Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Overcoming the bad teaching days...

I had an awful day today.  I taught a 1-day lesson for the second day, and my students still didn't get the point.  The lesson was not over a new concept, and - in my opinion - they should have done fine.  I gave a few students ineffective "talking to's" outside... blah blah blah.

And I left school wanting to blame something or someone other than myself for what happened and what has been happening - lack of parental support, lax school discipline, not enough special education services, etc. Anyone but myself.  Of course - I'm mainly to blame.  I didn't scaffold the lesson enough.  I stepped out of the room to talk with a student and wasn't there to help/supervise my students. I didn't call any of my students' parents.  I wasn't enthusiastic enough.

In a way, I can thank my students for keeping me on my toes.  In another school, with higher performing students, a poorly planned lesson might be just fine.  But not at my school and not in many of the high-needs schools across the nation.  I think effective teaching and classroom management CAN overcome many of the gaps in other areas of students' schooling.  But is it also true that effective school structures can help minimize types of days like I had today?  Because even though a teacher may be very effective - there's no way to completely avoid bad teaching days.

In a high-achieving school, students might overcome obstacles and find ways to complete a difficult assignment anyway - because they want the good grade.  Or because their parents force them to.  But in a low-performing school, a day with a lesson that doesn't provide enough access (like my day today) is just lost.  So... I will try to be a better teacher tomorrow.  And I will keep in mind that the stakes are high for me to be an effective teacher every day.  But what can I advocate for my school to put in place to help minimize the time lost by my mistakes? Or by other teachers' bad days?

Study hall? Tutoring? Strict discipline policies? Rewards for good behavior/grades? None of the above?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It's that time of year...

I'm not really talking about the holidays, in particular.  I'm talking about the slump I find myself in, thinking about what changes I can make in my teaching practice to really turn things around for my students who are struggling.

Today I'm in a fight with myself about whether it's worth teaching the lesson I'd planned for, even though we go on break tomorrow and only 2/3 of my students showed up.  Should I send them the message that today is an important day to be here, and that we will work hard right up until the end?  If I send that message, will they get it? Or will I just spend the next 2 weeks after break trying to convince the students who missed today that they need to come in during lunch to make up the lesson they missed?

With the 2nd semester coming up, it is time to step back and think about the big picture rather than each individual lesson.  And I've got to figure out how to do that without simply feeling weighted down with despair over my failures as a teacher.  I can't sit around and wait for parents to force their kids to come to school, for kids who are behind to take the initiative to improve their skills, or even for my colleagues to be the ones to call home regarding classroom misbehavior.  It has to be me.  I can be better.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What Do We Mean by 'Public'?

What Do We Mean by 'Public'?

Hmmm. Charter schools.... I've written about this before. I work at a charter school, so I am obviously not anti-charter. And, in the case of my school and others organized a common interest, purpose, or culture, I think a charter fills a previously unfilled need. Then there are charters like KIPP or Yes Prep, that are places meant for high achieving kids in low-performing school districts. Yeah, it'd be better if public schools could rise to the challenge of educating high-achievers to the level of higher income schools. Yet, it's not happening. A charter school does seem to be a good option in the interim... a way for a highly motivated kid or family to more likely get into a good college. OK. That's my theory. I don't really know about the regularity with which charter schools are helping high performers that would otherwise attend low performing schools.

I guess, like everything, there's a large gray area. Of course there are both good and bad charter schools. And mostly schools that are neither good nor bad. And since we don't really have any trusted ways to measure which schools are "good" and "bad," there aren't really clear steps to in improving the "bad" schools.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Action

Today I go to take New Mexico's Reading Teacher Assessment.  Historically, I am a math and science teacher with a degree in biochemistry and most of my teaching experience in middle school science.  This year, I was asked to teach a reading class to students more than 2 years behind in reading.  I have mixed feelings, and I know a number of my colleagues blatantly disagree (for my sake as well as for my students' sake) that I teach reading.

My mixed feelings come from the reality that small schools serving primarily low-performing students have an unworkable number of constraints.  Special education - including gifted education, intervention classes, and even electives are extremely difficult to successfully provide when 50% or so of your students aren't on grade level.  This exact same thing happened in my last school.  Based on test data, we were required to provide extra interventions to something like 1/3 of our students.  We had to have all these teachers squeeze intervention math and reading classes into their schedules - qualified or not.  And I think schools work better when teachers come together to "make it work," even when circumstances are difficult.  I hate having colleagues who refuse to put in the extra work, because I often end up being the person who does agree to take on more for the good of the school and the students.  I might be making the wrong decision.... me teaching reading might not be for the good of the school or the students.  Maybe if I'd said "no," the school would have had to come up with a different, better solution. 

I also think that, if someone is a good teacher, they will very likely be a good teacher of any subject.  There is always some lag time when building a new curriculum - I'm not on top of my game like I was after teaching and perfecting 8th grade science for 5 years.  But I'm also not as bad as some other teachers who allow their students "free time" all the time and don't provide clear instructions or engaging tasks with meaningful objectives.  I know how to do all of those things for math and science, and therefore I'm not totally lost when it comes to doing them in reading.

There is more to being "highly qualified" than just taking a test or even taking college courses.  It really takes observing a teacher's classroom and the work that students are actually producing in that class.... 

Friday, November 11, 2011

If I ran a school....

I'd rethink the structure of the school day and school year to allow time for collaboration
I'd put a structure in place for teachers to discuss, collaborate, and share out
I'd have as many meetings that directly relate to effective teaching as meetings about other topics
I'd make sure my school had a teachers' lounge and would go out of my way to encourage teachers to get to know one another in and outside of school hours
I'd observe teachers and ask them to reflect back to me on what they're doing to improve their practice
I'd recognize teachers for effective teaching and for hard work as mentors, committee leaders, etc.
I'd hold community events at the school
I'd ask students to take surveys evaluating their teachers and ask teachers to take surveys evaluating me

Easier Said than Done

This morning's musings:
A few weeks ago, I observed a 1st year teacher and colleague of mine as a part of an alternative licensure program through a local community college. I had high hopes about how I would work with my colleague to give pertinent feedback as well as some expectations about changes I thought he should make in his classroom. Then it came time to debrief the observation - for me to deliver my powerful feedback and teaching tips.

The first roadblock was that my colleague and I could barely schedule a time to meet. We had to reschedule a number of times, and in between my observation and our meeting he actually went away to Boston for a conference and came back. When we did eventually meet, it was crammed into the last few minutes before he had to sub for a third colleague's class. Students were in and out of the room, the bell was ringing, I was thinking about the things I still needed to get done in order to teach for the day.

The second roadblock was that I choked. I spent quite a bit of time observing, taking notes, and formulating these notes into an observation form as well as a digestible set of ideas that I thought would help my colleague improve his teaching. But when I sat down, I started flipping through papers and hastily explaining why I hadn't just awarded all "exceeds" scores on the rubric. I hastily ran through my recommendations, and the debrief session ended without my colleague ever talking about what he might actually do to improve his teaching practice.

And now it's over. And now nothing will probably ever come of the time I spent observing, writing, and talking with my colleague. Refining one's teaching practice is a slow, difficult, personal process. It's not that I expected major changes after 1 observation. But I didn't expect to feel like the observation cycle was completely futile either. Maybe it wasn't.

Despite my debacle, there are a few positives that might come out of this situation. I'll do better next time - by scheduling a debrief session in advance of the observation, by carving out at least 30 minutes of time, and by inviting my colleague to reflect on what I've said rather than just listen to me talk in circles. I'm also glad for the experience because I've written before about observations and teacher evaluation as if it would be so easy to do things differently or better than they're currently being done. It's important to remind my self that that simply isn't true. Things could change, but it will require more than a minimal effort from a know-it-all teacher (me) to make that happen - even just in my 1 small school. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

APS Students Say School Grades Fail to Capture what Matters Most

I agree with the SuperSAC!  School is, after all, to engage and prepare students.  Doesn't it matter if they want to be there and if they feel that they're getting a good education?  I guess it's difficult to say how you're school is doing if it's the only school you've ever attended... but still... school culture matters!  If kids want to be in school, then socioeconomic status and parental support will matter less.

ABQ/ OPINION: Students Should Be Given a Voice in Schools' Policy

By Jenna Hagengruber, Team Member, SuperSAC
ABQ Journal
November 6, 2011  
On Oct. 17 a group of students from Albuquerque Public Schools met with the superintendent to discuss the school grading system.

This group is known as SuperSAC, an acronym standing for the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council.

We are a group consisting of two students from each high school in APS chosen to meet with the superintendent once a month to discuss important issues and decisions affecting education from a student's perspective.

One assignment for the students of SuperSAC was to give our schools a grade and to elaborate on why that grade was given. The students took this task very seriously, and during our past two meetings, we shared and discussed our ideas with the superintendent.

As a group of students varying vastly in personality, school, ethnicity and background, we came to some similar conclusions about the way we believe our schools should be graded. These criteria included grading on safety, college preparation, dual enrollment, teacher/administration involvement, parent involvement, attendance and extracurricular activities.

After considering how we would grade our schools, SuperSAC was presented with the Public Education Department's ideas of how they intend to assign grades. As a group, we feel that the PED's point system does not represent the most important aspects about high school.

Test scores, improvement of test scores and graduation rates are all highly relative and change as quickly as students in a class change. Although test scores can play a role in determining the knowledge one student has, testing is not always the most accurate way to determine a student's progress and preparation for the future.

This is due to the fact that students aren't always tested on what they've learned, and also tests often are aimed at a certain group of students rather than testing each student at his or her own level.
  • One measure of success in high school that we feel was overlooked by the proposed grading system is extracurricular activities such as athletics, drama, music and JROTC that help create a sense of community within a school. Without activities such as these, myriad students would no longer be motivated to work hard in school, making things such as attendance, graduation rates and test success decrease.
These activities bring individuals together, which helps create a sense of confidence and security within the student population. Furthermore, most activities have strict grade requirements that motivate students to be proactive in their learning, so they can continue to participate in the activity. They also build character, help with time management and are enjoyed by participants.
  • As the students of public education, we strongly believe several improvements could be made to the proposed school grading system. When decisions are being made about education, students should be asked for their opinion; when ideas on how to grade schools are being proposed, students' input should be considered; when a decision is being made about a school or a district, students should be involved in the process. As students, we are affected directly by these decisions and should be allowed to have a say in the outcome.

We are proposing that the Public Education Department create a student advisory committee made up of students from across the state that would meet on a regular basis to discuss any plans for education. We do not want to learn about bills and decisions only once they are in effect in our schools. We want to help create them and try to make New Mexico education the best it can be.

We are the students of public education. We are the now, and we are the future.

Monday, November 7, 2011


Today was a paperwork deadline day at my school.  And I didn't make it.  I am sick and took the day off, and I just finished writing an email to my boss about how I hope it's OK if I turn in my lesson plans a day later than planned.

It got me thinking about how that would not have been OK in college and got me wondering about whether it would be OK in most other jobs.  My friends have things "due" for their jobs - presentations, reports, etc. - and I'm guessing they would never be able to turn them in as poorly done, as late, or as infrequently as teaching typically allows.  On the other hand, perhaps the types of paperwork that are "due" in other jobs are more meaningful than a lot of the paperwork that teachers end up completing.  Lesson plans are useful, but they aren't - in and of themselves - an indication that student learning is actually happening.

Do I have any good ideas for what would be better?  Perhaps some artifacts of student learning, or surveys taken by students in addition to lesson plans.When I had to do those things as part of my master's degree, I always talked about how they distracted me from my real job - getting up in front of the students and teaching.  I don't really believe that's true.  I think teachers do need to be forced to step back and look at the bigger picture of where they are going with their teaching and then, when a unit is over, how it went. 


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Receiving Advice

I've written a lot about how teachers can improve their practice after their first few years on the job.  In particular, something I've wondered is how teachers could hold one another accountable for improving their teaching.  Today something happened that reminded me how hard it can be to receive advice from a colleague, when all you really want is sympathy/empathy for something that's going wrong in your classroom.

Some students recently transferred into my math class and I am having trouble making the math accessible/getting them to work up to my expectations. Today I tried getting tough with the students about their performance, and it didn't go well.  I expressed my frustration to my colleague and basically got rebuked for going about the situation incorrectly. Of course, she was right. I did handle the situation poorly.  But, it was still really uncomfortable to hear it from a colleague.  It's fine now, but I don't think I'd scale up my situation as a model for helping teachers become more effective.  Making someone feel bad usually doesn't make her want to change.  It just makes her angry and defensive (like I did with my students today...).   I don't think our nation will get anywhere by making teachers feel bad about the jobs their currently doing.  Evaluation needs to be more productive than that.

What are my take aways? 1. There are situations where colleagues can critique one another.  They include weaknesses that a teacher has asked for help in addressing...in situations where help is being solicited.  They probably don't include teachers simply going into one another's classrooms and giving suggestions on how to improve.  They could very well include honestly recognizing one another for things we're doing well.

2.  Sometimes evaluation has to be uncomfortable.  Teachers have weaknesses that they themselves can't easily identify, and there need to be situations where it's OK to broach the subject and expect that teachers make changes in their practice.  It's very possible that such criticism could come from a principal or other administrator - as long as the teacher respects and trusts the administrator's knowledge of instructional delivery.

3. Changes in teaching - the thought process and the creation of new resources - actually happen outside of teaching hours.  For this reason, I don't think that teachers' contracted hours of work (given the current structure of a school day) are sufficient for really improving teaching.  Teachers need structured time to talk to one another and to meaningfully reflect on their teaching.  The best teachers most likely put in a lot of extra hours doing this on their own time.  But, if the nation hopes for more effective teaching in general, teachers need more time and greater expectations for examining and improving their teaching practice.