28 March 2015

What's Your Why?

I spent last weekend at the ASCD annual conference---my fifth one. They are a blur of conversations, learning, laughter, and vendor-dodging. I look forward to these moments all year. They are my opportunity to visit with friends I only see once a year and build connections that make my work at home that much more rich.

At one of the presentations, a student teacher group asked the audience, What's your why? For me, this was a great frame for the conference.

My "why" is different now than when I was a student teacher---when I was sure I could change the world. Robyn Jackson told a story during her presentation about when she was about to be a first year teacher. She was convinced that she was only months away from a book or movie deal. After all, isn't that what happens? An enthusiastic young teacher enters a classroom for the first time and transforms the system? (I don't know about you, but I've seen that movie many times.) While Dr. Jackson has had her own journey in the educational world, you know when you meet her that she has not lost her why...her passion for students and learning...her belief that she can make a difference, even if she never has that movie deal.

There was a fabulous keynote speaker: Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise. Speaking on how we develop our sense of perseverence, Dr. Lewis was resolute in the passion of her message and beliefs. Failure is neither an end or beginning, it is just part of the journey. It is part of how we develop our why. I am most anxious to read her book. I also recommend her TED talk.

The conference had a different feel this year and I believe that it was due to a more balanced approach to what was offered. It seemed like last year (and the year before) were way too heavy on edtech sessions. The great thing about a large conference like this is that it's an opportunity to learn things you might never run across in your day-to-day world...and sessions that focus on what a Twitter hashtag is dumb down the overall experience. Edtech has had its day in the sun and now it's time to let the grownups talk for awhile. Anyway, this year, most of the sessions were geared toward elevating our conversation in education. Lots more sessions with a focus on social justice, helping students create meaning, and supporting principals in their work. The quality of the why was increased tremendously this year.

This was the first year that I've attended the conference with several other people from my district. Many were first-timers at the conference, and their "why" was focused on seeing as many big names as possible. (I remember doing that, too, at my second conference.) It was a good opportunity for them to reflect on their current goals and hopes while listening to experts talk about their own vision. An annual conference is a good opportunity to consider the state of your why.

As for me? My why continues to evolve. I have had a grand love affair with my new job this year, even though it exhausts and challenges me relentlessly. Being around 9000 others who use the conference to recommit to the critical work we do with students is both energizing and reaffirming. I have no doubt that all of our whys are different, but I don't believe that matters. It's the collective voice and synergy that make public education as rich as it is.

I came home with some new ideas, a few books to read, and other ideas to share. Look for some new posts in the coming weeks that follow up on these ideas.

23 February 2015

Help Wanted

I can't speak for what's happening everywhere, but here the economy is much better than it was a few years ago. People who needed jobs as substitute teachers in 2010 don't need them now. If you have a degree and some experience, you've got a permanent position somewhere---perhaps not even in education.

But our need for qualified teachers, paraeducators, and other support is greater than ever.

We're not the only district experiencing a sub shortage at the moment. And while we can kick around some possible solutions, in the interim it's really hurting professional development opportunities for teachers.

Voters in our state recently passed an initiative to reduce class-sizes. It's a feel-good sort of thing. People like the idea of more personalized attention for students...never mind that the research shows that it's ineffective in all but a few situations. Voters didn't really think the whole thing through. Where are we supposed to get all these teachers---many districts can't fill the positions they already have? Where are all these classrooms going to come from? Most schools don't have the physical space to create dozens of new classrooms. Supplies for all the new classrooms? Are voters going to open their pockets to fund those, too?

I was just reading about a proposal for more STEM-related summer activities and learning for students in grades 5 - 12. Love the idea...and my first thought was "Who will lead it?" There aren't enough teachers to go around---not when you factor in all of the workshops and other professional learning that happens in the summer...let alone the need to recharge for another year.

So to sum up: not enough subs...not enough teachers to staff schools...not enough other adults to support additional programming. If you've been thinking about a career in education (or just a move to Washington state), now's your chance. We have good jobs for you.

But we need to think long-term, as well. Maybe it's about money...but I'm not so sure. Higher pay may well attract people that wouldn't have originally thought about being in the classroom. Maybe we need to think about diversifying the pathways that lead to the classroom. Perhaps it's about better support---adding apprenticeships or other extended learning that help new teachers feel ready to step into their own classrooms.

What are your solutions to the "help wanted" issues in education?

20 February 2015

Because I'm Bad, So Bad, You Know It

Here are a few reasons I regularly hear or see about why students have a low score on a state test:
  1. The kid was having a bad day.
  2. It's a bad test.
  3. The kid is bad at taking tests.
The first one is possible, but I rarely put any stock in it. Why? Because not once have I heard the opposite reason given for a good score. "Wow! That kid passed the test. He must have been having a great day." It's understandable that we get disappointed when students perform well---especially when we have been beside them every day and have seen all the progress they've made. Makes it all the more important to celebrate the successes we have. One score does not define a student or a teacher. But we shouldn't dismiss it based solely upon Chance, either. If we're not willing to say that the scores we like were only attributed by good days, we can't toss the others to bad ones.

As for the second, I'm willing to believe it far more for a teacher made test than a large-scale version. Why? Most teachers have had no formal training in assessment. I've seen plenty of poorly developed items and poorly constructed tests at the classroom level---including my own. For a lot of my classroom career, I would not have been able to tell you whether or not an item was good---Did it measure what I wanted it to measure? Was it free from bias? Was the content accurate? Did the analysis of the student responses support the goal of the whole assessment? Bad tests exist. But they are not the ones your state is using to measure student learning. Don't like the way the results are used? That's a whole different discussion.

The last reason is similar to the first in that it does exist...but very rarely. In my classroom career, I only ran across one student who was truly terrible with tests. She was in an AP class and could answer nearly any question I asked her in a conversation. On paper---even with the benefit of her textbook and all of her notes, labs, and assignments---she couldn't pick the right answer. She is the only student I ever discouraged from taking the AP test. I tried coaching her all year...we went over questions and talked about the thinking involved with answering them...but we just couldn't get her enough strategies to make it work. So, she was one out of thousands that I could truly say number 3 fit. As for the rest, I rarely made a concerted effort at "test prep." I did work with students on metacognition---being aware of how they were making choices with questions. But the most important thing to do was focus on content and teach to the standards.

Lots of people---both in and out of the classroom---don't like large-scale testing. I'm not one of them, as unpopular as it might be to say so. But then, I've had the benefit of being involved with writing items, test builds, scoring sessions, rangefinding, and more. I've seen the entire sausage get made. However, I don't like how the scores from these tests get used---for graduation requirements, student placement, teacher evaluation, and other uses for which the tests were never intended. But we can't disconnect those from testing by attacking the tests themselves with arguments about them being bad.

18 February 2015

Rookie Card

I had a principal tell me this year that the ID badge of all new employees should have a big "R" on it for "rookie." And when you were faced with an awkward situation or made a misstep, you could pull out your rookie card and ask for forgiveness. I think this is a brilliant idea.

I have been a rookie at several points during my career---from the very first day in the classroom, to new buildings, grades, courses, and roles. I am beginning to be "a woman of a certain age," meaning that by this point, others are expecting me to be settled down into a career...and competing with younger (less expensive) workers is going to be an increasing challenge. But it also means that I'm not bothered by change anymore. I'm too old to let that get in the way of what I need to do. I know it's a waste of energy to worry about it.

I can't claim, that it gets easier. It's hard to start all over with a new job in a new district. It's humbling to continually admit that you don't know the answers (yet) and build relationships when you don't know all of the back stories. I will say, however, that this has been the nicest transition I've ever made. It makes all the difference to be surrounded by people that care about doing the best job that they can and who appreciate what I can offer and bring to the district.

I told someone recently that I had forgotten that people could say nice things. It's not that my previous job was awful or that there weren't good people to work with. But it had been such a long time since anyone cared about what I had to say or had an interest in new ideas. I feel valued as a person and as an educator. My work days are long and I have more to do than ever before...and yet I wake up every morning and can't wait to get to work. That feeling, too, had been long forgotten.

The rookie card is an awkward one. On one hand, it screams inexperience...and on the other, it asks for empathy. I only have six more months to use mine, although I feel the need to play it less and less. I may be turning into an old lady, but I also feel more confident, more needed, and more ready to help teachers and students than ever before. I'll be ready to flaunt my pro status.

16 February 2015

Getting Along

I've been thinking about this slide a lot. I have used it for almost a year now when talking about systems for data use. The start is the teacher/classroom. Teachers collect a lot of data--attendance, grades, etc. that they need to use on a very short timeline---they have to make (tactical) decisions about the work they'll do with students the very next day. However, they aren't the only users for this data. Conversations may happen at the PLC level (department) when teachers share student information. Schools and districts look at similar data, but on a longer timeline (quarterly or annually). They look for trends and patterns across buildings or grade levels. As we continue to aggregate data outward, we end up representing a lot of teachers and a very long timeline. Some things, like the Civil Rights Data Collection only happen every other year. Election cycles can further drive when strategic planning for education occurs. Different methods of data collection (school information systems vs. state/federal databases) also add a layer of challenges.

At the end of the day, this image is about communication...or the lack thereof. I can picture a teacher looking up through all those layers of the system and being exasperated that s/he isn't being heard. "Don't they understand what I'm going through down here?" And I can also imagine someone sitting atop the federal level saying to the teacher "Don't you understand that this is bigger than just you?" The truth is they're both right. It's public education---and everyone gets a say, whether you like what they have to say or not. Someone in a leadership position who doesn't share your point of view shouldn't automatically be labeled a bad leader. If anything, it's a chance to find out what they know that you don't---and also to share your information with them to round out their thinking.

I had an email this week from a teacher asking about some course title work that was happening. She referred to "the district" as if it really is an entity separate from everything else in the system. It's not. She's just as much a part of it as anyone else, even if she didn't see it that way at the moment. I tried to be careful in wording my reply---not only to put a face on "the district," as the matter in question is a project I'm leading...but also to help her think about empowering herself as part of the discussion. We're all in it together.

When I think about the data and communication pieces, I also think about this tweet from Hilary Mason:

Photo: cc-nd-nc-by Christopher Penn https://www.flickr.com/photos/financialaidpodcast/2287769216/
It's a great question. Much of the data we gather and use in the education system is about students. What does it mean to help them gain power with what we learn from the information that we have? What does it mean for a state government to help teachers gain power from the aggregated data that they collect?

I spend a lot of time thinking about my role in all of this. I'm not interested in changing the system. Over the years, I've grown to accept it as a fact of life.  Railing against other parts of the system so you can be master of your own box will get you nowhere and will only make you more frustrated and angry. Go ahead and write a bunch of blog posts about how Arne Duncan is a poopy-head because he doesn't know your classroom...but all you're really doing is confusing your job with his.

I am a mediator of sorts when it comes to data between all of the various levels. I do some of the things you might expect---looking for patterns and trying to find the signals in all of the noise we generate. I also do lots of very unsexy things---I have lots of conversations about data quality, trying to help an individual teacher understand that whether or not s/he takes attendance contributes to acts of policy at the outer levels. We can't just shake a tiny fist and claim the federal government doesn't understand when all we've provided is bad data for them to build their ideas from.We have to find ways to get along.

13 February 2015

These Are the Days of Our Lives

I thought my days as a classroom teacher were full to overflowing---working with students and colleagues, planning lessons, grading and feedback, communications with parents, school and district committees and meetings...not to mention trying to find a spare moment to use the restroom, choke down a sandwich for lunch, or pretend to have a personal life.

I can't say that working life in the district office is any different this year, although I don't bring home a head full of students every evening. Here's a snapshot from one of my days this week:

  • 6:30: Arrive at the office---a late start for me
  • 6:30 - 8:45: Eat breakfast at desk; pull data for various requests across the district; meet with support staff; check-in with colleagues and supervisor on various projects and initiatives
  • 8:45 - 9:00 Travel to meeting and check-in
  • 9:00 - 1:00: Participate in regional conversation about new assessment and technology needs and eat lunch (not at desk...for once)
  • 1:00 - 1:10: Drive back to office
  • 1:10 - 1:30: Meet with principal to discuss possible solutions for kindergartner and fourth grade attendance issues
  • 1:30 - 2:00: Meet with superintendent to review materials for board meeting presentation
  • 2:00 - 3:00: Meet with community partner about data project connecting student needs with community resources
  • 3:00 - 3:45: Prepare for next meeting about mentorship opportunity for CTE students
  • 3:45 - 4:00: Travel to meeting
  • 4:00 - 5:00: Mentorship meeting...last chance to clean up details before March 5 event
  • 5:00 - 5:30: Travel back to office and pick up dinner
  • 5:30 - 6:45: Eat dinner at desk while catching up on paperwork, filing, and email; pretend to work on upcoming ASCD presentation; pull files and pack bag with information for tomorrow morning's first meeting away from the office
  • 6:45 - 7:00: Set up for school board meeting presentation
  • 7:00 - 7:45: Attend and present at board meeting; respond to questions
  • 7:45 - 8:00: Travel home
  • 8:00 - 9:00: Talk to colleague about upcoming work
  • 9:00: Get ready for bed...next meeting is at 7:30 a.m.
I won't claim that such a schedule happens every day, but more often than not, I'm in my office from 6'ish a.m. to 5 p.m., much of that time occupied by meetings or other needs driven by others. But it is also a job where people appreciate my thinking and what I can offer in terms of skill and knowledge. I am needed...and I also have the authority and responsibility to support change. This makes all the difference.

It is the craziest job I have ever held in education. It is busy and loud and lived on the run...and I absolutely love it with all my heart. I drop down exhausted into bed every night with a smile on my face. I am working harder than I ever have for any other job, but with only 10% of the stress.

I have given up on feeling guilty about not having enough time for other things. Obviously, I haven't spent a lot of time here this year (and not as much on Twitter, either). It has been a whirlwind first six months on the new job. I am grateful for the little snippets of text exchanges with friends that remind me that there is an outside world...and also for Amazon Prime that delivers most of my shopping and keeps me set with basics like deodorant and shampoo.

It would be easy enough to shake my tiny fist at the lack of balance in my life...to blame the demands of others (both inside the district and outside) on being overworked. But I think it's better to just hold tight this year for the ride. Next year, once I know the ebbs and flows of the various programs, I can make some different choices. I know I won't be honeymooning with the job forever.

For now, however, it's a grand romance.

23 August 2014

Relax. It's Normal.

There is a point in your life when you realize that your family is not Leave It to Beaver (or other unreasonable facsimile) perfect. However, the disillusionment lasts only as long as it takes to understand that everyone's family has its own oddballs or version of dysfunctionality. It's a new normal...a more honest one. And, frankly, it's kind of a relief to just go on about your business.

Schools and districts have some similarities to families. We promote the appearance that everything is on the up and up, but the reality is that we are human institutions that are subject to human frailties. And that's okay. Really.

After working for the state for six years, I've seen all sorts of districts and I know where the bodies are buried in all of them. School boards that rarely meet because a quorum never shows up. Entire human resource departments that turn over at least twice a year because district leadership is so poor. Superintendents who've been brought up on ethics violations in previous positions. Clandestine union actions. Incompetent administrators. Poor fiscal decisions (You really thought taking all of your teachers to the casino for a retreat using federal dollars was okay?). Teachers who drink on the job. The list goes on and on. Every district has its own story.

Schools and districts are not so eager to admit that their public face is different from what happens behind the doors. There are reasons for this---I think the public likes to think its schools are utopic places. But the work of education is hard freakin' work done by people for people. It takes a lot of energy to keep up appearances. Energy that might be better used to admit when we need help or give it when we're able. I don't know that we'll ever get there, but I'd like to think that instead of having to pretend we've risen above the vagaries of humanity, that we embrace our strengths and faults instead. I think it would be a better model for our students to see how we grow...that we make mistakes, and that they don't define us...that we accept one another as we are.

I am very happy in my new role, but I can tell that some people are worried that I'm going to find out that the district has a few dirty little secrets and then I won't like it anymore. There are some skeletons in the closet---but so what? So there's some history that influences the present. Great---as a district we learn from that and move forward. I really don't care about the mistakes. Focusing on them takes away from all of the good work that is happening. Guess what? You're like every other school district out there. Sure, you have your own brand of what is or isn't working...but that doesn't bother me. It shouldn't bother you, either.