Thursday, June 16, 2016

Open Letter to Pre-Service and Early-Career Teachers

Dear Pre-Service and Early-Career Teachers: 

Recently I finished the semester at the University of Montana where I have spent four years as an adjunct. I can describe the attitude most of you pre-service teachers have toward your new career: cautious idealism. You have some sense that the job ahead will be difficult yet gratifying, poorly compensated yet rewarding. And you are amenable to the drawbacks because the returns are so great. 

Pre-service teachers learning about Twitter in my media literacy methods course

What you don’t yet know about yourselves is that although you may become wonderful teachers, most of you are humble. Although you may become true professionals, many of you will not become teacher leaders. Although you will advocate for your students, you will not often use your voice for yourselves.

I know you. You are teachers, and it is in the nature of teachers to serve and support others wholly and selflessly. It is almost antithetical for teachers to advocate for ourselves. We do not know how to talk to others about our work or our successes, and we certainly don’t feel comfortable asking for support.

Despite all its best intentions, Teacher Appreciation Week reinforces this notion that teachers should quietly and humbly accept our gifts and discounts for a week. It says, “please take this latte from the PTO since we all know you’re not getting a raise this year.” It says, “let us recognize these professionals who help raise the nation’s children and forget for a few days how policies often undermine their agency.” It says, “teachers are martyrs who sacrifice everything, including themselves.” 

On Teacher Appreciation Day I received two lifesaver candies in my mailbox from an administrator. I choose to see one candy as a metaphor for my work with kids (a total overstatement, in most cases) and the other as a metaphor for self-advocacy. And it's not ironic that I, myself, am wielding the second lifesaver, for myself.

I would love to trade the candies and coupons for a raise and recognition of my profession as such. But here, here is the place of tension: advocating for ourselves belies our very nature and desire for humility. The attitude I want to cultivate feels self-serving. How does one ask for more, when one is advised by the inner counselor to be satisfied with less? 

This inner counselor came to mind as I listened to you, my pre-service teachers, struggle on the last day of class with the mock interview question, “Why should we hire you?” One after the other you said you didn’t feel right "bragging." I chided, “You have to get over this feeling. You serve others, but you cannot do so effectively if you are meek about your career choice. You are your own best advocate, and when you speak for yourselves, you lift up the whole profession!”

With that small pep lecture, I hope to plant a seed of agency inside you, new teachers. I hope as you move into your careers, you will hear the rising voices inviting you to join teacher leadership. Above all, I hope you will lift your own voice as a professional, knowing that your work and your commitment are worthy of respect – both from others and from yourself.

Teachers at Teach to Lead Summit in New Orleans, where teacher leadership ideas take shape

Friday, March 25, 2016

Changing School Culture -- for Teachers

How can school leaders create a culture of innovation, inspiration, and change? How can they help teachers see themselves as change agents – as vehicles, not receptacles; as speedboats, not anchored aircraft carriers? And how can teachers do this for themselves?

First, instead of bogging down every meeting with data discussions or tedious logistics related to the week’s coming events, or allowing a complaint-garden to bloom, school leaders can use email and social media to convey that important information to teachers and use the meeting time instead as a way for teachers to connect on real levels: set up discussion protocols for teachers to share their teaching ideas, solve problems together, or brainstorm ways to collaborate. We are always talking about having too little time; school leaders can help us make our time together more productive by being purposeful and innovative.

In addition, school leaders can implement an initiative like Genius Hour for teachers: supported time to work on a passion project, modeled after Google’s approach. Most teachers would feel empowered by this autonomy and trust. It is a creative leader who finds time for teachers to do something that inspires them simply for the reason that self-directed learning is key to engagement in the overall structure of school. Isn’t this what we always say about students and classrooms? It applies to teachers, too.

Ask teachers what they want and need for professional development. All the collective wisdom about PD points to the importance of teacher voice in selecting their own training and support methods. Help teachers identify goals within their profession and move them toward those goals. In other words, differentiate professional development the way we talk of differentiating classroom instruction so that every participant’s needs are met. In my building, we have been pushing for unconference-style PD where teachers arrive at the meeting with something they want to learn, and other teachers provide the instruction.

Establish a culture of innovation. Ask staff members to contribute ideas for improving the school environment, whether it’s school culture, scheduling, snacks, collaboration, the facility – and encourage collaboration among staff members to solve these problems. Once the educators and support personnel in the building feel the support and interest from their school leaders, they will be more likely to be inventive in their own problem-solving within their classrooms and building environments.

In short, creating the space for teacher agency is a key to empowering teachers and re-engaging those who have abdicated their enthusiasm. Effective managers can and do change school culture.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The C in Class C

Class C schools, Class C tournaments, Class C towns.

What does that C stand for? According to the Montana High School Association, Class C designates the high schools with fewer than 120 students. In Montana, that's about 64% of all high schools. 108 of them, to be exact, located in tiny towns and reservation communities across the state. 

Jocko Valley, home of Class C Arlee High School

In towns with Class C schools, the school functions as the pivot point for many activities. Even folks without kids in school come to school events such as band concerts and fundraisers. Grandparents, aunties and uncles and other extended relatives fill the seats at athletic competitions and graduations. Even some funerals are held in school gyms, when there is no other venue large enough. 

And when Class C schools travel, towns empty out. "Last one to leave turns out the lights" goes the saying. Here's a Missoulian article about this phenomenon from last year's state basketball tournament. And what about those fans? Here's what the Northern Sports Network reported when Arlee's eight-man football team made it to the state championships for the first time 29 years: "The fans were one of the notable parts of the game. Hundreds of fans made the 366 mile trip to Chinook to watch their team play in the title game."

Three hundred and sixty-six miles. That's over five hours one way. Yes, Montana, but also yes, dedication. Can you see the caravan of cars, painted red and white, stretching for miles across the plains, heading east to watch their team - our team - play in their first state championship in decades? We lost. But here's what happened then: "Following the trophy presentation, the Arlee players lined up single file and every single Warriors fan came by and gave each and every player a hug. The emotional event lasted over 45 minutes." Because that's how we do. 

Community members left behind watch the game from a high school classroom.

When Class C Chinook lost a wrestler in a car accident just before the state tournament earlier this month, Arlee distributed memorial armbands to their wrestling team. One Chinook wrestler remarked, "It just shows that the whole wrestling community is one big family." The wrestling community and the community of small towns: one big family. That's how we are.

And of course last night at the Western C Divisionals basketball tournament in Hamilton, 72 miles away, hundreds of Arlee fans packed the gym to watch both of their teams compete in the championship games. Picture this: One side of a gymnasium fully wearing red. Half of the opposing bleachers, also in red. One full end, also in red. This crowd is rowdy, ready, loud, and proud. Not only did both teams bring home the first place hardware and clinch a trip to state, the girls became the first team in recent memory to do so.

Around 11:30, I was home enjoying some couch time when I heard the sirens. Not fast, but slow. Not one, but several. And the honking. I stepped onto the porch, and cue the goosebumps - the teams were back from the divisional tournament, escorted by our town's emergency vehicles, flanked by happy parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles and extended family. 

If you do not live in a small town, you cannot know the elation of a community that rallies around its own: the gyms packed with sports fans, proud parents of graduates, or mourners at a funeral. 

If you do not live in a small town, you may not "get" the excitement of caravans that travel together, hotels full of guests who know each other, hundreds of fans with matching t-shirts in faraway bleachers.

If you do not live in a small town, you may not guess what the C in Class C really stands for: community.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Un-Distorting Reality

Recently I sent an email home informing parents of students in my senior speech class that we run an essentially gradeless classroom. Students use a "success rubric" to guide and assess their progress, with assistance from their teacher. I wrote about this approach during a previous semester here, here, and here; it was overwhelmingly successful despite some students' initial fears.

Later that day I received a respectful disagreement from a parent who rejects this approach to grading because it doesn't reflect "real-world" consequences. This argument isn't surprising to me at all. But I kept coming back to it, my mind worrying it like a loose tooth.

Finally, this realization: grades in school share very little with job-related consequences in real life. Grades are superficial and vary in meaning from teacher to teacher. Teachers do not necessarily want to replicate the ways they do correspond, the subjectivity and arbitrariness.

And actually, very little in a traditional high school reflects the adult world of work. In what place in the world of work, for example, is a person shunted from room to room every 53 minutes with 3 minutes to take a break or use the bathroom? In what place in the world of work does an employee sit in a desk in rows and interact minimally with others? In what place is an adult told to succeed in a variety of very different disciplines? And where - other than in a school - is a person made to do all of this in a single day, day after day, for thirteen years? At best, traditional high school is a distorted reflection of the "real world."

Some might say that traditional approaches are good for training up our youth for a harsh world. While I see the point, I reject the logic: why must we use the same methods we - parents and teachers - ourselves experienced? We can innovate and still prepare our students.

In my classroom, I have thrown out desks in favor of collaborative spaces; this doesn't mean I don't ask to see individual performance.

I connect our classroom work to the world in which students live through field work and guest speakers; this doesn't mean I reject the "3 R's."

And I encourage students to think for themselves by removing superficial and authoritative grades; this does not mean there is no pressure to improve.

It's time not only to change our own environment, but to change the world of schooling for our students. And to do that, we have to change the hearts and minds of parents and community members, sometimes administrators and policymakers too.

We must un-distort our view of the real world and adjust our schools to match it - for now and for the future.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Holding Back for Deeper Love

Love is on everyone's minds right now, whether it's the love they have in their lives or the love they wish they had. One thing most people can agree upon is that love is complicated. There are so many kinds! Romantic love, parental love, childhood love, tough love.

Teachers also have a special love for their students and their classrooms. You can tell the really committed ones: they open their rooms early for kids to chill in until the first bell. They eat lunch with students and tell jokes with them, sometimes hug them. Some become their students' confidants and surrogate parents.

I am not one of those teachers.

I need my space.
I like eating alone, at home.
I'm not a hugger.
I don't want to know students' secrets.
I don't have it in me to parent other people's kids.

Why can't I go there? My bucket is big enough for six preps, plus grading and planning, and an occasional lunch meeting. Given free rein, by nature I would overwork myself, overtax my time, and overwhelm the straps of my schoolbags. If I'm with students straight from 7:30-4:15, then spend my evenings and weekends with them virtually by grading and doing armchair planning, if I hold their confidences and help guide their personal lives - well, that bucket is too full. I can no longer carry it. And if the bucket contents begin to slosh out, that means I've undermined my own ability to love every moment of my time in the classroom.

I've often felt guilty about this, defensive in explaining why I like to be alone in the mornings. Maybe a little envious of teachers whose doors are always open. Sometimes an awkward back-pat takes the place of a proper hug, and I wonder why I can't cross that line. But underneath this pressure is a hard fact: I know my limits.

And those limits are essential because I must protect this job, the one I love so much, from myself. I want to love my students, my work, even grading. I want to be my best when I'm with the students, assessing their performance, coaching them to improve. I want to show students good ways to live their lives through the work we do together in the classroom. This doesn't happen if I've flatlined from exposure. Thus boundaries are necessary, restraint crucial.

So my students can wait until the bell.
They can eat with each other.
They can find a counselor for their confidences and hugs.

For me to thoroughly commit to my students, I must unapologetically hold back.

And holding back means simply this: loving more deeply.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Other Side of the Bridge

Last week I spent a few hours in the company of some newly minted teachers of the year at their first conference in San Antonio. I was helping deliver a presentation with Hope Street Group on the topic of building relationships with leaders. For me though, this experience was a profoundly reflective one. That is, I found myself reflecting on the two years since I sat in these teachers' seats and thinking about how much I've changed and grown since then.

Two years ago, I worried a lot about the conference before I arrived. My experience had been mostly limited to my classroom, where I had spent my time fretting about my students' grasp of comma splices and when to schedule my next club meeting. I was not some super-teacher. I was not a policy expert. I did not really even know how to dress myself; I'd bookmarked a graphic I found depicting the differences between business casual and professional.

After I arrived, my worries were confirmed. Those other teachers of the year were definitely stellar, knowledgeable, competent. They knew about policy. They had their platforms and elevator speeches. Their voices didn't quaver when they introduced themselves. I am not exaggerating when I tell you this: I was waiting, the whole time, for someone to call from Montana and say, "We've made a big mistake; you're not the teacher of the year." It would have been a humiliating relief.

But no one called. After that week I decided they must have just accepted their mistake, and left me to cope. And this is where my memories of that week and my new perspective on it collide. As I sat there watching these new STOYs I was reminded of one of my favorite TED talks.

Amy Cuddy's research on body language is fascinating and useful, but it is her personal story that reaches me. She talks about losing her own sense of identity, how she struggled to regain it, and in doing so how she reinvented herself. She says, "Don't just fake it till you make it; fake it till you become it."

New state teachers of the year are in a similar position. They have lost their classroom-teacher-only identity. They are swimming in a sea of uncertainty, trying to find their feet. They are wondering how to catch up, and whether someone is going to find them out.

I know. I felt that way. But two years later, the imposter sensation does dissipate. The opportunities afforded every state teacher of the year are enough to make change.

But the biggest shift is a change in mindset: as soon as we begin to see ourselves as leaders, we become leaders. We advocate and innovate. We solve problems. We write. We amplify the voices of our colleagues. We lead.

So, to the Class of 2016: 

Find your voice. Speak your truth. Yell if you have to.

Fake it till you become it.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Belief in What Works

I recently went through a 16-month no-sickness stint. From May 2014 to September 2015, I didn't get a single cold or anything worse. This health streak is surprising when you consider that I am both a mom and a teacher, up against kid-borne illness, uncovered coughs, and who-knows-what on the doorknobs and keyboards of my life.

How have I accomplished this health feat? Simple: orange juice. I put a lot of faith in orange juice as the reason for my bodily well-being. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read this article describing how orange juice doesn't promote health. In fact, OJ could be judged unhealthy if you consider the sugars and processing involved. But it works for me - and why? Because I believe in it. Call it a beneficial psychosomatic effect.

The other day I unwittingly started a fire on my Facebook page about learning styles. Learning styles theory posits that individuals learn in different ways and that some people learn best visually, some through auditory means, others through hands-on methods, and so on. Everyone has a hardwired learning style, say these believers.

I am not a learning styles advocate. I trust cognitive scientists like Dan Willingham who handily and convincingly debunk this theory as a myth. At the bottom of this post you will find several resources addressing learning styles as a myth, and there are certainly more available.

During the Facebook fire, one friend commented that using learning styles to differentiate instruction works in classrooms, so why question it? I agree - if you can do no harm while enhancing learning, use whatever vehicle is available and familiar, as long as you know the theory you espouse is widely considered to be false.

As long as people are not doing the following, I say fine, use this theory to support your classroom decisions.

1) Using learning styles to suggest that students can't learn in other ways. This promotes a fixed mindset.
2) Using learning styles to excuse students from doing more challenging work, or work that might be uncomfortable for them.
3) Telling students that learning styles are real, since study after study has shown this theory to be unsupported by actual research.
4) Using learning styles to label and pigeonhole cultural groups ("Native Americans are visual learners" is a common such label).

Scientists say that too much orange juice can be unhealthy due to its sugar content and processing by-products, just as they warn educators against using learning styles theory inappropriately. I hear their concerns, and I don't question their judgment; after all, they do research and I don't. Personally, I reject learning styles theory because of this research and their credentials.

However, I'm not going to stop drinking orange juice even though I know it's not actually boosting my immune system. I'm not arguing with the scientists; I'm willfully ignoring them. I know that as long as I'm doing no harm, I can stick to my own theory.

And if it works, more power to me -- and my OJ.

The concept of different "learning styles" is one of the greatest neuroscience myths

Different Strokes for Different Folks? A critique of learning styles

The Myth of Learning Styles

All You Need to Know About the 'Learning Styles' Myth, in Two Minutes

Brain-Based Learning, Myth Versus Reality: Testing Learning Styles and Dual Coding

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Projecting the Plans

It's eight degrees outside, but the sun is coming up and the snow is pink. I sit here sipping my coffee reflecting on the last couple of weeks of winter break. My to-do list shrank over the break, which is gratifying since I made sure I didn't do all the work at once, wearing myself out. I completed many significant tasks, tying up projects left over from fall and even some from last summer.
Then yesterday I spent a couple of hours planning for spring semester, and afterwards I posted a picture of Monday's lessons on Facebook. I did not anticipate the response this picture would generate! Some teachers like Lisa commented that they were envious, Sean chastised me for going in, and still others like MeMe and Tricia were pleased to see it for various reasons. Then we started sharing our own planning processes. Meghan even decided to crowdsource planning styles for an upcoming Scholastic blog post!
Planning is a key part of good teaching. For me, it is the most satisfying part. I know, I know -- the kids are supposed to be first on that list. But I can't feel good about my work with kids if I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm the kind of teacher who can't sleep at night if every detail of the next day isn't ready to go, from the lesson plans to the conversations I need to have to the prep-time minutes I must use for assessment.

Teaching is really a kind of big project. Each class over the course of a year or semester is a project, and each unit within the course is its own project. Other tasks teachers do are projects too, whether it's coaching, club advisory, or a PLC. When I think about it, I have always loved projects: making quilts, painting rooms, even putting on productions like TEDxArlee. I love the focus, the beginning-and-end, the way they diversify my life. It makes sense that I see teaching as a project and that I love it for that reason.

Happy January 4, classroom friends and colleagues. May you find joy in renewal of your own projects!

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Magic of Teacher Leadership

At the end of 2014, I wrote five pledges for 2015 which I've already taken a moment to review, except for one. I reserved #3, teacher leadership, for this separate post. 

3. I will continue to push for teacher leadership models in our school structures.

Teacher leadership is a hot topic right now in the circles I inhabit, particularly those at the national level. At every conference I attend, in many twitter chats, and in blogs I read, teacher leadership is repeatedly invoked. "Teachers leading" is a catchy hashtag that inspires almost everyone. ASCD lists Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders, edublogger Jose Vilson has provided a list of  Do's and Don't's of Transformative Teacher Leadership, and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year has created an entire framework of standards for teacher leadership. This is not a passing fad.

Yet I'm going to dig in a little against formalized teacher leadership. I have experienced a form of teacher leadership in my role as literacy coach and have been afforded opportunities to lead both within and outside my district, and I have seen the pitfalls. Like a magic show, teacher leadership can be delightful and illuminating -- or it can be an awkward and embarrassing experience for everyone. Finding the right role and appropriate support is crucial to making the show fly.

Informal teacher leadership exists just like a group project in school: one or two people always do all the work. Certain teachers lead committees, initiatives, departments, union work, and even sunshine activities. Others do nothing. There's really no need to comment on that.

Formalized teacher leadership, however, is a little like the rainbow unicorn. It feels good. It sounds great. Teachers who feel confined to a box and wish to bust out of it, in particular, strive for a form of this magic. Teachers who want change but don't want to become an administrator look to teacher leadership roles as a way to diversify their careers.
Teacher leadership sounds like the answer to the problems of confinement and repression. Most everyone says they want to implement it, but it exists successfully only under very specific circumstances, which must include, at minimum, the following:
1) a specific structure which has been created in part by teachers in the district;

2) roles strictly defined and adhered to (no sneaking administrative work in);

3) administrative support for the role which is evident and unquestioned;

4) no additional pay or benefits, either real or perceived, unless specifically designed and sanctioned during the process of #1.

Should these conditions be ignored, teacher leaders may find themselves back in their classrooms, doors shut, and happy to get the target off their backs. There is a crabs-in-the-bucket mentality in some school cultures: one crab tries to climb out of the bucket and the rest pull him back down. The resentment and negativity engendered by many factors in a district can hinder attempts to create the positive, lift-everyone approach essential for teacher leadership to thrive.  

I am for teacher leadership. I agree with ASCD, NNSTOY, and Jose Vilson, especially in this blog post which makes mention of what I've covered above. I believe that teachers should be able to carve openings out of the boxes we live in, so that we may make the best use of all our  expertise and interests. Given the right planning, administration, and school culture, teacher leadership can be fruitful and satisfying for everyone: not just a magic show, but real transformation.

Looking Forward

At this time last year I was reminiscing about 2014 and all I'd experienced in that momentous year. I linked this blog post to a Facebook post about moving into 2015, and I was a little surprised to find the following five-part pledge buried in there. (I don't usually take myself so seriously.)

1. I will continue to advocate on behalf of Montana's teachers and students in ways which my experience and intuition guide me.

2. I will continue to be active in my Teacher of the Year networks and associations to enhance my ability to advocate for public education.

3. I will continue to push for teacher leadership models in our school structures.

4. I will continue to be vocal against nonsense testing, overtesting, testing without feedback, testing fads, and testing profiteering.

5. I will continue to teach at some level because I know that's how I can best serve my community.

Look at all those "I will" statements! So purposeful. But instead of diminishing myself, I'd like to review them earnestly. Number one was a gimme. Of course I will always do that. 

To address number two, I became a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow. The Fellows worked together to obtain teacher input on the topic of teacher preparation in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education. I also had the opportunity through the NEA Foundation to be a Global Learning Fellow and visit Peru. For me the most important part of this experience was learning about the ways indigenous and impoverished children are educated and how community schools are built and run in Peru. This gave me perspective on my own experience on the Flathead Reservation in Montana, which I blogged about here.

I'll come back to number three in a different post about teacher leadership.

Number four: Clearly, I continue to be vocal against all kinds of nonsense testing, overtesting, testing without feedback, testing fads, and testing profiteering. This was my favorite piece of the pledge because I am passionate about it; toward the end of the year the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed and it allows for testing reduction in states that want to do so. In fact in Montana, our superintendent has rescinded the Smarter Balanced tests for 11th graders, leaving only the ACT in their place. Hallelujah.  

In defense of number five, I left my part-time literacy coaching position and returned full-time to the classroom this year. Coaching was not a strength of mine, and it did not fulfill my desire to be with kids. It also required that I be intimately involved with and supportive of the additional testing we do in our district (see numbers one, two, and four). Back in my classroom, I was astonished at how much happier I felt about my daily activities and the work my students and I accomplished together.

I look forward, therefore, to 2016. I look forward to renewing these pledges and becoming more involved in policy. I look forward to developing new ways of advocating for public school teachers and families. I look forward to learning to work more effectively with all my students. 

I look forward.