Make It Work

Donnie Dicus Education, Elementary, Life in the Classroom, Mentoring, National Board Certification, Professional Development

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RuPaul tells us to work it. Britney sings that we better work if we want something. However, Tim Gunn says it best. “Make it work.” He tells all his designers to take their tools, fabrics, and various odds and ends and make them work. And that is what teachers do. We make it work.

At a staff meeting last week, my administrators showed us a graph entitled “What works best for student learning.” The title had me hooked. I thought to myself that this is going to be good. I was eager to see the things that truly help students. This graph was pretty in depth and had ranked various strategies teachers use to help students learn. Next to each item was a percentage score. Things on the top greatly impacted student learning and things at the bottom did not impact student learning. I began to read the items. As I read, I wondered what prompted this think tank to do this research. How did they do this research? What was their original hypothesis or intended message? What do they have to gain from this research?

I asked these questions because this graph was contrary to nearly everything I believed about student learning. In fact, I found this document to be highly offensive! According to this graph, the three things that have the least to with student learning were retention, (I can see how this could be damaging to students) summer vacation, (Duhhh! But we’re stuck with that so students can go work the farms) and……. teacher subject matter knowledge. Yes, you read that right. Apparently, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has it wrong! Content knowledge does not matter. We do not need to know our content to teach it to students.

That’s not the only ‘What the___?!’ in this graph. It ranks formative teacher evaluations in the top three but mentoring is in the bottom 5. So we can be evaluated and that’s good but having someone to guide and teach us to be better teachers is bad for students. Riiiiigghhhttt.

Classroom management also made it towards the top of the list. That’s accurate. You have to be able to manage behavior for learning to take place. But classroom size was in the bottom half of the graph. Obviously these researchers have worked in a kindergarten class with 39 five year olds. There’s a lot of learning going on in that class! I bet a future Nobel Prize winner is going to graduate from that classroom.

Even with all of these contradictions, I still haven’t mentioned the most offensive part of this document. There was one hugely glaring omission from this research. A good teacher. Nowhere on this list did they measure the impact that a good teacher has on a student and that is the single most important factor for student learning. There can be no learning without a teacher in front of students. There can be no significant learning without a great teacher in front of students. I can’t believe there is any company in the field of education that would even posit this absurdity. This document has the ability to be incredibly damaging to our proffession. I read it with a skepitcal mind frame and I know enough about the field to know these things weren’t true. However, there are people that would look at that and swallow it like Kool-aid!

To get back to my opening, teachers learn many different strategies throughout our career. We have so many things in our tool belts. And every year we are learning some new “red pill” that will finally unlock a student’s mind. It’s hard to single these things out and measure their impact singularly because teachers are what make them work. If our class size is too big, we make it work. If we are missing resources, we make or find our own and make them work. If we are learning a new strategy, we do our best to make it work even though we may not fully understand it. I would wager that if the strategies show improvement in student growth, it’s because of the ability of the teacher and not solely because of that strategy. If there was a teacher edition of Project Runway, Tim Gunn would probably look at us and exclaim, “Oh! YOU DID MAKE IT WORK!”



Donnie Dicus

Tucson, Arizona

My name is Donnie Dicus and I have been teaching in Arizona for 12 years. I came to Arizona from Southern Illinois to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson. I graduated in 2003 and began teaching second grade. I taught second grade in Tucson for 8 years before moving to Phoenix. I now teach third grade. I achieved National Board Certification in 2012 and I received my Master's Degree from Grand Canyon University in 2015. I achieved a National Board Certificate in Middle Childhood Generalist in 2012. I’ve been teaching mainstream and SEI 3rd grade classrooms in the Cartwright School District in Phoenix since 2013. I taught 2nd grade and was a math interventionist in Tucson in the Amphitheater School District. I’ve been a technology coach and have helped teachers apply technology to improve instruction. I facilitate coaching cohorts for teachers going through the National Board process and organize peer groups at my site to pair new teachers with experienced teachers. In 2010 I was nominated as a Rodel Semi-Finalist for Exemplary teaching in 2010 and featured as a Teacher Leader in February 2016 by the Arizona K12 Center. I have class pictures of every single student I have taught behind my desk on my wall. After 12 years, that is approximately 350 students. My students know that this is my Wall of Accomplishments. I am so proud of the difference I made in their lives. I became a teacher to make a difference and I strive to do so every day.

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Comments 6

  1. Robbie

    “Make it work” is something all teachers can relate to. We are constantly refitting and altering our plans under pressure. Great job Donnie!

  2. Kelly

    I challenge you to consider a few things…
    Formative evaluations are not just to evaluate and give you results, but to ask teachers to be reflective about their teaching so that you can grow. I had a mentor my first year of teaching and I honestly learned nothing from her. She rarely showed up, if she did it wasn’t on time and gave very little feedback. I’ve learned a lot more from my formative evaluations from interventionists/support specialists and administrators. Just like the quality of the teacher, the quality of the mentor and evaluators can change their value.
    I’m wondering if the content knowledge rating comes from beginning teachers or teachers being new to a grade level. I view it as, teachers don’t need to know it previously to teach it. You will learn it through your planning and discussions about your teaching with co-workers, but don’t necessarily need to start already knowing the content.
    You are correct that a good teacher is necessary above all. An effective teacher can overcome lack of content knowledge, large class size, will be reflective with/without a mentor or formative evals, etc. Maybe they only used effective teachers for their study… Why would they study a failing one when they want to know what does/doesn’t work?
    Just some thoughts I had as I read your reaction….

  3. Donnie

    Formative evaluations are a great reflective tool for teachers and help to make teachers better at their craft. I did not mean to imply that I disagree with evaluations. I was just pointing out that an evaluation needs something after. A teacher who takes the evaluation and does nothing with it will not impact student learning. The teacher has to take action, reflect, improve and make it work. And you’re right, a mentor is not always helpful. I have had some awful mentors throughout my career. The graph however mentioned mentoring. Mentoring is not a person or a title. It is a relationship in which one is teaching or guiding the other. It is invited by both parties. I have had great mentoring relationships with other professionals over the years. Most have not been in any leadership positions or had any official titles. Mentoring is an incredibly effective way for teachers to learn. The sad truth is that just because you are labeled a mentor does not mean you know how to mentor. And if you do not know how to mentor, you are not helping that teacher and they are not improving so there will not be a big impact on student learning.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this piece and for responding!

  4. Sandy Merz

    I think so many of those graphs and the authors who develop them run counter to what so many employers want in their workers – self-management skills, analytic skills, communication skills, empathy, grit, flexibility, and the like. That’s because they know that with those traits, their employees will know how to, “Make it work.”

  5. Jess Ledbetter

    Reading this great post and the conversation comments got me excited. I think that it’s wonderful to see teachers discussing research, what it means to us, what is true and what feels untrue in our own practice. I think that these types of conversations illuminate the profession and help us constantly seek to put students first, regardless of who did the research or what the research “revealed.” Bravo to all for a great dialogue.

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