Friday, September 21, 2012

Please Don't Go- KWS

You are a valuable part of this school community.

Who would have thought that such a simple statement, uttered by an administrator, could make such a difference in the life of a teacher? Too often, it is something teachers never hear, even the really good ones. Is it that administration doesn't know who the really good teachers are, or even worse, that they don't care? Is this The Widget Effect at its worst? Do principals actually believe that all teachers, as long as they are certified, are interchangeable and expendable?

I know I am a little behind, but I was finally able to sit down and read The Irreplaceables, a study by TNTP about how great teachers are leaving at an alarming rate because administrators are not enforcing high expectations or telling educators that they are valued, appreciated, or giving them meaningful feedback on what they do. These Irreplaceable teachers often love teaching, and the students who have them are more likely to say that their teacher cares, doesn't let them give up when things get tough, and makes learning enjoyable. Those teachers that can make this connection with their students leave lasting effects for a lifetime.  Think about who your favorite teacher was and why.  I am willing to bet that not only were they passionate about what they did and the subject they taught, but they were able to see you as a person and not just another student to give a grade to.  Students know who the great teachers are and tell them often. These are the priceless gems that sparkle brilliantly when things in classroom life seem stressful and bleak.  So if kids can tell teachers that they make a difference, why don’t adults do it too?

So, what causes this phenomenon? According to Retaining Teacher Talent: The View From Generation Y, by Learning Point Associates and Public Agenda, a study done in the 1960s claims that teachers have remained largely egalitarian for decades because teaching is seen a service career and in order to prove you are dedicated to the greater good, you should give more than you receive. To show ambition, or have a desire to be acknowledged or rewarded, was considered suspect. While this theory may still hold some water, times have changed.  New Generation Y teachers are not content with education as a static profession with little feedback and no career continuum available if you want to remain in the classroom.  Call me crazy, but I would venture to guess that those members of Gen X and Baby Boomers who are in that top 20% are disgruntled too.  Everyone wants to know that the work they do is valued and that they make a difference. We may be on a mission, but we are not missionaries. 

The Irreplaceables talks about that top 20% of teachers considered to be the very best, not just in regard to test scores, but also in providing an engaging learning experience for their students.  I would argue that most award winning teachers, whether local, county, state or national fall into this category.  Yet, I have heard horror stories from these same award winning teachers, after being recognized by external organizations, about how they are ridiculed and shunned by their colleagues and administration simply because they have been singled out and recognized.  Others think these award winners believe themselves “too good” to work amongst their mere mortal colleagues.  Haven’t they actually disproven this theory by being great teachers in the first place?  The great ones I know don’t teach for themselves.  I have even heard administrators tell me they would not nominate educators for awards because they don’t want to create tension in the department or school.  So people go on being unrecognized, the Widget Effect continues, and the profession suffers because no one will speak up to recognize excellence for fear of showing favoritism by administrators and ostracism by staff. And we wonder why we are not treated like professionals? Some teachers give up because they realize working your tail off is futile and they become burned out.   The worst effect of this neglect is that great teachers leave schools that desperately need them, or worse yet, leave the profession all together.  According to Leading Gen Y Teachers: Emerging Strategies for School Leaders, by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, when teachers leave, there are additional costs in the form of lowered morale and loss of institutional memory.  The negative effects discussed in The Widget Effect and The Irreplaceables trickle down from administration until the ideas permeate the staff as well, who police themselves.  It has created a climate and culture which feeds upon itself, discourages excellence, and urges a mediocre status quo.      

What is it going to take to keep you here?

          A question with immeasurable value.  Teachers, especially the new Generation Y, want to see that there is room for growth and that they are recognized for their accomplishments.  In the world outside of education, these factors rate even more highly than salary when it comes to motivation.  Education is no different.  Why should you have to be an administrator in order to be a leader?  In many districts there is no career continuum for those teachers with excellent skills in research, peer coaching, or understanding of policy to actually make a difference.  Leading GenY Teachers says that the positive effects of school leadership are greater when leadership is widely distributed among staff members.  So why haven't we done it?  Is it a matter of those that have control who are not willing to relinquish it, or do our colleagues create a climate that makes it impossible?  I have seem collaborative environments work in many schools, elementary schools in particular, but high schools seem less willing to share.  When I am talking about leadership roles, I am not talking about uncompensated ones where responsibilities are heaped on an already full course load, that does not show respect, and I am not talking about merit pay either.  There are plenty of hybrid roles that can be created, or honoraria that can be paid.  Much of leadership is coaching, just not on an athletic field.  Soemthing needs to be done in order to attract and retain great teachers, no matter what their age, because the students suffer when they leave.  Retaining Teacher Talent notes that the research suggests that many young teachers leave the profession not because they are ineffective, it is because they feel stifled. This can be fixed.

I would argue that the effects of The Irreplaceables trickle down to our students too.

Just as teachers need be recognized for what they do, our students need to hear it even more. While some may believe students already feel entitled and have too much confidence, there are many who fall through the cracks every day because no one ever took the time to get to know them, find out what their gifts were, and provide some guidance to help them achieve their hopes and dreams. Everyone wants to be acknowledged when they do something well, and everyone deserves constructive feedback.  Imagine handing back class assignments and they have no grades and no comments because everyone will receive the same average grade.  How would the students know how to improve?  Why should they bother?  We would not do this to our students, so why do we allow it to happen to us?  Have the conditions in Widget Effect and Irreplaceables not only permeated faculty, but also effected our students?  If a climate of high expectations and acknowledgement does not exist among the administration and faculty, how likely is it that there will be high expectations for the students?  I see it in those teachers who maintain absolute control of their classes where students will never be smarter than the teacher and are bullied or ridiculed when they ask questions.  This has got to stop.

To you top 20%, please don’t go because your students need you.  Perhaps it is time that we learn a lesson from the kids.  You are valued.  What do we have to do to keep you?

          Weisberg, Daniel, Sexton, Susan, Mulhern, Jennifer, & Keeling, David (2009)The Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act Upon Teacher Effectiveness
         TNTP (2012)  The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools
         Coggshall, J. G., Ott, A., Behrstock, E. & Lasagna, M., (2010). Retaining Teacher Talent: The View from Generation Y
       Behrstock, E., & Clifford, M. (2009). Leading Gen Y: Emerging Strategies for School Leaders. Washington, DC: National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality


Thursday, September 20, 2012

To Sir, With Love - Lulu

Among other things this week, I got an email from a second year history teacher.  He saw that I won a few awards and wanted to know if I could offer any wisdom.  He wanted the secret to how I did it. Feeling the loss of my students rather acutely at the moment, I began crafting a response which, in slightly edited form, you see below. I consider it my love letter to education.  Play the tune and enjoy.
Hi Frank,
This is going to be lengthy. Best to settle in.
     The secret to great teaching? I hate to tell you this but there is no secret; it is really hard work. There will never be a profession that leaves you more mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted at the end of the week. If you do not feel like you have hit a brick wall by the time Friday night rolls around, you are doing something wrong. In my 17 years of teaching I have seen people and initiatives come and go, but I have also learned a few things to be absolute truths. I hope you find them helpful. 
      First, you must love your students. I don’t mean like, I mean love them like they are your own kids. Love, because sometimes they will work your last nerve and push you away with every fiber of their being. In many cases, this is because the adults in their lives have given up on them time and time again and the students know it is easier to keep you at a distance than actually care about you. You may be the adult that a student spends the most time with in the course of a day. Kids can smell insincerity at 50 paces, and if they think you are just showing up to collect a paycheck or until something better comes along, they will treat you accordingly.
      Second, you must have a tremendous amount of energy. Teaching is not something that ends at 3:00 Monday through Friday. Education is something that happens 24/7, 365 days a year. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and you will have days with soaring highs and soul searching lows. You will hit some brick walls with students, colleagues, administration and bureaucracy. You can’t let it stop you, you have to figure out how to get around the obstacle and keep moving. It doesn’t just involve you either, your whole family is drawn in as you collect objects for lessons, drag them to museums and historic sites for a dry run, and force them to buy all the fundraisers that come along. I cannot tell you how many times my mom has helped me grade papers, put up bulletin boards, or work in the snack shack at football games. She has even brought my lunch to school when I forgot it and was broke, and I am a grown woman.
      Third, when it comes to students, you can’t teach them until you reach them. That means that you need to know how they learn best, what their cultural influences are, their biases, their socioeconomic status and how it affects them. By the way, you need to know all this about yourself too. What are your biases, how do you learn best, and where do your influences come from? If you are an auditory learner and your students are visual, you may explain something to them and they don’t get it. It doesn’t mean they are dumb, it means you are not communicating effectively. Every child acts the way they do for a reason and your job is not to judge them, but to dig and find out why.
      In this same area, in order to get to know your students, you have to let them get to know you, as a person. I don’t mean in a creepy way, but they need to see that you are human. You can’t expect them to share if you are unwilling to do it yourself. I show them my baby and high school pictures, pictures of my family and my cat, and explain where I have learning difficulties. Find out what their hopes and dreams are and where their gifts and talents lie. You may recognize their potential for greatness long before anyone else does.   Everyone is good at something.  Help them cultivate their gifts and express the importance of paying it forward to help others. Show them humanity and they will show it to others.
      Fourth, you never stop learning until the day you die. You must constantly seek new knowledge and experiences, and find ways to bring them into the classroom that are meaningful. Life doesn’t happen in textbooks, get them out and experiencing the world. Take them to museums, historic sites, the theater and anywhere else where their imagination can be stimulated. Learning is an adventure of discovery that you ask your students to join you on. Learning is complex and everything is inter-related. Your job is to help them find the connections, and by extension, realize that they have choices available to them they may not have realized. In order to do this, students have to feel comfortable trying new things, even if it means they are going to fail, but you need to protect them from ridicule so they can try. This means that you have to be willing to try new things too, and also admit to them and yourself that there are some things you don’t know.
      Are you tired and overwhelmed yet? Your job is not nearly over. You need to find yourself a mentor. A Yoda, or Zen Master if you will. I don’t care how many years you have been teaching,  you always need a mentor. Wander the halls and find the person that you think is a great teacher, even if they are not in your subject area. Bribe them into talking to you with coffee, chocolate, or offer to take them out for something stronger if it is a Friday. If you don’t know who the great ones are, ask the kids. After you find them, listen, learn, and ask questions. After that you have to be willing to share with your colleagues even if they don’t want to know. Some people are very set in their ways, CAVE dwellers (Consistently Against Virtually Everything), but don’t give up. Once again, listen learn and value everyone’s ideas even if you don’t agree with them. There are reasons that they act the way they do, too.
I would suggest getting involved as an advisor or coach for an extra-curricular activity. Nothing will bond you to the kids like working with them outside of class.
If you don’t know who the people are that run the school, it is the secretaries and custodial staff. Be exceedingly kind to these people, they can save your life sometimes.
      Notice that none of this is about metrics, or the science, of teaching. It is the art of teaching, and without it, all the science in the form of pedagogy and assessment will fail. Your job is to cultivate a love of learning and a curiosity in your students and to help them see their role in the bigger picture of life. Great teachers have passion, dedication, and are expert communicators who can build relationships.
      At the end of the day, you don’t teach because you may win an award. There are tons of great teachers who never win an award; I was simply lucky. I am not the best teacher in NJ,. Heck, I am not even the best teacher I can be because I still have lots to learn and  I am evolving every day, but I am proud to represent the 110,000+ teachers in NJ and the great work that they do. Sadly, it is often the case that your administration may be indifferent to what you do. I have been in 3 schools in my 17 years of education and not once have any of them told me that I was a valuable asset to the school or attempted to convince me to stay. This phenomenon, discussed in the TNTP study The Irreplaceables, needs to change and we need to help shift that climate by celebrating what we do.  Your colleagues may also try to take you down a peg because they are jealous or have their own insecurities.  The people who will notice what you do are your students.  You may not know it now, but even if they are the biggest pain in the class, you will have an effect on them.  Some will come back years later to say thank you, some will come into your class hating history but love it by the time they leave, and some students will keep you as a part of their lives long after they graduate and have lives of their own.  You will be invited to their weddings and meet their children.  Some will even want to become a teacher because of you.  The kids are the ones that really mater.   
      I wish you the best for a happy and healthy school year. Remember, you don’t do what you do for a paycheck, you have to teach from the soul. It is more than what you do, it should be who you are. You should do this job because maybe, just maybe, you make the difference in a student’s life that can put them on the path to success. Don’t fill the bucket, light the fire.
Good Teaching,

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Shout- The Isley Brothers

Now wai-a-ait a minute!
I feel aaaaaaallllllright!
Perceptions can be very powerful.  However, it is important to remember when you have perception but no evidence, those perceptions can be wrong and should not be used as the basis of judgement.  One of the first rules I ever learned in education was, don't judge...dig.  I am ever grateful to master teacher Mrs. Thoren for showing me the power of that lesson.  More on that later. 
Perceptions formed the basis for my week which was full of new beginnings, convention politics, and illumination as I visited four different schools.  While these items might appear personal, perhaps too personal to matter to others, my humanities training tells me that the choices I make connect me to the rest of the world because there are common ideas and values that we share as part of our human experience. I see the power of education everywhere, and if you believe that teaching makes all other occupations possible, then you need to pay attention to the big picture and how we fit into it.
Any teacher will tell you that although it was a short week, it certainly did not feel that way.  That first week back at school brings sleepless nights, anxiety, sore feet, a reminder to take your vitamins, exhaustion, and for me a sore throat.  Invariably, this happens as I emerge from my hermit-like state of quiet during the summer and my students and I are introduced, get to know each other, and begin the great adventure of learning.   Typically, by the time that first Friday night comes around I feel like a big blob of jello and sound like a cross between Kathleen Turner and a frog.  You see, teaching is not for the faint of heart.  A typical day, if there is such a thing, can have soaring highs and soul-searching lows, and it requires you to be physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually aware and engaged at all times.  In short, it is organized chaos and by far the most exhausting thing I have ever done.
My first day was different this year, as I was on the road at 6am to speak at the convocation at Hillside HS.  The temps were in the mid-80s but the humidity was at 98% and it had been like this for a few days.  I knew my hair was looking like something out of the Bride of Frankenstein, but after speaking at dozens of  colleges, universities, and conference centers over the last year, I figured the climate in the auditorium where I would be speaking would be carefully climate controlled and my hair would behave.  As I pulled up to the school, I noticed that all the doors and windows were open.  No air conditioning.  Did I mention there was 98% humidity? 
The staff and administration graciously sat through my presentation fanning themselves like they were at a church revival, and I gave it everything I had as I quickly developed a sheen of perspiration that turned into rivulets that ran in places I will not mention.  So glad I had on waterproof mascara.   I talked about the realities of the art and science of teaching versus what those perceptions were by policy makers and the public.  The speech continued with the importance of knowing our own culture and biases and those of our students so that we can meet them where they are and form a relationship of educational trust where students feel that they can make mistakes without being ridiculed/  This is encompassed in the idea that you can't teach them until you reach them.  I talked about the importance of teacher leadership, the importance of vision and action, and warned them to stay away from the C.A.V.E. dwellers (Consistently Against Virtually Everything). Now, anyone who knows me, knows that I "keep it real" (hence the nickname Jersey) when talking about education, so I wrapped things up by warning them against negativity in schools, the dangers of gossip, and showed them my favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quote.  
Ok, I admit it, I laid into them probably a little more than I needed to,but it resonated as people clapped and nodded their heads.  The message was to open up their classrooms to the public and each other to share the great things going on in education every day.  There are fabulous educators throughout the state who do an amazing job every day and it is time the public, and their colleagues, knew about it.  The talk must have worked, or then again they might have just felt bad for me as I stood before them a melted and frizzy mess, because I got a standing ovation and many people thanking me for the inspiration and honesty in my talk.  Thanks Hillside, YOU ROCK! 
Leaving the school, I thought about the teachers and the challenges they would face in their first few weeks of school having to deal with the climate on top of all the other challenges educators face.  Having taught in schools without air conditioning myself, I know that nothing sticks on the walls when the humidity is that bad, and the kids are lethargic at best.  Open windows also lead to bees buzzing in, and we all know how kids react to that.  How can you learn when you are that uncomfortable and struggling to breathe, particularly if you have asthma or allergies to things like mold which grow in those conditions?   How can you have technology in the classrooms when it would be damaged because of the heat and humidity?  How can you be expected to dress as a professional when it is so hot your sweat leaves embarrassing marks on your clothes?  As I grew up, my own schools had no air conditioning and I remember how the temperatures put a damper on learning.  Two of the four schools I visited this week had no air conditioning.  If we are going to seriously address learning, then the physical buildings must be a part of the conversation because the physical structure causes us to lose valuable learning time and it sends a message.  We have a problem.  How do you reach 21st Century students with teachers who have 20th Century training  and technology in schools whose physical buildings and schedules were designed for the 19th Century?  Someone once told me that if I wanted to know who the important people were in a school, all I needed to do was see which rooms and offices were air conditioned.  What kind of message does it send when the adults are given better conditions than the kids in the same building?  How many people outside the world of education today would be willing to put up with such conditions?   
My day was far from over as I drove to Trenton to settle into the cubicle I will call home for the next year.  I got the layout of the land and began to unpack, nest a little, and try to figure out how my new BlackBerry works. (I apologize if I have butt-dialed you this week.)  I am sitting in the early childhood education department (real estate is scarce on the floor), and they are wonderful people who have been very friendly, inclusive, and made me feel most welcome 
Remember my lost keys?

Perhaps the most amazing thing about my first day was an email from the teacher who is currently using my old classroom.  I left her a message about the fact that I couldn't find my keys and she emailed to let me know that she had them! They had been left in the room when I was showing her the hidden latch to unlock the drawers of the teacher desk.  As I was unpacking at the DOE and received the email, I had Pandora playing on my computer and what song comes on?  Over the Rainbow by Iz, the song I put with my blog post about the lost keys.  Really, I can't make this stuff up.  I took it as a sign that everything was going to be alright.  Along with the wonderful morning with the staff of Hillside, I knew I had made the right decision to come to the DOE.  It was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and an enormous smile emerged.  
Remember that talk about perception in the beginning?  While my year has had some amazing highs, it has also brought some perception problems by those who are happy to pass judgement, but have never taken the time to find out the facts.  When you walk into a room and hear someone sarcastically refer to you as the "Teacher of the Universe" or you are greeted with "Well, if it isn't Miss America", it doesn't take you long to figure out where you stand.  The truth is, I am a teacher trying to make a difference, just like so many fabulous teachers across the state every day, but unlike many others I have the good fortune to have a platform to speak from.  Anyone who has heard me or visited my classroom to watch me teach knows my love of teaching and how willing I am to put other people, especially my students, ahead of myself.   I have done my best and worked tirelessly to promote Career and Technical Education, my school, my students, my colleagues, and the profession to anyone willing to listen and want nothing more than to take what I have learned in this last year to help move education forward.  Am I more confident than I was a year ago?  Certainly.  It takes some guts to get up on a stage in front of 600+ people and talk to them about education in an environment that is hostile, especially when you have been terrified of public speaking your whole life.  Do I know everything?  Not even close.  Am I the best teacher in the state?  Not a chance, although I am honored to represent all 110,000+ of us.  I am not even the best teacher I can be yet because I am constantly learning and evolving.  Do I have a passion for what I do?  Absolutely, and I am not afraid to share that, nor the insights I have gained in my 16 years in a classroom if it can help someone else.  Would you want a teacher of the year who simply maintained the status quo and didn't defend education or talk about the great things going on all over the state?  It certainly would have been easier for me to take it easy, smile, and wave than put 16,000 miles on the car and maintain an insane schedule to listen and learn from people around the state.  Do we really need more negativity or people who are unwilling to speak up?  Michelle Obama said of the President this week at the convention, " A title doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are."  I agree, but that revelation also comes from listening to a person's message and examining the ethics and values in their work which gives insight into their sense of civic responsibility and humanity.  If you haven't the evidence to back up your claim, don't judge.  When it comes to education, we are all in this together.            

Thursday morning found me on my way to Middletown HS South to speak to their combined staff.   I met the superintendent, a man with a vision who is willing to take action, while speaking at beautiful Monmouth University to their student teachers a few weeks before. His enthusiasm was infectious as he spoke about his wonderful staff and gave me a tour of Wilson Hall, the mansion from the movie Annie that served as the home of Daddy Warbucks.
  He asked me to speak about my usual motivational stuff as well as block scheduling. Hmmm....a tricky topic to make exciting, but not impossible.  Like education in any subject, it is all about making connections.  
What made me even more motivated was an exchange I had with one of my former students via Twitter. She had tweeted to say that she couldn't wait to come to my class and have breakfast on her first day. I didn't know how to tell her that I wouldn't be there, but I did and waited for the reaction hoping it was not anger and a feeling of abandonment. What I got instead that morning before I left was affirmation. Her reaction was this, " Ms. D, it is an awesome opportunity and I am happy you took it. Yes, we are all gonna miss your sunshine sweaters but this thing is bigger than us. Congratulations!!!! You are going to make a great difference in education, and touch more students lives than you ever could at one school."   The tears just started flowing.  I thought about what she said later while delivering the message at Middletown about how important the work of educators is and the importance of positive communication and building relationships of trust and learning with our students. The talk then took a segue to our 21st Century students and four C's of learning (Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking and Creative Problem Solving) , the new Common Core standards, and the ways that block scheduling can allow teachers to be creative in the way we teach our students so that we reach all learners.  The message resonated with the staff and once again, I was honored with a standing ovation, which the superintendent said never happened before.  It was all caught on video, since they were taping me that morning, so now I will actually have a copy of one of my speeches.  After lunch, I spent the afternoon going from room to room visiting the break out sessions to answer questions and help where I could.  It felt like I had grown wings.  Thank you Middltown High Schools, YOU ROCK!

My week ended back at the DOE working on some projects to help ease the journey of the next NJSTOY, but my own journey is not yet complete.  Reminded again of what a public figure you become with this position, I received a copy of my first PSA for Jumpstart's Read for the Record.  Clearly, I am not designed for TV, and I wish I knew why half my face did something different than the other side, but the message is a worthy one.  On October 4th Jumpstart is trying to get everyone to read the book Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad.  It, and many other books are free at  Read on! 
By the end of the week, I had the affirmation I needed and was feeling pretty good about the direction I have chosen. The song Shout seemed to say it all.