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John Spencer | Education, Education Policy | September 12, 2014

Why Teachers Are Still the Experts


Sandy wrote a great post offering some push-back about the statement teachers make that "your experience as a student doesn't make you an expert on teaching and learning." It was the kind of post I needed to read, because I am too quick to dismiss the knowledge that folks outside of education can offer. 

And yet . . .

While I agree that it's important to seek out advice from parents and to listen to the collective experiences of the public, I still believe it requires training and experience as a teacher (a real teacher and not someone trained in Harvard's education department followed by years crafting policy in a vacuum) to be an expert on education. 

Here are a few reasons it's dangerous to take one's experience as a student and use it to claim expertise:

1. The context makes a difference. Schools are often vastly different in climate, culture and instruction. It's not necessarily an issue of time period so much as location. Using one's own past experiences (as a teacher, student, etc.) is always dangerous. Not wrong, per se, but inherently myopic. When we see things only through the lens of our past experience, we start assuming that what worked (or didn't work) for us are universal. We take personal experience and make it normative across all systems. As Sandy points out, teachers can fall victim to this as well. That's why we need to call each other out when it happens. 

2. Teachers are experts on pedagogy. We are professionals who have spent years studying the theory of this profession. Often, when I hear parents speaking out (whether it's Common Core or "new math" or abandoning homework) it comes from a place of pedagogical ignorance. I welcome parents' voices in teaching and learning, but not as an equal partner. They can help inform our practices, but they should not be driving what we do. Their voices are not as informed as teacher voices, because they lack the actual experience of teaching and the professional knowledge that comes with it. I drive a car, but I won't tell my mechanic what to do. I've been to hospitals and watched movies with doctors, but I won't tell a surgeon how to operate. Professional expertise matters.

3. Teachers understand the larger implications of policy: They see why certain things that sound like great ideas simply don't work. They experience, on a regular basis, the hidden aspects of the job. Whether it's IEP meetings or discipline or lesson planning or assessment, they see the practical implications of these policies. Often, when people reference their experiences as students, they are only getting a sliver of the educational system. They rarely stop and ask what types of policies were put into place along the way and whether or not these policies have changed. 

4. Teachers are part of a larger community of other teachers. They have spent hours in deep conversation about things that most of the public rarely speaks about. They've had huge paradigm shifts to break some of the cultural stereotypes that exist about education. This often leads to a more nuanced position for those who are asking hard questions. By contrast, the Dunning-Kruger Effect demonstrates that people with less experience and less knowledge are most likely convinced that they have the right answers. 

5. Teachers have spent more time in the classroom focussed on education rather than just content. I think this is a distinction people miss. It's not just years of experience, but also the mental process that matters. In many cases, the teachers who have the greatest level of expertise have gained that expertise through rich conversations and hours of introspection. There's a certain level of intentionality that they experience - a sort-of driving focus, a mission, a sense of responsibility for what happens - that are less common with parents or students. 

The end result is that that the teachers who are the greatest experts are often the most humble about what they know. They have a deep, powerful contextual knowledge coupled with wisdom and with a theoretical foundation. However, they also know what they don't know and this can come across as being weak or overly meek. In these cases, teachers are slow to say, "I'm an expert," because it sounds arrogant. 

For what it's worth, I welcome public input on education. I want to forge partnerships with parents. However, not all opinions are equal. Teachers ultimately have the greatest level of expertise, because of our professional experience. Collectively, we are way to slow to say, "No, actually, we get this. We understand what is best." It's not arrogance. It's the expertise that we've attained through hard work and deep thinking.  

 We're the experts. We need to own it. 

Eve Rifkin | September 9, 2014

The Small Things


Joey is a junior and, already, failing four classes. We have seen this many times before. The debate always sounds the same:

    "Joey is lazy."

    "Wait--maybe Joey is unmotivated"

    "What's the difference?"

    "If he is lazy, there is nothing for us to do. If he is unmotivated, there is everything for us to do."

I wonder how to bring a true sense of curiosity to the dialogue. My colleagues get insulted when I suggest that "laziness" is not a fair assessment. Here's a kid who comes to school every single day, on time, clean and dressed well. I'm not convinced that laziness is the problem.

And there's more. According to Joey's teachers, he is capable of doing fine work. "He's so smart!" "Such an excellent writer!" Yet he fails to turn in most of his major assignments and, consequently, fails his classes. We can't give grades based on potential, after all.

Tomorrow I will meet with a small group of colleagues in our Critical Friends Group. I will bring samples of Joey's work from all of his classes (the few things he has managed to turn in). We will participate in a protocol designed to help us think more expansively and less evaluatively about Joey and his so called "work ethic". 

A few days ago, I met with a college student who was curious about City High School. He said "I looked at the website and didn't see what made you different other than the fact that you are so small."

We are so small. We all know Joey. Every single one of us, whether we teach him or not. And tomorrow when we sit down for a structured conversation designed to unearth what is making Joey tick, we will be celebrating, among other things, the fact that we are small. May our small conversation tomorrow lead to big insight.

Mike Lee | September 6, 2014

Everybody Knows


Everybody knows that she's creative. Everybody knows that she's got the ideas.

Everybody knows.

Well, at least the 28 miniature people that surround her know.  And, sometimes some colleagues. Sometimes, some parents.  

But, rarely, policy makers.  

Rarely, leaders that define her direction, or that of her collection of little people.

As the voice of Leonard Cohen echoes in your heads, stop to consider this: The answers are in the heads of our best and brightest teachers.  Unfortunately, those answers often haven't made it to their lips.  And, they certainly aren't in the ears of those who need to hear them the most.

I know some incredibly creative and smart teachers who get "it," whatever "it" actually is. Unfortunately, only their students and a select few have the privilege of knowing it.  Often, the ones that drive policy have never set foot in a classroom, aside from the patronizing, if not well intentioned, "Teacher for a Day" charade.

These amazing teachers need to be heard.  

I know.  They are busy.  They are tired.  They are even frustrated.  Most importantly, they don't feel that their voice will matter.  But leading major change isn't easy.  It's often fronted by tired and frustrated people.

However, the leaders who history best remembers refused to accept that their voice couldn't matter. Neither should we.  

I believe we have entered a period where increasing frustration and distrust with bureaucratic systems is creating a demand for grassroots solutions like never before.  A time when the voice of the ones most respected can matter.  Further, the platforms for those voices are quickly emerging. For instance, Commit to Lead is a new idea sharing platform that is positioned to garner a great deal of attention, and is certainly being watched by everyone from Arne Duncan to local leaders.  The platform allows for teachers to collaborate and share, but also publicly highlight their capacity for problem-solving.  Crowd sourcing has taken the world by storm.  Why not leverage that power for change in education?  

Those 28 little people should understand the brilliance of their highly-effective teacher.  But so should everyone else.  

After all, everybody knows that it is time for change.

Sandy Merz | September 4, 2014

Deconstructing a Teacher Leader Cliché


"Being a patient's not like being a doctor, though, is it? A doctor has to know what's wrong with people. A patient sits there and waits for the doctor to put it right."

That line, spoken by a character in A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre, has me thinking about a favorite cliché in teacher leader circles - That many in the public think that the thousands of hours they spent from kindergarten through high school is enough to know what it takes to be a teacher. The line is usually delivered to an audience of teachers and is never disputed.

I've passed the cliché along myself but am going to stop for several reasons.

First, like most clichés, this one intends to stop thought rather than deepen it. To deepen thought one needs to probe challenging views rather than dismiss them.

Second, the cliché is never used to dismiss ideas that align to the speaker's own. I've never heard a teacher say:

I know a mom who says test scores should only be a tiny part of a teacher's evaluation because that's how it was when she was in school. But really, just because she was a student once doesn't mean she knows how teachers should be evaluated.

Third, nearly every opinion a non-educator holds is also held by a teacher somewhere. Ironically, many of those teachers' opinions come as much from their experience as students and from their experience as teachers. For example, during retention meetings, I've heard teachers say that the only reason they did any work in school was because they were afraid to have to repeat a grade, so we should retain more kids. 

Fourth, the cliché is nearly always offered in either defensive or condescending tones. Neither of which improves the public's perception of teachers.

Fifth, having spent thousands of hours with dozens of teachers does give one a pretty good data set by which to compare and judge and talk about teachers and teaching. That's because the most visible part of teaching - delivering instruction - hasn't much changed. Inspiring and boring teachers from the 70s would find their counterparts in no time in a 2014 school faculty lounge. The science classrooms in my school today look exactly like the ones in the junior high school I attended in 1969.

The hidden part of teaching - the professional development, the lesson planning, the strategic and real-time decision making, the differentiation of instruction, and the like is a different story. But do you ever hear people outside of education talk about those things anyway?

One area in which the visible part of teaching has changed over the decades is the high stakes testing and attendant detritus that education is encumbered with today. But many adults left school before the era of high stakes testing and can't draw on their own experience to form an opinion.

Sixth, the general public only partially informs its opinions on its own experiences in school. Just as important is the role of media coverage of education. Tell me where and when you went to school and I won't be able to predict your views on education. Tell me if you read National Review or listen to NPR and I bet I will. Unless you do both (like me!).

I think the next time I hear a speaker refer to the inadequacies of using one's experience as a student in forming one's opinion about teaching, I'm going to play close attention to what came immediately before and immediately after. Then I'm going to look for a more thought-provoking option. I just hope whatever I come up with doesn't become its own cliché.

L2Gura | Assessment, Education, Education Policy, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Parent Involvment, Teacher Leadership, Web/Tech, Weblogs | September 1, 2014

Let Freedom Ring!



The joyFreedomfranklful whispers started a month ago when the administrators in my school district announced that they didn’t know which state standardized assessment would be administered in the spring of 2015.  Sighs of relief and plans of creative teaching were heard throughout the schools.  You can feel the chains of the oppression of high-stakes assessment being broken.  Teachers are heard saying, “Well, now that we aren’t tied to a standardized assessment…..”  Let academic freedom ring!

Before anyone starts assuming that Arizona is completely going rogue and allowing teachers to have their one professional dream come true, let me clarify.  As Arizona has adopted the Common Core standards to become the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, they are updating the state achievement assessment to reflect on these changes.  According to the Arizona Department of Education’s website, “the State Board of Education’s final selection and adoption of a new statewide English language arts and mathematics achievement assessment is expected to occur in early October. This new statewide achievement assessment will be aligned to the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards and will be administered beginning in spring of 2015.”  Teachers are hoping that there is a delay in that schedule. 

As much as I rejoice with the other teachers to not begin the school year with plans to prepare our students for another high-stakes test, the attitude of having freedom in the classroom is a little disconcerting to me.  Although the pressure of being evaluated and labeled as a proficient teacher based on my students’ performance on a week-long assessment is frustrating, it did provide me with a benchmark of how well I need to teach the standards.  To strip away the constraints of a high-stakes assessment without any scaffolding into freedom could be disastrous for teachers.  I’m not saying that we are not professionals, but this is a reminder that although freedom from state assessments sounds refreshing and inspiring to overburdened educators, we must not fall into the penalty of freedom.

For those of us who work with children, we know quite well (and shudder) at the penalty of freedom with children.  When children are placed in an environment without rules, consequences, or schedules, they begin to get frantic and destructive in the freedom they feel.  Humans need to feel some kind of constraints- we need the walls around us to know we are held by somebody.  Therefore as teachers we still need to recognize and relish the feeling of freedom but provide ourselves with our own high-stakes benchmarks.  How do we do that?

If you haven’t done so yet, it’s time to create goals with your class.  Including your students in the goal-setting process will provide valuable ownership and responsibility on their part to achieve these goals.  Statistics show people who determine and document their goals have over an 80% higher success rate of achieving them.  Create an overarching classroom goal with your students, and then facilitate them to make independent goals for themselves. 

Portfolios are a great way to hold your students accountable to accomplishing classroom projects with quality work and 21st century skills.  Portfolios also merge the elements of freedom and assessment as teachers can incorporate Common Core standards, rigorous instruction, Gradual Release of Responsibility model, and creativity into higher-level thinking activities.  Portfolios can be used to track the students’ progress toward their individual and class goals, and these can be communicated as evidence to parents and community members throughout the school year.

Team-planning is critical to create higher-level classroom projects.  Although collaborating with your grade-level team is important to keep your projects and portfolio assignments aligned to the same schedule and standards, it is very inspiring to create a network outside of your school.  Reach out to other teachers in your district within the same grade level range, and also find new teacher collaborators around the world!!  Pinterest has become a motivating force for teachers to publish their creativity through blogs and pins.  The world of collaboration is out there for you to join!

Freedom is liberating, fun, and refreshing.  But it can have a penalty if you don’t remember to hold the standards in highest regard, provide rigorous instruction, and create your own benchmarks to successfully accomplish. 

Greg Broberg | August 24, 2014

What We Say Matters


“Intervention?  That sounds like another word for special education.”

These were the words of a parent at a Curriculum Night presentation.  Her comment came after being told that students would be placed into a new program designed for either intervention or enrichment. It is interesting how parents construct certain phrases that have become commonplace in schools.  Even more interesting is how educators have adopted and reinforce this thinking.  One of the unfortunate realities of such educational initiatives like Response to Intervention is the discourse that surrounds its use in schools.   Academics often refer to this discourse as deficit-thinking -- those conversations where students are constructed in terms of what they “can’t do” rather than their strengths.   For this reason, we should not be surprised that parents have learned from our example.   With so much work being done in terms of professional learning communities and the Common Core standards, data has become an integral part of our intervention discussions.  With data comes the propensity to consider the deficits of students.  But does this have to be the case?  Can we ensure that students are seen in terms of what they “can do” rather than what they “can’t do”?  As teacher leaders we can bring the most important data to the forefront of our discussions – a student’s voice. 

A multiple choice assessment provides a score but does it really describe what students need to achieve mastery.  Like teachers, students need to have space to reflect on their learning.  Reflection assignments that ask students to identify what they need to achieve mastery takes the second guessing out of intervention or re-teaching.  This is something that educational scholars such as Richard Stiggins have articulated for some time.  Providing regular opportunities for students to reflect on assessment results makes them active participants in the assessment process – not simply test takers.  If we hope to meet the individual needs of students then we have to collect data that helps us understand these needs, thus avoiding a rapid-fire approach to re-teach some particular skill.  If our goal is to build critical thinkers then students need an adequate amount of time to reflect and provide us direction towards productive learning practices.

Jen Robinson |

We Get To Do This Work!


Beginning a new year naturally brings excitement and anxiety among staff and students. Teachers have new initiatives and mandates for which they are required to implement. There is never enough time to plan and prepare before the kids return on the first day. Students are nervous about new teachers and upcoming expectations.

That said adding additional requests upon teachers is always a delicate balancing act. This year our school is beginning the Leader in Me process. This is s a whole-school transformation model that is intended to improve the performance of all other programs. It is based on the seven habits of highly effective people, and equips students with the self-confidence and skills they need to thrive.

In May we participated in a three-day training focusing on the seven habits: Be proactive, begin with the end in mind, put first things first, think win-win, seek first to understand and then to be understood, synergize and sharpen the saw. This gave us the foundation for our upcoming adventure. In July we participated in a one-day training exploring how to implement the seven habits into instruction and we created a team of teacher leaders who were charged with identifying our school needs and creating action teams to address those needs.

As an administrator, sitting in the leadership meeting was daunting, but what happened next was inspiring and a testament to the power of teacher leadership. We created a list of ten high need items that needed to be addressed. From there we narrowed it to five and created action teams each with a teacher coordinating and facilitating the conversation. The action team coordinators then invited staff members to join the cause. Over the past three weeks teams have met to determine school wide expectations for teachers and students. What was initially overwhelming and intimidating is becoming more manageable and represents our school, our teachers and our students.

Our action team are addressing: Curriculum and planning, student, class and school mission statements, class and school-wide student leadership roles, school environment and student leadership notebooks and goal setting. Teams meet weekly to debrief, discuss concerns and celebrate successes while tracking our progress. It has been amazing and inspiring to watch teachers step out of their traditional roles and navigate through our leadership process, exploring ways to integrate and align leadership strategies and opportunities into everything we do for students. We have embraced a simple belief – We get to do this work with our students! Stay tuned this year as we share our stories.

In what ways are teachers stepping into leadership roles on your campus?

Donnie Dicus | August 21, 2014

And I'm baaaaccckkkk!!!!


After a year long "vacation,' I am back in the classroom and I can honestly say that now I know I am right where I belong. But to get to this point of self-awareness, I had to go on quite a journey.

A couple of years ago, I had reached my limit as a classroom teacher. I had been teaching 2nd grade for 8 years in Tucson. I was burnt out, over worked and in extreme debt. Over the course of my career, I managed to rack up nearly $25,000 in credit card bills. That's a lot of crayons and scholastic books! I was no Destiny's Child. I was strugling to pay my bill,s bills, bills. I had also just completed my National Board portfolio and did not see any where else for my career to go. I knew I needed something different. At some point in my life, I'd like to have a family and I'd like to be able to support that family. I know I am not alone in this desire. There is something in the male ego that drives us to be the primary bread winners for our families. Maybe we're not as secure as our female counterparts. So I made a decision. I decided to leave the classroom and pursue other avenues.

I resigned from my school and got a job as a bartender at a swanky resort in the nice part of town. This new job was one of the most fun jobs I ever had. I got to go to work and basically socialize and joke around my whole shift. A bartender's main job is to keep people happy and I was good at keeping people happy. Therefore, this position was highly lucrative for me. I had some nights where I made my two week teacher paycheck in a matter of three shifts. And there were some nights where I made it in one shift.  Besides the money, the stress level was much more manageable. When I clocked out, I got to go home and enjoy my life! I didn't have to bring stacks of papers home with me. When I got up in the morning, I was able to leisurely read in bed with coffee, go to the gym, do errands in the slow part of the day, and to take long lunches with friends. I was loving this new life! For a time. After months of these days, I was getting a little bored. As the seasons progressed, I saw that there was no purpose, no challenge, and no creativity to my "new" career.  I tried to get into other postions and jobs but nothing worked out.

Over the course of the year, I was able to create a friendship with someone I had met at my job. He worked at a school district here in Phoenix. He knew I used to be a teacher so he began asking my advice about many different issues. We would have hour long conversations. These conversations made me realize how much I missed the classroom. The classroom gave me a purpose. It gave me a career that I found mentally challenging and stimulating. In the classroom, I was able to look at problems and come up with new, creative and innovative solutions. Daniel Pink talks a lot about what drives us. Yes, I need money to live my life and I would still love to make the big bucks. But I know I need more than money to have a successful career and a happy life so I made another change. After months of his insistant nagging, I applied in his district and as you can tell the rest is history.

I am now in my second year of teaching third grade in Phoenix. I still bartend part time and it has helped me cut my debt nearly in half in one year. I know many teachers are leaving this field in droves due to the same struggles that I had. That is heart wrenching because our students deserve our best teachers. What is a resort going to do with a highly qualified, effective National Board Certified (I found out I achieved during my year off!) teacher? We need our good teachers in the classroom. I urge any teacher who is struggling with the decision to leave the field to answer this question. What motivates you to get up in the morning and teach your students? You may find that there are more reasons to stay than you realize and you'll remember why you began teaching in the first place.




Mike Lee | Education | August 15, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Heroes


My eight year stint as principal is coming to an end this month, and I'm finding it hard to say goodbye to my colleagues.  

To my friends.

I am often reticent to use military analogies.  Terms like "heroes" and "warriors," should be reserved for those who have experienced true moments of life and death, or have sacrificed neary everything for their cause or country.  Although an athlete, for example, can be a positive force by serving as a role model, I hesitate to call him or her a "hero."

That said, having accepted a position with the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, I have found myself "looking around the room."   I've been thinking about those with whom I've had the pleasure to work and the profound impact they have on our children, and, subsequently, our nation.  Facing an uncertain climate, hostile politics, vasciliating policies, and the unending challenges attributable to the difficult profession they have chosen, many of the peers I leave behind have earned our admiration and respect.  They deserve to be viewed with a sense of awe.

My district is facing the most depleted talent pool in recent memory, as people leave the profession or avoid it in record numbers.  But this group stays on for the fight, committed to our children, regardless of the odds.  They are tired, overworked, underpaid, and poorly understood.   But, that's what heroes do. They fight.  They don't give up.

Those to whom I'm saying goodbye are, indeed, warriors.  

And, they are heroes. 


John Spencer | Education Policy | August 14, 2014

It's Harder to Speak Up When It's Local


I am bothered by certain things in my district. I think it's irresponsible to spend half a million dollars a year on the digital worksheet program Success Maker. I think we lose too many days to testing and we misuse the data we get back as a result. Last year, students lost 35 days minimum to benchmark testing. I was bothered last year when they cancelled field trips altogether (a local site decision fueled by a desire to keep things "academic"). 

I rarely speak out about these issues. I haven't blogged about them. I haven't gone to any Governing Board meetings and talked about the damage caused by lost instructional time. I've never met with the assessment department and advocated for a better system.

Instead, I have spent most of my time and energy advocating for larger systemic change. I've written about immigration reform. I've bashed standardized tests and advocated for authentic assessments. I have offered a critique of VAM scores and Race to the Top.

Honestly, it's easier to advocate for issues when they are distant, larger and systemic. It's harder when they are local and require a relationship and a conversation with a real person. It's harder when there's a cost to the conflict. However, these local policies are the kind that I know the best. These are the policies that affect my students in a profound way. They're also the policies where I have the biggest chance at changing things.

So, why am I quieter? I'm afraid. I hate the conflict of standing up to bad policies in my district. I am scared of being cited for insubordination. I don't want to make more enemies than I already have. It's easier to advocate for a distance. It's harder when it's my own district. Teacher voice is easy when it's aimed at the world. It's much more difficult when it's a conversation with my own district.