Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Crafting Professional Autonomy for Teachers

For the four years I’ve been teaching, I have been a member of the Virginia Education Association, but I haven’t taken an active role despite my desire for leadership positions. I don’t see the VEA as a group of leaders, and I’m not sure that many outside of the organization do either. And why should they? Unlike doctors or lawyers, boards of teachers do not administer their own licensing exams or set professional expectations for their peers.

I think that sometimes teachers live down to the low expectations society seems to have of our profession. I have been irritated by the co-workers who leave right when four o’clock rolls around, but I also recognize that teachers cannot get very much of the personal business of living done during the day. It’s difficult to schedule doctor’s appointments, run an errand at a shop that closes at five, or pick up a sick kid without disrupting the instructional lives of at least twenty-five other people. Juggling these responsibilities are difficult for any working person, but having worked in and out of the classroom, I think that teachers have it worse than most other college-educated professionals who can work from home when they’re sick or take their lunch breaks at times that suits their doctors.

Can we expect leadership from an organization of people who lack professional autonomy? I think the answer is on display in teachers’ organizations' and unions' lack of leadership when it comes to assessments, accountability, and teacher training. In a logical world, these organizations would exist to define and administer these things just as organizations of doctors and lawyers set and advocate for best practices in their own professions. I think it is up to educational leaders to give teachers the power to oversee these domains. Expecting teachers’ organizations to lobby for this power, when teachers have been shut out of gaining power for so long, seems like setting these organizations up to fail.

I think that if groups of supervisors and legislators said “We trust teachers to make professional decisions for themselves,” these organizations would be empowered to create meaningful systems of training, induction, and accountability. We can’t expect the people who have been vilified as “rotten apples” (Time magazine) or “widgets” (Michelle Rhee). It’s up to educational leaders to give teachers their power back.  Until then, I will be looking for professional autonomy wherever I can get it. So, when another professional development day comes around, and it’s the same tired sessions centered around using Google and understanding how stress affects children, I’ll be in my classroom calling parents, crafting lessons, and doing what I think is right for the students in my care.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Is Bad Coffee the Problem with PD?

In class, we were challenged to think about experiences that have made us successful teachers after watching this TEDx talk. I suppose that for this exercise, I will have to suspend my questions about whether or not I am a good teacher, and assume that I am. This may be a topic for another journal entry, but shouldn’t it be clear to someone who has had essentially the same job for half a decade whether or not she is good at that job? I just can’t be sure. I’m not even sure what “good” at this job means right now. Does it mean that my students enjoy my class more often than not? That they pass state-mandated tests? That they come back to visit after they’ve graduated? Most days, the answer to these questions is yes, but there are days when the answer is just as resoundingly no.
On the days when I think my practice answer the questions that matter with a yes, I am usually leaning on two of my most treasured supports: classes and reading about teaching. For the past year, I have been a member of the Central Virginia Writers’ Project. This process-based writing institute has made me think about how to incorporate skills-based instruction in a writers’ workshop format. I have had the support of classmates and other teacher researchers first in a summer class and then in a weekly group meeting. I’ve taken other classes on the art of questioning student, cognitive science in the classroom, and executive functioning. All of them have left me feeling energized and in possession of new tricks for my teaching bag.
I also feel like a successful teacher on the days I borrow lessons from books I have read and loved. Linda Christensen’s work on teaching social justice in the English classroom contains assignment after assignment designed to get kids writing about what matters to them and their communities. Her assignments have resulted in improved student affect and writing growth.
My reading-teaching connection spills over into reading research that has implications for the classroom, too. I find myself able to breathe easier and speak with more patience after reading about studies suggesting that babies living in poverty are subject to so much cortisol flooding their brains that they develop differently. This research doesn’t make me want to hold my students to different, lower standards, but it does help activate my compassion.
I am not ready to make policy prescriptions out of what has helped me grow or be successful as a teacher. Maybe I’m too much of a control freak to imagine professional development that is completely teacher-driven. Maybe I’m too informed by my experiences of playing hooky from PD sessions in order to work in my classroom. Whatever the reasoning, I don’t know if having teachers select individual readings or classes at larger institutions is the answer to developing our teaching corps.
I do think that we could have professional development that was more tailored to specific contexts. For example, I’d appreciate a day once a month to create collaborative lessons with the other tenth grade English teachers. I would also appreciate a session with an outside speaker provided that speaker was brought in at the request of teachers or in relation to a specific, building-level problem. The bad coffee isn’t really the problem; feeling like time I could have spent in service to my students was wasted is. So, maybe the question for those designing group professional development is this: Will participants feel their time has been wasted? An honest assessment could provide teachers with time to work uninterrupted balanced with group learning that supports building-wide goals. Unfortunately, in my division, I get the feeling that we’re just adding sessions to the catalogue for the sake of numbers rather than meaning. I’d like to resolve to not be that kind of administrator. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Standards and Evaluation

I’m thinking a lot about some teachers who struggle how to teach persuasive writing. These teachers, who teach primarily low-achieving students, are locked into teaching the five-paragraph essay. As a quick refresher, that’s the basic introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Recently, the Virginia Standards of Learning have required a counterclaim, so that gets thrown into the conclusion in this formula.

My graduate school training and my professional development through the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Writing Project have taught me to reject the five-paragraph essay as simplistic and unhelpful in creating students who are prepared to write in multiple contexts such as work or at college. These teachers argue that the students who need this formula are not going into careers that require writing or to college at all.

How can they know that? My own mother didn’t finish college until she was forty. She earned her masters in social work six years later. I so strongly believe that our job isn’t to decide what students will do after they leave our classrooms. Our job is to give the tools to succeed in as many contexts as possible.

What does this have to do with teacher evaluation? Well, I’ve been thinking of how I might, as a building-level leader, encourage teachers to engage in the sort of professional development and research that guides innovative teaching practice. First of all, I think that I need to take my attitude about standardized tests to any sort of building-level leadership role I may have; They’re here, but we don’t have to like them. We definitely don’t have to teach to them, and if we’re teaching students truly transferable skills, they’ll likely do better on the test than if we merely drill into them test-taking skills.  

But that will only get me so far with teachers (and the superintendent). And it won’t do much to support my own belief in consensus building if I’m operating by fiat from the front office. So, I need to think about building systems to help teachers engage with work about our profession. I think that teacher evaluation portfolios, as recommended by Glickman, would be just the thing! If teachers are able to evaluate themselves on research-based practices and innovation through professional development provided by content councils, teachers are more likely to be able to give themselves permission to ditch the test-taking anxiety and teach kids rather than standards.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Collegial Leaders

In my introduction to supervision class, we learned about a leadership continuum within schools: directive, collaborative, and collegial. Directive leaders give orders and except them to be followed. Collaborative leaders work with others to arrive at decisions. Collegial leaders take that collaboration a step further and empower others in the building to make and act on decisions. 

My Frierian roots and recent research (Glickman, 2002) have led me to believe that collegial leadership should be the goal. More stakeholders should be brought into decision making process so that those decisions are carried out with fidelity. However, I think I have assumed that a collegial school requires a principal who thinks and acts collegial at all times. After more discussion in class, however,  I am not sure that this assumption will bear out once I get down to the hard work of leading a school.

I was really moved by Dr. Z’s story of the algebra teacher who said what she really needed was a lesson plan so she could just go home. I’m not sure what I would do in that situation. In the course of this class, I’ve really owned what it means to me to operate as a big picture thinker. I’ve been able to be more gentle with myself as I struggle with administrative tasks at school because I can see the absurdity of being asked to support the social and emotional development of 124 teenagers. By thinking about the big picture, I am able to celebrate my victories rather than beat myself up for not being able to do all of the work I want to do in a deeply flawed system, and I’m able to prioritize tasks based on what will have the most long-term positive effects for my students.

So, I think it might be hard for me to get down into the weeds. Not only have I never taught math, I just don’t know if I’m ready to respond to a teacher in the scenario above with just a lesson. I want to discuss what in her day-to-day work is causing this feeling of being overwhelmed. What can be juggled more efficiently? What can be discarded in favor of mental health and excellent first instruction?

Rather than thinking of my administrative style existing on a continuum between directive and collegial action, I want to start thinking about a particular approach for a particular moment.

I also want to commemorate this chart we worked on in class tonight to remember that it’s about the right style for the situation rather than forcing a situation to fit my preferred style.

Skill building
Partnership building
Capacity building
Leader’s Role
  • Direction
  • Corrective feedback
  • A model
  • Solutions to problems   
  • Ideas, resources
  • Input
  • Influence
  • Ideas/options for decision making
  • Safe place to self-evaluate
  • Data for teacher decision making
  • Focus that moves the teacher along a growth curve   
Teacher’s Role
  • Follow directions
  • Implement strategies with quality
  • Participate as a partner
  • Follow through on negotiated decisions
  • Drive the process
  • Follow through on personal commitments



Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Long Time, No Teach

Hello, readers! As I've settled into a program at UVA to earn my administration and supervision certificate, I've really let this blog go. I know I have just a handful of readers, but I also know that it has been an important outlet for me to "de-privatize" my teaching experiences. I'd like to get back to that, but I also have to balance the work I'm doing to support my students' learning along with my own. So, I'm going to share a few journals I worked on for my introduction to supervision class I took last semester.

I have a lot of ideas I want to share with you all about teacher evaluations, classroom organization, and some really successful lesson plans you might be able to use, too. Be patient with me, and I'll be back to blogging just as much as I can!

Monday, September 22, 2014

This I Believe

For the past several months, I've been lucky to be part of the Central Virginia Writers' Project. At our two-week seminar this summer, we were asked to write our own versions of a "This I Believe" essay. Not only did this assignment give me a chance to distill some of my own beliefs about why what I do in the classroom matters, my eleventh grade team had already decided to use this prompt as our beginning essay assignment. So, I had a ready-made piece to share with my students as I asked them to share their own beliefs, and here it is for you all:

I believe we have messed up just about everything we can when it comes to public education in the United States. We expect students to learn without showing them what great magic learning can work in their own lives and the lives of others. We expect students to learn for the sake of the economy and not for the sake of themselves, and then we berate them for being so selfish as to skip class or not do their homework.

There is still some magic in elementary school. A dear friend of mine recently inspired her students to design and build their own butterfly garden when they can research, write, and sit in awe of creatures they’ve helped to save.

But the magic is seeping out of the walls of our secondary schools. Students are expected to sit still for forty-five minutes, take notes in the preferred method du jour, dutifully pass tests, and move on to the next subject when the bell rings. If they are lucky, they might get two bathroom passes a semester and a few teachers who have decided not to ride the wave of standardized test hysteria.

I believe that if we trust teachers to design project-based assessments, we will have a picture of where our students are succeeding and where they need more help. I believe if we paid teachers a wage commensurate to the many hours we work above our contracts, we wouldn’t have a shortage of bright, dedicated professionals who are respected by students, their parents, and their communities. I believe if teachers had smaller caseloads, students would receive more meaningful instruction. I believe if we created a ladder for teachers to grow professionally without leaving the classroom, we would see fewer than half of all teachers leave in their first five years of teaching.

I believe if we increased the minimum wage, we would increase student learning. I believe if showed students learning to read and read well means they could visit the moon or the ocean or the next Odyssey of the Mind field trip, we would have millions more finish college. I believe if we put students in small groups according to their interests and not any perceived ability level and turned them loose on a project, they’d learn more than they ever would in any Advanced Placement or college prep class.
I believe in the promise of public education to incorporate us all to a cause higher than ourselves. I believe our schools can be places where students delve deep into a topic and come out better learners, citizens, and people, for the experience.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Beating Burnout - Part Three

Have you ever heard of the April Sours? I hadn’t until this year when I got them big time. A blog post I shared then helped me shake them off and realize there are a lot of manageable things I can do to make my classroom and place of joy where meaningful learning takes place. These are some of my plans:

1. Move to a room with windows. - For some reason, schools built in the 70’s tend to be big on the interior classrooms without windows. For the first time in my teaching career, I’m going to be able to see natural light all day every day! I know this sort of dramatic shift isn’t possible for everyone, but shaking up your space might help you get new perspective.

2. Read, Read, Read - This summer I revisited a lot of my teaching bibles to remind myself of the skills I want to my students to acquire. Planning oral history projects with a social justice component have gotten me excited for the work we’ll be doing. I’ve also revisited some texts such as Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities to remind myself of why teaching matters.

3. Accept That School Can Be Fun - In our work-obsessed culture, we are often content to ask why something should be fun. Learning is work, after all. But it doesn’t have to take place in a drab environment designed to suck the creativity out of every human in the room. I’m doing a serious makeover of my new digs: comfy couches for reading, tables for collaborative learning, and a class pet. I’m watching a friend’s bunny while she returns to graduate school and my students are going to help. 

Teacher friends, what are you doing to make this year your best yet? Non-teacher friends, what do you value about your work? How do you make your workspace a space where you’re happy?