How do teachers think about the Achievement Gap?

educational inequality balanceThis title wrecked my morning, specifically around selecting the first word. There is no question teachers think about the Achievement Gap. I have not met a single teacher who has not given the entire issue a great deal of thought, so the question requires some form of relative pronoun, hence the use of “How?”

This is not a post about grammar, but about beliefs. I think.

This question is a genuine one, and I’m hoping for serious help in addressing it. I know a lot of teachers, and to a person they are admirable professionals who seem to be in our business for the right reasons. My confusion stems from the very different contexts in which they do their teaching, particularly in two districts I can’t help but contrast. I know teachers working in a district that has managed to close its achievement gap putting them among the top ten in California according to Ed Trust West, and doing this with a diverse student and parent population of varied ethnicities, broadly distributed parent education levels, and significant socioeconomic challenges. Simultaneously I know teachers working in a district which occupies the absolute basement of their regional achievement gap stats, within a much more privileged demographic community. None of these teachers, from both districts, actually talk much about it, and they are all professional people of good will.

The districts I’m contrasting have obviously addressed their respective achievement gaps differently, making very different program choices, and I am neither naïve nor ignorant as to how they operate on a system level leading to this outcome. It is also clear that instructional practices in the two districts are quite different, so there is a clear cause and effect thing happening. None of these strategies are terribly mysterious, having been well-described in publications such as this one that was released a full five years ago.

As tempting as it is to speculate about teachers’ internal processes, I will continue to scratch my head. This is clearly more complicated than mere denial or delusion. If a teacher winds up working in either of these districts, how does he or she process either reality? I think of sitting in a restaurant, having ordered a house salad because the guy at the next table did that and it sounded good. His salad comes out magnificent, gourmet greens garnished with fresh peppers, capers and sprouts, sliced parmesan and the best balsamic, and he’s offered fresh, aromatic ground pepper. The salad set before me is a quarter head of iceberg with a dob of mayo, no pepper. Do I notice? Am I curious about why this disparity exists? Do I wonder if my business is valued, or whether my neighbor has connections? How does my neighbor process this disparity?

Please help me here, readers. What is happening in the heads and hearts of the great human beings that do this difficult work that allows them to keep smiling in the face of naked inequity? How do you explain the silence?

So teacher, are you just about the technology?

Last week Doug Johnson featured the article 7 Myths About Empathy, and it recalled a powerful memory for me that made its way to a guest post on his blog. I reprint it for  you here, as a courtesy to those of you patiently awaiting a new post.

Doug,

While reading your 7 Myths About Empathy post, I found myself looking for a description of not just what empathy is or isn’t, but also how it actually functions in the course of instruction. Then I wondered, “Why am I looking for that?”  As I read I remembered I had been provided with exactly that insight in the middle of my teaching career.

The path to understanding this many years ago was my biochemistry professor’s manner of delivering excruciatingly complex material; at least it was that for me. I was an adult learner, early forties, taking some career-necessary coursework at UC Davis. I was drowning, and apparently I wasn’t alone in feeling that way, and was seriously considering dropping the class. I remember the moment… at one point, the professor put down his dry erase pen after filling half the board with yet another enzyme reaction series. He turned toward the class, and with deep compassion in his eyes he proceeded to talk to us about knowing how difficult his was for us, how our brains needed time to unravel it on its own, and to not worry that we didn’t comprehend the complexity right at that moment. He then, as he had occasionally before, talked about the nearly miraculous nature of what it was we were trying to understand, that it was the essence of life itself, a complex process shared by virtually every living thing on the planet. He advised us to just take it in, relax, return to it often, and give our brains time to quietly sort it out.

That moment was a huge gift. Not only was he right about our brains and we how we come to understand complicated things, he used it as a teaching moment to share his love for the subject matter, and his compassion for us. He completely drew us into his discipline and communicated to us that both we and the content mattered, and the effect on us was quite amazing. I aced the damn class. My study partner (a second-career older adult) and I earned the two highest grades out of fifty or so in the class, but even our  desperate-looking whippersnapper classmates did quite well.

I’ve had other experiences like this, with inspiring professors and teachers, but this particular one informed my own practice as a teacher because of his precisely directed, caring advice. I came to understand that the empathy relationship was bi-directional in a classroom, and that the deeper that relationship became the more powerful and permanent the learning. I became a much better teacher, and had much more fun. Teaching this way was personally more challenging, more emotionally risky, but I look back on my teaching days as having been very successful thanks to that understanding.

For me, this is the heart of why the teacher cannot be removed from the learning of complex subject matter. Learning a “discipline” happens when the learning setting is informed by a discipleship of following and seeking rather than 19th century discipline for punishment and order (The flogging will stop when morale improves.) Learning is often hard, at every age and level of development, and we can only be drawn to it as willing participants, not driven by compulsory anything.

Hey! Let’s be careful out there!

Like other folks in my field, I frequently come across stories of K-12 teachers getting themselves into some right-nasty professional pickles because of technology, or closer to the point, because of how they’ve chosen to use it.

This post is not about the ones who wound up in jail through online misbehavior or behavior consequent to online communications. To the best of my knowledge, those folks belong there, and the technology only served to give them access in a way they would have set their predatory hearts to anyway. This is also not for those of you who teach second graders by day, and produce online porn in your free time. That’s just stupid, and I wouldn’t want you teaching my kids either.

No, this is about how to avoid inadvertently falling into tech age briar patches. I’ve written about this before in the context of Facebook and such.  Also, K-12 school districts issue policies and guidelines, states pass laws, and courts make rulings, but rarely are they in language that leaves us with a sense of “What to do?” lest they assume liability for giving advice that doesn’t work.

So I’m not assuming any liability for you here either. I have no doubt you could treat my advice here like gospel and still get yourself into trouble, but I’m hoping it makes you aware on a more useful level.

As a prudence rule-of-thumb, it’s a good idea to try to imagine the world pre-Internet. I first taught in that, and it offers a useful template. In those days, you could “size up” a kid as to whether a private conversation might be risky. For those you couldn’t, you sat fairly near to the classroom entrance, positioned a desk between you and the student, and left the door propped open. Witnesses. Also, there were certain conventions of behavior that kids and adults followed, so it was easier to read the danger signs early.

Online, those days are irretrievably over. When relationships go digital, you need to assume that every student is that 1:1000 student who will see you fired, dance on your termination notice, and sleep like a baby.

So I offer you here a list that hopefully will not be obsolete the moment I push the “publish” button. I will not offer technical justifications here. If you want the detail behind my assertions, just ask.

1. You still need witnesses. Do not use services that (a) would prevent you from reproducing a record of transactions and (b) that would permit private, back-channel, undocumented conversation. Stay away from private chat environments. Do not Facebook Friend your students. Period.

2. Be ready and able to shut down online classroom discussion. You cannot turn off an unsupervised Facebook page, and you cannot delete others’ Facebook posts. Corollary: Make certain you have collegial backup to be able to shut down discussion on your classroom interactive page should you wind up in the hospital. You are responsible for any bullying or flaming that happens in your space.

3. Make obvious for any insect brain that which is work, and that which is instructional.  A teacher in the media today (and the muse for this post) is out of a job because he posted some sketchy material on a blog site he created for instruction ten years ago. He can claim he wasn’t requiring his current 7th graders to read his erotica (which I do believe), but when he posted excerpts of it to his old blog entitled “Room 210 Discussion,” he was inviting a visit from HR. He got it, along with a police escort out of the building. Had he taken 30 seconds to create a fresh blog for his new stuff, he would be working tomorrow.

4. Everything a student produces and everything a teacher documents about that production is consider a “student record.” Now, I’m no lawyer, but I know this to be the case in many states, including my own. Student records need some level of discoverability. This is an issue that complicates the Google Apps discussion for school districts. Can Google guarantee discoverability?

5. Your name is your connection to your teaching credential. If you pursue activities that might not line up with being a teacher and mentor of minor children (the penning of erotica, for instance), consider using a pseudonym. Should your students or their parents (or employer) Google “Mr. John Jones” only to discover Mr. Jones published a sci-fi parody of Debbie Does Dallas, he might have significant ‘splainin’ to do. If, on the other hand, he discovers a comet, “Comet Jones” puts a bit of a shine on that credential.

6. Be careful with inflammatory rhetoric. As teachers, we inevitably engage in speech that ticks people off. Our profession is, at its root, political in nature. Consequently, we need to guard our speech, meaning those words attached to our valuable name need to carry the same value and respect we hope to receive in our position. Whether school-related or personal, take good care of that handle you were given.

7. Keep your cell phone number to yourself. If your number circulates, you could be in the kiddie porn business in pretty short order. I realize policies differ district to district, but that’s my personal take on it. Of course if you’re on a trip with a sports team, rules have to stretch.

8. If you use Twitter, do everything you can to keep your teaching account separate from your private account. Personally, I would find a different tool because of the potential for undiscoverable communication.

9. Manage your files so that personal material does not get mingled in your various cloud-based services. This may seem obvious, but if bad things can happen, they will happen somewhere.

10. Think of your newest cool tech tool like holding a pit bull on a short leash. Yes, you will look really good, at least until the pit turns and sees you as the juiciest prey it’s seen all day.

Be careful  out there.

Hero Teacher Burnout

 

superheroes

In her usual brilliant style, Bianca Hewes once again brings us deep insight into the kind of reform so desperately needed in education.

If you are an “agent of change” in your school site, you must read her latest post, Why I don’t want to be a hero teacher, and maybe you shouldn’t either.

And like so many things she writes, the article popped an educator boil in my own head, so I share with you my reply to her post:

For a short while I worked in emergency medical services, and while I never thought of myself as a “hero,” everyone in that line of work does heroic things on a daily basis. I emphasize “short while” here, as heroic work is indeed humanly unsustainable. I share Ms. Hannon’s evaluation of the hero teacher issue.

The kind of reform we need is not at the level the politicians in any western country have been willing to entertain, but it is one Asian countries have, and it’s why their systems are soundly kicking our collective education asses, both in delivering content and in technology. If they ever find PBL, we’re done for.

Teachers need significant collaborative time, as in hours per day, and they need to work (during their work time, not at night, over weekends and during breaks) with colleagues continually on how learning happens in their classrooms. They need to vet their practice constantly, daily, not just during some ex situ summer institute where students are nowhere to be seen. They need time daily to build collegial trust, to observe each other, to comment, to practice, and repeat. They need the opportunity daily (have I used this word enough?) to be critical of themselves, and time to stay in touch with trends of change, both in their students and in their tools. They need to feel protected in a professional enviroment in which not only are they accountable for student learning outcomes, but also valued for the societally vital role they play every day.

Our current mode of packing as many students into a room as possible and packing as many instructional minutes into a day as can be shoehorned into a schedule and still give people a chance to eat is educationally insane. The pols who hold the strings to the money bags still think we’re educating line workers and field hands. Until they wake up and get a grip on what they’re asking us to do, we will continue to burn through our hero teachers and nothing will change.

THE 21st Century Skill: Ethical Learning

It seems I am on a Bianca Hewes roll here, but that is because the roll is hers.  I do believe that unless a teacher has project-based learning at the heart of his/her teaching, particularly in grades 5 through 12, there is a disservice being performed.

This six-minute video of Bianca, in what is undoubtedly an enviable educational setting, is well-worth your investment…

And teachers, take particular note of what she says about professional development, and who sets the course of teacher learning.

The glorious admission of bad teaching

Elsewhere on this blog I have admitted my fandom of Bianca Hewes, prolific PBL blogger and English teacher in SW Australia.

Yesterday, though, she outdid her usual literate self by describing her despair over having approached her job badly, deluding herself into thinking she was doing stellar work when in retrospect she evaluated her performance as just mediocre. Clearly Bianca brings great gifts to her students on her worst days, but this blog post goes significantly beyond her usual descriptions of best practices and explores how a teacher perceives his/her own practice.

What is the most professional and productive response to one’s realization that the experience you just required 30 or more young people to have was a first-class waste of time? We all recognize there are a number of choices, but which one leads to change so that we avoid repeating our own mediocrity?  Here are a few I recall from my own teaching days:

  • I blame the curriculum. “If this stuff were just more interesting it would engage the students more. I’m doing my best with the drudge I’m given to teach.” I taught science, so no excuse there.
  • I blame the kids. “If they could perceive the importance of this material, if they were mature enough, if their hormones would cooperate, if they knew how much I cared, if they’d had their breakfast, if they had learned what they should have last year (with that other teacher, of course).”
  • I blame the technology. OK, I concede this one. Current education funding and the limits on instructional material spending create technology nightmares. How does a teacher use Edmodo instructionally when the lab is antiquated, there are no devices in kids’ hands, ad nauseum. On the other hand, was it my failure to plan for inevitable tech challenges? Was I realistic and informed?
  • I blame myself. “I suck.” From here one can take a few different paths. Because the bell does ring and the road leads away from campus, it is tempting to leave one’s failure at school and spend free time investigating retirement options or investing in the hobby. Another path involves adding new tools to one’s repertoire, new arrows to the quiver, then energizing and blazing a new personal path to making it right for students.

When failure visits, whether due to habit or the day’s circumstance, “I suck” can represent an opportunity to change tools, to pull a different arrow and shoot at a new target.  Bianca’s post is a glittering example of a remorseful, healthy professional taking a fresh look after letting failure go public and stinky.

[Addendum: True to form and as predicted, Bianca self-diagnosed today and pulled a fresh arrow from her quiver, describing it in today's post.]

GoogleApps Horror Movie

Thanks to Doug Johnson and his Blue Skunk Blog for posting this – didn’t want anyone to miss it!

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