Don’t Waste Their Time

When I was in high school, I joined an Explorers group of future teachers that met monthly to get experience and information about the teaching profession from teachers and university professors. One month, we had a high school English teacher from a neighboring school talk to us. I don’t remember very much about her. But her advice still stays with me, all these years later.

3304801086_c261c6be3f_mShe talked about time. She reminded us that there’s only one person in the classroom who chooses to be there. The learners don’t have much say in the matter. They have to take Sophomore English (or 6th grade math, or 2nd grade science). They are compelled to attend. They have to be there. As a teacher, you are taking forty minutes of their lives away from them every day. That’s forty minutes that they’re never going to get back again. It is morally wrong to squander that time.

That doesn’t mean that every minute of every class is spent in rigorous academic learning tied to measurable content standards. But there are days when you don’t feel like being a teacher. Maybe it was a late night last night. Maybe you have sick kids at home, or the car broke down, or you had an argument with your partner. Maybe you’re not excited about this particular unit. Maybe this is a challenging group of kids. Maybe you’re just trying to hold on until Winter Break. But that doesn’t give you the right to slack off. That doesn’t give you permission to phone it in. You’re the professional. They’re giving you an irreplaceable piece of their lives. Do something meaningful with it.

I spend a lot of my life waiting for other people. I’m generally early for appointments. I try to have relevant agendas for meetings that I lead. When given an opportunity to address a group, I try to make my comments as brief and to-the-point as possible. I don’t send lots of emails to big groups of people. I don’t call when I can email or text, because I rarely presume that the thing I want to talk about is more important than whatever it is that they might be doing at that particular moment. I try not to waste their time.

The other thing that the teacher told us years ago had to do with the teacher’s calendar. “We have 180 school days per year,” she explained. “We also have two teacher report days. That makes 182 days that I have to work per year.” She went on. “That means I have 183 days OFF.” She let it sink in, and then elaborated. If she needs to stay after school, or do some work in the evenings, or attend a meeting or professional development session, she just does it. She tries not to call in sick. She only uses personal leave if it’s a dire emergency. If teachers are indispensable professionals, necessary components of student learning, they have to be in the classroom. And while we work more days now than she did then, the point is still well taken. One of my pet peeves about this time of year is hearing teachers complaining about how short their summers were, and how they’re not ready to be back. I don’t begrudge them the 13 weeks of vacation, but I also don’t really have a lot of patience for the “I don’t have time” argument.

In this profession, we’re choosing to spend our lives in the noble pursuit of learning. Let’s make sure we’re getting everything out of it that we can. Don’t waste their time.

Photo credit: Berc on Flickr

5 Things Teachers Can Do to Save Their Profession

The teaching profession is under attack. The disgruntled parent is gossiping at the coffee house about some injustice done in the classroom. The taxpayer complains that the kids these days aren’t learning anything. Business leaders want to come in and tell the schools how everything should be done. Politicians simultaneously add more accountability measures from public schools while funneling more resources toward alternative education. And no one seems to believe that the teacher in the classroom actually might know what she’s doing.

7403731050_9a1ee480de_zThroughout my career, I’ve heard teachers lamenting the fact that they’re not treated like the professionals they are. Most of them have master’s degrees. They’re licensed professionals. Yet no one seems to take them seriously. Everyone wants to tell them how to do their jobs.

From a parent’s perspective, I have worked with about 50 teachers in three different school districts so far. My kids — currently in 7th and 9th grades — have had some outstanding teachers. And they’ve also had some awful teachers. About half of them were average. They had their strengths and weaknesses. They seemed to have their hearts in the right place, even if they didn’t stand out as stellar educators. Another third or so of their teachers have been horrible. Again, this is across five school buildings in three districts. There are some teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom. I never would have dreamed that it was a third of them, but that’s been my experience so far. The others, that minority of teachers we’re delighted to see years after our students have left their classrooms, are special. They’re the ones who make this whole educational process worth the effort. We need more teachers like that. We need more people who are working to make a positive difference in kids’ lives. We need real professional teachers.

There are some pretty common sense things teachers can do — and not do — to encourage people to take them more seriously and to become the professionals they want to be. Here are five:

Stop complaining that you don’t have time. Yes, I know. You work at home. You have lesson plans to write, and papers to grade. I’m going to avoid the cheap shot of telling you not to make the kids do so many stupid worksheets, and you won’t have to grade them. And I’m not going to focus on three months off, because we all know you don’t really have three months off.

But the teachers in my school district work 186 days a year. That means they have 179 days off. Outside of education, most people work 240-250 days per year. That’s 60 days — a full 12 weeks — more. Sure, teachers work long hours during the school year, but so do doctors and attorneys and anyone putting their MBA to good use. And they don’t get overtime either.

I’m not saying you don’t deserve time off. And I’m not saying you’re not worth it. But let’s give the comments like “I can’t believe we have to come back to school already” and “why can’t spring break be two weeks long?” and “I just don’t have time to put anything else on my plate right now” a rest, shall we?

Know the content that you teach. I’m trained as a math teacher. That means I had more than 30 semester hours of college math, the very first course of which was calculus. If I can’t teach trigonometry or algebra II, I shouldn’t be in the classroom. Honestly, AP Calc and AP Stats shouldn’t be a problem either. The same is true across the content areas. My daughter’s middle school science teacher shouldn’t have fundamental misunderstandings about properties of matter. I realize that you may not have signed up to teach the class you find yourself in now. But you’re a professional, and this is all pretty basic stuff.

If one of my daughters is struggling with content, and that content is wrong, I will tell her it’s wrong. Usually, I’ll say something like “you misunderstood what the teacher said” or “she was trying to simplify it to make you understand better.” But that doesn’t have to happen too many times before the child figures out that I really mean “the teacher doesn’t have any idea what she’s talking about.”

Be an education expert. If I’m in a parent-teacher conference, your eyes shouldn’t glaze over when I mention Bloom’s taxonomy or UBD. You should have a philosophy of education, and it should be evident in your classroom. Your assessments should clearly measure your instructional objectives, and the grades you assign should be an indicator of what the student has learned, not what he has done. You should be able to defend the instructional value of everything you ask your learners to do.

You should not be ASKED to defend everything you ask your learners to do, but there are too many teachers in too many classrooms who aren’t being purposeful and intentional about their craft, and people are starting to ask what the hell is going on in the classroom because no one — including the teacher — seems to know.

I’m often amazed at the things we spend our professional development time on. We need to develop common assessments, because we’re not all on the same page when it comes to measuring student learning. We need to map our curriculum to content standards to make sure that the stuff we’re teaching is actually what we’re supposed to be teaching. We need to learn about professional learning communities, because working collaboratively to provide the best learning environment that we can for students is not something we already know how to do.

It seems like we’re constantly pulling science teachers together to teach them how to teach science. And we have to have a meeting of social studies teachers to go over the new social studies standards. And we need to work on differentiating instruction, because it turns out that our students don’t all learn the same way. And we need a model for intervention, so we’re not totally lost when our students don’t learn something the first time. And now you’re telling me that you want me to use something new and high-tech like the Internet as part of my instructional practice? That’s just going too far.

I think that many objective people looking at professional development schedules and topics might wonder what it is that these professionals are experts in. And they do have a point.

Be the professional you want others to see in you. Dress like a professional. Be organized and prepared and on time. Articulate your ideas clearly. Get rid of the cute fonts that keep people from taking you seriously. Know how to write in complete sentences that have subjects and predicates and verbs that agree and words that are spelled correctly. Use apostrophes and quotation marks where they belong.

Think of any two colleagues. Do you have their names in your mind? One of the three of you really needs to work on your written expression skills. If it’s not immediately apparent which of you it is, it’s probably you. If you need a refresher on basic grammar, ask any third grade teacher or any freshman English teacher to look at your writing. And for God’s sake, proofread your work if it’s going to be read by more than one person. I know you’re in a hurry. It’s worth the extra five minutes to make sure you look like you’re literate.

Be clear in your expectations. Most parents and students want to know one thing: how do I get a good grade in this class? You can eschew grades and assessment all you want, and that’s probably a very good thing. You can have the kids do projects and collaborate and work on activities that demonstrate their learning in all kinds of unique and innovative ways. You can motivate some of your learners to have a passion for the subject of your class, and they’ll do anything for you. But for most, it’s about the grade. If you tell them how to get the grade, and you’re fair about it, things will be much easier for you.

That doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your philosophy of education. It doesn’t mean that you have to compromize your principles or give up on common assessments. But it does mean that you should set reasonable expectations for your students, clearly articulate them, and hold students accountable for them.

One last thing: care. Care about your students. Care about your school. Care about education. This is a noble profession. You’re passing along our civilization, our culture, to the next generation. That’s important work. Take it serously. Love the kids. Prepare them for the world we’re leaving them. And people will treat you like the professional you are.

Photo credit: on Flickr


Best Bits from the Notebook

About a year ago, I started carrying around an old-fashioned paper notebook. Whenever the mood strikes me, I jot down notes and ideas in it. They’re generally not very well reasoned. Sometimes, they’re little diagrams or lists or mind maps. Occasionally, they turn into blog posts or other work.

5184351_3f066991ae_d[1]This low-tech solution allows me to focus on the idea at hand without the distractions of software and devices and connectivity and batteries. All I need is a pen. I pulled the notebook out at EdCamp Columbus and described it as my most valuable piece of educational technology. The remark got a laugh, but I was at least partially serious.

Looking back at the last year of notes, there are a few things that stand out. None of these are really developed enough to be blog posts on their own, but they’re worth sharing nonetheless:

Innovation and collaboration may be mutually exclusive.
One of my least favorite questions is “what are other schools doing?” If we’re going to be innovators, if we’re going to be leaders, then it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing. We’ve moved beyond middle school, and we are immune to peer pressure. We’re thinking so far outside the box that we’re not even going to use that metaphor. But if we are collaborators, we are working together for the benefit of all. That means we’re participating in PLNs and PLCs, we’re sharing best practices, and we’re learning from one another. So it DOES matter what others are doing. But somehow, suddenly, we’re not innovators anymore.

Learning is like old maid.
When you learn something new, it’s like picking the old maid card. You just CAN’T WAIT for someone to take it from you, to share your new knowledge or skill with others. Twitter is good for that, by the way.

Education is about relationships.
This came out of Educon last year, and I did end up blogging about it. Looking back at the notebook, though, it is striking to see in my notes how every single conversation about effective schools came back to fostering a culture of caring. We don’t do enough of that.

Learning is separate from validation.
Our schools are focused almost entirely on grades. That became very clear this year when I attended my first high school open house as a parent. Every teacher was there to explain how to get a good grade. They outlined grading policies, grade components, projects and tests and quizzes and participation grades and every other factor that makes up the letter that summarizes the student’s experience in the class. Almost no one talked about learning. Almost no one cares about the learning. Do what you’re told, and you’ll get the grade you want. In an ideal world, the grade a student earns reflects the student’s achievement of the instructional objectives of the course. But that correlation is rarely very strong.

Taking it a step further, I often mis-quote Paul Simon: “when I think back on all the crap I learned in grad school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Most of my schooling beyond, say, ninth grade is largely irrelevant to me. But I had to have the credentials to get where I am today. I had to have the diploma, the degrees, and the grades to get the job and keep the job. But there’s a huge disconnect between those credentials and the learning they are purported to represent. And there’s an even bigger disconnect between that learning and the knowledge and skills I need to be a successful contributor to our global society.

How do you apply UBD to a career?
I don’t know where that came from. It was on its own page, all by itself, just like that. I think I wrote that down at the NEOTech conference last spring. Can we even think on that kind of scale in a UBD framework? What is the end that I should have in mind? Even if I could articulate it, would it even be possible to come up with something that’s relevant over a 40 year time period? One of my biggest fears in my role is that I’m going to be so focused on achieving long term goals that I won’t see that they don’t make any sense anymore. Goals are good, but goals are always changing.

We have nothing but time, but we need more time.
I’m sick of hearing about all the time we don’t have. I think back to something a teacher told me back when I was in high school: We have 180 school days per year. We have two teacher report days. That makes 182 days per year. That means we have 183 days OFF. Her point is that we only work half of the days in the year, and have to give the job 100% every one of those days. Now, teachers in my schools are working 186 days, but they still have 179 days off. Still, after 10 weeks off from mid-June to mid-August, it never fails that someone will come up to me on Convocation Day and tell me how short their summer was. I don’t think we need to work 260 days per year, but everyone in the schools should probably be working 225-230 days. And students should be in session for 200 of those. Think of all of the planning, curriculum development, common assessments, and professional development that could be accomplished with that time.

Constraints are valuable.
It shows up several times in the notebook, and if I had used a notebook in the past, it would be in the 2012 and 2011 notebooks, too. We can be paralyzed by choice. Constraints can be a good thing. They encourage us to be more creative, more innovative. 140 characters is a good constraint. It forces me to be succinct on Twitter. Here on the blog, I don’t have those constraints, and sometimes ramble on for thousands of words. The iPad doesn’t support Flash. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. We can’t run Accelerated Reader in Windows 7. So maybe it’s time to try a different approach. Chromebooks can’t print. Hallelujah. Sometimes, we need more limits.

Another one of my least-favorite questions is any one that starts with “is it possible…” The answer, always, is “yes.” It’s possible. It may not be practical, but we can do anything we decide to do if there are no limits on time or resources. But sometimes, it’s good to say no. We’re not going to do that. It doesn’t make sense to do that. In shorthand, we’ll say we can’t do that. We need more constraints.

So there you have it. I never said the notebook was worth reading, but occasionally, there’s an idea in there worth talking about.

Photo Credit: Paul Watson via Compfight cc