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.

“I’m not sure anymore”

I was talking to my cousin this weekend, a sophomore in college who is studying elementary education and is in the midst of the university’s education program. I was asking him how his semester was going, and he expressed some concerns and stated, more or less, that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a teacher anymore.

His concerns mostly stemmed from one class and one professor. The class was a literacy class and entailed a classroom-experience component in which each college student provides reading support to a first-grader. My cousin, if I can brag a bit, is an intelligent, creative, and laid-back guy who has a gift for engaging kids. This semester, though, he has felt really stifled by the professor who, in his opinion, only focuses on the students’ growth and the academic portions of the sessions. He continued to state that every portion of the lesson needs to be planned out and that there really isn’t any room for him to connect with the student or find other ways to engage him.

This narrative sounded familiar to me. After spending a few years in charter schools in New York City, I am accustomed to a regimented, academic schedule where every second of every lesson is planned to maximize student growth and achievement. And, in some ways, I get it. I understand the importance of having a good plan, of knowing how long different portions of a lesson should take, and of thinking through the little details.

But I also see the flip-side. I know the importance of connecting and engaging with kids. I know how important it is that kids feel heard and wanted and safe in the classroom. And I know how much this type of engagement boosts student morale which, of course, will also boost student achievement. In short, I know that successful teachers find the balance of both.

I can’t remember exactly what I said to my cousin, but I like think it sounded something like this: Yep, that sounds right. I’ve been there. And you’ll be there again, too. You’ll come across all sorts of professors and principals – some who only seem to care about academics and others who take a more whole-child approach. But right now, what matters is how you feel in those moments when you see a concept click for a struggling student, or when you do get to engage with kids and see that you and your ideas are capable. If, in these moments, you love it and want more – don’t give up on teaching, because we need more teachers like you. The fact that you can already see or feel that something isn’t quite right with this strictly-academic focus proves that you can succeed. Of course you’ll have to learn to navigate tough situations and learn to balance the expectations of your superiors with your own personal views. But trust yourself. Trust yourself and you’ll be great.

The jury’s still out as to whether or not he sticks with teaching, but, if he does and someday gets many teaching accolades, I’m taking credit.

What advice would you have given?

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.

Book Commercials

Technology and reading are not often thought to be partners; in fact, teachers struggle to make books more appealing to students than so many other tech past times. A recent article that I read on Edutopia suggests a unique way to blend these two seemingly opposite ideas – book commercials. The article compares this project to the more common book review or book preview. And, in essence, these commercials are the exactly the same – they get kids excited about books and about reading. The big difference is that they also give kids the creative power. Oh, and they use technology.

When I was working with one upper elementary class a few years ago, my goal was to read and write one book review each week for the class (to be fair, I was not the classroom teacher, but rather helping out my cousin a few afternoons a week in her classroom – aka I had a lot more time). After I would give my review, I put a typed copy of my review and the book in the classroom library. My cousin told me that students would practically fight over the book in hopes of being the next one to read it.

This excitement occurred with me, an adult, simply taking the time to read the book and recommend it (in an engaging way, of course) to the class. Imagine the power of this recommendation coming from a fellow student? And imagine how much more excitement there would be if there were visuals, graphics, and music? Not only would students be excited to read recommended books; I am sure that they would be equally as excited to read a new book and recommend it to their classmates in this way.

I thought that this idea of a book commercial was really creative and a great way to pair technology with reading. With so many options available to distract kids from reading, teachers and parents will need to continue to be creative to instill a love of reading in our students. As my grandmother told me a long time ago, “If you can read, you can do anything.” We need to do whatever we can to ensure that our students not only can read but love to read. When this happens, they will truly be able to do anything.

On Ms. DeVos and Mr. Trump

Some of the biggest news in the realm of education policy this week is Trump’s appointment for Education Secretary, Ms. Betsy DeVos. I would be lying if I said I knew much about Ms. DeVos before yesterday, but I spent some time today reading about her, as well as reading more deeply about some of Trump’s supposed stances on education. Here are my brief thoughts on both of these topics, with links to some articles I enjoyed reading.

On Ms. DeVos

One of the most alarming things that I read over and over again was Ms. DeVos’ lack of teaching and classroom experience. I feel like I can stop the argument here. How can you justify being in a role with absolutely zero experience? The idea of a lack of experience, one of my biggest critiques of many large charter schools and their leadership models, simply would not fly in any other position of this caliber. Would you ever appoint an attorney general who is not an attorney? Or a surgeon general who was not a doctor? No way. So how can there be an education secretary who has no teaching experience or educational leadership experience whatsoever?

Ms. DeVos also has a vast history of supporting school-choice initiatives, investing millions of her own dollars to do so. In an attempt to be unbiased (though I’m not), I’ll try to find some common ground. Ms. DeVos has stated her belief that ZIP code should not confine children to failing schools. I, as I hypothesize that anyone in the world of education would, agree with this statement with all of my being. But that’s about the only sentiment that Ms. DeVos and I share. In my humble opinion, ZIP code should not impact educational quality because education quality should be consistent regardless of location. By supporting a school choice program where families can select schools, one is suggesting that all schools are not created equal and that some schools are better than others.

Every child should have access to a great education, and every school should provide a great education. Allowing students school choice is not the long-term solution. While families should be free to send their kids to a private or religious school at their choosing, this choice should not be one of necessity. All schools should be equal, and that means providing support (financial and otherwise) to those schools that most need it.

On The [President-Elect] Donald

Oh boy, lots could be said here, but we’ll stick to education. Here’s a nice little summary I came across that outlines some of Trump’s ideas. My focus was primarily on those actions that would impact K-12 education, particularly K-5 education, as that is my niche.

Trump’s selection for Education Secretary made clear his stance on school-choice, so just see above for my thoughts on that. Surprisingly enough, though, Trump’s wishes to dismantle the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) aren’t terribly far from my own. While I am not entirely opposed to CCSS in theory, the way they have been rolled out left a bad taste in my mouth and think they could use some heavy editing. Many of the standards seemed developmentally inappropriate, especially those standards in early education. In particular, I disliked the standards that required such early reading, forcing all students to read in kindergarten before some of them are developmentally ready to do so.

As I said earlier, in theory I can support CCSS and can support the idea of a nationwide set of standards to ensure even academic expectations across the country, but they need to be developmentally appropriate and need to be introduced better in schools. I am sure that Mr. Trump’s reasons for wanting to dismantle CCSS (if he has any) are very different from mine, but hey – I’m trying to find some common ground.

Last Thoughts

Needless to say, it’s an interesting time for education, and the future of what education will look like in the United States is unknown. I would love to see the public-school system not undermined but supported, thus making this appointment a bit unnerving. I would love to see the teaching profession become more respected. And I would love to see an education system where students, regardless of where they attend school, know they are loved and safe and where they are pushed each day to be creative, thoughtful, kind, and curious.

My hope is that Mr. Trump, Ms. DeVos, and the team that the two of them assemble can remember that the students should be the only thing that matter. I hope that the two can recognize that each child is unique and valuable. I hope that the two can create policies that emphasize these two things. Maybe wishful thinking, but I’ve gotta have some hope.

Articles

Here are some of the articles I found interesting on these topics:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/us/politics/betsy-devos-trumps-education-pick-has-steered-money-from-public-schools.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Feducation

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/trump-picks-billionaire-betsy-devos-school-voucher-advocate-as-education-secretary/2016/11/23/c3d66b94-af96-11e6-840f-e3ebab6bcdd3_story.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/11/23/trump-terrifies-public-school-advocates-with-education-secretary-pick/?tid=pm_local_pop

http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2016/11/24/trumps-education-secretary-choice-is-a-blow-to-our-nations-science-health/#bd0d09053382

Valuing the Little Moments

I am currently taking the year off of classroom teaching and have been spending a bit of time traveling and volunteering. My current volunteer assignment in Honduras, though multi-faceted, allows me to spend some time in a unique classroom setting. Let me explain a bit more.

Briefly, this nonprofit works with malnourished mothers and children in Honduras. The organization has a recovery center where mothers and their children can come to overcome their malnutrition. Mothers who come to the center are invited to bring all of their children, not just those that are malnourished, so there are often between 7-12 kids at the center, and generally about half of those are of school age.

Working in this system has been unique and challenging in lots of ways. For starters, the kids only speak Spanish, so my teaching has to be in Spanish (which means I’m not really bringing my A-game, if you know what I mean). There is also a wide range of ages in the class, and, on top of that, an even wider range of academic skills and abilities. These kids are coming from very rural communities which usually have schools but what is taught in each school can vary greatly.

This opportunity has given me the chance to reflect on some really important things regarding my own teaching practice. Honestly, some things that annoyed me about the schools where I worked, I realize now, are good and important ideas (at least in theory). One broad idea is that of assessment and its importance. I still strongly disagree with the quantity of assessments that took place at the schools where I worked and the amount of pressure that these assessments put on students (topics for another day), but I’ve been reminded that diagnostic assessments are so helpful. I had the chance to develop a quick diagnostic test for the kids that come to the center, and this five minute diagnostic gave me so much clarity for how I can best help each student, even if they are only around for a few weeks. In the future, I hope that the teacher can use this diagnostic as new students arrive.

While all of that is good, I’ve digressed from my main point. As I mentioned earlier, some days I’m with the kids, some days I’m doing other things, and other days I don’t know what I’m doing and have some down time while a plan is being created for me on the fly. Not knowing my schedule, especially when it comes to work, is something that annoys me, and I was complaining about this very thing today. I was complaining about how sometimes the teacher just expects me to teach a lesson when I’m around for an hour, even though I wasn’t planning on teaching and am completely unprepared. In the midst of these complaints and a vent session, though, I received some great advice and was reminded to, put simply, just have some ideas ready of things I can quickly do with the kids – activities that the kids enjoy that will also build their academic skills.

So, after being reminded of this, I stopped complaining and I went and did it. I found the younger kids who are still working on name writing, we got some markers, and we practiced writing our names. As basic as this activity is, they loved it. They chose their own markers, they switched up the colors, and I drew smiley faces by their correctly written names. It was great.

I realized, after thinking about this morning later in the day, how easy it is to complain about the big picture in the classroom and in a school; how easy it is to complain about the things that are annoying and frustrating. But what really matters is the kids. I was reminded of the importance of these little moments with the kids, and how little moments can have a huge impact on learning.

I’ll try my best to remember this in the future, though I’m sure my complaining days are not over – sorry to those who might have to listen 🙂