The Influence of Teaching (or not)

A new book came out this week called, The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership by John Merrow. It’s a good read that received some great advance praise including this:

“John Merrow’s incisive observations and powerful, moving stories in his new book, The Influence of Teachers:  Reflections on Teaching and Leadership, are prescient at a time when the public is searching for solutions to America’s systemic educational challenges. His dedication ‘To Outstanding Teachers Everywhere,’ and his preface ‘Fighting the Last War’ foreshadow the problems and solutions that the book richly develops. A ‘must read’ for those responsible for American’s children and their future: that would be all of us.”

– Patrick Bassett, Executive Director, The National Association of Independent Schools

Daniel Pink states in his book Drive that as long people are paid enough, they are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Even though teachers are only paid modestly, I can agree with those three things.  It’s obvious Bill Gates doesn’t need to ‘work’ anymore, but he continues working through his foundation trying to make this world a better place.

Pink’s name came up as a potential speaker for our regional fall conference, but it was clear that he needed a big carrot (too big for us) to come and speak. I don’t blame him. While he want’s to influence education, speaking to educators is clearly not is main purpose. But Whatever that is, I’m sure he has a great sentence that gives him meaning as well as enjoyment. I’m sure he wants to get better at it, and continue on his own  growth trajectory.  I’m also pretty certain that he has plenty of autonomy and can do whatever it is he loves without anyone else setting limits for him (except his publisher, perhaps).

Most great teachers make modest incomes, so they clearly didn’t go into education for the pay. It’s because of this that teachers fight so hard to protect the implied promise of tenure and increased pay over time. New teachers being paid low wages and the very senior teachers making the most. This implied promise of this pay scale, however, is being eroded in almost every state. Nonetheless, it’s not pay that drives teachers to teach. It would be nice if the US were like Singapore in this respect. They offer their top 20% of high-school graduates full scholarships (and stipends while they’re in college) to go into education. I know I work with many teachers who would meet this qualification. They are extremely smart people.

Teachers in the U.S. enter the profession after spending five years in college (most having much debt to contend with) and are then expected to go through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to be state certified. Many teachers will also go back to school to get a more advanced degree in order to increase their compensation. Some of the various teaching specific degrees can be found on Online Teaching Degree’s college program listings. Going to college is, of course all at the cost of the young teacher

This, of course is all at the cost of the young teacher – unless you are at a school that supports this and includes it in their professional development budgets. Some of those hoops are better in some states, but in the name of ‘accountability’ they are hoops nonetheless, and teachers must jump through them in order to remain certified. I know many teachers who spent three days away from their families to visit other schools as part of an accreditation team. Does the state recognize this time as professional development? Nope. In two weeks, the National Association of Independent Schools will have their annual conference. I was lucky to have my school support me attending this conference last year. This year others will be given the opportunity, and I can’t wait to hear back. Because this conference is out of state, however, teachers from outside that state will not be given any credit towards their professional development requirements by the state. Nonetheless, this conference last year made a huge impact on me. In fact, that conference was one of the main reasons I was inspired to start this blog.

Furthermore, new teachers (whether new to the profession, or new to a district are usually given the worst assignments – whatever that means). For me, my first year in public school, I taught in a portable with no furniture in the middle of a playground. It was still an amazing year, because walls and furniture aren’t the things that make a classroom, the relationships among the kids and what they learn are. In private schools, thankfully there is no seniority. While I don’t agree with teachers having permanent tenure, most independent schools only offer teachers one year contracts. There’s a downside to this, as some teachers feel like they cannot speak freely in fear that they may not have their contract renewed.

A lot of non-teachers will say, “but you get your summers off.” Well, they haven’t met most teachers. We work during the holidays. It’s not the same kind or pace of work as teaching during the school year, but let me assure you that all the teachers I work with put in significant amounts of their own time.  In the summer, many may use the time preparing for the new school year, adopting new curricula, learning new things to bring back to our classrooms. Teachers may seem to get more holidays than the average person, but teachers are not well compensated and are not able to choose when to take their vacations.

The book is a balanced, but provocative look at education, its problems, and possible solutions and Tony Wagner suggests both practitioners and leaders read the book. We’re held responsible to create healthy learning environments for children. Our leaders also need to create environments where teachers can truly be caring, collaborative, and respected.

I am extremely sensitive to our profession right now with all of noise, blame, and finger pointing in the headlines that place almost all the responsibility on the teacher. I’ll be the first to admit that teachers play a huge part in that responsibility and need to be accountable, but so do parents, administrators, and any policy maker involved in education.

The book talks about teacher pay, tenure, teacher evaluations, seniority, accountability based on testing and many other issues. Merrow also boiled down the reason for high teacher attrition to three things:

“Schools underpay and mistreat teachers and eventually drive them from the profession; inept school districts cannot find the qualified teachers living under their noses; and substandard training ill-prepares young men and women for the realities of classroom life.”

Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania told Merrow, “we can recruit all kinds of qualified people and persuade them to go into teaching, but if they get into jobs that aren’t well paid and don’t have particularly good working conditions in which they’re given little say in the way schools operate, it’s not going to really solve the problem because a lot of these people will leave.”

There is an illusion that teachers have a voice, for example, there are 8 people on the Think Tank for the NAIS national conference in DC which takes place in a couple of weeks. Not one of them is currently a classroom teacher. For an organization who prides itself on diversity leadership, I would suggest that the group (all administrators and one trustee) overlooked representation from a very important, but high stakeholder – a teacher. I’m glad to hear next year’s conference (in Seattle) will include a teacher.

I started this post with Daniel Pink’s main thesis about what drives us to do what we do and, unless it’s a mundane, repetitive task, carrots and sticks are not what motivates teachers. It’s not the pay nor the time off that motivate teachers. And while teachers influence their students, teachers don’t really influence policy makers. Most teachers will agree that educating a child gives them plenty of meaning and a satisfying sense of purpose. Wanting to grow and become better at what we do, is something I firmly believe most teachers are committed to as well. When teachers become micromanaged, disrespected, and lose our autonomy to do what we do best, that drive (which includes working hard, caring deeply about what we do, and developing strong relationships with our students, for example) diminishes. And those impacted the most are the kids.


Stumped by Sustainability

It’s so nice to have a break, and I will try my hardest to read fiction. I can’t promise that I won’t make a connection to education with the other things I read. Like this weekend, when this article: How Green is Your Real (or Fake) Christmas Tree? appeared in the New York Times. It reminded me how complicated the topic of sustainability really is. And then Thomas Friedman’s piece yesterday: The U.S.S. Prius.

When we return to school in January, our school ‘officially’ starts off with their theme on sustainability. Firstly, I think any all-school-theme should be year-long and organically integrate with the curriculum that is already there. The connections to the theme seem more authentic that way, and with a theme like sustainability, isn’t it more a way of thinking critically about our world and resources that we want our children to be engaged in?

Despite being a difficult topic for adults to understand, kids can understand that we consume resources and the earth has a limited supply of some kinds, where other kinds, are renewable (or more renewable than others if we are responsible about the way we use them).

But even take the current trend in producing electric cars: They aren’t cheap, and I don’t believe their batteries that they run on are all that green?

My approach has been to ignore the January to March idea and make it a year long theme anyway, from using recycled materials to build my back to school bulletin board, to teaching the kids where and how items get disposed of when they go into our garbage, recycling, or compost containers. We’ve also used recycled materials for art projects ourselves and hopefully, we can promote the idea of walking over driving when we explore our neighborhood a little further. I work in what will most likely be a LEED certified building and there are many areas of the building that can be used as teaching tools too. The solar panels on the roof and their corresponding meters are a good way to see how much energy we are actually generating ourselves vs. the electricity we use up. In Seattle, where hydro power is cheap (for now) and the sun is a rare sight this time of year, it will be interesting to see those differences. I also want to take the approach we have with our upper grades at our school about bullying. That is – to not be bystanders. If they see me or another student being less responsible (for example putting paper in the garbage instead of the recycle bin), they should say something.

Finally, the actual calculations regarding the topic of sustainability are complex. The best thing I think I can do for my students is to try and make sure they are aware, think critically, act responsibly if they know how and why, act if they choose, and continue to share the optimism that this planet will be here, a much better place, for their great grandchildren too.

Aren’t We All Glad Those Political Ads Are Over?

So the elections have come and gone with few surprises. One thing our faculty and staff all agreed upon at lunch was that they were glad the ad campaigns were finally over.

As we try to engage children in better social/emotional learning to prevent bullying-like behaviors, what horrible models most of those ads were. One thing I learned from the elections is that change is difficult and if you don’t deliver on your promises of change quickly, you’ll be ousted by those who obstruct and don’t pose any new ideas. Regardless of the party in control, history seems to show that midterms have this effect on people.

Regardless of what one’s political views are, this country was founded as a democracy. A democracy is only as good as its citizens and that is why (at least for me) I think it’s important to use elections, even when they are not presidential ones, as teachable moments.

Yesterday, when the students arrived in my class, they all received a ballot with three initiatives on it and the instructions to choose one.

  1. To have one afternoon recess on the third Thursday of each month.
  2. To have one additional writing period a week.
  3. To work towards being a more caring person.

Well the recess one won. But not by as much as you would think. Only 2 votes separated the recess option from the writing option. It was also really nice to see that over 20% of the class voted for option 3.

We also had a chance to talk about the suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony, and the voting rights for women.

Today we continued the lesson by learning about what the House and Senate do through reading the book House Mouse, Senate Mouse. Picture books are great ways to teach and launch kids into more questions and further learning.

Let’s hope when our students are of voting age, they fill in the bubbles on a ballot with a full understanding of what they are voting for.

Children Will Listen

Earlier this week I went to a play called God of Carnage. Having won the Oliver in London for Best Comedy and the Tony for Best Play in 2009. I don’t know if it’s because bullying is such an important topic right now, but the play, even though it was a dark comedy, left little for me to laugh at.

I’m about to give away the premise of the play, so stop reading if you intend to see it.

It’s starts out with two couples who have gathered at one of the couple’s home to talk and resolve a conflict about one of the boys bullying the other. What happens over the course of the evening (a 90 minute one-act with no intermission) is that the adults end up bullying each other (including their own spouses) and devolve into child-like behavior themselves.

It reminds me of a song from South Pacific called “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Short and simple, but very powerful the lyrics (written by Hammerstein over 50 years ago) are as follows:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

I also happened to stumble across a post by a parent at my school who wrote about a personal story about what parents/teachers/adults teach our own kids. You can read it here at her website.

Schools cannot necessarily undo everything, but they can work at creating a climate of safety and make learning spaces ones where ALL children feel they are welcome, belong, and add value.

If you’re unfamiliar with the song, here’s a video of Mandy Patinkin recording it.