Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston Strong


 I’m not done yet. 

In the past year, many people have congratulated me on winning NJ State Teacher of the Year.  My usual response was, “But I’m not done yet.”  In many people’s eyes, I had reached the pinnacle of the teaching profession, but I was just a teacher and now I was expected to either return to my classroom to teach and ignore everything I had learned, or leave the classroom and become an administrator.  I refused to accept that there were only two options, and I refused to accept that I was “just a teacher.”

My travels broadened the lens through which I viewed education and as a developing policy wonk who speaks "teacher," I have a unique perspective and big ideas. However, in the policy world I am still seen as “just a teacher” and it is frustrating.  I feel a responsibility to the profession and believe that if we are going to do what is best for kids that we need to bring all the voices involved in educating our students to the table.  I am learning by leaps and bounds, but have found that you are only an expert as long as you are fifty miles from home.   

In January, I decided to apply for the Holy Grail of fellowships, a White House Fellowship. If I was going to make a difference I was going to need to broaden the lens of my perspective even more than I had already.  Gaining this kind of experience would be invaluable, but this would not be an easy fellowship to attain because I would be competing against people in all fields, not just education,  for one of these coveted spots.  I was thrilled that I made the first cut and would be interviewing as a regional finalist in Boston.  How cool would it be, as a history teacher, to arrive shortly after Patriots Day which celebrates both  the battles of Lexington and Concord and the marathon, named after the run of the ancient Greek Phidippides to deliver news to Athens about the defeat of Persia? 

Then terrorism reared its ugly head.

I arrived in Boston two days after the marathon.  Boyleston St. was still shut down, as was the Copley T stop, and the first thing I saw when I exited the train station was the tents that were erected to cordon off the area because evidence was still being collected from the blasts.  There was a tense atmosphere and people were demanding answers to this cowardly and heinous act that dared to destroy Patriots Day and the famous Boston Marathon. 

Needless to say my mom was not very happy about me going up to an area that was an active crime scene of a terrorist act.  She asked if I would be anywhere near the blast site while I was there and I lied, but it was for her own good.  The original hotel suggested for the interviews was the Lenox, which was located in between the two blasts and was shut down.  I assured Mom that I was nowhere near the blasts, when in truth I was only about three blocks away in another hotel. My argument was that Boston would now be the safest city on the planet for a while… and it was.

There were lots of people in Boston, including an army of media, and while many were tense, they were not scared.

Things were fine on Wednesday when I arrived and Thursday the sun came out as I sat in the park and watched the ducks and the swan boats paddle around in the park.  I understood the ducks that glided effortlessly across the surface while paddling like hell underneath.  They seemed to fit in Boston, a city full of grit and determination that would not be shaken, which was evidenced by the memorial service that took place earlier in the morning.  I needed to channel that vibe for my White House Fellows dinner that night which would be the first time I met my competition and the judges who would be interviewing me the next day. 

I can’t tell you how impressed I was with my fellow candidates.  Many were from the Boston area and they are the best of the best at what they do. If you looked up the word overachiever in the dictionary, you would see their pictures.  The bombings were a topic at dinner, especially since they had just released pictures of the suspects, but it didn’t control the conversation.  There was something in the room that evening that just would not allow fear to stand in the way of higher ideals like civic responsibility and democracy.  Clearly, the terrorists had picked the wrong city to mess with. 

Dinner was great and we said our goodbyes until the next morning’s interviews.  Just as I was drifting off to sleep there was something on the news about a shooting at MIT.

By the time I woke up the next morning the city was on lockdown.  Being a teacher, I am used to lockdown drills every month, but preventing a million people from going anywhere was impressive.  I got the call early that the interviews had been cancelled, many of my fellow candidates and the judges lived in the area that was now being searched block by block for the terrorist.  With the busses, subway, taxis and Amtrak shut down, I wasn’t going anywhere.  The streets were empty and there were no restaurants open except for the one at the hotel, so I hunkered down to watch the coverage on TV, but it was weird to hear sirens and helicopters both right outside your window and on TV at the same time.  You could hear the cheers outside later in the evening as the second suspect was caught and every time a police/fire/security vehicle drove by. 

My interview will be rescheduled, and although I have been given the option to go to other panels in NYC and DC which are closer, I will be returning to Boston.  I like the city and the toughness of its people because as a Jersey girl, I identify. I want to make a difference for our students, and that means growing and learning while also keeping that idea of civic responsibility and social justice as the goal of my actions.  I need students to not only learn content, but to build relationships and be the absolute best that they can be, whether it is as a cosmetologist, chef, nurse, firefighter or law enforcement officer.  Whether they are defending our country in the military, designing the roads we drive on, building the planes we fly in, or composing the music that inspires us, I need them, whatever their calling, to remember that we all have a responsibility for each other and a common humanity.  I want my students, like the people of Boston, to run toward the danger and help when it is needed and organize supports to help people recover because it is the right thing to do.  I need them to do all this because some day my students are going to be in charge of you and me and I need them to be resilient, determined and exemplify perseverance. I need them to see the big picture beyond their own circumstance and realize what they do matters.

The best way I know how to do that is to lead by example. 

I’m not done yet.  Boston proud, Boston strong. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Getting It Right: Teachable Moments and Education Policy

I was very happy to help out the National Network of State Teachers of the Year recently by giving a teachers point of view on education policy for the EdWeek blog, Rick Hess: Straight Up.  The original can be found at


Getting It Right: Teachable Moments and Education Policy

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). Today we're hearing from Jeanne DelColle, a social studies teacher at Burlington County Institute of Technology and the 2012 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.

As a teacher, it is my job to take complex information, find ways to break it down for my students so that they understand it, and help them develop connections and discover how the content they learned fits into a broader perspective. There are many methods to doing this, but some of my best lessons have been occasioned by what we call "teachable moments." These lessons are often student driven and organically manifest themselves because of a particular catalyst. In trying to help students understand the world around them and their place in it, we make a slight detour from the day's planned lesson in order to grasp a larger concept. I see the opportunity to address cage-busting teacher leadership as just such an experience.

Writing education policy is like writing a lesson plan. As a high school history teacher, I strive to keep my lessons fresh, trying new ideas in the classroom to help my students maximize their learning. Sometimes, you spend all weekend designing a lesson that you are really jazzed about, then come into class on Monday morning, roll it out, and find that it all tanks, regardless of how much time it took you to prep, how much research you have done, or how much you have aligned the plan with the curriculum and tried to make it rigorous, relevant and fun. You know it has all gone wrong when you see the quizzical expressions as the kids just tilt their heads and say, "Ms. D., I just don't get it." Worse yet, they simply disengage. From that point you have a very small window of time to recover before you lose the class.

Failure. It's not a matter of if but when. It doesn't matter that failure happens, because you can't grow if you always do what you have always done; it is what you do when failure happens that is important. When a lesson fails you have three choices: 1. Proceed with the lesson anyway and force it down their throats. 2. Blame the students when they don't get it, give up and give them a worksheet as you retreat to your desk in exasperation. 3. Talk to your class, explain what you are trying to accomplish, get some feedback from them, adapt the lesson and try it again.

I don't suggest the first two choices because they create a bad classroom climate full of distrust and hostility and promote the idea that failing means you are a failure. Number three is always the best option for both sides, although it is not the easiest. You risk losing face because you have to admit that something is wrong. The good news is that if you are sincere, your students will often take up the challenge and help you, which creates buy-in from your students who now feel that they have a stake in the success of the lesson.

So why do lessons fail? More often than not it is a failure in communication, so you need to develop a common language with your class that everyone understands. Sometimes a step is missing; we need students to be able to crawl and walk with information before they can run.

Sometimes there is something within the lesson that touches a nerve and shuts students down. Great teachers build a classroom environment that provides a safe place in which it is okay to try something new and fail without being berated. In order to do this, good teachers need to know more than content; they need to know their students and what factors influence their perspective. More importantly, they must be aware of their own unique lens, too.

The reform policies being implemented around the country are like lesson plans in that they are crafted with research, procedure and a desire to improve education for our students. But sometimes, even with the best intentions, reforms tank, and once again you have three choices. Policy makers can force the reforms, blame it on teachers, or actually gather some feedback from educators and retool so as stakeholders, there is a shared sense of responsibility in the success of the policy.
Most states develop reform policies from the top down, and they neglect to engage teachers in the process of policy development, and gather feedback for course corrections. Any decisions made about teachers, without teachers, are doomed to fail especially if there is a lack of two-way communication, no common language, and little or no concept of the challenges faced by educators on a daily basis.

Too often, I have heard policy people across the country say, "Well it's going to be regulation, so they are just going to have to deal with it." To which my response and the response of many other teachers is, "Then change the laws." Just because something is in code is not a good enough reason for me to buy into the idea. The jam it and cram it method of learning is seldom successful and often causes much resistance; ask any student.

There are many obstacles, you can call them cages, that prevent two way communication between policy makers and teachers. Often cited are: lack of capacity, lack of time, difficulty finding a group of teachers that are willing to productively engage, lack of money and lack of trust. Instead, exemplars of a particular policy are paraded out and held on a pedestal for all others to aspire to and regulation is passed with little consideration from the field. This approach is certainly easier for those creating policy, but disingenuous at best as unequal schools are held to equal standards, and if you tried this in a classroom, the kids would call you out on it in about 30 seconds. If we want teachers to be respected as leaders, then they must be treated as such by policy makers.

There is one more reason that a lesson can fail: if the students don't do their homework, which leaves them unprepared to engage when the lesson begins. Students cannot be passive when it comes to their learning, and neither can teachers when it comes to crafting policy. It is not the responsibility of policy makers alone to bridge the gap that exists; teachers must do their research, be prepared to discuss and not complain, build some consensus among their colleagues and other stakeholders, and propose solutions that will work beyond their classroom. We each have our own particular lens of experience, but we must all be prepared to broaden our perspective if we are going to find some common ground and work together.

When a lesson tanks, there are lessons to be learned both by the teacher and the students, who, with the proper growth mindset, learn that to fail does not mean you are a failure. Policy makers should use this teachable moment to engage educators and learn with them because now more than ever, failure comes with very high stakes attached. In order to bridge the gap so policy works, both sides must make the effort. Teachers need to step beyond their classroom and examine policy from a district or state perspective, while policy makers need to become good at doing what they espouse most highly: effective teaching. It's not as easy as it looks, but it will save a lot of time and energy if policy makers view teachers as partners in crafting education policy.
-- Jeanne DelColle