Monday, November 30, 2015

Grains of Salt

For quite a while now I have been a big advocate for teachers using social media. Specifically, I have encouraged the use of Twitter as a way to build strong professional learning networks. I know for me Twitter allowed me to make some very strong professional and personal connections. These connections have been a huge asset in my growth as an educator. Having said that, I feel as though new users and some veteran users of social media need to take things with a grain of salt. The reason I say that is you can't take anything at face value and should keep a skeptical eye out.

For starters, much of what you see on social media is the "best" and is highly biased. People are tweeting and posting about their best lessons, their best classes and their best days. You don't often see the sometimes ugly, messy or painful work we do as educators. If failures or “bad” content is shared, it is done is a way to attempt to garner positive attention or gain pity. In other words, people are not often sharing the days they lose it on a kid or a situation. They're not jumping out to post a vine of the lesson that went horribly wrong. Administrators are sharing great pictures of their schools’ work but fail to mention the irate parent or disgruntled board member they often deal with. This is not to say the negativity needs to be shared but we need to be mindful of this reality. Far too often people see other people's work and feel inadequate. Many teachers feel they cannot measure up to those who are sharing and posting all of these seemingly amazing things on social media. Just remember they're sharing their absolute best from a biased point of view and those individuals likely share the same frustrations and tough times as you.

Another aspect of social media which has become quite popular is the use of absolutes. People are spouting off about how all teachers should 100% do “this” or should never do “that”. I have been told I am a bad teacher if I lecture, use worksheets, assign homework or don’t use Minecraft. Now to be fair, I have shared what could be considered borderline absolutes specifically around the notion of homework. Yet, I fear that the use of absolutes when it comes to just about anything in education is an easy way out. It is far easier to make a blanket statement than engage in critical thinking aimed at understanding the very nuance embedded in the work we do. Outside of avoiding cafeteria food nearing an extended holiday break as freezers are being cleaned out, absolutes should rarely be used.

The final piece that I caution social media users on is the so-called experts telling you how to do your job. There are some incredibly outgoing and in some cases pushy individuals in these social media spaces. They are constantly telling teachers things they should do or should not do. They use passive aggressive tactics or are even out right demeaning of teachers in an effort to get them to do something. Yet a simple click on their biography will illustrate they are not in fact classroom teachers or school administrators themselves. That is not to say we can't learn and grow from those not in a classroom. That is not it at all. I greatly value the insights and opinions of those with a variety of perspectives both in and out of the classroom. However, always be skeptical of somebody telling you how to do your job when they are in fact not doing your job.

I will continue to encourage teachers to use Twitter and other social media sites. I stand behind the notion they are good for building connections while learning and growing in a community. However, I do so with a bit of hesitation and ask that all users, new and old, take it all in with a grain of salt.

Friday, November 20, 2015

I'm Not Resigning

There has been a lot of talk about the viral teacher resignations floating around online. I myself have recently engaged in conversations with fellow teachers who have said they are thinking about resigning or retiring as soon as possible. Even more are the individuals who say they would never recommend their children or their neighbor’s children to go into the teaching profession. 

Many of these people make statements like, “It's not what it used to be”. “Kids have changed”. “Parents don't support our schools”. “There is no funding and Common Core is killing our kids”. The list of reasons to not go into teaching are pretty long and are often the same reasons people leave the classroom. 

The simple act of teaching is often being suffocated by meetings and administrator initiatives. What was once an art and craft has in some places become cold and calculated all the while being driven by data. There is less emotion and more calculation in the profession. In the short 13 years that I've been teaching, I have seen these things. As a result I am asked if I would recommend someone going into the teaching profession. I have thought long and hard about this because I do have reservations. 

Teaching isn't what it used to be. Yet as I thought about it, I realized teaching shouldn't be what it used to be. Society has changed, regardless of if we think that is a good or a bad thing. Kids have changed. Families have changed. So it only seems natural that teaching should change as well. Teachers are being held to a higher standard and held more accountable for every child's education. I'm trying to see why that's a bad thing. Granted, I am not in agreement on how measuring this is being done, but the reality is improvement is a good thing.

As I was reflecting on this notion of resigning or not going into teaching, I received an email. The email was from a student I had in my first two years of teaching. She was nearing graduation in a teacher prep program and had to interview a teacher who had inspired her to become a teacher herself. As I read her comments and reflections, I knew without a doubt that I would recommend anybody to enter our profession. People like to say teachers teach everybody. We teach the future doctors, the future mechanics, the future presidents and the future corporate giants. We teach them all. 

Yet, we don’t teach with the intention of creating future greatness. We simply teach to inspire them to find whatever potential greatness may be hidden inside. If a student is able to find their passion and are inspired to find their life’s work, that is all we can hope for as teachers. Reading the letter from that former student about her aspirations to become an educator removed all doubt about the profession I have chosen. It forced me to reflect on why I chose the profession I did and also feel really good about the impact I had made on that one student. It is in those moments that I know I would recommend a career in education to everyone. 

Actually, I take that back. I don't recommend everyone go into teaching because not everyone can do what we do. Not everyone can inspire, motivate and empower children like we do. Not everyone can shape the course of a community like teachers do. Maybe we should be thanking all of those educators who are resigning and retiring or choosing a different career path.  Just maybe, at the end of the day, people who aren't sure about their choice are probably not the ones we want working with our children anyway. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Change Won't Happen

Lots of people are talking about the need for change in education. Some people may go so far as to say we need a revolution. ;) Many people think they know the answer about how education needs to change. The ideas and potential fixes range far and wide with each a self proclaimed game changer. Entire school systems are being created around these notions and many of these reforms or shifts are being held in high regard by many within education circles. Yet, nothing has really stuck and created the wholesale shift or change in thinking about how school happens in the US that many argue we need. 

Rather then thinking about what changes need to be made to the system, I am wondering if systemic change is even possible. Can change happen in our schools? Is changing the system of American education at a system level likely to happen anytime soon? Could a strong argument be made that it never will? I am not a pessimist and do see the need for change in so many places in my role as a parent as well as a teacher. What I am suggesting is that change can not happen in any real way if it doesn't start in the classroom.

Stop and think about any of the positive changes that have happened in education in the last decade. Some of these changes vary in impact and scale, yet there is evidence of change. Teachers changing the way grades are used and what homework means for kids. Teachers pushing a maker mindset as well as including innovation and creativity in their classrooms. Or the teachers looking at their instructional practices and utilizing methods such as flipped classroom or project based learning. All of these changes happened within a classroom and were led by classroom teachers. It is when those elements and those ideas get taken out of the classroom and try to be scaled for large systems they often fall apart or lose their effectiveness.

A great example of this is the PLC model as it has played out in many schools. What started as an idea to have teachers collaborate around teaching and learning has turned into busy work and forced agendas. Where teachers were organically discussing best practices and instructional pedagogy, they are now forced to obsess over data and create inauthentic protocols to fulfill administrator expectations. Many other seemingly positive ideas coming out of classrooms are taken and brought “up to scale” and lose their authenticity and ultimately their impact on students. 

When decisions about what is best for kids are being made at the classroom level they more closely reflects what is truly best for kids. When decisions about what's best for kids are made at a system-level either in a district, state or federal level, those decisions are less about what's best for kids and more about what's best for the system. The decisions made at the high level are about efficiency and simplicity rather than individualization or student centered. This is not necessarily a criticism but rather an observation. With this in mind, can change be driven from the "top"?

As a classroom teacher can we wait for our district, state or the DoE in Washington to mandate change? It has been my experience that changes or even full a blown revolution of ideas do not take place in the state houses or the policy rooms in a country. Revolutions are began by the people. As a history teacher I often teach my students about the many revolutions which have taken place throughout history. They begin with the common people. The people on the streets and in the trenches. As teachers, we are those people in the streets of education and the trenches of the school system. 

The revolution of ideas and the movements of change are going to happen in a classroom not a courtroom, state room and likely not even in a school district meeting. As teachers we are responsible for being the advocates of change our students need. Without us, change and reform is just an agenda item for decision makers and a talking point in an election year. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Best for Kids

You don’t have to spend a great deal of time in a school to hear the phrase, “best for kids” mentioned in a meeting or inservice. This phrase permeates into much of what we do in schools and is often the justification behind a great many decisions. You don’t have to look far into mission statements, visions or school improvement goals to see some iteration of that phrase. Yet, do our actions support the use of this statement? Even when we want to can we ever truly do what is best for all kids? 

First, are we doing the best for all kids when we implement a zero tolerance policy in schools? These policies leave many students out in the cold due to many variables. My own son was victim of this when he was disciplined by an administrator when in kindergarten he used the word “gun” to explain a contraption for catching a Leprechaun. Seriously. Students who are innocent are being punished for the past crimes of the guilty. Suspensions are being handed out  to students bringing knives, matches, etc in to class for legitimate projects all because of zero tolerance. Is this the best we can do for all kids? Can we get rid of zero tolerance and instead engage with situations on a case by case basis and recognize the nuance and context of each individual situation? 

Another idea which is not a popular one to discuss is that of inclusion. On the surface, inclusion makes sense, and as an educator I support the idea of providing all students with the best educational experience as possible given their individual strengths or struggles. However, are we doing what is best for all kids when the needs of one student infringes upon the learning of the other students in the class? For example, when lessons can not be taught or students can not focus due to the actions or support required of one student, are we doing what is best for all kids? Or, when the student being included is essentially being left out of the learning but is in the room purely for the sake of inclusion, is that best for that child? Where do we draw the line?

Is the entire notion of a classroom and general school based curricula best for all kids? Is it entirely possible some kids will not maximize their learning potential in a traditional classroom setting? Many students struggle in classrooms, not because of any academic or cognitive ability, but due to the confines of the classroom itself. Are we being arrogant as educators when we put forth a comprehensive curricula for all kids knowing full well vast amounts of it will have no value to the students when they leave our schools? Can we create flexible learning environments where students can come and go as they need? Additionally, can we create curriculum based on potential future need as well as current student interest? Can the students have a role in deciding what environment as well as what content works best for their learning needs?

Sometimes we as educators get in our own way when it comes to what is truly best for kids. For example, how many times have we stepped back and neglected to support a child or provide the best possible resources because of a parental conflict? When parents disagree with what we as educators know what is best for kids, how can we still push forward and do what is best for the kid? When we know a school rule or outdated district policy is not what is in the best interest for each kid, how do we engage in dialogue with powers that be in order to help support our students? Sometimes doing what’s best for kids is simply being the advocate they need and too often don’t have. 

Best for kids is an easy phrase to roll off the tongue. We as educators often use it to justify our work but often we fall desperately short of putting action behind those words. Sadly, best for kids is often a cop out to justify what is easiest for adults. Rather than a one size fits all attitude, can we really do what is best for kids? Instead can we focus less on what is convenient for the system or easy for the adults and instead shift to what is truly best for the individual student?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Wrong Data

I have been a teacher in a public school for my entire 13 year teaching career. Over that time I have seen many changes on the education pendulum swing back and forth. One trend, although likely more than a trend, I see creeping or rather blitzkrieging into every aspect of our school in recent years is the use of data. To say schools have become obsessed with data may be an understatement. 

Now I'm not here to say I don't like data. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I believe data is a very valuable tool in schools just as in many aspects of life. As a self proclaimed runner, I am constantly pouring over data from my running. I collect distances, times, elevation and even weather conditions. I have two sons who swim and I often review the data of their times and how they are doing and progressing as swimmers. I realize this may indicate I need a new hobby. :) However, data is very much a part of my daily life and likely of many other people.  

In school it feels as though the most important data we collect is reading and math scores. Yes, I realize there are other data points gathered but these appear to be the headliners in the data driven show. Teachers are told they are good teachers or bad teachers largely based on this data. In some places teachers who don't even teach math or English are being told they have a stake in that reading and math data. Huge amounts of human and fiscal resources are invested in supporting reading and math intervention. Specialists are hired to work with our students who struggle in these two area. We even create additional classes for students to get additional help in reading and math. Often times these new classes come at the expense of an “special” or an enrichment class. When this happens students miss out on other learning opportunities they might excel at in an effort to receive additional support. All of these decisions are driven by the data being collected. 

Again, I'm not opposed to data or even using data to inform decisions. Yet, I wonder if the data we’re collecting and the data that is driving our decisions is the right data. If you walk the halls of many schools across our great country you will see issues and concerns beyond low reading or math scores. You will see students who are unhappy, lonely or sad. You will see students that are hungry, that are not well rested and generally unhealthy. You will also see students who are overweight, unkept or emotionally unstable. When I see these students I wonder about a different kind of data driving our work as educators. 

How are we collecting data on happiness? Are we collecting data on physical and mental health? What sort of decisions are being driven by students’ joy and wellness in our schools? Are we creating intervention plans or pulling resources to support mental health as well as physical health? Is it at the same level as it is with math and reading? How can we obsess over a child's reading scores when they're hungry or struggling with obesity? Why are we worried about whether they will master math standards when they are clearly not well either physically or emotionally? 

In reality, much if not most of the data we are collecting in schools will mean little when kids leave our buildings. Whether or not we got a student to a higher level of reading or a higher level of math computation will have less bearing on their life than if they leave us healthier both in mind and body. Why is it that English teachers are being forced to obsess over intervention plans and supports for struggling readers? Why aren’t the PE teachers and the health teachers or the counselor's creating comprehensive wellness plans, mental health plans, or happiness plans for children who struggle in these areas? Why are these plans not the focus of our conversations and data meetings? The data we use to drive our decisions ultimately reflects what we value and I wonder if our schools are beginning to value the wrong things or at least not valuing enough of the right things.