Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Best Environment for Educators

This question is posed to US public school teachers: "How do we create the best environment for our educators to lead their classrooms and help their students perform better?"

Vicki Davis of the Cool Cat Teacher blog posed this question and a subsequent survey yesterday. This post will be my response to that question, a question I think all teachers should answer. I will use the questions I give my students when we are setting goals to answer the question.

Jonathan Ferrell shared this link yesterday on Twitter. In the article, which is an interview with Jonathan Kozol (don't stop reading just because they misspelled Kozol's name in the title!), Kozol says he learned from Paulo Friere to "not to think I always know the answer".  I need that printed on my forehead.  It is an important caution as I or you attempt to answer the above question.

Here are the questions I ask my students when they are setting goals. The answer to the question at the top of this post is really a goal, that is why I am choosing to use these questions to structure my answer.

1.  Where are you?

  • I teach 5th grade in a large, urban district.  
  • My school is predominantly hispanic, and 98% free and reduced lunch (or low socioeconomic) with the majority of those students on the free lunch side of things.  
  • I have taught for 4 years.  
  • My first year was in a small-town district, made up of majority white students.  
  • I am planning to start my masters in administration this fall, so this question is very important for me as I think about eventually leading a school.  
  • I am currently team teaching.  We have two teachers and two classes, all day in all subjects. 
  • We get 4 plan times each week, one of them is a common plan time with the other 5th grade teachers.
  • Our district has progressively decided to adopt components of the common core standards as well as ACT standards as well as the current state standards and we are tested every 4 1/2 weeks around these.  
  • Our school struggles to meet the federal requirements for AYP on the state test and it seems to be an annual struggle to avoid potential restructuring consequences of low scores.
  • Our district has early release every Wednesday.  Students go home and teachers are in professional development.
I could go on, but the list covers enough for this post.

2.  Where do you want to be? (providing the best environment for educators to lead their classrooms and help their students perform better)
  • TIME: Structure the plan times to be more collaborative.  Teachers should be planning and developing units together as well as assessing and reflecting together.  
  • TIME: Instead of top-down professional development, the time should be spent having teachers critically reflect on their teaching practices as well as jointly analyzing the curriculum and pacing.  
  • TESTING: The current model of excessive testing leads to a flood of data.  To best help teachers, the tests should be boiled down to the most important ones and there should be support in analyzing the data so that it can inform classroom instruction.  As it is, tests are a statistical mess that bore students and scare teachers.  To the point to where our "best" students are best at factual memorization and regurgitation and not necessarily at learning, being creative, or being inquisitive.  
  • MEANINGFUL REVIEWS: Bogged down administration and closed-door teaching practices means that teacher reviews are generally a triangulation of test scores, a 15-min observation, and a personal lean (do I like you or not).  Even then, the observation is usually focused on a correct lesson plan format, whether or not the standards are posted, and did the teacher manage the student's behavior well.  For the students' sake, this needs a change.
    • Allow for peer evaluations.  How about the principal cover a class while that teacher goes to observe another teacher.  They could be looking for something (were students engaged) or they could be learning from a teacher who is awesome at teaching a certain skill.  The teachers could then spend 10 minutes talking about the observation.
    • Instead of 15-minute reviews, once or twice a year.  Principals should be given/should take the time to be in classrooms every week.  It would be natural for that to lead to discussions around how to improve the environment.
    • At professional development, teachers should bring videos of their teaching.  Not their best lesson, but rather of them teaching something their students just aren't getting.  Constructively and critically, teachers should provide feedback and ideas for that lesson.  For me?  I would like to bring a clip of me conferring with a student during reading.  I need to get better at this!
    • Instead of asking, "are the standards posted", the question should be, "is the lesson focused and do the students know what they are supposed to be learning."  As I believe that is the spirit behind the movement to post standards.  

  • SUPPORT: Everyone agrees that schools should be 100% about students.  Attacking teachers does not help students learn.  So support them.  If a teacher is not improving even with support, then help them find a job where they can be successful.  Supporting teachers does not mean to blindly tell them they are awesome and doing great.  

3.  How will you get there?
  • This year I will seek out teachers who are strong where I am weak.  I will ask my principal to let me observe them with students.
  • I will work to minimize the excessive testing by providing good instruction for my students and not relaying my worry for the results to their 5th-grade shoulders.  I will not spend hours every week doing test prep.  Though common, it is not best practice.
  • I will continue to take time, on my own, to be reflective around my classroom data.  No, I am not paid extra for this.  Even if there was merit pay, I wouldn't be paid more.  I wouldn't receive much for taking a student from four grade levels behind to two grade levels behind, according to the test I am still a failure.  The point is that it helps my students.
Ultimately, I will work to get better at what I can control and not get held back by the systematic or environmental things I cannot control.

Thanks for reading.

Enjoy being reflective today!

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