23 August 2013

Little Children

I spent a couple of days this week with two dozen kindergarten teachers. Kindergarten teachers are a very special breed of teacher---and I mean that as a compliment. I have nothing but admiration for these teachers who have what may be the most important role of all of us in K - 12. I enjoy kindergarten students immensely, but I know that I do not have what it takes to teach them. If you have the chance to hang out with kindergarten teachers, I highly recommend it.

The discussions this week were all about how we transition students and families to K - 12 public education. Some kids make the jump from pre-school...and for others, this fall will be the first time they ever set foot in a space with their peers. Some families will be sending their first child into our care---others know us quite well by now, for better and worse. How do we both welcome our newest students and learn about them? Our state has its own version of an "inventory" to capture information about the whole child, from family hopes and dreams to observing the child at work and play.

Many seasoned veterans of teaching kindergarten spoke about how incoming students today are different from the ones they saw five or ten years ago---how much better prepared (in general) they are for school. Teachers aren't spending as much time with some of the basic routines and procedures---students already understand what it means to line up or come to morning meeting. These preparations are not so much about the content of the learning...after all, five year olds are five year olds. Their brains don't pick up readin', 'ritin', and 'rithematic any easier or faster now than they did in previous years. It's really about norms of behavior.

I don't have a quarrel with that, but it did get me to thinking about how our view of childhood is coming full circle. A century (or more) ago, children were viewed as miniature adults. Childhood was not seen as a developmental time...something separate from life as a grown-up. And then we built understanding about children, about how they learn, about how their brains work and bodies grow. I do think this is being incorporated into how we work with students of different ages. And yet, when I hear how well-heeled 5-year olds are these days to stand in lines and sit at desks, I can't help but picture mini-adults, ready to wait for their order at Starbucks before trotting back to their cubicles.

I understand that part of the role of public schooling is to teach civic norms and kindergarten is the perfect place to begin practicing how we interact with others and our environment. But part of me still has to wonder if we're still holding onto the view of children as small adults. Is there still enough room to let them be little children, too?

14 August 2013

Taking a Gander

Several years ago, I eavesdropped on a conversation between a school principal and a principal-intern. They were discussing how it is no secret which teachers are "bad" in any given school. Parents know which class they don't want their kid in...teachers know which of their colleages are phoning it in. Principals know it, too---so why don't they get rid of those teachers? The seasoned veteran said that education is not in the business of giving up on people. And even though you might know a teacher isn't cutting it in the classroom, you try to give them all the support you can so that they can turn it around---or so you hope.

I was thinking about this again this week while sitting in the PLC institute. The consistent message from them was around kids...around having high expectations for every kid. It's not a new concept. It's not revolutionary. But it did get me wondering about whether we have the same mindset when it comes to teachers.

Are all teachers able to reach expert levels with regard to instruction...classroom management...and other attributes of the profession? Do we believe that everyone can be not just "highly qualified," but an artist and scientist of the classroom? More importantly, do we expect it in the same say that we expect students to reach...and then provide the support for teachers to get there? Do our ganders not deserve the same as our geese?

I can't answer these questions for anyone but myself (and not very well, at that). When I think about the project we're doing to support teachers in "supersmall" districts, I know that we have a few strong teachers...a few weak teachers...and many in-between. It's easy to fall into the line of thinking that says "They can't ___ because of money/geography/school size/your reason here." But my role should be to not only tell them "Yes, you can ___." but also communicate high expectations for all of us with "We will ___."

I don't know what this will look like in terms of the support I provide. Perhaps it is driving out to a remote district and covering a classroom for a day so a teacher can observe a colleague in another district. Maybe it's teaching a model lesson over VC for a few teachers. It could be having a heart to heart with a superintendent/principal about the urgency of the work at hand for their students.

My original Boss Lady used to say that "Kids don't have time to wait." In other words, while we'd like conditions to be perfect---the right program, funding source, expert teacher, etc.---the truth is that the kids will arrive tomorrow, needing us to teach them as best we can. We have to jump in and move forward. Now, I think I will expand her maxim to include that "Teachers don't have time to wait, either." What can I do tomorrow to get this flock where they need to go?

11 August 2013

Back to School: 2013 Edition

It's August---and while many of you are already back in the classroom, things are just gearing up here. For me, this is my 22nd trip through the school year calendar. It looks a little different now than it did for year one, but there is still a certain sense of enthusiasm around getting back together with other teachers and talking about how we plan to make a difference in the lives of our students this year.

Tomorrow, I'm meeting up with educators from some of our smallest schools---districts where there are as few as two teachers. We're all going to the big city to attend a PLC conference together. And while the term "PLC" still makes me a little uneasy, I think there is something to spending some time learning together and thinking about what collaboration looks like when your options are so limited. I have to admit that I'm looking forward to seeing these teachers in an urban setting. Lots of potential for new things to take back to the classroom.

Our pilot project with these small schools will be expanding to a multi-state initiative (through a different educational agency). I am very interested to see how this project progresses. Not because I think there is a "rural school problem" (a term that is replete in the ed research literature), but because equity of access is critical. We need each other to learn, and without addressing the gaps in infrastructure and basic services, we're losing a lot of potentially rich connections.

As for me, I'm making some different connections of my own this year. The state legislature eliminated my job on the last day of their session in June, so it has been a summer of making new plans and picking up new pieces. It's all good. A little pruning now and then helps spur new growth. I won't claim that I am someone who thrives on change, but I am comfortable with it.

Welcome back, my friends. Hope your 2013 - 2014 is the best yet!