Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Five Big "Ah-Ha" Revelations After 30 Years in Teaching

This year will be my thirtieth year in teaching.  Thirty years.  When I began teaching there wasn't internet, cell phones, or Miley Cyrus.  Hard to believe, I know. I entered the professions with a preconceived set of beliefs that have been chiseled and modified by experience.  I thought I would share the BIGGEST revelations with you here.  There have been many, but these are the most moving.

1)  Content is not as significant as delivery of content.
I know I will raise some eyebrows with this little gem.  No matter how well you know your content, if you don't take the learner into account, that content will remain with you.  I had a GREAT education, but my most useful experiences came from learning about student engagement techniques. I also learned to trust my gut.  I learned to know my students and what could reach them.  I think we all know people who know their content, but do not know how to share that content. That is the key to great teaching:  engagement AND content.  It's a special recipe.  When politicians and bureaucrats spout that anyone with a degree should be allowed to teach, I like to point out this little gem.  Unless they take a hard core course in student engagement, they will not be teachers---period.

2)  If you want kids to really learn and grow in your classroom, get out of their way.
I began my career in front of the classroom.  I had perfect teacher outfits, heels, and the belief that I should direct all student learning.  I taught as I had been taught, and I loved to control everything. Wow. I am glad THOSE days are over. If you're still the "sage on the stage" in your classroom, your kids are only learning within a window, a window that you present to the middle level group of your students. Some kids need to plunge ahead and explore; some kids need individualized attention, and while you are controlling the pace, only a few are really getting what they need.  I learned (and this has been the magically delicious part of my world for the past decade) that facilitating student learning allowed my students to really grow. I had to make them the driver and me the facilitator/coach.  It has been the most rewarding aspect of my career so far.

3) Group projects should NOT be about placing kids in groups.
We all know that learning to work within a group or team on projects and problem-solving is essential to a career-ready skill set; however, until this year, I didn't really get it.  I learned that as the facilitator, I had to TEACH kids how to work within a group.  I spent a week helping kids find their role within our groups.  I mentored the team leader (who was elected after each team member applied for the job).  I helped each member find their unique voice and see how the the group outcome was a melting pot of their ideas.  Team leaders learned special tricks of motivating their team through praise and planning.  I gave them TIME to develop concepts and we evaluated the overall team work at the end through reflection.  It was like a pink Disney dream.  My students revealed why they hate group projects during our journey. On average, they revealed that group projects tend to happen like this:  1) They get assigned to a group.  2)  They are never given enough time to work on the project in class.  3)  They are just expected to find time outside of class to make things work.  4) Due to these issues, the motivated students complete the work assigned alone while the others take equal credit. We all would resent group projects like this.

4) Give your students the benefit of the doubt and treat them with dignity.
Don't you think this sounds normal?  In a traditional school setting, it is not.  Students have to ask to go to the restroom.  We, as individuals, do not.  Can you imagine if we had to call the office to ask to use the restroom?  I have learned to make few rules and trust kids until they demand that I stop doing so.  I am blessed, however, to be within my own building. I have 4 simple rules.  I expect kids to show me, each other, and our equipment dignity and respect.  This holds true unless they make poor judgement choices.  It works really well.  Keep it simple.

5)  Let them know that they are not more special than others, just special to YOU.
I want my students to know they are a part of the BIG picture, a piece of the puzzle. Yes, they are each unique, but not more special than anyone else.  However, I make sure they know they are special to ME.  I get to know my kids very well.  I know their quirks, their dreams, their fears.  I watch them play football, give speeches, and sing.  I meet their parents and share what they are doing.  I invest in each of them. THIS is the biggest gift of teaching:  meeting those emerging personalities and watching them blossom.  It's priceless.

I am nearing the end of my teaching journey, but I wish I had known all of these things at the beginning.  If you are beginning your journey, or somewhere within it, I challenge you to look inside and find the 5 most revolutionary realizations in a reflection of your career.  It's worth the look in the mirror.  Here's hoping for 30 more!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Why Being a Good Teacher Just Isn't Good Enough--A Conversation Concerning Tenure Laws

Dear Friends,

During my very first year of teaching, I ventured into the girls' restroom rather than using the teacher's rest room. It was a random choice that almost resulted in the end of my teaching career. In the restroom was one of my students. She had tried to harm herself after an abusive act by a parent. (She showed me the physical scars on her back from a beating and shared her account of the abuse.) I carried her from the restroom (since passing period was approaching) and took her to the school's office. Since she had confided in me the abuse, it was my legal responsibility to report the event, and in doing so, began the battle. The parents denied the abuse, and openly attacked me for reporting it.

I am a good teacher. I am a better teacher today than I was in 1986 when this event occurred.

However, I would NOT be a teacher today had it not been for tenure laws that protected me during my first year of teaching, and that continued to protect me up until this year when they were removed.  

Even though I did everything correctly on that fateful day, had I not had due process in my corner, I would not have survived that event. It's really as simple as that. Being a good teacher is just not enough. Being a good teacher does not grant you a magic shield from that which you cannot see--uncontrollable events. Great teachers face battles daily, and without due process would lose their positions and leave the profession. However, the whole issue is not about protection; it's about the ability to do the job without the constant fear of being removed without justified cause, logic, and explained reason, for when you deal with children, children of all ages, there are issues that are beyond one's control at the heart of the job. That, my friends, is the CORE of this issue.

1) Why do teachers need tenure? No one else does.

First, there is a major misconception concerning tenure laws. Many people believe, incorrectly I might add, that having tenure protects teachers from being fired. Not so. So called "tenure" laws really guarantee a teacher "due process" or a series of steps that must first occur prior to termination. These steps, quite simply, require "just cause" to be presented prior to termination. In 1957, the Kansas Supreme Court adopted "due process" rights for teachers. Teachers were granted "due process" so that "fair dismissal" could occur. Due process was deemed significant...

“…to protect competent and worthy instructors and other members of the teaching profession against unjust dismissal of any kind – political, religious or personal…”
“…secure for them teaching conditions which will encourage their growth in the full practice of their profession…”
“…it does not confer special privileges or immunities upon them to retain permanently their positions…”
“…empowers Boards of Education to discharge them for just cause in an orderly manner by the procedures specified.” From

Teaching is mental, social, and personal triage each and every day. Teachers are on the front lines dealing with issues they cannot choose, predict, or often fully control. Without due process, they cannot do their jobs. Without due process, a teacher is confined to work within a safe box where true "growth in the full practice of their profession" does not occur. We as teaching "diagnosticians" work with passion, love, and devotion; however, the unknown factors in our work require us to have in place a process that grants reasons for termination. Our jobs not only involve risk, but our worth is often measured by standardized tests that do not take into account those uncontrollable factors. The autistic student who you guided to finding their first successful socialization within your classroom environment is deemed your failure when he/she doesn't exceed proficiency on a standardized test. The student who has shown incredible growth this year also was affected by her parent's divorce the week the tests were given.  Her performance is also the fault of the teacher.  Great teachers face uncontrollable factors and are evaluated in highly subjective manners. Due process gives teachers the right to validate their work and demonstrate methods that would otherwise go unseen. A wonderful student from my past sent me a great article that validates this process in a this metaphor:

"Teaching is like painting a huge Victorian mansion. And you don't actually have enough paint. And when you get to some sections of the house it turns out the wood is a little rotten or not ready for the paint. And about every hour some supervisor comes around and asks you to get down off the ladder and explain why you aren't making faster progress. And some days the weather is terrible. So it takes all your art and skill and experience to do a job where the house still ends up looking good."---"The Hard Part" by Peter Greene

I'm a Kansas farm girl, so my metaphor is tied to my roots. A good farmer prepares for his harvest by using his knowledge of soil and seed to grow a bumper crop.  He labors with passion to make it so.  He works from dawn until dusk using his full experience to produce the best crop he can grow.  However, he does not always see the storm clouds until they are upon him.  Should weather conditions outside of his control bring hail or drought damaging or destroying his work, we should not say, "If you had only been a better farmer, you would have had a great crop."

To a teacher, due process is the crop insurance for our most important harvet: our students.

2) Tenure Laws Protect Bad Teachers

I consider this the elephant in the room any time I raise this issue. "If you're a good teacher, you don't need tenure." Being a good teacher takes time to develop. It is a guided practice where experience is built through work, education, and well-planned professional development. Saying "being good" is enough of a professional bar of protection is sheer ignorance, and I will admit that I have even heard fellow colleagues say this. The variable issue remains the core issue. First, we deal with a deep and varied culture of children. We work with students of poverty, abuse, mental illness, loss, apathy, and more. It is daily triage work, and it brings with it risk. We, as teachers, must have the ability to deal with that daily triage in the most professional manner we can without constantly fearing personal retribution. Emotions can run high in parenting, coaching, teaching, and counseling. If you haven't had to bite your own tongue because you wished for a different course of action for your child, well, bless you, for even I have, and we, dear friends, are the logical folks who work as a team with our children's guidance village. Keep in mind that every day there are those who are not so reasonable. The act of working within the confines of these conditions demands due process. By removing due process from Kansas teachers, we are not granting school districts the power to easily dispose of "bad teachers" who are weighing down the system. Those powers were already in place. Instead, we are confining good teachers to a box since the risk of stepping out is too great.

3) Removing Tenure Laws Will Only Strengthen the Profession

Since we can fire bad teachers, the profession can only get better, right?
Good teachers are not born, they are grown. Years of experience and guided practice creates the evolutionary growth of a great teacher. Removal of tenure laws not only restricts the professional growth of our current teachers, it chases away our future teachers as well. A friend of mine in charge of the teacher education program in a major Kansas college told me how four of her best and brightest teaching candidates entered her office the day after the Kansas legislature clipped the tenure law to the school funding bill and bullied it through after hours. These four candidates withdrew their names from the program. No future teachers were drafted that day.

And those numbers will continue to decline. I teach the brightest and best each day.  I love them, but they don't want to teach.  They see it, too.

Meanwhile, good teachers are evaluating their positions and deciding if the risk is survivable. When we leave the profession, we leave silently. We slink away in guilt, for we know the importance of the job; we just can no longer manage the daily triage and risk. While others might claim this purging of the profession will generate growth, I would note that after almost thirty years in the profession, I feel we are at the crisis point.  Fewer candidates enter the profession and more are flooding out.  I would challenge you to speak to any administrator you know.  Ask them about how "easy" it is to find teaching candidates to fill their empty positions.  You might then understand the price of this quiet decline.  A teacher friend of mine who recently  left the profession said, "I just didn't have the energy left to fight.  I just couldn't fight any more."

My first year of teaching was trial by fire.  I remember going home that day after helping a scared, hurt young woman, removing my white shirt that was covered in blood, and throwing it away.  I sat and cried most of the evening.  It was an frightening and emotional event, and I can still remember it clearly today. (The young woman I mention later received treatment and fully recovered much to my great happiness.)  I managed to survive that event and face many more days of emotional triage within the education profession, but I did so with a due process safety net.  If that event had occurred today, where would I be?  I am not sure, but I can assure you that without that safety net many of our most talented minds will not venture to find out.

I am a good teacher.  I am always growing and reaching to become a better teacher, but that is just not enough.  It will not protect me from the risks of my profession.  So before my professional voice becomes a whisper, I will shout my message from the roof: Support teachers. Support our ability to grow and change and flounder and improve.  Support us. The education of all children is the cost of not doing so.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Climate of Fear and How It's Crippling Education

Pretty strong opening, eh?

When FDR delivered his first inaugural address, our nation was gripped by an economic stranglehold. Fear and desperation permeated our very culture. Doubt and paralysis infected our banks, our businesses, and the American psyche. FDR's famous "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" was both insightful and prophetic. While change did overcome fear, it was change through radical policy shifts. Only by embracing new policies, new methods, and science did we transform fear and paralysis to growth.

Are we brave enough to do the same today?

I wonder. The model we trained ourselves in is antiquated. The generations we educate do not learn, function, or exist in a world that we knew and worked within. How are we changing our educational practices to meet these changes and are we doing so in a timely manner to prepare for WHERE our students are going?

I don't think we are; furthermore, we are not doing so fast enough.

There. I said the negative, dirty fact that is looking education in the face. I am not criticizing teachers, our jobs, the work, our dedication. I am, however, criticizing the iron grip that we have on changing what we have done over and over. We love that dinosaur unit, the fun movie project, the participle scavenger hunt that we spent hours designing. We LOVE teaching them. They are like the smell of baking bread to us. LOVE THEM. They are fun, successful highlights of our work. After all, we did spend hours developing them. However: Do we know WHAT students learn from them, what skills they don't get during them? Do we have daily data that helps us pinpoint those who need to move faster through the materials or those who need immediate review?

No. Gulp.

Fear. DON'T MAKE ME CHANGE! We have to own that we are fearful of these changes. What if we NEVER get to teach that special dinosaur unit again? What if we have to change how we DO everything?

We do it.

Why? Because it will help ALL of our students. It will push them harder, further, and faster. We will grow, too. We will have to use our data to analyze, diagnose, and pinpoint how to help each student get up to speed. We will be diagnosticians (along with being counselors, facilitators, and coaches) every day. We will maximize our use of technology, and we will control learning in ways we have never done before. We MSUT be brave pioneers who use science (like those farmers who had to change their ways during the Great Depression and use new farming methods) and become bold policy makers (like those who initiated the WPA Act and put people to work who needed it). We have to change, folks. CHANGE is already here. It's we who are swimming in the wrong direction. If we continue to do so, we will only continue to distance ourselves from our students who are swimming with the current, not against it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Importance of What Your Librarian Taught You

I remember Mrs. Jira, my freshmen English teacher/librarian.  You do remember librarians, right?  Those unicorn-like creatures that are being eliminated from school systems because ALL they do is check out books....

Okay.  So I'm bitter.  I am a former librarian....turned technology teacher....turned consultant.  I love my job, but I have to poke with my stick every now and then.  BACK to topic.

Your librarian taught you some great stuff, and you might not have even noticed.  Librarians have been finding things no one else can find for years.  So here we are in the Twenty-first Century (living in a world with more information before), and we don't teach people how to FIND things on the Internet.  Logical.

Here's a few things EVERYONE should know about finding things on the Internet.  Most people "google" information.  They type a few things into the Google search engine and peek at the results.  Most people only access information they find on the FIRST page of mined results.  We are, after all, a busy people who yell "FASTER!" as we stand next to our microwave ovens.  Do we find what we need?  Sometimes.  Mostly, we find what others WANT us to find.

So how do we REALLY glean data using what our librarian taught us?  Let's take a mini-lesson, shall we?

Google works on a "natural language" algorithm that selects "key words" from the search string we type.  In simple terms, that means that whatever you type in the "search box" for the Google search engine is broken into words to be "searched."  For example, if I typed the following into Google:

What is the most popular blog?

The algorithm might pull "popular" and "blog" as key words and bring me results.  This type of search can be useful, but when doing specific reference searching, it will gather generic results or thousands of references that require eons of time to evaluate.  What if you have to find something more specific?  What if you need to know all of the articles on Apple technology development from the New York Times from 2009-2011?  Research is like that....specific....and sometimes unforgiving!

How would you create an entry to FIND something like that? Your librarian called this boolean search tools:  AND, OR, NOT, and " ".  Apple OR "Apple Technology" OR "Apple development" 2009...2011

Using this search string, you will get specific results for what you want like the following results:

Isn't that a better fix?  What does it all mean?

Here are some search terms you should always know.
OR = One or another
AND = In addition to
" " = Finds specific content
site: = looks within a specific site/domain
inurl:  = finds keywords within the URL
intitle:  = finds keywords within the title of a site
... = an elipse will find material within a time frame

Feeling "nerdy"?  You should!  Happy searching!  Oh, and THANK you librarian for those boolean search terms!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Core Curriculum IS Like Going To War

So did that title catch your attention?

I bet it did. It's rather like beginning an essay with the word "sex" or anything connected to the word "sex." So, using this heading is for a reason. I want to talk about "Core Curriculum." You've heard about it. Your administrators have been tossing it your way, and you've been examining it in your professional learning communities. You either have a grasp of the changes heading your way, or you don't. I am one of those in the first category. Hence the title. Core Curriculum will change the way we teach. If it doesn't, we're not doing it correctly. That's why it's like war. Tell a large group of committed stakeholders that all of their lives must change and there will be chaos, pure and simple. Some are excited, others are fearful. Some are angry, others simply plan to do nothing at all. So for those of you who know nothing of the changes to come, here are my thoughts on this "war," I mean "change."

Core Curriculum

1. It will open with a lot of flag waving and hoopla. Get prepared. There will be song singing and flag waving. Inspirational speeches will be given. You will feel something. All wars begin this way. Be prepared for it. There's nothing wrong with flag waving. Heck, I still cry during the national anthem when it's played for those who win medals at the Olympics.

2. Everyone will react differently when the shooting begins. You know that when we "pull the trigger" and begin implementation, everyone will react differently. Some will charge into the front lines, yelling fiercely, "Charge!" Some will be confused, milling about, shouting for help. Some will run the other way, fearful. Some will simply stand still, hoping that they go unnoticed in the uproar. Which will you be?

3. After the battle begins, your awareness awakens. It's going to be bloody. It's going to be hard. You are going to win some things and lose some things. More than that is the knowledge that when you come out on the other side, you will never be the same.

4. Be prepared for ugliness. You know the unit you love? The one on dinosaurs or cell division or poetry? Keep in mind that teaching depth of knowledge takes time, more time than you have ever invested before. That means that some of the things you love have to go. Let's call this war event---amputation. Grim business, eh?

5. When the war is over, you will be tired, but you will have a whole new perspective. I think that says it all.

Our implementation of Core Curriculum will be a battle. Like most wars, there is no way to predict the battles we will will fight or how we will fight them until we actually just DO. We will be changed, but all is for a reason: we fight to create the best possible education for the students placed in our classrooms.

For them, I will do battle.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Importance of Socialnomics and Social Media as Instructional Content

Social media, social networking and "socialnomics" are mainstays in today's business world. Those businesses who want to stay ahead of the curve are using social media tools to tap into the Internet network to launch campaigns, entice customers, and recruit employable talent.

What are schools doing?

Blocking these sites with filters.

If we don't teach our students who will? We need to teach our students the following: 1) How to use social media as a tool. 2) How to protect one's self while using social media. 3) How to leverage information and data in social media, and 4) How to use social media to make positive connections with the world of work. That means we as teachers have to be social media experts. Most teachers fear this task. Fear no more. We must wade into the social stream and navigate its depths. It is our job to protect, educate, and enlighten our students. Since common core curriculum emphasizes "college and career readiness" as outcomes, we must take into account all aspects of this outcome. Dealing with real world readiness is part of this recipe. Where to do this? I believe that library media specialists can deliver this information quite well. It should be integrated into web literacy lessons. Problem: many schools have eliminated library media specialists. (I am one of these people!) Thus, educators, where do we teach web literacy? I now have that task in my new role, but it is a task that we all should address. Our students' literacy is at stake.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why Project-Based Learning IS "Best Practice" Education

"By better integrating academic, career and technical education, and work-based learning, the nation’s secondary schools can increase student engagement, boost student achievement, and provide students with more options after they graduate from high school, according to a new policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education."
---from Alliance for Education

We all want to prepare our students for the future, a future we cannot see. We want our education to be work relevant and we aspire to make our assessments authentic. We are ever more aware of the push for this environment. In my state, Kansas, I am looking at multiple movements in this area: Kansas Common Core Standards and CTE (Career and Technical Education Pathways). I, like many, find myself in this mix. Here's what I know. First, we need to look for methods (and tools) to help us shift accountability of learning from a teacher-based model to a student-learning based model. Please understand, I am not removing the concept of "accountability" from my plate at all. I believe we must share it. When we engage the "stake holders" in education, students are often overlooked; I feel they are the most important "stake holders" of all. Thus, in redesigning my curriculum two years ago, I used project-based education to drive my advanced level courses. Here was my concept:

1. Create individual project-based learning driven by content that engaged individual students.
2. Use self-regulated learning techniques in the process.
3. Use a "learning plan" to drive the process. Students would set goals, search for learning resources, and develop a time flow plan (with my guidance) that would drive the learning.
4. Each week, I monitor the process with progress reports/updates. The student and I evaluate the work flow progress and adjust/modify the plan accordingly.
5. Product output is held accountable to high standards established at the beginning of the process.
6. "Raise the bar" for production by broadcasting product to the public and making the creator the showcase representative on a public stage.
7. Finalize the project by using reflection interventions to help the student evaluate their learning process in a meaningful manner.

Sound easy? It's not. I work LONG hours. I guess you have to trust me on that, but let's just say that this is engaging learning, but it requires a different manner of teaching. I facilitate learning this way; I guide and manipulate my students into making themselves great. It works for my students, and for me, that's what matters most.