Monday, December 23, 2013

Island of Misfit TOYs

      It has been a busy autumn this year and after moving, learning a new job in higher education, having a new college class to teach and taking two doctoral classes myself, I wonder how I am actually sitting upright typing rather than passed out on the floor from exhaustion. I haven't seen much sunlight since September and some days it has been like learning to drink out of a fire hose, but I can honestly say I feel respected, heard and challenged.  In short, I am happy.

     There are certain times of the year when I feel that longing to be back in a full time P-12 classroom, and I couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy at all of my teacher friends who, exhausted but enthusiastic, began their winter break on Friday. I remember the time from Thanksgiving to Christmas in my classroom as one of my favorite times of year. Not only did we learn about one of my favorite times in history, but we collected food and toys for families which allowed my students to learn a little about themselves and their neighbors.  Part of the identity formation that occurs during adolescence is the ability to examine critically the world around you and figure out your place in it.  I loved watching my students take responsibility for helping others that they didn't even know because they began to realize that what they did mattered.

So what happened? Why did I move from P-12 to higher education?

     In short...transformation. My journey began two years ago when I was named the 2012 NJ Teacher of the Year (TOY). It was not something I nominated myself for and after almost a year of vetting through an extensive 9 part application with references, video evidence and an interview, I was asked to represent the teachers of NJ for a year. What I didn't know then and probably would not have believed was the change that would happen in me and people's reaction to it.

     I was one of those quiet teachers in the classroom who kept to herself when it came to other adults in the building.  I always knew in my heart the responsibility I had for the kids in my class, but what I didn't realize was the responsibility I would feel for the profession. Being named as TOY transformed me.  Once shy outside the classroom, now I was booked for public speaking engagements all the time and my confidence began to grow. Overnight, I was looked at as an expert on all things education and so I learned all I could. After not knowing much about how education policy was formed and what it was all about, I became fluent and realized that there were not many practitioners working in policy.  After not knowing much beyond what went on in my own classroom and district, my blindfold was removed and now I had access to teachers across the country who were just as passionate as I was. Together we made one powerful problem solving group and the energy in the room when all the TOYs gathered was palpable. I saw this transformation happen to many other TOYs as the title we were given removed the constraints that kept so many of us living small lives when we were capable of so much more.   

     Back in my classroom, I was not the same quiet teacher who was content to shut her door and only teach. As a TOY there is a saying that you have one year of recognition followed by a lifetime of service to help pay forward all the knowledge and good fortune that has come your way. I wanted to take what I had learned and help my colleagues. I wanted them to have the opportunity to learn and grow like I did. I didn't walk around bragging about being a TOY, in fact, I didn't talk about it at all unless someone asked.  But I will never forget the first time someone from outside my department asked about something TOY related. As I answered the question that I had been asked, my colleagues literally turned their backs to me and changed the subject. Unfortunately, it wasn't the last time it happened. I wanted to help the district, but I didn't want to be an administrator because I love teaching. Was there a hybrid role I could fill that would allow me to both teach and share everything I had learned? Not in my district. My choice was, stay in my classroom and ignore all I had learned or leave my classroom and leave the kids.  Neither choice was appealing. Rather than be quiet and compliant, I was not prepared to maintain the status quo and remain silent any more. I left with a heavy heart and my administration never once asked me to stay.    

     I had an offer from the Commissioner to work at the NJDOE for a year on educator outreach, but if I thought the level of frustration in my district was bad, the NJDOE left me feeling bound and gagged . Bureaucracy is stifling to creativity. While you would think it is a no-brainer to have practitioners working in the DOE, or at least consulting on how to implement policy, people like me were few and far between.  Another problem with working in state government, there is no discussion of policy, no questioning  of authority and this led to me being branded insubordinate more than once. Again, everything I had learned in working with educators from across the country to find solutions was ignored. There was no crowd sourcing, it was groupthink.  While I did get two initiatives off the ground, they were sanitized to a point of ineffectiveness.  

     At about this time, I had an offer from my alma mater. "Come and help us with our program to teach future teachers," they said. "Work on policy and teach at the same time. We want your practitioner perspective." Could it really be possible that this job existed?  Most important, they asked the right question, "What do we have to do to get you here?" Asking that question was all it took. Now, when I am introduced as a TOY, people clap and congratulate me even though it was two years ago.  I am respected for what I have accomplished and encouraged to think outside the box. No longer insubordinate, I am now a positive deviant, which has a much nicer ring to it.  

     If you think about it, many of the adjuncts that work at the university level in education are practitioners.  Why couldn't districts develop a hybrid position for teachers where they pay part of the salary and the college would pay what they pay for an adjunct in order to get some release time during the day to teach at college?  It would keep the practitioners current with research and higher ed while also helping out the colleges and universities offer some dynamic courses.  Most important, it would not exhaust the teachers who currently have to take time away from their families to take on these positions outside of school time. Why couldn't an engineering teacher get release time to work for someone like Lockheed Martin in a hybrid role so that they could keep current with what is happening in the field and keep teaching?  What about someone working in a hybrid role both teaching and working at the NJDOE?  Why does all the work with teacher voice organizations have to happen outside the confines of the school day as something "extra"?  The possibilities are endless and you could have a workforce of teachers who are current, energized and respected because they would be able to take what was happening in the field and bring it right into their classroom. It is professional development in its purest form.  

     Instead, we have a static profession where you have to make a choice between being either a teacher or an administrator.  Many of the coaching positions are created with grant money and when the money dries up, the position is eliminated.  We need to get creative with how we structure careers in education, because I am not the only educator who has experienced transformation.  How many do we lose because when they grow, there is no place left for them?  Why wouldn't you want that wealth of knowledge and passion in your classrooms?  Why don't you ask them what it would take for them to stay and teach? We ask our students to learn and grow, which we know is a continual process, but we don't ask the same of our teachers and administrators. Maintaining the status quo is no longer acceptable. We are losing too many great teachers. 

    This time of year, the best analogy I can give is the from a most beloved Christmas special, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Our growth and transformation has put many of us in limbo between teaching, administration and policy. Those of us who have transitioned out of the P-12 classroom will always see education from the lens of a practitioner, but now we are no longer counted among their ranks. Administrators and policy makers don't see us as one of them either, because we think like teachers. We are the Island of Misfit TOYs.    

Saturday, December 7, 2013

It's a Puzzlement- The King and I

     I love building furniture.  There is something therapeutic about taking bits and pieces and combining them to form a beautiful cabinet or bookcase.  This is probably why I also like jigsaw puzzles and unraveling anything else that is tangled. In my eyes, Alexander the Great was a punk for slicing through the Gordian Knot rather than trying to untangle it.  Although I would never consider myself overly organized, making order out of chaos requires focus and patience, which I find soothing.

      I have friends who hate to build things, but I find that this is mostly because they don't follow the directions.  I am a visual learner, so when the directions for assembling something are written in Chinese, it doesn't matter much as long as there is a picture of what needs to be done. With puzzles, you have the picture on the box as a guideline.  

     Lately, I feel like I have been given a beautiful cabinet to build, the first of its kind, but the only directions I have are in Chinese (or Klingon, or another language undecipherable to my ears) and there are no pictures.  Being new on the job will do that to you. I am required to learn a new language, but it is often frustrating as I try to decipher directions and processes I don't understand. When I ask questions, I get more Chinese, or even worse that smile and nod when conversing with someone speaking another language that ends a conversation but makes you feel like a total idiot.  I know this requires putting the ego in check for a while and working on my patience, but I wish that I were faster on the uptake so I could spend less time deciphering Chinese and more time building that cabinet. A hard truth is that just because you have mastered one thing, it does not mean you have mastered related fields.  

      I am not the only one learning something new this year.  In my conversations with teachers across the state, they feel like they have the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but no picture to follow and in many cases they don't even feel like they have all the puzzle pieces. With so much reform and change happening at once, no one can agree on what the picture is supposed to look like. In New Jersey, thanks to local control, all 640+ school districts operate under their own set of rules and guidelines and the differences I hear from district to district about SGOs and evaluation are frightening to say the least.  If the goal is to create a more uniform way of determining effective teachers, the State has failed miserably.  Evaluators cannot agree on what good teaching practice looks like.  One teacher I know was downgraded for having kids working in groups who did not speak one at a time, even though they were on task.  What the evaluator failed to realize is that it was a miracle these kids were speaking together at all because over half the class were ESL or bilingual students.  Another teacher panicked when her kids asked about local NJ history, but pursued it as a teachable moment because the kids were hooked. The reason she panicked was because if her evaluator had walked in, what she was teaching was not in the lesson plan and she would have been downgraded. Rather than take the time to change the lesson in the computer, she actually took the time to design the resources she needed for class.  Another special education teacher with 15 students has to write an individual lesson plan for each student and log it in the computer for each subject she teaches. As an elementary teacher, if she teaches four subjects a day, that is 60 lesson plans! Some SGOs are written with such low standards that if students show any improvement, teachers get high marks.  With others, if 100% of the special education students to not make double the progress of the regular education students, the teacher is rated ineffective. I have heard of kindergarten teachers who tell the class there is no more play time because they have too much to learn. Those same kids are being sent home with 5-6 pages of homework when they are still having trouble holding a pencil. What the hell are we doing?

     Evaluation was piloted for two years, but the first year didn't use SGOs and some districts did not include SGP in their final evaluation. This means that it was really a different animal because it focused only on the observations.  Also, many of the pilot districts would have done well regardless of whether or not there was a new evaluation policy in place. The idea that the evaluation process gets better with time, especially in districts that do well already, is a no-brainer.  This leads me to the question, what is the purpose of this whole evaluation reform movement? I thought it was to improve teacher effectiveness for all students, but most importantly, to help close the achievement gap so that our most struggling students (often those living in poverty) can succeed. Social justice is always a cause I can get behind. 

     So here is what I would like to know. We know that SIG schools were required to participate from the first year of the pilot.  If AchieveNJ was designed to help low performing schools, where is the data on the SIG schools from the two years of the pilot program? Did it increase teacher effectiveness and help those students? We hear repeatedly how the teacher is the most significant factor in student achievement, so after two years are things improving for the SIG schools or are there pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that are missing? My guess is that there is a reason we have not heard about them, and it is not good.