I can’t even get my tomatoes to line up straight…

My window.  My tomatoes.

10 Years. 10 Goals.

How am I going to be ready for September 7, 2017? Every new school year gets me nervous. I always worry that the upcoming year will be the year my luck runs out. Because, seriously, I have been a lucky teacher. But what if this year I just suck? What if everyone (students, colleagues, parents, administrators) acknowledge that I don’t know what the hell I am doing? This fear both paralyzes and motivates. Simultaneous paralyzing motivation defines back to school jitters. To reduce my anxiety, I need a game plan, a mission, goals.

Besides being my niece’s 27th birthday, September 7, 2017, is the day that my tenth year of teaching begins. If you have followed my writing (thank you my three faithful followers), you might be scratching your heads as to the number ten. I am constantly going on about how I have been teaching for 23 years. I am a veteran teacher. Blah, blah, blah. What does professing my experience really matter to anyone else? It doesn’t offer any insight into my state of mind, nor does it enlighten anyone as to my teaching philosophy.

No, from now on, instead of stating how long I have been teaching, I am going to count down to retirement. Not because I want to retire. Not because I look forward to stress-free Sundays and stress-free months of August (the Sunday of the summer month). No, I am going to count down to retirement to remind myself that time is short and I better do a great job of “seeing” my students, imparting some words of wisdom, and teaching students significant historical lessons. I am a short timer and I need to be my best self.

Although my life and my garden vegetables are often unruly, I am going to attempt to outline my goals for my last ten years. Even though it might take all of the time I have left to achieve my goals, the following is my ten-year to-do list:

1.To “learn” my students.

I will have approximately 1,200 students enter room 811 in the next ten years. I want to help them be successful and overcome any challenges they face. Socrates said: “Know thyself.” I must know my students. I must see them, listen to them and meet them where they are. In the same manner that I need to accept my daughters for who they are, I must greet my students with kindness and respect. I need to value their experiences.

2. To teach and embrace different classes.

One of the reasons that I changed districts, was to have the opportunity to teach different classes. If I had stayed at my first teaching position, I most likely would have taught eighth grade United States History for thirty-four years. After only eight years, it already felt stale. At my current district, I have been fortunate to teach many topics, usually in elective classes. In my last ten years of teaching, I will embrace opportunities to teach diverse students and take on the challenge of teaching new classes. I will not allow myself stagnation and comfort.

3. To be more of a student myself.

I have been fortunate to teach education courses at the college level. However, the commitment to teaching one night a week has left no time for me to pursue taking courses. Unfortunately, enrollment in the college education programs has decreased significantly, leaving me unemployed as an adjunct. If that trend continues, I will look for courses that engage me as a learner.

4. To continue to collaborate, often.

I work with amazing, creative people. Through past collaboration, I have been allowed a window into their classrooms. Although I will continue to reach out to my allies, I will also attempt to bravely connect with colleagues that I have yet to connect. I need to trust to collaborate, but I trust a teacher more once we have worked together successfully. It is a sort of Catch-22. I will look for avenues of connection with the professionals in my district. I will remind myself that my students always benefit from my efforts at co-teaching.

5. To open my mind to new things.

I cannot predict all of the new things that will enter my classroom. I am sure technology will change. I am confident that students’ needs and demographics will shift. I can assure myself that district administration will push new initiatives. Regardless, I must open my mind and challenge myself to examine the benefits of such changes.

6. To see the other side of the other side of the teacher’s desk (ie. administration).

I would not make an effective administrator. I can inspire adolescents, but I am often befuddled by adults. Students are simply more honest and raw. Adult relationships take more time to establish rapport and trust. However, I want to understand administrators’ roles, challenges, and victories. A dear friend of mine declared how much she enjoyed interning as an administrator this summer. Her insight into the world of administration will inform her teaching. I seek to be better educated.

7. To connect with families.

In the past, I have connected with families formally through email, monthly letters, and at the obligatory open house night (which I hate). I have avoided difficult conversations, but I have gained great insight from the hour long phone calls. I need to be better. Even though I teach high school, parents of students at that level deserve (and probably crave) communication. I pledge to communicate more meaningfully with the parents of my students.

8. To attend more school events.

I am a mom of two competitive swimmers, with busy evening schedules. I try (and fail) to juggle motherhood and teacher-hood (it is my new word). Every time a doe-eyed student asks me if I will attend their game and wear their jersey to school, I cringe. I want to attend their games. I want to know my students outside of the classroom. I am honored to be asked. I am also conflicted. After 3:30 pm, any teaching obligations collide with my parental duties. Last school year I was able to attend three students’ special games. My goal is to increase that frequency, but also to allow myself a balance. My own children deserve my time as well.

9. To teach fiercely about historical connections to current events.

The 2016–2017 school year knocked me out. I was unprepared for how the frequency and intensity of current events would impact my teaching of Global History. By the end of the 2016–2017 school year, however, I was proud of the journey traveled with my students. We had some very difficult discussions on race, gender, equity, religion, and freedoms. I did not cover all of my content. When the New York State Global Regents Exam was passed out on June 15, 2017, I held my breath, hoping that the content I omitted was forgotten on the assessment — it was. I got lucky, again. In my last ten years, I will continue to draw connections to current events. It is my responsibility to give my students a safe place to explore opposing views and more importantly, to connect historic legacies to modern topics.

10. To ditch the stress of the New York State Regents and the AP Exam.

I am going to give myself permission to acknowledge that after a certain point in the school year, I have given all that I can give. I have stayed late to run review sessions, I have made review videos, and I have tutored individual students. “I have done all I can.” That phrase must be my new motto in the Spring. The tests are only snapshots of what my students have learned. The teacher evaluation process is ridiculous. The value-added model is outdated. The test and punish structure needs to end. Entering summer as an empty vessel is not productive. Raising my blood pressure and cortisol levels is not healthy. This will be my most difficult challenge because it is really an internal fight. This struggle returns me to the beginning of this post — my fear of being an incompetent teacher. I fear my own failure because it never feels like mine alone. I always fear that I did not reach a student when they needed a teacher most. I will no longer believe the lie that it is all my responsibility.

2017–2018 begins my tenth year of teaching. Wish me luck.


Why the title: Teaching in Trump’s America?

Place, time, and history.

After recently asking a colleague to write about a wonderful teaching technique he employs, he told me that Teaching in Trump’s America was too political for him to be involved with during this time in his career.

I respect this person’s views. I can understand why many teachers are historically reluctant to raise their voices. I can even appreciate colleagues who support President Trump. Although I comprehend many reasons why educators might shy away from supporting Teaching in Trump’s America, I am troubled if the only excuse is politics, because teaching is political.

The name of the publication is provocative. Maybe some day, it can simply be called Teaching in America. For now, however, the inclusion of Trump’s name is significant because it clarifies place, time, and historical details.

Place: America

The United States has been viewed as a grand experiment by many. Experiments have variables and constants. Experiments can fail. Public schools are the great equalizer — children from diverse backgrounds can learn collectively, with many overcoming socio-economic differences. Education, especially public education, is the embodiment of democracy. American schools are microcosms of society. By analyzing American education, we learn more about our country as a whole.

Time: Post 9/11 World

Since the horrible events of September 11, 2001, many Americans have felt vulnerable. Unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was no clear enemy. The kamikaze hijackers flew no country’s flag — instead, America’s enemies were radicalized and trained in many countries, including in the United States. Unease and anxiety, coupled with true economic stagnation, have increased the creation of “other.” This creation of “other” has made scapegoating possible. Unfortunately, teachers have been victims as well. Whether it be the teacher benefit of summer vacations, systemic school failure, or “liberal” intellectualism, teachers have often been cast as prosperous in a worldview of the haves versus have-nots.

Historical Details: From A Nation At Risk to Race to the Top

In 1983, the Reagan administration published A Nation At Risk. In 2002, the Bush Administration supported the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2010, the Obama Administration promoted the Race to the Top and later (2015) The Every Child Succeeds Act (reauthorizing the 50-year old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which No Child Left Behind also reauthorized). For the last fifty years (most of the post-world war two era), politicians have used funding as a tool to mold American education — in a feeble attempt to make America competitive with other nations. These educational politics have promoted a narrative of school failure.

Therefore, Teaching in Trump’s America is an apt title for a publication that aims to shine a light on the realities of public school teaching. Minus the noise of politicians, publishing companies, and non-teaching “experts,” teacher’s authentic voices can be collectively raised. The story of education can change, one post at a time. Furthermore, true democracy can only survive with loud individuals speaking their truth to power.


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.