the over-committed teacher has trouble deciding what to work on and easily slides back into their comfort zone.  My suggestion is to pick a couple areas of focus and do them well.  By narrowing your selections you help ensure that you can actually achieve your goals.

Along this line it’s worth taking the time to lay out how you want to achieve these targets in a concrete, specific way.  Want to really get to know your students right away?  Fantastic.  Pick that as an area and take immediate action by conducting a student survey in the first couple of days and making a commitment to knowing everyone’s name by the end of the first week.  Students react very strongly when teachers care about them as a person in addition to their academic success.

The most important part of starting the year off strong is to be selective with your goals.  By all means you should set ambitious goals, goals that force you to stretch and grow as a professional, however, it is important that those goals are also achievable.  Too often in education we set impossibly high standards and are forced to settle for less than success.  By setting high standards that are also still attainable you begin creating a repeatable positive feedback system.  You will feel good when you accomplish your goals, and that will encourage you to keep setting goals as opposed to the disheartening feeling of having to continually pick yourself up when you fall short of too-lofty aims.

Pick two targets and structure your approach in the following manner:

  1. Write your intended goal in clear, specific language.  (I will know all of my students as students and the context they bring to the classroom.)
  2. Create specific, time-bound, criteria by which you can measure your progress.  (I will know all their names by the end of the first week.  I will know at least one of their interests by the end of the second week.)
  3. Ensure that your goal is actually achievable and realistic.  (Is this something that you actually have control over?)
  4. Now share your goals with someone that you trust so that they can help hold you accountable.  (Want to really provide incentive?  Tell them you’ll pay them $20 each time you don’t meet your goal.)
  5. Once you achieve your initial goals, set new ones and repeat the process.

In the spirit of transparency and accountability I will demonstrate with one of my own goals:

  1. I will create positive working relationships with the novice teachers on my caseload and normalize my presence in their classrooms.
  2. To this end: I will meet face to face with each teacher on my caseload in the first two weeks.  By the end of the third week of school I will observe all of my teachers while they are teaching.
  3. This is well within my control.  It requires that I effectively schedule all of my teachers, and develop trust with the teachers new to my caseload.
  4. I am telling my blog readers, and I will be telling the other members of my mentor team.

Teachers are regularly encouraged to do it all or take on more than is manageable.  You need to remember that it is ok to say no, limit your scope, and focus on doing an excellent job within that area of focus.  This will allow you to give serious thought to what you are working on, and will allow you to go through the process thoroughly.  Once you achieve your specific goals, you can then set new goals that help continue your growth.  Growth is a continual process, and only by staying committed to a trajectory of improvement will we achieve the levels of success that we want.

It always comes up: At a dinner party, meeting the neighbors, any time you’re meeting someone new.  “So what do you do for work?”

I teach in the public school system.

“Oh wow.”  And then you get one of a few responses: “You’re a saint”, or “that must be really hard”, “I’d never have the patience”, “oh God, I could never do it”.  They’re all code for the same idea: “well thank God YOU’RE doing it so that I don’t have to.”

Teaching is not easy, and it’s true that not everyone is cut out for the job.  You’re tasked with convincing fives classes of thirty to thirty-five conscripted youth (in each class) that they should work extremely hard to learn some things that are not always immediately relevant on a daily basis.  These young people regularly bring in a myriad of issues and concerns that impede the teacher’s ability to work effectively.  The schedule is extremely fixed and teachers regularly work extended hours in order to do a quality job.  Some teachers work in extremely hostile environments that prevent them from working to their maximum potential.  Additionally brand new teachers are required to complete the same tasks as veteran teachers with a very steep learning curve and relatively little support most of the time.

To be a good teacher you need a great deal of tenacity, skill, and patience, but you don’t need to be a saint, and the implied self-sacrifice should not be your goal.  Instead aim to be a superhero.

Superheroes do things that ordinary humans believe to be impossible.  They reject standard logic and attempt the impossible with dedication and idealism.  Superheroes believe that they can make a difference and they put that belief into action no matter what others tell them.  Great teachers do the same.

There are however a myriad of superheroes all with their diverse abilities and missions and worldviews.  Who then should the novice teacher seek to emulate?

 

Let’s begin with the most obvious choices:  Superman and Wonder Woman

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Image from http://www.wecanbeheroes.com A project of DC Entertainment to support Save the Children, IRC and Mercy Corps

These two are not a good choice.  Sure, they’re both full of positive idealism and they push themselves to the limit in pursuit of their goals, but both Superman and Wonder Woman solve most their problems by punching them.  They’re fantastic at getting the job done, but if teachers start trying to solve all their problems by punching we’re going to have issues.  Kal’El and Diana are also, frankly, an impossible standard.  Superman is an alien and Wonder Woman is a clay statue that’s been given immortal life by the gods.  They’re not even human.  Do not try to make yourself like these two.  You’ll just end up disappointing yourself.  (Neither of these two are examples of good work/life balance either.  They both put in insane hours working two jobs and I’m sure they never get enough sleep.  Remember: they’re not human.  You are.)

Ok, so how about Batman then?  He’s a regular human, incredibly intelligent, highly skilled, and extremely successful in a dangerous poverty-impacted urban center.  Slam dunk! (Right?) Not really.

Batman is another impossible standard.  We need to remember that Batman’s origin is as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.  He’s the definition of throwing money at the problem.  The Batman teacher would buy his students every possible resources or gadget, and if those didn’t work he’d invent something tailored to the precise need.  Not a viable solution.  Batman is also primarily driven by revenge and personal vendetta.  This is not a sustainable model for successful teaching.  (Batman has some serious mental health issues that would need resolution before he should be interacting with students on a regular basis.  Pretty much everyone who works in Gotham City is out.)

Spiderman?  Not serious enough, terrible classroom management.  Good rapport with students, but low rigor.

Jean Grey?  She’d probably turn into the phoenix and destroy the whole school.  Let’s just avoid major explosions and reconstruction.

Captain America?  Also solves problems with punching, and he’d probably revert back to his 1940’s upbringing and teach solely with direct instruction, silent study hall, and corporeal punishment.

“Ok…. but you said teach like a superhero!  Who do I emulate then?”

You’ll have to check back in part 2.  (What’s a superhero story without a cliffhanger ending?)

I just had an experience that I’d forgotten I could have.  I thought I was above this kind of thing.  My ego just barreled through and knocked me out cold.  Then it did a little dance over my body.

Since reading Mindset I’ve been operating under the basic premises therein that a growth mindset allows you to improve while a fixed mindset acts as a roadblock to your improvement.  I’ve been all about it, telling everyone to read the book, having my students read sections.  I’m Carol Dweck’s biggest cheerleader.  Her premise is not difficult to grasp, but as I’m discovering, it can be a difficult concept to adopt as part of your life on a daily basis.

As part of developing my own growth mindset I signed up for a math class through EdX.  I wanted to model lifelong learning for my students, and it’s a subject I could use a refresher on.  The class is a statistics course through UC Berkeley.  The basic format is do some reading, watch a lecture, some practice problems, and then do a problem set.  It just started and I was feeling  (over)confident that this would be a simple brush-up and a good way to remind myself of the stats classes I took in high school and as an undergrad.  The first problem set and lecture proved to be pretty straightforward, introducing types of variables, basics about percentiles, and how to arrange data so that it makes some sense.  I skimmed the reading, skipped parts of the video lecture, and did fine on the first problem set.  Ding!  Round one goes to the fixed mindset approach.

With my hubris firmly in place I figured why not get a jump on the next assignment, check the sample problems, and jump straight into the problem set.  The second problem set checked my ego.  Hard.  Did I go back to the reading and lecture before moving through the rest of the problem set?  Nope.  I just told myself “that was the first question, you’ve got this, just keep going.  You’ll be fine.”

By the time I got 70% of the way through the problem set (with limited success, thank you instant online feedback) it hit me: “I’m rationalizing my lack of understanding.”  I’m telling myself this class doesn’t matter.  Telling myself there’s no grade attached.  I’m not a statistician.  I don’t really need this.  I can just stop if I don’t like it.  I’ll go do something I care about like reading a book.  All of my emotional baggage related to math classes came back at me like a sucker punch to the throat.  My heart rate and breathing were elevated and I had to stand up and walk away from the computer in order to calm down.  Round two:  technical knockout due to forfeit.

Damn.  Talk about a fixed mindset in action.  Even ten minutes after putting the problem set on hold I was telling myself it was because I didn’t care; that’s why I didn’t do well, not that I didn’t know the math.  I was actively preserving my ego.

I could stop.  It would be easy to stop.  Easy to go back to fighting the fights that are inside my comfort zone.  There is no grade here and I’ve made no financial commitment.  This statistics course it not attached to a degree.  If I give up though I give up on myself.

This experience puts me back on the same footing as my students.  They experience this regularly with their classes and it serves as a healthy reminder to me to be understanding of their reluctance, frustration, and the difficulties they encounter.  I’ve read books like Outliers and Mindset.  I’ve adopted the theory and I still get blindsided by my ego and the ease of a fixed mindset.  My students haven’t read these pieces and so modeling and teaching a growth mindset is even more important.  I need to be able to provide support and context when they are unable to do it for themselves.

Well:  Time for a rematch.  I’m ready to get back in the ring and get the KO on my Greatest Obstacle.  I need to (and will) go back to the reading and the lecture.  I will finish that second problem set, and for the third problem set I’ll come from a place of humility and do the process from the proper state of mind.  The ability to go back and fix problems is what sets the growth mindset apart from the fixed mindset, the willingness to pick yourself back up and try again.  Watch out ego:  I’m coming to get you.