Staff Development Daze

And other educational myths.

Teachers are the worst students, especially on staff development days. Teachers often chat with one another, grade papers, work on their laptops, and play on their phones during presentations. Teachers often joke that they should wear a button to work that reads: “I would rather be teaching.” The snarky attitudes and rude behavior of many professionals are due, in part, to to the fact that teachers seldom gain much from educational training. Instead, instructional philosophies du jour are touted, and underfunded, or poorly implemented, initiatives are introduced.

I have, however, had many great days of staff development — often finding a positive thing/idea/method to take away. I can name many times when I drove home with my brain buzzing, filled with instructional ideas that I planned on implementing. I also truly appreciate the hard work and time that goes into planning staff development. The best staff development days resemble the plan for my district’s upcoming staff day — where teachers are asked to attend three sessions taught by their colleagues. I am looking forward to learning about new instructional technology, and about mindfulness, a wellness technique that sounds intriguing. There will even be food trucks — how cool is that?

Unfortunately, however, most staff days do not impact my teaching. For twenty-two years, I have been sold instructional philosophies that were supposed to change my teaching. Colleagues, educational consultants, administrators, and authors have all tried to shift my teaching. Not all of these philosophies fail, but most don’t stand the test of time. Take Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, for instance. In my undergraduate work (the big hair 90s) his book was required reading. I, being a new teacher without my own philosophy, bought into his ideas hook, line, and sinker. I even wasted instructional time every year to give my students multiple intelligence “tests”, discussing the best ways they learned. Not surprisingly, students (i.e. children) gravitated towards the kinesthetic learning style. No duh! Of course, kids like to be active! About ten years ago, I completely abandoned Gardner and realized that I never followed up my instruction after giving the students their assessment — it was simply like having them take a survey on Facebook: which learning style are you? My efforts and their analysis yielded no instructional rewards.

A colleague of mine, who always finds great articles, recently posted a piece by Ulrich Boser entitled: “What Do People Know About Excellent Teaching and Learning,” published online by the Center for American Progress. Boser is a Dartmouth-educated author and consultant. His bio states that he tried a stint at teaching English, but it seems his passion focuses on the analysis of teaching and learning. Although he is not in the teaching trenches, his article is provocative. His thesis is that education myths prevail, and, thus, the public in general, and education theorist specifically, disregard the “science of learning” as he calls it.

When discussing our teaching (often after a few beverages), a dear friend of mine has lamented to me: “The problem in education is that everyone has been a student, but not everyone has been a teacher.” I have always thought that a profound statement. So much so, that I lead with that quote when I teach an undergraduate class for pre-service teachers. After they dissect the meaning for themselves, I tell them that the purpose of the class is for them to see the “other” side of the desk. Some of the students are not planning on becoming teachers, and are taking the class for other reasons. These students are important as well because they are future taxpayers. Boser supports the idea of seeing the other side of the desk when he writes:

Since almost everyone in the United States has spent some time in schools, they are eager to expound on the quality and effectiveness of the latest reform or approach. But what’s clear is that experience in schools does not give someone a deep understanding of instruction. This is evident in the literature on teaching, and there’s a library of studies that show that pedagogical training helps teachers in the classroom.

Boser goes on to give examples of educational myths and then he writes something even more important. He gets to the crux of the problem with the educational reform movement, illuminating why teachers are often cranky on staff development days. He writes:

These attitudes about teaching help explain why teaching is so devalued. If people believe that it’s easy for someone to perform well in the classroom, then society shouldn’t reward teaching because the job doesn’t require rigorous training. In contrast, it’s widely accepted that doctors and lawyers need a great deal of training to succeed, and people in those fields get paid a lot more. Those fields also do a lot more to support younger professionals. In medicine, there are residency programs, while law firms typically have systems to have experienced partners help younger lawyers.

That is it. Staff days are non-instructional days. These days take away from time needed to implement effective teaching. Teachers want valuable, rich, “robust” (as Boser states) instructional science. We want our profession to be valued and supported.

Boser is refreshing however because he offers some insightful recommendations to change the conversation:

Policymakers at all levels should do more to promote the science of teaching and learning, including:

Funding a center within the U.S. Department of Education to develop more practitioners guides that focus on the science of learning. Some of the Department of Education’s practitioners guides have a dedicated following. But more could be done, and some of the guides have not been sufficiently disseminated. The department should also create a program similar to the White House petition program, through which parents and teachers could suggest ideas for guides and produce material that is easily disseminated to the public.

Providing more funding for research on the science of learning and the translation of that research into practice. The National Institutes of Health currently gets far more funding than the Department of Education’s research arm.26Policymakers should realize the benefits of learning science research and allocate more funding to basic and applied education research. Much more funding should also go to helping educators apply the research into classroom contexts, as David Daniel has argued.27 “The science of learning does not design interventions for use by educators,” Daniel says, thus recommending more “translation” efforts.

Policymakers at all levels should help modernize the teacher workforce. As part of its TeachStrong effort, the Center for American Progress and its partners have outlined a set of principles that would dramatically modernize and elevate the teacher workforce.28 A few of the recommendations are particularly relevant, including:

“Reimagin[ing] teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates.”29 By ensuring that teacher preparation programs have rigorous standards for entry and training, policymakers can raise the status of the teaching profession to levels of other, more highly regarded careers. Improving teacher preparation would help correct the public’s conception of teaching as a profession that does not require training, knowledge, and a specified skillset.

“Increas[ing] compensation in order to attract and reward teachers as professionals.” By increasing compensation for all teachers and shortening the amount of time it takes for a teacher to achieve maximum salary, policymakers can send a clear signal to the public that teaching is a challenging career that requires advanced training and continued skill-building.

Policymakers at all levels should support demonstration projects of successful, next-generation learning. Such projects would go a long way toward building public narratives that support good practice. Recommendations include:

Developing so-called super charter schools based on the science of learning. Taking a page from the Small Business Innovation Research program, the author proposes that each state that receives Title I funds set aside 0.5 percent of those funds for super charters. These competitive contracts would help schools rethink education in ways that support the new science of learning. For instance, a school might develop a proposal to do more to space out student learning over time.

Providing active learning grants. Policymakers at the federal or state level should consider funding district-level programs devoted to developing more active forms of learning, such as quizzing, pretesting, and elaboration. This pilot program would help districts and schools develop active learning programs by providing funding as well as waivers for some current requirements. Similar to the innovation grants offered by the Department of Education, winners would need to work to publicize their lessons learned.”

These recommendations offer a path for teachers to begin the conversation with colleagues, politicians, and the public at large. This a plan that embraces cognitive science and its application in the classroom. These recommendations also offer those that care about education an action plan.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment, ask questions, and/0r share your experiences. 

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A SNOW DAY REFLECTION

Winter storm Stella offers a moment of clarity.

For twenty-two years I have heard many people comment on the perks of teaching: summers off, snow days, family friendly schedule, excellent health care, many paid vacations, retirement pensions, etcetera. These are undeniably wonderful reasons for teaching — and often one of the reasons women gravitate towards the profession.

If so many Americans value these teaching perks, albeit begrudgingly, why aren’t more citizens clamoring for more workers to have some of these benefits? Why have more workers lost their pensions? Why is union membership down? Why do workers in the United States work more hours a year than most Europeans? Why do we still have employer-based health care for most people? Why did the Republicans sweep the 2016 election with the repeal and replace the ACA mantra? Why is the average American worker not awarded more than a few weeks of vacation time?

A portion of the answer to my queries above is that American citizens have deferred the American Dream. After the second world war, many European countries used their country’s destruction as a means to rebuild social programs. Taxes are high in Europe, but so is the standard of living. In the United States, the post-war era has seen an increase in the industrial-military complex. The has led to corporate profits, a stagnation of wages, and an increase in the gap between rich and poor.

I do not want to live in a European country. Their grass is not greener. They have problems. The EU is on shaky ground. Nationalist candidates are leading in France, Holland, and Germany. I only use European countries as an example. In many ways, European countries have figured out how to give social benefits while surviving in a global economy. I am wondering why we can’t do the same.

I know, the three people who might be actually reading this post (and thank you) are thinking I am just one of those liberal teachers from upstate New York. My three readers may pity my idealism and think me naive. Dear readers, you are probably correct. You see, I teach about the American system. I see the definition of American in the faces of my students. I try to instruct my students to trust the system. I want to believe my words. And yet, I think I am misleading my students with my optimism. Because as long as profits are more important than people nothing will ever change. Unless citizens get very loud, nothing will change.

Top 10 Reasons School Choice is No Choice

Succinct

gadflyonthewallblog

LittleKidThumbsDown

On the surface of it, school choice sounds like a great idea.

Parents will get to shop for schools and pick the one that best suits their children.

Oh! Look, Honey! This one has an exceptional music program! That one excels in math and science! The drama program at this one is first in the state!

But that’s not at all what school choice actually is.

In reality, it’s just a scam to make private schools cheaper for rich people, further erode the public school system and allow for-profit corporations to gobble up education dollars meant to help children succeed.

Here’s why:

1) Voucher programs almost never provide students with full tuition.

Voucher programs are all the rage especially among conservatives. Legislation has been proposed throughout the country taking a portion of tax dollars that would normally go to a public school and allowing parents to put it toward tuition…

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“You know what? Drivers at FedEx make $87,000.”

After an extremely tense parent conference, a very dedicated teacher, and colleague of mine told me that nugget of information. This teacher was not joking. This engaging, passionate, veteran, strong, fearless educator was making a statement.

The message in my colleague’s statement is this: teaching is fucking hard. It is akin to manual labor — it is repetitive, mind-numbing, frustrating, and it makes one’s body and mind ache. So why not dump teaching and get paid more in another profession without the same type of stress?

This colleague explained the stress of teaching so well when she told me:

“Teaching is fucking hard with, most days, no immediate, measurable end product. You hope and pray you made a difference. You are criticized and demoralized with little support from those above you. There is a sense of satisfaction in seeing a job completed….of safely taking a load from point A to point B. There is a finish line. Teaching does not always have that end product. We cry and stress over if we are doing enough- if we can do more; how can we make our students see the light? But, generally, there is still not a complete end product. There are very few cathartic moments in teaching anymore. There is very little peace and solitude.”

Although many days are rewarding, most days are work. However, teaching is a profession wrought with many people who confidently believe that they know exactly what the job is all about. After a few beverages, one of my closest friends and I inevitably turn our conversations back to our teaching. She often says: “The issue in education is that everyone has been a student, but not everyone has been a teacher.” Yup. Seeing education from both sides of the desk is so enlightening. When I teach education classes at the college level, I often begin the semester with that quote. After students dissect the words to make meaning for themselves, I tell them that the course will give them a window into the other side of the desk. By studying education, they begin the transition from student to teacher.

Many parents, politicians, tax-payers, and even the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, have never “viewed” the other side the desk. They have never walked even a step in a teacher’s sensible shoes. And yet, many in the above-mentioned groups make generalizations, accusations, and support policies that impact the climate of classrooms across America.

So, how do we change this conversation? How do we help more stakeholders appreciate the challenges of one of the greatest professions? I welcome your ideas, suggestions, and writings. Please respond here on medium, or on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/teachingintrumpsamerica/?notif_t=page_invite_accepted&notif_id=1489113782231644

Bake-sales for Bombers–The Annual Spring Pledge for Public Schools

“It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber.”

The author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things, Robert Fulghum, is credited with this quote. His quote, however utopian, seem apropos for this time of year.

It’s the beginning of spring, otherwise known as the annual public school pledge drive.

News headline

While news headlines scream that Trump is proposing a 10 percent increase in military spending, school districts across the country are gearing up for the annual fight between proposed funding promises and the realities of their actual budgets. Many school districts are compelled to instruct the public on the disparities in public school funding. Here is a recent press release:

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Public education is a complex issue. Each and every day there are new proposals and mandates that will not only impact a student’s education but also every community member when it comes time to pay taxes.

Across New York State, school districts are just starting the annual budget process, and the balance between providing students with the best education while being fiscally responsible to taxpayers continues to be a challenge.

That is why the Liverpool Central School District and the North Syracuse Central School District are co-hosting a Community Legislative Forum on Thursday, March 9, at 7 p.m. in the North Syracuse Junior High Auditorium (5353 West Taft Road, North Syracuse). The topic is “How Equitable Funding Promotes School Success.”

New York State’s highest court has ruled that schools must receive enough state aid to provide a sound basic public education. For the past 10 years, New York has ignored that court ruling, depriving Liverpool and North Syracuse students of almost $300 million….

“How Equitable Funding Promotes School Success.”

And that is the rub, New York does not have equitable funding. No school, district, county, or state has parity. Across the United States, we are facing what author Jonathan Kozol coined as savage inequalities. Since, 2008 and the impact of the Great Recession, these inequalities have only increased.

The consequences of inequality include, but are not limited to:

  1. Larger class sizes.
  2. Less hiring of teachers.
  3. Less hiring of teaching assistants — changing the make-up of certain classes to meet student’s needs.
  4. Canceling of pre-K programs (but not in every district, causing some neighboring districts to provide very different educational journeys).
  5. Fewer BOCES programs, including vocational opportunities.
  6. Canceling of GED programs.
  7. Large and distant bus stops.
  8. Fewer sports and music programs.

Less is less.

If we continue to treat public school funding like a charity it will continue to be underfunded and undervalued. If we allow for inequity in the resources of our public institutions we only bolster the argument for privatization. If we continue to have savage inequalities between rural, suburban, and urban schools we are failing our children.

The conversation needs to change.

Please join me in actively promoting a new dialogue about funding, educational opportunities, and school reform. How? Follow this publication on medium.com, make comments, ask questions, click the like icon, write for Teaching in Trump’s America, and spread the word.

I Label My Students

“Today’s lesson is going to begin in a weird way,” I tell my students.

A student snickers: “So today will be nothing new?” I take the comment as a compliment.

“Have you ever played headbands? Today is a version of that game. I will place a sticky note on your forehead. Please do not tell anyone what the note says. Once everyone has been labeled, I want you to walk around the room treating each other only according to the label.”

The colorful labels include phrases like: I’m so popular, I’m a bully, I have no friends, I like to gossip, I love sports, I have tons of school spirit, I am very sassy, I like to joke, etc.

The students giggle, the classroom is loud. I instruct them to take their seats but keep their label stuck to their foreheads. The image of twenty plus adolescents with post-it notes on their heads is hilarious.

After a series of warm-up questions, I go in for the kill. I comment: “You were very gifted at treating each other according to your labels. Why do you think humans label? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this human behavior?”

Of course, this lesson is about the Holocaust. This lesson is about the creation of “other.”

I instruct the students to write in a chart, labeled with five categories: the creation of other, prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, and persecution. We discuss definitions and I give examples of how the Jews were systematically moved along this continuum until extermination. I point out that Hitler called it the Final Solution.

All day long I bite my tongue. I do not bring current events into the lesson. I keep it historical. The staff has been warned to keep our political opinions to ourselves. I try to keep the current political climate out of my classroom.

But I fail.

A student says: “Mrs. Brown, have you heard about the bomb threats and the cemeteries?” He is, of course, referring to the bomb threats on Jewish Community Centers and the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, one incident which was in neighboring Rochester, NY just last week.

I still refrain from drawing conclusions for my students. I don’t analyze or connect. I simply let the class discuss with one another. The students are thoughtful. They make poignant correlations. Some students are silent, all are engaged. This is the world we, the adults, are showing them. These will be our future voters.

As for me, I will continue to label my students.

Daughters

I cried when the sonogram technician told me what I dreaded, embarrassed by my fear.

In my head, I imagined hearing reactions to the news: “Oh, another girl in the family.”

I internalized their displeasure of increased femaleness.

He said: “You are crying? Why are you crying?”

I explained: “I feel like I am letting you down. I thought you wanted a boy.”

He replied: “You don’t know boys. I like you, why would I not like our daughter?”

I giggled, but I didn’t trust his love.

Men leave daughters. They keep their sons.

Predictably, when I told my mother there would be another girl she was not surprised. She was excited for a second grandchild but forecasted that I was in for a mother/daughter relationship similar to our own.

When I met my first child, I knew her face — it was a mirror. Behind the cesarean drape, I saw her bright alert eyes and the tears of his. I was so excited to meet her.

He never left our sides. My mother marveled at how he cared for her and changed her diaper. The basic meeting of an infant’s needs afforded him praise and the admiration of my female relatives. I was cautiously optimistic that his love would endure. I was semi-confident that he would stay the course.

She cried for two hours every evening for three months. From 5–7 every evening she arched her back and wailed. I walked her, soothed her, yelled back at her, and tried to nurse her until he came home.

He found me reeking of my dried milk, hair pulled back, exhausted and destroyed. I was nasty and short-tempered, and then he asked me a rhetorical question.

“Do I need to wear a t-shirt that says that I am not going anywhere?”

He knew my darkest fear. He recognized my struggle. He, with his gentle blue eyes, was not the abandoning type.

Three years later I told him there was little chance I would get pregnant again. She was difficult to conceive, so “it” was not a problem. Two months later our daughter read a note to him (with my help) that informed him that she would be a big sister in the fall. After a six-hour car trip, a junky transmission, and lots of booze, he reassured me that he was happy for our news.

I adored our daughter, so I thought I was immune to the gender discussion that continued with almost everyone I shared our happy news. Most people were remarkably confident that we would have a boy, even a psychic in California confirmed it. This time a boy would enter the female family. It seemed important to so many like a prophecy fulfilled.

And then I cried again. This time it was in the delivery room.

We named our second daughter after my great grandmother and introduced her to her sister. It was a blissful time.

I remember a relative visiting who asked me if we would keep trying for a boy. I convinced her that I was content. I was. I am.