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Archive for the ‘Observation’ Category

I remember way back in split roadthe 70’s, I think it was Time magazine that came out with an article listing the most difficult jobs in America. I remember it because at the top of that list was the job of an eighth grade English teacher. Time based its list on the number of decisions an individual had to make on the job. Of course as an eighth grade English teacher I felt Time was 100% right in recognizing my contributions to society.

Contrary to what many uninformed critics might say, teaching is a very difficult and time-consuming job. Teachers need to balance relationships of family as well as their relationships with students. Teachers need to balance family time and preparation time for students. Teachers have also in many instances been scapegoated as the root cause of a perceived failing education system. Teaching has been further complicated because of the rapid change occurring each day in our computer-based, digitally driven society.

All of these factors affect every teacher in different ways. The overall effect however seems that many educators feel that they have a difficult job that they are dedicated to, but they are constantly coming under attack from people who don’t get it. Many teachers have to follow mandates that they find fault in. They are being asked to meet demands without being afforded the time or preparation to successfully accomplish them.

Innovation is loudly called for, but support and time to develop that innovation is barely whispered about. Accountability and evaluation of teachers are still subjective concepts in many schools making them a possible threat with less progressive administrators. Innovation and experimentation can be a perilous road for a teacher to take in this current world of education. Failure, although a very strong basis for learning, is still viewed by many as something that must not happen at any cost, especially in teacher evaluations. In order to deal with all of these pressures one answer is to rely on things that worked in the past. Teachers may rely on what worked in the past without objection. It worked before, so it should withstand scrutiny again. The elephant in the room is that if we shift the goal of education from enabling real learning to obtaining better, standardized test results than test review will trump innovative lessons.

Teachers need to resist hunkering down in the successes of the past. This will not provide our students with what they will need for their future. Our learners are different. Our tools for communication, collaboration, and creation are different. Our society is demanding skills from our learners that are different. The world in which we now live is different from when many of our teachers became teachers. Things will continue to change faster than ever before in history.

We as educators cannot take the safe path of teaching from the past. Innovation is important, even if it is not wholeheartedly supported by our system. Professional development should be prioritized for teachers to evolve as constant and continuing changes take place. Teachers need to personalize their own learning, because few schools will provide what is needed to evolve professionally. It is not a comfortable road to travel. It requires time, persistence and commitment. It will involve both failure and success. It will require leaving comfort zones that are the biggest obstacles to change. It will not happen overnight. It is a continuing journey that will begin with taking a first step. As teachers we need to develop in spite of the system, or that will become the very goal of our kids.

We cannot seek safety in our teaching of the past. It would come at the expense of our students. We need to be innovative in our teaching. We need to be relevant in our learning. The system’s lack of commitment to real, respectful, thoughtful professional development, collaborative time, and innovation may be a deterrent, but it should not be the excuse not to innovate. We have the tools and abilities to circumvent that system until it has time to catch up if it choses to do so. We can never let our comfort zones take precedence over our students’ learning.

If we are to better educate our kids, we need first to better educate their educators.

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We often hear that the most influential element in a student’s life is the teacher. As an educator this can be both an honor and a daunting responsibility. It elevates the status of a position, often viewed by some as public service, to that of a valued mentor. This would all be well and good if education could truly be defined as it was for centuries in the past. Students were empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge of their teachers. If this were in any way true today, and a teacher was able to pour all of the knowledge contained in his or her head into the empty vessels seated in rows before him or her, the teacher would still not be imparting enough information for an adequate education in today’s world. Our world, as well as information itself, changes and evolves at too fast a pace. Teaching and learning are evolving and many of the old concepts no longer apply.

Unfortunately however, many politicians and some educators buy into this traditional model of what an educator should be, and base teacher evaluations on it. In many states a teacher’s evaluation will be predominantly based on how well his or her students perform on a standardized test. That test performance has de facto become the goal of education.

What makes all of this so complicated is that kids are not widgets. They are complicated. It may be true that a teacher may at times be the most influential factor in the classroom for some kids, but not for all kids, and not every time. Kids do not leave everything at the door of the classroom so they can have their vessels filled. All of their problems travel with them. The difference between kid problems and adult problems is that, hopefully, adults have learned coping mechanisms, but kids have not.

Teachers do not just address that part of a kid that is in school to learn. The whole child with all of his or her problems must be addressed. Learning, no matter who is the teacher takes a back seat to safety, hunger, health, and emotional stability. When it comes to kids we need to first address Maslow’s Hierarchy before we can get to Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is never a consideration in a teacher’s evaluation.

Kids today are entering schools after traveling through neighborhoods that might be considered war zones in some countries. Kids are coming from homes where education is not a priority at all. English in many homes is a second language at best. Kids are coming to school not from homes, but cars or shelters. Beyond the complications of urban poverty, we have large regions of the country experiencing rural poverty with different problems for kids, but the same results. Their problems and needs take precedence over learning in school.

How can we possibly assess and evaluate a teacher’s performance without assessing and evaluating each of his or her students? The tests that students are forced to take may be standardized, but the students themselves are not. Each student is different with problems that affect their ability to learn each and every day with varying intensity. That is what complicates learning and teaching. How can there be simple solutions with so many complicated variables?

To complicate things further for teachers, they must also deal with the red tape of shortsighted policies. Policies often put in place to address issues that have little to do with educating a child. Teaching involves dealing with the whole child and all of the complications that come with it; yet, we are told that a standardized test for all is the answer. It is the golden measure. It will tell us how much each student has learned and how effective each teacher was in teaching without regard for any other factors beyond the grade on the test.

With standardized testing and all of the curriculum materials and extras that go along with that making a BILLION dollars a year for a few companies, I fear it will be with us longer, but we have already lived with it for longer than we should have. We cannot however allow politicians to use these tests to decimate the teaching profession and public education beyond repair. Yes, we need to evaluate a teacher’s performance, but it must be done fairly and in consideration of what the job really requires. It can’t be done in a way that simply ignores what it is that teachers are being required to do every day they report to work. Teaching and learning have nothing to do with empty vessels. Politics and politicians however might better fit that description. Maybe before we can better educate our kids, we need to first better educate our politicians.

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We are often bombarded with many posts and articles about the successes and failures of technology in education. Too often these assessments are based upon the technology as if it were the only factor having any effect on the students in the classroom. Of course this overlooks something that has been pounded into educators’ heads for years: The greatest influence on students in the classroom is the teacher. That holds true with or without technology in the classroom.

The environment for learning is created in the classroom by the teacher. The teacher determines the tools selected for learning in the classroom. The teacher determines how much time each subject gets and what should be emphasized over something else. Yes, there are restraints and mandates placed on every teacher by administration, but the majority of the individual learning environments that directly affect students, are environments made by classroom teachers. Whenever I read an article, or post, pointing out the failures of technology in the classroom, my first question is: How well was that teacher trained in the use of that technology and its new methodology in the classroom? My second thought is: was that technology mandated to be there without teacher buy-in, or support? Without both of those requirements being met, coupled with what we know of the teacher’s impact on students in the class, how could technology ever be successful?

Adding technology into a curriculum is not a passive exercise. It requires a teacher to not only understand the basics of the tech, but an understanding of whatever new pedagogies and methodologies accompany that tech. Using technology in the classroom is more than just going from a number 2 pencil to a ball point pen.

I have had too many discussions with adjunct professors/teachers who have just been thrown online to teach courses that they have only taught in the classroom for years, because that is now the direction colleges/schools are being directed to go. Little thought on the part of these colleges/schools has gone into what it means to teach online. What methodologies need to be refined or changed? What training a professor/teacher needs in the use of new and devolving technology seems to be an afterthought if a thought at all. Teaching online seems to be a politician’s choice of solution to getting a bigger bang for the tax-generated buck. Many politicians are legislating requirements to teach online with no support for the teacher training needed to support a successful program. There is always the “They’ll-figure-it-out mentality” that seems to drive most change in education. It’s a cheaper, more sellable solution to the problem, but a digital worksheet is still a worksheet. We need to teach using methodologies of the 21st Century to take our best shot with 21st Century tools for learning, collaboration, curation, communication, and creation.

We need to be more critical of the studies that we see on the use of technology in classrooms. We need to ask if and how the teachers were trained in that technology and all it entails. We need to examine the mindset of those educators as well. Are they supportive of tech in the classroom, or do they view it as an added burden that they were never prepared for. Not every educator is prepared to accept technology as a tool for learning. These attitudes have profound effects on results.

Teaching is complicated. It might be argued that teaching is more of an art than a science. Complicated tasks are not easily assessed. With so many variables for success in education, how do we get it right? We cannot accurately assess the effect of technology in the classroom without considering the teacher responsible for implementing and using that technology. We need to consider implementation, training, and support, as well as ongoing professional development of staff as the technology evolves, changes, or is replaced. All of these are factors we need to consider and evaluate, if we are to truly determine the effect technology is having on learning. If we are serious about better educating our kids, then we better get more serious about educating their educators.

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Many years ago I read an article in Time Magazine where they attempted to select and rank the most difficult jobs in the US. The criterion that was used was based on the number of decisions that had to be made on that job in a single day. I was delighted and surprised to see that an Eighth Grade English Teacher position was ranked at the top of the list. As an eighth grade English teacher at the time, I felt both validated and appreciated. Of course, it was an article totally overlooked by most people who were not eighth grade English teachers, I am sure.

Being a teacher of any course of study is a difficult job requiring a person to make possibly thousands of decisions daily. Any of these decisions can have a great impact on the developing mind of a child. What then are the expectations of a teacher candidate direct from graduating college, and having only a few months teaching experience in a loosely organized, pre-service student teacher program? Of course expectations will vary from school to school, but there are some generalities that hold true for many schools.

A new teacher must learn a great number of things from the first day of employment. First and foremost there is the curriculum. Secondly, there are the school and district policies. Then of course there is the school culture, as well as the community. This is just the job related stuff. Now let’s add what needs to be done personally to set up an independent life outside of the college experience. Setting up a place to live, transportation, and expenses beyond the support of parents. It’s the big time with adult problems and adult decisions. All of this is being done in the first year of teaching.

How does the employing school respond to the needs of a new teacher? Too often an administrator will look to, or try to persuade, a new teacher to take on at least one extra curricular activity, or coach a team. I think most schools really expect that to happen. Of course on the secondary level at least having a new teacher in any department may mean that the department Chair need not worry about arguing with the staff as to who will take the difficult, or troubled classes. Those are the problems that most certainly can go to the new kid.

It goes without saying that some type of mentoring program will go a long way in transitioning new teachers into the system. Many schools, however, see this, as a costly program that can be sacrificed in times of budgetary crisis, which in education is a perpetual state of existence. It then is incumbent on the new teacher to find a colleague to call upon for help and hope that ever-observing administrators do not view it as a sign of weakness.

My greatest objection to the attitudes toward new teachers is about the assumptions people make that new teachers will breathe new life into the old and tired methods of the older generation of teachers. More often than not, if a school has a culture where it is not inspiring its entire staff to professionally develop with support and recognition from above, there will be no number of new teachers that will affect change in that toxic culture. New teachers will go along to get along. Attaching blame for that toxic culture does not fix it. Throwing new teachers at it does not fix it. Expecting teachers living with it to step up does not fix it. It takes a top down and a bottom up recognition of the problem to fix it. It takes leadership from experienced educators not kids fresh out of college.

When it comes to new teacher hires we should expect less and mentor more. We do nothing but add on to a new teacher’s already mountainous amounts of responsibilities with things experienced teachers and administrators need to deal with. Instead, we blame colleges and teacher prep courses for not doing the right thing. They may not be fully blameless, but they are not responsible for our mistakes. We can’t keep doing the same stupid stuff and then wonder why half of the young people entering the teaching profession drop out in the first five years. Teaching is tough enough on its own, even without having politicians and business people vilifying the profession at every opportunity. We don’t have to eat our young as well. We must accept part of the responsibility for our best hope for the future finding paths other than teaching. In consideration of all of this, as a life long learner and teacher I have told both of my children that they should consider options other than teaching. Of course, they rarely listen to me anyway.

If we are to continually replenish our profession with the best and the brightest, we need to be smarter as to how we nurture them. We need to reflect on what we do and see how it affects the outcome of what we want. If we want to maintain great educators we need to enable them with support until it makes sense to let them soar on their own. If we are to better educate our students, we must first better educate their educators.

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I often wonder how we can get an accurate picture of what and how educators are teaching today. We have more, and better technology than we have ever had to record and analyze data, and yet we still do not have a clue as to what is really going on in the average classroom. The pictures that we get, or the stories that are told, seem to focus on the best and the worst. Too often superintendents spin the best, and the media spins the worst. We need to remind ourselves that any story about what is going on in education is just a snapshot that is representing a very tiny portion of the big picture.

There are too many education leaders who when talking about their schools tend to focus on the best and most innovative representations their schools have to offer. Intentional or not, this creates an impression on their audience that the entire school is filled with the best and most innovative educators. That may actually be true in some instances, but my guess would be that it is a very much smaller number than such stellar tales would lead us to believe.

Of course the idea is to offer real life examples that can be used as models for exemplary teaching. I get that, but too often these stories create an impression that these models are typical, rather than exceptional. I too am guilty of putting a positive spin on the effects of such things as technology in education, student voice, student-centered learning, self-directed PD, connected learning, and open source access. I recommend blog posts that model not only the benefits of these methodologies, but give shining examples being used today in classrooms, as if that is the norm. The fact is that the very reason these are highlighted is because they are exceptional and not the norm. It is important that these stories are shared as examples and models, but I truly believe that we need to maintain our perspective as to where they fit in the bigger picture of education.

In our latest desire for innovative education, many educators are sharing their best and most innovative lessons with their principals. The principals in turn share their best and most innovative teacher stories with their superintendent. The superintendent then takes the best of the best from all of those stories to share with the public in order to create that positive vibe for the district that everyone loves. This is good PR.

The PR process however may be creating a picture of education that is not easily lived up to. People walking into a school on any given day may be expecting great innovative, tech-supported lessons in every class only to be greeted by sit and get lectures with all kids seated in rows and quietly taking notes.

Whenever I entered a school to observe a student teacher from our teacher preparation program, I would try to walk through the school to observe at a glance what other classes were doing under the guidance of veteran teachers. It was a cursory observation at best, but there were observable differences.

My students would often have me observe them doing a student-centered lesson that usually involved group work and technology. Of course they knew what my preferences were and they believed in “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. I was not tyrannical, but I was partial to innovative lessons. I was rarely disappointed in what they did, or attempted to do. In my walk around however, I was too often struck by the fact that, I observed a majority (not all) of the teachers relying on sit and get methods with kids sitting complacently in rows.

Now we have entered into an era of Do It Yourself PD. As much as many educators talk about connectedness and all of its benefits, I see very little evidence that supports connected learning is being adopted on any large-scale by educators. Judging from books, articles, speeches and posts, educators should be in a constant state of collaboration on a global scale. Again, we are creating a complete picture of education PD that is based on a few snapshots, rather than an accurate, realistic view of what is. We do need to tell stories and model where we should be going, but we can’t give the impression that we have already achieved that goal. We need schools to do an honest assessment of what they are doing in order to determine where they need to change and improve. We can’t improve without recognizing where we need to improve. Change will best be served with both top down and bottom up improvements working for the same goal. For that to happen we need better transparency, honesty, and accuracy. If we better understand what we are actually doing, we will better understand what we need to do in order to improve.

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Almost daily someone comes out with a plan to do something different in education to make some progress in reforming the system. Most of these changes require that teachers or students make the change. The truth is that until we change the culture, there will be little change in the system.

In thinking about how we approach, analyze and evaluate things, it seemed to me that the people held most accountable were the students and the teachers. They were the most visible and easily assessed, because they, as groups, are asked to perform under scrutiny while their efforts are observed, recorded, analyzed and critiqued.

I have been saying for years that if we are to better educate our kids, we need to first better educate their educators. In order to do that, districts need to offer some type of support for that to happen. With all that is being required of teachers today, there is not enough time for them to plan out and develop the best methods of professional practice in addition to adding their needed relevance in professional development. Things are changing way too fast. If that development is an expectation of a district or school, the responsibility for it to happen should fall on that district or school.

Why not apply the same standard of observation of students’ work, and teachers’ lessons to every school’s Plan for Support. Let’s call for more transparency from our administrators. If a teacher’s support for a student’s success is as important as research tells us it is, wouldn’t the same hold true for an administrators support of a teacher, or even the entire staff?

Many, many schools will talk about their support for students and staff to be placed on websites and brochures. Those are words written in general terms, which in many cases are just painting a picture of wonderful teachers, happy at work for the benefit of wonderful happy students. It is public relations. The reality in many cases is support for teachers is whatever the state requires for professional development, as well as a place to pick up forms to be filled out for credit.

Why not really commit to something; a real plan. Write it out just as a teacher is required to write out lesson plans. Put the plan into words on a document stating specifically what is being done in your school to support any teachers’ development. Do it step by step to include everything. What are the goals and what is the plan? Call it the Professional Support Plan. Make it public for all to see. After that, observe it. Analyze its effects. Reflect on results. Modify the plan where it is needed for better results. This should be a main objective of some administrator. Hold someone accountable for the success of support for the staff. Break down the “Us vs. Them” mentality and establish that we are educators all, and we are in this together.

Many reading this will say, “we do that already”. If that is the case then roll out that existing Support Plan Document and run it by your staff. See if they think it is an effective plan. Get a little collaboration on a document that could have a profound effect on the school’s staff. It might be possible that something was left out of the current plan, or maybe it lacks relevance because it was developed in the 90’s. Years in the 21st Century may see changes that might have taken Decades in the 20th Century.

Support, Transparency, Collaboration, Communication, and Creation are the things we need our educators working on today, since they are the very things we need to teach our kids for tomorrow. We have demands of our students and teachers that force them out of their comfort zones. It may be time to ask more of our administrators. They need not do more, but maybe they need to do better. We need to break some comfortable patterns of the past for more effective plans for the future. In order to change the system we need to first change the culture. Twentieth Century methodology is far less effective in meeting the needs of 21st Century students and teachers. We need to upgrade.

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 “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til your good is better and your better is best.” St. Jerome

After years of teaching in many buildings and several districts, I have acquired a number of observations on how teachers view and rate administrators. Of course everyone’s view is skewed by each person’s idea of how an administrator is supposed to provide leadership, as well as what amount of an administrator’s job should be administration and how much should be education. It has been my experience that more often than not an administrator’s worth is judged on faculty morale and school discipline within a building, or a district in the case of superintendents. Lack of student discipline and low faculty morale are too often indicators of poor leadership. These symptoms tend to expose the obvious poor leaders, who hopefully are not a large part of the system.

In my opinion the bigger issue is less obvious, how should we differentiate and improve between successful levels of school leadership? What are the differences between good, better, and best? Assuming the poor leaders stand out, how do we get good leaders to be better, and the better to be the best?

Getting educators to agree on generalities is not difficult, but getting them to agree on specifics is often a difficult, if not an impossible task. Most educators are thoughtful, reflective, and fair-minded when it comes to evaluating people, even administrators, since evaluation is part of their job when it comes to kids. Teachers often give administrators a wide berth either because they are kind and non-critical of authority, or compliant. Maybe more honest feedback to administrators from their staffs would affect a more positive change in the system.

School Culture is probably one of the greatest influences on the learning that takes place in any school. It is that institution’s attitude toward learning and respect for its learners. A good admin will recognize this, as well as the fact that it has the potential for coming from the bottom up as much as from the top down. A better admin will not only recognize this, but will use that culture in branding the school to the outside world. Not only is it important for a school to do a good job, it is also important for an admin to tell everyone about it. The best admins not only recognize the culture and use it in a positive form of marketing; they will feed into and nurture that culture to maximize its positive effect on staff and students alike. This then carries over to the parents involving the entire community in learning and supporting the education community.

Observations are rarely comfortable for teachers and too often a time-consuming necessity for administrators. A good admin will use it as a tool for improvement, and not a club to intimidate teachers. A fair assessment of pre-determined objectives during a lesson is a mark of a good administrator. To pay attention to pre and post conference meetings to set goals and offer constructive feedback is a higher-level observation is the mark of a better admin. Of course the more collaborative the observations, as well as using lead teachers as models, or exemplars the more comfortable teachers become with the process. They feel as if they are part of the process instead of being a target of it. Thoughtfully sharing teacher successes with the faculty is often the mark of a great administrator. This enables the admin to nurture support and improve the performance of the staff.

Of course there is the idea that the head of any school system or building should also be the “Lead Learner”. With all that is required of modern administrators and the drain on their time, this part of the job is often overlooked. Any admin should recognize the need for at least one lead learner in a building, an individual with insights into the workings of relevant teaching and learning. They recognize the need for someone who the staff can go to for modeling the latest and greatest in the profession. The better admins are those people who are the go to people for how to approach learning in relevant ways. Of course the best admins are not only lead learners, but they take every opportunity available, as well, as to create opportunities to share and collaborate on learning with the staff. They model their approach to learning every day. They innovate ways to involve and lead their staff in teaching and learning.

Relevance is another very important measurement in being an effective administrator. Most administrators are products of a 20th Century education. Too often many administrators base their education philosophies on their college training, which is usually steeped in 20th Century methodology. That works well if the school itself has a staff that employs 20th Century methods. The problem arises when we consider that we are teaching over a decade into the 21st Century. 21st Century learning uses different tools, and different methodologies from that of the 20th Century and it is the 21st Century and beyond that we are preparing our students to live in. Using 20th century measurements to assess 21st Century teaching and learning may not be the best way to assess how much learning is going on in any given school.

Relevance has become a key issue in education today. In a computer-driven society change is constant and rapid. To keep up with change and maintain relevance Administrators along with all other educators need to expose themselves to the latest theories and methods within the profession of education. Of course the poorest of Administrators will stand out like dinosaurs holding on to centuries past in education, but lets get to the rest. The good admins recognize rapid change and support technology, and recognize that things must change from the 20th Century. Better admins are reading and sharing Blog posts, supplying relevant PD to support the technology brought into the building. The best however, are not only connected educators, they Blog, provide time for teachers to collaborate, plan for the tech in their building with ongoing PD and coaching, model the use of technology in their interaction with staff and students. They are immersed in 21st Century learning and all that it involves: collaboration, communication, curation, creation, critical thinking, reflection, authentic learning, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. The very best lead their staff by providing more sources and opportunities to connect, reflect, and collaborate further.

Being an administrator today is a most difficult job. It would be highly unusual for any administrator to have all of the best attributes, but it does serve well as a goal for which they should strive. Why not reflect on what we do, and how we do it. If we are good let’s strive for better. If we are better let’s fight on to be the best. It doesn’t have to be all at once. Let’s do it one category at a time. Motivating others is an important skill for a successful administrator, but the best administrators are self-motivators as well. But then again, what do I know; I am but a retired English teacher?

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