Newer Isn’t Always Better

A book I finished reading recently, titled The Revenge of Analog, discussed the importance of concrete things in today’s increasingly digital world. While the book discussed things like record players, moleskine notebooks, and other such physical products, it also discussed broader ideas. One subject the book tackled, ableit briefly, was that of education (in a chapter titled “The Revenge of School”).

I really appreciated this chapter, particularly one quote that talked about the idea that newer is always better. The quote was specifically noting a program called One Laptop Per Child which, a few years ago, believed that giving low-income students a laptop would be the remedy to the achievement gap. Shockingly, the idea did not live up to its hopes. The book states, “[One Laptop Per Child]’s great mistake was presuming the universal importance of a shiny technology in spite of the recommendations of people closer to the problem at hand.”

Doesn’t this sound familiar? To me at least, it sounds familiar on two fronts. First, the phrase “…in spite of the recommendations of people closer to the problem at hand” really stuck out, but that’s a topic for another day. The second piece was the idea of technology being the answer to everything in the classroom. Each year that I taught in New York, I was given some state-of-the-art literacy computer program that, I was told, would lead to revolutionary reading growth in my students. What this basically meant was that my students, instead of spending time reading actual books, spent time in front of a screen for 30 minutes per day. And it meant that the school, instead of spending thousands of dollars on books or field trips, decided to buy these programs that, at their best, didn’t harm student interest in reading. Shockingly (again), no extraordinary gains resulted.

Although I’m probably more anti-technology in the elementary classroom than most, I don’t consider myself a complete luddite. I recognize technology’s role in everyday life and that it can provide some very important tools in education, especially for educators and in special education. But, at most, I think that technology should be used as a minimal resource in schools, especially with our youngest learners. Kids get enough time in front of screens at home. Schools need to trust teachers to do their jobs and recognize that, if using technology will benefit our students, then we’ll ask to use it. Mostly, though, we need to help students get their hands dirty in schools, both metaphorically and physically. Because messy learning, in my opinion, leads to real learning.

 

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An Unlikely Lesson in Listening

I recently ran into a former colleague. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year, so after some quick catching-up (“Where are you these days?”, etc.), the conversation inevitably turned to education and reflecting on our years of working at the same school in New York City.

The setting of our conversation (and the fact that the woman was no longer my direct supervisor) let us actually have a real discussion about education and our views, something that I felt was impossible during the time that we were working together.

We each shared openly our opinions of the school – positives and negatives. I shared that the school was a good place for me to grow as an educator in lots of ways, but that many of the lessons that stick with me the most are things that I want to avoid. She shared with me her transition from an under-resourced public school to a well-resourced charter school and how, from the start, she was “all-in” simply because of the resources that the school provided for the teachers.

As we continued talking, both of us began to understand the others’ perspective a bit more. As I shared my opinions on the lack of experience in a lot of the leadership positions and the inappropriate expecations for the children of the school, she listened and, it seemed, agreed with a lot of what I was saying. As she explained to me her perspective of systems of support for teachers and the what-should-be-simple idea of providing teachers with basic classroom supplies, I came to see her perspective a bit more.

At the close of our conversation, we grappled with the question of what needs to happen in education in the U.S., especially the education in those underserved communities that exist across the country. And we didn’t come up with an answer, of course. But we did talk about it. We openly shared our thoughts and opinions and also listened to one another.

For me, this idea of listening stuck with me more than anything else. While this colleague and I had a good working relationship, I assumed that our opinions on education were simply too different to ever have a meaningful conversation. That, I realize now, is a really dangerous attitude to have, and one that is all too pervasive in this world today – not just the world of education.

While nothing was solved, and my educational philosophy didn’t change all that much, I now better understand where my colleague, and others like her, are coming from. And, though there are obviously still areas where our beliefs will differ, we found a lot of common ground. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the conversation.

In the midst of the mess that seems to be anything related to education (or politics) these days, I found hope in this conversation. I found hope in the ability that we all have to share our opinions without putting others down and listen to what others have to say.  Examples of this type of sharing and listening are what we need to demonstrate for our students. I can’t think of a better example to set for our kids.

A Lack of Trust

I was talking with a friend, also a teacher, the other day about his current school year. He is working in a New York City charter school that, unfortunately but not so surprisingly, is having a difficult year with teacher morale, lack of trust, and teachers leaving before the end of the year. When pressed for the reason why this might be happening, my friend gave me a list of his thoughts on the topic. Of his reasons, what stood out to me most was the overaching idea of a lack of trust among school leaders toward its teachers.

In the name of either consistency or total control, many teachers experience the suffocation of their creativity and autonomy to do what is best for their students. Lesson plans, lesson scopes, lesson timetables, and countless other essentials are given to teachers who are then expected to present the material as-is. Such practices are not only contrary to all research on differentiation within each classroom, and among students in those classrooms, but also reflect the larger idea that teachers can’t be trusted to make decisions about the students that they have come to know and love.

While such all-encompassing plans are justified because of their consitency between clasrooms and done in the name of saving teachers time and energy, I would argue that it stems from a need many inexperienced leaders feel to be in total control. But, this control comes at a cost: it reflects an incredible lack of trust that can be immediately felt by teachers. All teachers (or, at least, the vast majority) want to do what is best for their students and often know what will function best for the students in their class. Teachers want to be trusted as professionals and utilize their creativity, not micro-managed as if they were incompetent. If teachers do not feel empowered and trusted to do what they think is best for their students, how could they possibly trust and stand behind their leaders?

Though the idea of standardized lesson plans and collaboration can be a very good thing, teachers still need to be trusted to make their own decisions in regards to their own students. School leaders need to be less authoritarian and more collaborative and supportive. A good school leader should be present for advice and guidance and provide support, not take over the whole ship.

Unfortunately, this lack of trust can quickly permeate a school building. And if teacher morale and trust is low, it will bleed into the classroom and instruction, felt not only by teachers but by students as well.

To combat this spiral, school leaders need to show trust and belief in their teachers and stand up for their autonomy in front of their superiors. Nothing is more inspiring and comforting than knowing your leader trusts you and has your back. This type of leader inspires long teaching careers and the development of experience, which seems to be a hard-to-find thing in some of today’s most underserved schools.

 

On Training

Too many teachers land in the classroom with inadequate training – that is, if they have been trained at all. While the easiest example of this problem to cite and blame is “fast-track” programs like Teach for America and NYC Teaching Fellows, I don’t want to talk about these programs right now (soon, though, I promise).  Instead, I’d like to get even closer to the root, which is the lack of consistently rigorous teacher training programs at the university level.

The lack of uniformly rigorous teacher training programs from university to university has created a huge disparity in teacher preparedness and, therefore, teacher quality. While great teacher training programs of course exist, many teaching programs in the United States do not have rigorous enough course and program entry requirements to weed out persons who could be too unfit or uncommitted to teach. Stated more bluntly, it isn’t too tough to become a teacher.  This mentality quickly leads to the lack of respect that is so prevalent when discussing the teaching profession

Compare, for example, an education program at any given university with, say, a pre-med program. I think even the surface level findings of such a comparison would be striking. In particular, I believe that the level of course rigor in the pre-med program would naturally weed out those unfit or uncommitted to pursue a career in the field, whereas I do not know if the same could be said for an education program. Crossing the sea, we can compare our teacher training system with Finland’s system, where entry into education programs is competitive, the program itself is rigorous, and the teaching career is respected. Pretty different, huh?

Inadequate teacher training programs at the university level lead to warped perceptions of the teaching career.  Teaching programs that are inadequate lead to the idea that “anyone can be a teacher,” which naturally leads to the thought that it must not be too hard to be a teacher. When this mentality persists, the teaching profession is disrespected, underappreciated, and people, quite simply, don’t want to be teachers. As a result, “fast-track” programs pop up and are, in some ways, able to justify themselves by filling a social need.

Consistent and rigorous teacher training programs will lead to meaningful change in teacher quality, in the view of the teaching profession, and in student achievement. As any half-decent teacher knows, kids love to be challenged and pushed (in the right ways, of course). College students, and adults, are no different. By creating education programs at the university level that are rigorous and competitive, students will be more drawn to these programs and, once through the program, will be better prepared to start their career in education. And while the first few years of teaching will be tough regardless, with more training (and more well-trained teachers in the school), teachers will be better equipped to deal with and overcome these natural challenges. And, furthermore, after years spent teaching successfully, these very same teachers could become the experienced leaders that schools, and our education system, need. Or maybe they’ll stay in the classroom because that’s where they feel they belong.

On Experience (part one)

No matter how many books have been read, how many classes have been taken, how many educational theories have been analyzed, or how many inspiring TED: Education videos have been watched, nothing can fully prepare young teachers for the first year (or the first few years) of teaching. Teacher experience is something that is becoming less and less valued, particularly in many charter school networks. Or, perhaps a better way to phrase it would be to say that the definition of experience is often quite warped.

I recently began rereading the book “Letters to a Young Teacher” by Jonathon Kozol, a book in which he gives advice to one young teacher while also analyzing and critiquing the current trends in education. The first time I read this book, I was in the middle of my first year of teaching and was working in a “no-nonsense” charter school. Kozol’s book was a breath of fresh air and reminded me of why I had become a teacher and that there is a whole other world of education out there, although this other world is unfortunately shrinking each year.

While reading recently, I came across this quote that stuck with me and inspired what will most likely be the first of a few posts on the value of teacher experience and the seeming lack of recognition of its importance among many young teachers. Kozol writes:

“Some of the young white teachers I have met, several of whom came into public education through one of the “fast track programs…have subsequently left the public schools and gravitated into semi-private charter schools, or joined with others of their age to create a new school of their own, in which they give me the impression that they feel relieved at being liberated from the “oldtime” faculty and principals with whom they worked.”

Later in the chapter, when referring to his own experiences as an early educator, he writes:

“Looking back on my state of mind during that period, I recognize…. a brisk, smart-aleck certitude that within a mere ten months I’d somehow learned enough to turn my back upon the efforts of those tens of thousands of good teaches elsewhere in my city and throughout the nation…”

Both of these quotes struck a chord within my mind and validated a lingering thought that I have had nearly the entire time I’ve been working in schools where this type of mentality is the norm. Educators with a mere two or three years of classroom experience are often touted as “master teachers” and are promoted to school leadership positions with titles like “academic dean” or, in some cases, even offered principal positions. Though these teachers were often successful* in their given classroom settings, their promotion to a role of leadership after so little time in the classroom suggests a warped sense of the idea of experience – that two or three (or maybe four) years of teaching experience gives you the credibility to lead other teachers. What results, then, is that this cycle of inexperience continues to grow, as inexperience is attempting to guide inexperience. Or, put another way, it often ends up being a case of the blind leading the blind. As briefly argued in a recent post about Ms. Devos’ appointment, taking a role without the adequate experience should not fly.

Additionally, this warped sense of experience, to me, implies a lack of respect for the teaching profession. Taking teachers who are viewed as successful* out of the classroom suggests that teaching is merely a stepping stone and should not be one’s end career goal. When I was asked by my supervisor if I would ever consider applying for a school leadership position, my response in which I stated that perhaps after teaching for 10-15 years I would consider something of the sort was met with a confused look that seemed to ask why I would ever want to stay in the classroom for so long.

Teacher experience is an incredibly valuable and, in my opinion, increasingly overlooked tool. While I am not suggesting that all experienced teachers are excellent educators, and I am also not trying to imply that all young teachers in charter schools strive to get out of the classroom and into leadership roles as quickly as possible, I do believe that the importance of experience is becoming increasingly warped. The definition of experience in education needs to be reexamined, consistent, and recognized by young educators.**

Myself a young teacher, I recognize that I would have no business calling myself a leader in education. I challenge my fellow young teachers to recognize that, while I’m sure many of us are on our way to being excellent teachers, we still have so much to learn. I challenge my fellow young teachers to stay in the classroom, to gain years of valuable experience, and to continue using and sharing your own ideas and new ideas, but to also recognize that there are so many amazing teachers who have been teaching for 15, 20, 30 years who can teach us so much. I challenge my fellow teachers to recognize that three years of teaching does not make us experienced teachers.

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*  I hesitated to use the word successful because I often disagree with the definitions of success, often measuring only test results and classroom behavior and not taking into account student happiness, teacher creativity, or developmental appropriateness of classroom expectations.

** I hope to write another post on the path I’ve seen many take – persons striving to work in education policy without, in my opinion, adequate classroom teaching experience.