Get in the Fracas
In less than twelve minutes, National Board Certified Teacher and author Roxanna Elden with humor and candor distills the crucible facing new teachers and their students. I’ve embedded the video below; it’s an extremely worthwhile watch.
Within the TED-style talk, Elden mentions her book See Me After Class, which I’ve read and can attest is a must-have for any new and prospective teachers. She facetiously refers to it as “Hard Liquor for the Teacher’s Soul.”
Anyway, Elden, a Miami high school teacher who just finished her tenth year in the classroom, is one to watch. My favorite line in her speech: "...New teachers propping themselves up on energy drinks and constantly measuring themselves against a fictional [superteacher] character are a lot more likely to make avoidable mistakes."
We need more teachers with her communication skills. Here is the video:
I’m reading Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson. The book envisions a future for education dominated by personalized, computer-based learning. I have issues with some of their conclusions— especially since much of their thesis rests on an unquestioning acceptance of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences— but midway through the book I was thunderstruck. They may have hit on the best shortcut to closing the achievement gap I’ve heard of.
I’ll explain. After five chapters heavy with examples from the business world that the authors want to import into education, the book takes a left turn in Chapter Six, the shortest chapter in the book, titled, “The Impact of the Earliest Years on Students’ Success.”
Most reformers are toiling away in the realm of K-12, but the authors pause to remind us, “[A] rather stunning body of research is emerging that suggests that starting these reforms at kindergarten, let alone in elementary, middle, or high school, is far too late. By some estimates, 98 percent of education spending occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined.”
The authors, however, reject an expansion of early learning programs like Head Start. They think there is no substitute for a parent who will provide many hundred of hours of one-on-one talk with the child. So, if parents— especially ones of lower-income children on the unhappy end of the achievement gap— aren’t providing this crucial individualized support for language development, what gives?
Christensen, Horn, and Johnson point to the epochal research of Todd Risley and Betty Hart, which compellingly shows a direct correlation between a child’s IQ and their scholastic achievement with the amount of “extra talk” and “language dancing” a child experiences between birth and age three. Extra talk and language dancing are is described as being “engaged face to face with the infant and speak[ing] in a fully adult, sophisticated, chatty language— as if the infant were listening, comprehending, and fully responding to the comments.”
The volume of extra talk and language dancing makes all the difference in setting up a child for academic success and confidence, or academic struggles and negative attitudes toward school. Risley and Hart argue that class and race don’t impact IQ— it’s all about the extra talk and language dancing before age three do.
The authors of Disrupting Class propose teaching Risley and Hart’s breakthrough findings to high school students. They argue, “Rather than funding programs that hire people to substitute for parents who aren’t succeeding at preschool talk, quite possibly we might have greater impact if we taught children how to be parents before they become parents."
It’s a stirring idea. The essence of Risley and Hart’s work— talking to babies is so SO important— should be as universally known and understood as the facts in drivers’ ed class.
The authors elaborate: “[High] school might be the placeto teach courses that conveyed the methods of early cognitive development to tomorrow’s parents… Young, single, inner-city mothers who otherwise would be trapped with their children in the multigenerational cycle of educational underachievement and poverty certainly would benefit from knowing how to shapre their early interactions with their children to help them succeed in school. It would also likely help professional couples… [who are] often so anxious to get back to their careers that they hand their babies prematurely to caregivers whose responsibilities for multiple children give them little bandwidth for [extra talk and language dancing].”
Risley and Hart's findings are detailed in their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, originally released in 1995. I'm adding it to my summer reading list. Maybe the rest of the USA won't be far behind.
I’ve been asked a handful of times recently if I recommend for someone to enter teaching through alternative certification program. It’s a tricky question.
I’ve been through both of the main induction models into teaching. First I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows alternative certification program and endured a chaotic rookie experience in the Bronx; later I earned a master’s degree at Teachers College, Columbia University in a program based on taking time on learning the craft.
With that perspective I feel it’s important to trumpet the crucial benefits of a teacher preparation program that includes significant time for apprentice-teaching. For me, this was the master’s program, but it also applies to residency programs as well, where teachers learn the craft for a year or more before assuming full responsibility for a classroom of vulnerable young people.
So when someone eagerly inquires about Teach For America or some other alt-cert program, I usually respond with a grimace and lay out the pros and cons.
- You jump right into the classroom, instantly fulfilling your desire for having an important and meaningful job. Then you can jump out after a couple years with minimal guilt since that’s essentially the expectation.
- You immediately begin earning a paycheck and do not have to go into debt.
- You might end up in a school with great administration or great colleagues who, over time, can support your growth toward becoming an effective teacher.
- You won’t know what you are doing for a long time, which will create constant stress. You’ll struggle to get through each day, and you’ll feel like you are letting down your charges, which— real talk here— you probably are. This frazzled feeling will dominate your life. You’ll reach for the rationalizing salve of the alternative certification program’s raison d’etre— no one else would take this job, so there’s no one better than you waiting in the wings. It provides cold comfort.
- You might end up in a school with a hostile climate among adults.
- You’re not setting yourself up to last in the teaching profession.
I think alternative certification should exist solely out of necessity. Despite its bringing in altruistic doers— some of whom stay in the profession— the proliferation of this trial by fire model makes it harder to boost the standing of teaching as a profession. Indeed, in America no other serious profession (think medicine, law, accounting) would hand off massive responsibilities to a rookie with essentially no practical training.
But if you can’t take on that grad school debt… and you need to earn a paycheck… and you just want to give it a shot… well…
I spent time over the weekend with a recent graduate from an Ivy League university. He’s a brilliant, articulate, cosmopolitan guy who I am confident will rise to the top of his field (international relations). We started to talk about teaching— particularly Teach For America (TFA), which several of his peers were joining— and I started to get upset.
“Isn’t it a good idea to get the top people in there?” he asked, echoing a compelling talking point.
My condensed answer: TFA recruits aren’t the top people because they don’t have quality training. They could be the top people if they worked at becoming experts in the craft of teaching, which takes time, but since they haven’t done that at the beginning, they don’t yet qualify to be top people.
Success as a student and success as a teacher are extremely different things. As a student, you control almost all of your variables. As a new teacher, you need to get the most out of twenty-five or thirty other people, all of whom are unique individuals in a community that you don’t deeply understand since you haven’t been a part of it. You have to understand a range of pedagogical strategies, you have to be an expert on the curriculum, and you have to master the delicate balancing act of managing the classroom.
Teaching is a professional craft. Thinking that any high-scoring college student could come in and excel demeans it as a profession. No one would consider letting smart English majors perform surgery on low-income patients, or allowing cum laude math majors to do legal work for poor clients. Also, would you want to have been taught your whole career by rookies who didn’t study education and had no training? Would you consider them “top people” for the job?
I worried that I was starting to sound shrill and cut myself off. Indeed, TFA-ers are no one’s enemy. They are idealistic graduates who want to help for a few years. The market for them exists due to a shortage of highly qualified teachers.
The talk turned to other high-stress professions. Another member of the conversation mentioned oncology, a field with a built-in reservoir of disappointing outcomes.
He said, “I guess in that job you just need to tell yourself that you’ve done everything you can and you can’t take it too much to heart when someone dies.”
Again, I bristled at his well-meaning statement. (Jerome Groopman’s brilliant book How Doctors Think is still fresh in my mind.) No, I thought. Doctors can harm their patients. Indeed, they will make wrong calls on treatment and some of those decisions will have catastrophic consequences. Subscribing wholesale to the palliative there-was-nothing-I-could-do is a cop-out. Reflective doctors will realize those mistakes, learn from them, and become better.
There is a straight line here to teaching. Teachers, particularly inexperienced ones, can do harm. Like a doctor, a teacher does not provide either a positive or neutral experience his charges. Teachers can hold kids back in their development, whether by bad decisions, lack of craft knowledge, or inability to provide the attention a student needs. It doesn’t take malicious intent to hurt someone. The important thing is taking on the hard work to become better.
Efforts are being made to elevate teaching as a profession; the U.S. Department of Education’s RESPECT Project is one important example. My conversation with the Ivy League graduate clarified to me how far we need to go as a society in recognizing teaching as a true professional craft.
Stuffing under-prepared rookies’ ears with confidence and sending them into the fray doesn’t have a net neutral impact on our students or our national conversation on education.
Teachers make an uncountable number of decisions. Many of those decisions relate to how hard to push our students and how much leeway to grant those that don’t conform to expectations.
Here’s a scenario related to behavior management: You are a 10th grade science teacher. In the middle of a final exam review session, a student calls out a profanity about how much she hates math. The entire class erupts in laughter. What do you do? Consider the following options and possibilities:
- Pause the class to deal to speak to her or calm everyone down and plow ahead with the crucial review session?
- Eject her from the classroom?
- What if she is part of a team scheduled to deliver a presentation in ten minutes and her presence is needed for the group to proceed?
- What if she uses the f-word? What if she uses a curse word that is less intense than the f-word?
- What if she immediately shows contrition? What if she has been sweet to you all year and at times helps you carry things to your car after school?
- What if she enters the classroom every day with a surly attitude, ignoring your “good morning”?
Do students that you like a lot receive more flexibility and forgiveness that ones you like less? Or, conversely, do oppositional students receive get more leeway because you’d rather not face the rigmarole of trying to hold them accountable when you know they’ll argue their side to the bitter end?
I’m betting that the sweet student— let’s call her Jane— who has helped you out and always has a smile for you in the hall would be much more likely to receive a sympathetic grimace, a back pat, and some variation of “I know you’re frustrated, but let’s have a heart-to-heart about how handle that frustration appropriately.”
The pissed-off kid— we’ll call her Sally— who has treated you with disdain all year would likely receive moral outrage for an egregious outburst, ejection from the classroom, and a disciplinary write-up.
With this approach, have we done our best by Sweet Jane, Surly Sally, or any of their watching classmates? Are they all getting what they need to put them in the best position to be successful?
I’m hoping my two-year-old daughter Sadie will be a diligent, kind student. I’m also hoping that any teacher would rain disciplinary fire down on her for a profane outburst in the middle of class. I don’t want them to dismiss any shortcomings or failures because overall she is a goodie. That’s just not acceptable and it could manifest in negative long-term consequences.
There is a corollary for this in medicine, and it’s known as “affective error.” I’m currently reading Jerome Groopman’s brilliant book How Doctors Think and he describes it:
We all tend to prefer what we hope will happen to the less appealing alternatives; this natural tendency is termed “affective error.” We also lull ourselves into thinking that what we wish for will occur when we get the first inkling, however fragmentary, that our wish may come true. In short, we value too highly information that fulfills our desires.
Doctors may go easy on patients that they like, sparing them uncomfortable or invasive tests— unwittingly opening the door to the possibility of a devastating missed diagnosis. I think teachers do the same, too often providing personable students with a mulligan that may avoid a tense moment but doesn’t help them learn and grow.
One doctor in Groopman’s book expresses his regret after realizing just such an error: “I kicked myself over and over again. I just didn’t want to subject someone of this age, whom I liked so much, to the discomfort and the strain of the procedure. And because of that, I missed the diagnosis.”
The teaching profession is in the early stages of a massive overhaul, and many advocates are looking to the medical profession for a model of how to improve the quality and respect for teachers.
- A physician receives at least six, and preferably eight, years of post-secondary formal instruction, nearly always in a university setting;
- Medical training adheres closely to the scientific method and is thoroughly grounded in human physiology and biochemistry. Medical research adheres fully to the protocols of scientific research;
- Average physician quality has increased significantly;
- No medical school can be created without the permission of the state government. Likewise, the size of existing medical schools is subject to state regulation;
- Each state branch of the American Medical Association has oversight over the conventional medical schools located within the state;
- Medicine in the USA and Canada becomes a highly paid and well-respected profession.
Teaching could certainly use such an upgrade. Indeed, in the past two years the teaching profession has been handed several would-be Flexner Reports. Will any of them break through? Over my next several posts I will examine the recommendations and feasibility of three aspiring Flexners:
- From the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE): Blue Ribbon Panel on Clinical Preparation and Partnerships for Improved Student Learning
- From NEA: Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning
- From the U.S. Department of Education: The RESPECT Project: Envisioning a Teaching Profession for the 21st Century
I’ll also examine key similarities and differences between the medical and teaching professions, including ideas about how one can learn from the others.
Do you think modern medicine provides a useful model for revamping the teaching profession? Comments are most welcome.
The longer I work with 11th and 12th graders (this is my 5th year), the clearer it becomes to me that education really begins when a child is in the womb-- or even before. Lost time is rarely made up.
Each year a few of the 17-year-olds I teach light up in our English class and say some variation of: "This is the first book that I actually read!" It's intended as a positive comment, but I quietly take it as a crushing reminder of the collateral damage done by years of not reading and not learning--- a pattern that starts at home. In my experience, the students who say that tend to write in fragmented English, struggle to self-advocate effectively, and do not envision for themselves a realistic long-term path to stability in their professional and personal lives. It’s not what anyone wants for his or her kid.
The solution is to start early. Last week at a panel discussion for Teachers College alumni on social entrepreneurship, I listened to 85-year-old Ruth Lubic, the first nurse to be a MacArthur “genius” grantee, who blew me away with her story of founding the Developing Families Center (DFC) in Washington, D.C.
Lubic is a midwife who in the 1980s launched a groundbreaking birth center in the Bronx, then moved to D.C. where the infant mortality rate was the worst in the nation. Her center is described in its literature as “a comprehensive, one-stop service center for childbearing and childrearing services.”
It’s a dizzying feat of bureaucratic synergy in the name of quality care for low-income African American families. Under one roof, the DFC offers services to families from pregnancy through toddlerhood via the Family Health and Birth Center, the Healthy Babies Project, and the United Planning Organization Early Childhood Development Center— funded by Early Head Start, Medicaid, private donors, and other federal programs.
Earlier this year, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius chose the DFC as the location for launching a new Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation initiative: Strong Start for Mothers and Newborns.
There is a fantastic (though un-embeddable) video on the nonprofit’s website here.
At the panel discussion, Ruth was asked why, with such a successful program, DFS hasn’t expanded to more locations. The answer was money. “I keep hoping Gates will notice,” she said.
I hope so too. The Developing Families Center is a sustainable, brilliant long-term investment in stronger families, higher academic achievement, more competitive American workers, less crime, and good karma… and fewer low-skilled seventeen-year-olds exclaiming that they just finished their first book.
Last week, 50 employees— mostly senior staff— of the U.S. Department of Education spent their Wednesday shadowing teachers in D.C.-area schools. “ED Goes Back to School” is the first program that I know of in which senior policymakers systematically spend quality one-on-one time in teachers’ shoes. I think it’s brilliant; this type of program can and should be replicated in states and districts across the country.
A National Board Certified colleague of mine, Topher Kandik, played host to Jo Anderson, Senior Advisor to the Secretary, and I was able to attend the culminating share-out session at ED headquarters where the fifty teachers and ED staff effused about the day. Secretary Duncan sat at the head of the table alongside the mastermind of the event, Bronx middle-school teacher and current Teaching Ambassador Fellow Genevieve DeBose.
At the share-out session, the ED staff members seemed riveted by the everyday joys, drama, and occasional heartache that accompany close contact with students. They had fun. One did the “fraction shuffle” dance with elementary schoolers; another spoke movingly about witnessing a vulnerable student in a rambunctious class take a risk and attempt to participate— only to be ignored by the deluge of disruption. One senior staff member spoke with surprise about how teachers in a faculty meeting were talked to regarding final preparation for state exams. She didn’t elaborate on what was said at the meeting, be she did claim that the experience altered her thinking on how she will approach the issue of testing from now on.
I felt a consensus in the room that teaching is highly complex art and science, and that well-prepared teachers have the ability to do great things with students when the conditions are right. ED’s job is to improve those conditions. That may sound like a talking point, but it is a critical goal, now made more tangible to policymakers by the experiences and personal connections of the day.
When Secretary Duncan offered the teachers carte blanche to tell him what ED should be doing to support their work, there was a brief pregnant pause. Then a teacher from Washington, D.C.’s Ballou High School, openly acknowledged as one of the roughest schools in the city, asked for understanding that struggling schools are not populated by uncaring, incompetent faculty, and that it’s important for the Secretary to clarify that when he speaks.
A biotechnology teacher from McKinley Tech spoke passionately about the importance of de-stigmatizing career and technical education— it’s not just wood shop anymore. Though it wasn’t mentioned in follow-up comments, ED is on top of this issue right now, having just released an impressive “Blueprint for Transforming Career and Technical Education.”
There were several calls from ED staff to make this a more frequently available opportunity— perhaps even quarterly. The program makes perfect sense. Policymakers and practicing teachers should be in constant dialogue, regularly visiting each other’s spheres. Isolation weakens and thoughtful collaboration strengthens. Hats off to ED for this one.
Do you know of any related walk-in-a-teacher’s-shoes programs? Please comment!
The following post was written by an extra-special guest blogger and thirty-four-year veteran teacher: my mom, Marcia Brown.
Co-teaching Shakespeare to second-graders stands out as the highlight of my thirty-four-year career as a public school reading specialist. For the five years before I retired in 2005, I supported teachers and students in our study of the Bard, a journey that led us to intriguing discoveries daily. So when a former colleague (let’s call her Olivia) asked if I would help her develop a second-grade Shakespeare curriculum in her new school, I responded with an emphatic “Yes!”
Olivia is the teacher we all want for our children. A gifted artist, she is gentle, kind, funny, and passionately concerned about each of her students. Some veteran teachers tend to resist innovation, but she continues to enthusiastically expand her knowledge and practices in the interest of her pupils.
Olivia and I had collaborated eight years ago when she invited me into her classroom, and together we guided the children through an interactive, age-appropriate study of Shakespeare, culminating in the students rewriting and performing their version of Twelfth Night, a smashing success! Every single child was joyfully engaged in learning, while meeting the requisite grade level language arts standards and benchmarks. These students would not be daunted by Shakespeare in high school, since they considered him a friend.
Olivia and I were thrilled to be teaching partners again, introducing her second-graders to Shakespeare. Her grant proposal approved and with the principal’s permission, she purchased sets of books from the Shakespeare Can Be Fun series by Lois Burdett (Firefly Books) for the three classes. Internationally praised, Burdett has written Shakespeare’s biography and many of his plays in rhyming couplets for readers as young as seven years.
School policy demands that every class at the same grade level follow the identical curriculum. It might have been wiser for Olivia’s class to pilot the program. Instead, we gave each of the other two 2nd grade teachers a detailed unit design with daily lesson plans. Without having taught Shakespeare before and without collaborative time or an experienced co-teacher, they would have to embrace the challenge in order to succeed.
For me, being welcomed into Olivia’s vibrant, dynamic classroom was a gift. Hooked immediately, the children responded to Lois Burdett’s A Child’s Portrait of Shakespeare by putting themselves into a character’s “skin” and either writing in their Shakespeare notebooks or role-playing short skits. We developed a rubric to assess the content and language/style of their writing. We also modeled how figurative language, especially similes and metaphors, would enrich their descriptions. Their first entries lacked cohesion and detail, but I knew from experience we would witness dramatic improvement over the course of the 9-week unit.
Shakespeare works like magic every time! The students ate up the story of his life, as well as many aspects of Elizabethan times—dame and grammar schools, the recurrent Bubonic plague, Queen Elizabeth I, London Bridge, history of plays from traveling players to the Globe Theater… Parents quickly got involved too, because their children were coming home bubbling over with enthusiasm for Shakespeare and begging to go to the library. Each time I came into the classroom, children wanted to share the stories their parents read to them—I assume they were child-friendly versions, such as Bruce Coville’s beautiful picture books of Romeo and Juliet, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth. One delightful child proudly showed off the Shakespeare book she wrote and illustrated at home—complete with questions for her readers. She keeps adding chapters to her book as she learns more. And this all happened in the first three weeks of our unit!
One parent wrote to Olivia:
Sam is going to miss school again tomorrow, since he still has a high fever. He is very talkative when he has a fever and he has been talking nonstop about Shakespeare and English history. He absolutely loves learning aboutthis subject matter. He had to get extra books about Shakespeare from the library because he is so interested in learning about him. His main worry is that his classmates are going to know more about Shakespeare than he is because he is missing school.
Then, as Hamlet might have said, came “the rub.” In the middle of planning our gala 448th birthday celebration for Shakespeare on April 23rd , the principal made an executive decision to cut short the Shakespeare study by four weeks and replace it with an animal unit. She was underwhelmed by the students’ first writing samples and opted to pull the plug. There would be no grand culminating performance for these children.
In an email to me, Olivia wrote:
Everyone is sad for me (they don’t understand how sad it is for the kids).
In an age when teacher accountability for student learning is the centerpiece for discussions about education, where is the accountability for a system that values a passive, teacher-directed curriculum over authentic, performance-based learning where students have opportunities that they remember forever?
Attempting to make her principal understand how valuable the Shakespeare unit is to her students, Olivia forwarded Sam’s mom’s email. The principal responded with one word:
And that is how to extinguish the excitement and joy of learning… in one easy lesson.
Ever been to a “prep” rally? It will be hard to top the one at Jennings High School in Jennings, Missouri where earlier this month teachers pumped up their students to take the EOC (End of Course) tests with a hip hop video.
The 4 minutes of rapping educators has gone viral. Check it out:
What do you think: is this brilliant and motivating? Sad misallocation of energy and resources? Harmless fun? Superficial noise? Teachers authentically connecting with students? Something else?
Your comments are welcome.