Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On your worst day, you can be someone’s best hope

In just under two weeks, on August 29 to be precise, teachers in my school district will officially begin the new school year. Most have been busy for weeks thinking and planning and preparing for the upcoming year. Many have already been to their classrooms, busily fussing to prepare their rooms for the new school year.

My teachers will be ready for the "normal" changes that come with the start of any new school year - new curriculum, new resources, new technology, new ideas. If I know the teachers in my district, they will be ready for school - prepared, focused, goal-directed. Just this week many have begun to participate in district provided professional development to get ready for the new school year. This is on top of what they have already done this summer.
 And that brings me comfort. I know that the students in my district will be well served.

But, truthfully, I also want my teachers to come prepared to care for the students who come into their classrooms. Students need to know that there is an adult who is not their Mom or Dad or favorite Aunt or Grandmother who cares deeply for them, who wants them to succeed.

Students need classrooms that provide both challenge and care. 

In the past decade schools and society have focused on the challenge of school. We, hilariously and disquietingly, pretend that we can identify if a kindergarten student is making progress on being college and career ready. We have tested and assessed and benchmarked ourselves and our students - sometimes to the point of frustration, sometimes to the point of boredom, often to the point of anxiety. We have railed against wasted time in school. Some schools have reduced or eliminated recess and gym and music and art in an effort to ensure that our students will be "globally competitive."

The world today is different than the world I grew up in. No longer are students competing just with the person down the street. Now they compete with students from around the world. No longer can high school graduates easily transition into well-paying careers. No longer will employees work their lifetime for one employer who will protect and provide for them.

So we need schools that challenge our students, that make them think, that help them use knowledge in meaningfully and purposeful ways, that encourage them to hypothesize and create, that help them find ways to network and connect.

But we have, at times, forgotten that schools must also care for our students.

Our students need adults who take time to listen, who look students in their eyes to make sure that they are alright, who create opportunities for students to be heard.

Our students need adults who help students develop skills in empathy and compassion, who light fires in students to be kind, who help students learn to navigate conflict.

Classrooms need to be places where students feel safe, where they can ask questions, where they can fail and find someone encouraging them to get back up again.

Classrooms need rigor and kindness.

Teachers and administrators, custodians and bus drivers, food service workers and secretaries, preschool teachers and parapros can have a tremendously positive impact on students if we remember that part of our responsibility is to be kind, to create safe spaces, to care for the students that we teach, feed, and care for. 

Too often we judge a school by a test score. It is important to remember that schools are more than a test score.

Students need to know that staff members care. Because, at times we forget, even on a staff member's worst day, they at times are a student's best hope.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Killing a Profession - Part Two

I visit many classrooms. I see teachers; committed, engaging, serious, funny, caring, compassionate, forceful, smart, brave, thoughtful teachers.
And yet, I fear, the profession of teaching is dying.

This isn't the first time that these thoughts have crept into my mind. As it was then, it is true today. In my opinion, there are those who oppose public education and want to kill the profession. 

How do you kill a profession?

Disrespect: Anyone can teach!

Teachers work hard to become certified. Throughout Michigan, we have outstanding colleges and universities that help students interested in becoming public school teachers learn the craft of teaching. Michigan State University, one of the leading Colleges of Education in the United States - consistently ranked at or near the top in both elementary and secondary education - requires a bachelor's degree plus an additional full year unpaid internship.

Five years to learn your content and to learn how to teach. 

Yet the Michigan legislature passed and Governor Snyder signed legislation that allows noncertificated and nonendorsed people to teach in the Detroit Public Schools. The legislation specifically states the following:

Allow the community district to engage a full-time or part-time noncertificated, nonendorsed teacher if the appropriate official in the district determines that, due to the individual's combination of education and experience, it would be appropriate and in the best interests of the pupils of the community district; and provide that if the individual completed three years of successful classroom teaching, that experience would have to be used and student teaching would be waived for the purpose of receiving a provisional teaching certificate.

By passing this law the legislature, whether it was intentional or not, communicates to every teacher in the state of Michigan that their degree, their certification, their work accounts for nothing. It communicates "anyone can do your job."

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg, a well-known Finnish educational expert, calls this "de-professionalism." This idea promotes the idea that anyone can teach.

Some would argue that this bill does not communicate that at all. They would argue that what this bill allows is a well-qualified economist to come in and teach economics. I would disagree!

The trouble with that line of reasoning is that it presumes that the economics degree means something but an education degree does not. That line of reasoning suggests that an economics degree confers that you know economics but an education degree does not confer anything.

Secondly just because a person knows economics does not mean that they know how to teach high school or middle school or elementary age students. Does an economist know how to engage students, challenge students, help students who struggle with English as their primary language? Does an economist know how background and previous knowledge impacts a student's ability to learn new knowledge or how to overcome incorrect prior knowledge that filters how new information is attended to and interpreted?

Let's assume the economist is a college professor. Surely a college economics professor can teach high school students economics? After all what difference is there between a 19 year old college student and a 15 year old high school sophomore?

How you answer that question reveals whether or not you should be teaching in public schools!

This new legislation in Michigan disrespects those who have demonstrated a commitment to our children and who have studied so that they can teach our children well.

How do you kill a profession? Disrespect the profession.

Demonize: Public schools are too expensive

"Private schools could save Michigan $750 million a year" blared the headline. Instead of paying for public schools let's just send students to private schools which can educate students for far less money. This story promotes the idea that public schools are too expensive and that you could provide the same level of education in a private school.

It is true that the tuition for a private school, while it varies widely, is often less than the per-pupil cost that the state provides public schools.  (As a cautionary note on the true difference in cost this article states: "most private schools need funds beyond tuition to run. Survey respondents reported that the total cost to educate one student is nearly 25 percent greater than the rate charged to families, on average.")

How can private schools be less expensive to operate?

  • Private schools rely on part-time teachers in many instances.
  • Private schools often pay their teachers significantly less than public school teachers make.
  • Private schools often do not provide special education services.
  • Private schools often have shorter school years - thus costs are less.
By promoting the idea that public schools are too expensive, public schools are seen as wasteful and reckless.

How do you kill a profession? Demonize the profession.

Demoralize: Reduce hours of work into one number 

The teachers that I know, the teachers that work in my district, are committed, caring, creative, compassionate, intelligent, focused people. They know what they are doing. They work hard for their students. They take it personally when students struggle and they lose sleep when students don't appear to be learning.  They take great pride in creating meaningful and engaging lessons.

Yet, their whole value is captured in a single test score (in Michigan it is the M-STEP state assessment) revealed in the paper on a single day.

The Michigan state legislature has passed legislation that requires 40% of a teacher's evaluation to be tied to student growth - a single test score.

The nuances of learning, the ups and downs, the give and take, the hard work of teaching  - all of it reduced to one single measure.

In my district we will work to create a more comprehensive and holistic method for determining teacher effectiveness. I have great confidence that we will create a meaningful and significant counter measure that will more accurately identify the impact of a teacher in the classroom and of the work a teacher engages in with their students.

But will it matter? It is hard to tell.

How do you kill a profession? Demoralize those who willing choose the work.

I believe in public education.  

I want public schools to work. But sometimes I worry that there are more people who want to kill the profession!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

This heartache will stop hurting - eventually

As I was driving home from watching the Novi High School girls' soccer team play a Division One State Semi-final game, listening to songs on my phone, Jason Aldean's song "Heartache That Don't Stop Hurting" began playing.
It seemed appropriate.

As I left the stadium our Novi High School girls' soccer team was in various stages of heartache.

They had played a tremendous game, leading for most of the second half. However, as has happened time and time again in sports, our girls had not been able to put the Stoney Creek High School girls away. Stoney Creek scored a late goal and after two scoreless overtime periods, the Novi High School girls lost in a shoot out.

From time to time we debate the value of high school sports. Clearly at times there is an over-emphasis on winning. There are many examples of the adults who are in charge of high school athletics acting irresponsibly. There clearly is an actual financial cost to high school athletics.

But I believe in high school athletics.

One of the reasons I believe in high school athletics is because of what I saw last night. I saw our students with their hearts aching and with tears flowing. Their physical appearance expressed sadness.

These students will never forget that game. Years from now they will look back with regret, minds filled with "what-ifs" and "if we had just . . ."

But our students will also not forget that game because they will recognize - not today, not tomorrow, maybe not for awhile - that success is difficult to achieve. This game came at the end of a long season. They had worked hard. They had suffered through bad-weather games, difficult-field-condition games, very-good-opponent games. Through it all they had managed to find ways to win, reaching within one game of playing for a championship.

And yet - in the end, despite their effort and their commitment - their hearts were hurting.

The lessons that our Novi High School girls' soccer team is learning are lessons that every student in our school district needs to learn. Lessons about effort, commitment, teamwork, collaboration, sacrifice, and support are worth learning. These often are lessons that are not learned from a book. These are lessons that are learned from living life.

And high school athletics helps to teach these lessons.

Not every student participates in high school athletics. Participation in our high school marching band or in our robotics team or our quiz bowl team or our DECA and HOSA student organizations also help teach these lessons. In Novi we invest in comprehensive school athletic and extra-curricular programs because the investment helps our students learn important lessons that prepare them to be successful.

Even if the lessons break their hearts.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Waffles, Pop Tarts, and Starbursts: Navigating a new world

While I like to think of myself as young, there are times when I feel old. This, for example, makes me feel old.

And this . . .

When I was growing up I did not think that the world would care what my breakfast looked like, my feelings on new Pop Tart flavors, or that I liked to eat sweet things. I often shared these deep insights with my friends but I never considered that other people outside of my circle would care.

Evidently times have changed because my twenty-six year old son routinely publishes these kind of pictures on Instagram.

And he is not alone.

Look at Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter or Vine or the host of other social media sites that everyone - even old people like me - post to and access daily. Pictures like these and an infinite variety of other pictures and thoughts are found there - EVERY SINGLE DAY!

That is not to say that this is all social media is used for because social media presents multiple opportunities for people of all ages to find their voice, advocate for important issues, and learn from each other. Twitter, for example, has connected me to educators from around the nation and the world who bring me new and needed perspectives.  

While social media presents multiple opportunities for self-expression, helps people find their voice, encourages collaboration, and provides platforms for advocacy, even my twenty-six year old has come to realize that there is a power in social media that takes time to recognize and to harness.

One of his recent texts to me contained these words:

And it is not just teenagers who struggle to understand this new "responsibility and power." There are numerous examples of adults who have not quite figured out that words and pictures that are posted to Twitter or Instagram or Vine can have consequences.

And that is where the tension rests for us in positions of responsibility in schools.

How do we use social media tools and help students learn without over-reacting?

Social media tools create wonderful opportunities to connect. Social media provides students with an audience. Social media connects students with experts that they would never have had access to before. Social media creates engagement. Social media provides feedback.

But social media also allows students to share more than they should, to share in inappropriate ways, to share way too much.

So where should I draw the line?

Schools are supposed to be places where students can and should learn. But sometimes students act, quite honestly, stupidly. (They are not stupid - they just do stupid things.) Sometimes these acts are unintentional - they quite honestly had no idea that others people would be offended. At other times their actions were quite deliberate - they set out to offend or be provocative or to cross a line or, unfortunately, to threaten.

(To be clear this reflection is not about criminal acts. A threat, a picture purposefully posted to violate another person - these acts, and others, need to be punished both by the school and by the police.)

When my students post comments or pictures, when they share ideas and reflections that are offensive or vulgar or lewd - either with foresight or without - what should my response be?

Students need to learn. Those of us in schools need to teach and model and mentor. When lines are crossed what should be the consequence?

Finding the balance and navigating this new world can be difficult.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Undervaluing our students

Jimbo Fisher is the head football coach of the Florida State Seminoles.

Last season he earned $3.7 million dollars.

This is not a rant on the perverted senses of our American society that is willing to pay a football coach close to four million dollars a year to coach. No, this is a rant about how we undervalue providing support for students and overvalue providing support for athletes.

Sports Illustrated once wrote a column on Coach Fisher and said the following:

Fisher explained that since taking over (as head coach at Florida State), he had hired a nutritionist to monitor what players ate. He had contracted a mental-conditioning coach to change how players thought. He had inherited two strength-and-conditioning assistants, then hired six more and was on the verge of bringing on a seventh to ensure that players received more individual attention in the weight room. Fisher then asked boosters to dig deep because he needed more. He wanted better dorms for the players and an indoor practice facility. 

I am in the midst of planning my 2016-2017 school district budget. We received a $60 per student increase in per pupil funding. That is a .7% increase from this year.

In my district, I hire first grade teachers and third grade teachers and math and Spanish and Japanese and history teachers and expect them to attend to all of the variety of issues that a first or third or eighth or eleventh grade student brings to the classroom. I do not have the luxury of hiring specialists for every issue that students bring into the classroom.

If a student needs to learn to focus, I expect my teacher to help them do that.

If a student has to get organized, I expect my teacher to help them learn to do that.

If a student needs work on the basics, I expect my teacher to help them with that.

When a college football coaches has a need, they spend money to address it.

When teachers have needs, on the other hand, they get busy fixing the problem.

As the 2015-2016 school year barrels to a close I am once again reminded that teachers do amazing things because we continue to undervalue, under-appreciate, and under-fund our students.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The knuckleball and innovation in schools

RA Dickey is a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays. He throws the knuckleball.

While a member of the New York Mets RA Dickey won the CY Young Award - emblematic of the best pitcher in baseball. Knuckleball pitchers don't win the Cy Young Award. Dickey was the first to do so.

When Dickey accepted his Cy Young Award he said:

We live in a culture now that's got a very progressive mentality, which is fantastic as far as the association of the knuckleball goes. And that's a compliment to the vision and the imagination of the writers who voted. They didn't see the knuckleball as a trick pitch. They didn't see it as some kind of illegitimate weapon that you can use that isn't worthy. They saw it as a legitimate weapon. 

So what does RA Dickey winning the Cy Young Award have to do with innovation in education?

Perhaps, and this is just a hunch on my part, we are turning a corner. Perhaps, we are beginning to see that it is the outcome that is most important and not the means.

RA Dickey won the CY Young Award because he won a lot of games. It didn't matter that he threw the knuckleball. It didn't matter that he was not a typical fastball, curve ball kind of pitcher. He won because he won.

Schools exist to help students learn. We should use any means available to us to help students learn.

In the past we have viewed learning as "legitimate" only if it was teacher directed. Teachers were rated as effective if they were the primary "talkers" in the classroom. Teachers were rated as effective if they commanded the attention of the students in the room.

But that is not how students learn anymore.

Students are more independent. Students have a voice.

Student have developed their voice by gaining access to information through the Internet, by connecting with people from around the world through gaming platforms, by sharing ideas through Twitter and Snapchat.

We can no longer say that students should not have a voice in our classrooms. We cannot say that the only legitimate learning that occurs is in the classroom between the hours of 8:00 and 4:00.

Learning occurs throughout the day, throughout the night, throughout the year.

The definition of legitimate learning has to expand. Students have access to too much information.

The question is how do schools capitalize on this and expand learning opportunities inside of our schools?

The baseball writers accept that the knuckleball is now a "legitimate" pitch.

Can we as educators accept that student learning is different now than it has been in the past? And if we can accept that, how does it change how we do business?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Do we expect more from technology and less from each other?

Sherry Turkle gave an interesting TED talk in 2012 about the rise of technology and the fall of human connectedness. It is worth 19 minutes of your time.

In the talk, Ms. Turkle states that technology provides "the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship."

Friendship is messy. It requires time. There is a give and take. Through friendship we will experience deep grief and profound joy. But these emotions demand an investment of ourselves in the lives of our friends.

Sometimes it is just easier to text our friend. That way we give the illusion that we want to share in their grief or joy without actually having to get messy and caught up in this complicated thing called life. Instead of investing we "dabble" in the conversation.

As I listened to this TED talk I thought about how some people tend to place their trust in technology to solve the problems of education. Give every kid a laptop. Let them learn at their own pace.

To me this provides the illusion of learning without the demands of thinking.

Learning is messy. Learning requires time. Learning requires the guidance of a great teacher who can moderate the give and take that is required to learn. 

Learning is more than knowing facts and figures. Learning is figuring out how to think, how to reason, how to understand how things fit together. That requires that we develop the capacity to reflect and understand another perspective and see how that there is more than one way to solve a problem.

Technology is a great tool. Technology provides access to information. Technology provides access to networks of people that previously had been unavailable. Technology creates wonderful opportunities for learning.

But technology does not guarantee that you will learn. Students need teachers to help moderate and navigate the complexities inherent in learning.

At times technology appears to be a better answer to learning that our standard and common classrooms. That happens when teachers do not take the time to create engaging, meaningful, and powerful classrooms environments that call for the best from students. At times teachers and students tacitly agree that they will not push each other. Teachers and students agree that they will coast.

But just because that happens does not mean that is the way it is supposed to be or the way that it should be. Great teachers create classrooms that push students to learn, engage them in meaningful and purposeful reflection, and demand thinking.

Great teachers care for their students in ways that technology cannot. Technology can be a tool. But technology can never replace the wonderfully engaging classrooms that passionate teachers create.