Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Don't Show Me Your Plans

There is an old joke that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.  If you want to give teachers one more reason to quit, ask to see theirs.

I have heard many stories from my mom about her elementary teaching career in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.  Often they involved her beloved principal, Mr. Montgomery.  Among her favorites is the one in which he told her, a young teacher early on the shared journey of discovery that is education, why he did not need to see her lesson plans each week as other principals did.  He considered her a professional and trusted her to do her job.

Patricia Perkins, my mom

She has reflected many times how good that made her feel.  She was new to the profession, but this seasoned educational leader trusted her, and he proved it by not looking over her shoulder or micromanaging what she did in her classroom.

As I have written, bad administrators are killing education, and this type of "quality control" is one more weapon in their arsenal.  As one Forbes article puts it, "No job worth doing breaks down into tiny, measurable parts.  Good jobs are whole. You know what your mission is and you work toward your mission every day, checking in with your manager as appropriate. Run away from any company that surrounds you with yardsticks and measurements."  Evaluations based on whether or not objectives are displayed on the board or on the proper filling out of suffocating lesson and unit planners reveal absolutely nothing about whether teachers are teaching well.  They reveal merely a person's ability to snap to attention when the jackboots come marching, their ability to jump through hoops that any sane person would recognize are insulting and ridiculous.

Is there a place for planning in a teacher's life?  There most certainly is.  When I dream some fantastic new project for my students, I have to come down out of the clouds and begin to plan.  I have to consider what I want them to achieve in the project, what their role and my role should be, what resources we will need, where we will get them if we do not have them, how long we can spend on the project, what must be shifted or removed to make room for it, and a host of other pedagogically responsible factors.

Will anyone see these plans?  Possibly.  One of my colleagues who teaches French frequently collaborates with me on a project her students and my Latin students engage in together.  We share these ideas and plans with our department chair, sometimes to get her input, other times to ask for her assistance, and often just to bring her into the sheer fun and excitement of it.

There are also sound reasons for a leader or administrator to see the written plans of a teacher.  Pre-service teachers in field experiences or student-teaching programs benefit from the slow, careful process of writing out plans and can gain much from discussing those plans with a trusted leader or mentor.  And of course there are times when even experienced teachers may need guidance, whether because they are teaching something new or for whatever reason are not at their best.  Working with a valued leader on planning can help teachers reach their potential.

But consider what is gained by not requiring veteran teachers who are experts both in their fields and in pedagogy to submit lesson and unit plans for evaluation.  It sends the clear message that they are trusted professionals and valued colleagues.  Any administrator who has to check whether an objective is written on a board or whether plans have been uploaded in a certain format in order to determine whether a teacher is teaching well should be fired, for that administrator lacks true discernment.  Good education leaders are in classrooms.  They work with, not above teachers.  They watch and listen to students.  Do your neighbors really have to knock on your door to tell you they are pulling the lawn mower out of the garage for you to know whether they are maintaining their yards?

My wife and I recently cleaned the blades on our ceiling fans, and our daughter, age 12, wanted to help.  I set up the ladder and showed her how to detach the blades and the glass covering of the light.  I helped her a bit on the first fan, but when we took the ladder into another room, I only stood nearby and did not help.  At one point she was uncertain if she could hold the glass covering with one hand and unscrew the nut with her other.  I told her that although she may have felt uncertain of her abilities, I was quite confident in them and then proved my confidence by not interfering.  Can you imagine what it would do for teachers if their administrators demonstrated such confidence in them?  My mom can not only imagine it.  She remembers it fondly more than fifty years later.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bad Administrators Are Killing Education

Perhaps more than any other single factor, bad administrators are killing education.

That is a bold statement when the ability to educate our young people is under assault from poverty, poor home situations, a runaway obsession with testing, the misuse of data to malign teachers and hurt students, blind worship of technology that in some cases brings more harm than good, and insulting attempts to make educators feel like professionals instead of allowing them actually to be professionals with appropriate salaries and control over how they practice their craft.  Yet the ham-fisted, utterly misguided, and at times cruel leadership at district and building levels has produced "the most unkindest cut of all," leaving too many teachers with the choice of either crying, "Et tu, Brute?" to the those who should have had their backs instead of stabbing them, or leaving the profession.

I recently shared an article* on Facebook, one more in a seemingly endless series of its kind, about a good teacher leaving the profession.  This was not a new teacher who got in over his head or an older teacher who left because she was burned out.  I sarcastically suggested in my preface to the post that there was no problem in teachers leaving for, as some administrators say, there are plenty to take their place.  I had no idea the hornet's nest I had poked.

In the days that followed, Twitter messages, emails, and Facebook messages bombarded me with stories from around the country of teachers bearing witness to hearing what is quite possibly the stupidest line of thinking that should get any leader fired for speaking it.  Please note that the stories you are about to hear must remain anonymous.  I will give no indication of any teacher's name, subject matter, or state, and that alone is a matter worthy of concern, because the prevailing emotion in so many of our toxic school environments is fear.  Teachers are afraid, and it is not because they are emotional snowflakes who need to grow up.  It is because too many administrators, far from doing their job of fostering an environment in which teachers can do theirs, have created, whether through ignorant neglect or genuinely malevolent intent, a sweatshop mentality complete with dread of the overseer's whip.  Fear is completely incompatible with education, but that will be a topic for another time.

What follows, then, are comments shared with me from teachers across the country.  After a few responses to the article linked above, I asked whether educators had heard administrators say that there were plenty of teachers to take the places of those who leave, or a variant of that.  The results were as follows, and there is no pattern of their coming from certain geographic regions or from one type of school or district over another.

Not comfortable responding to your fb post, however, our HR Director told us in negotiations "...that there is a line of teachers waiting to take [our] place."

Teachers talk about administrators feeling that way; colleagues have throughout my career.

I've had it said to me two minutes before I was supposed to start teaching for the day.

At a new teacher hire, I heard, "With all due respect, as Beyonce says, 'Don't you ever for a second get to thinkin' you're irreplaceable.'"

I've heard it as well, multiple times and once through my own experience.

It makes me sad to say, but yes I have heard that at least once a year during my 15 years as a teacher.

Regrettably, I've heard it.  I heard it said of some of the best educators with whom I have worked or co-taught.

On more than one occasion, I've heard a district administrator...state, "If they [teachers] don't like it, there are plenty of openings at McDonald's."  Also, a district administrator...sent an email to a colleague with a link to a job opening in a neighboring district after she pointed out the potential impact of budget cuts on her department.  It has been an interesting few years to say the least.  It is one thing to deal with external perceptions of education and teachers; it's another when it is from within, especially from those in "leadership" positions.

"Everyone's replaceable" has been spoken many times in my school.

Quote at a school board meeting when a good young teacher decided to switch schools, "There is no one who can't be replaced."

Spoken by the principal to a colleague and me in his office when we told him about ill-will among the faculty, "When they leave, we will cry for three minutes and get back to work.  I have a long list of people wanting jobs."

I've heard it in [name of state].

Yep, in [name of state] I've heard it.

A former superintendent used to say that -- she used to say that teachers should be grateful for the jobs they have because there are lots of people lined up waiting to take them.

I've heard it several times in my own district and others in [name of state].  It's so disheartening.  We have so many vacancies.

One of many reasons I moved into administration.  I have heard it across the state in several districts. 

I've heard it -- especially at negotiation time.

I've sadly heard it when I taught in [name of state] and a few years ago back in [name of state].

My superintendent said a couple years ago that English teachers are a dime a dozen.

It's said regularly.

If you are a parent, talk to your children's teachers and administrators and find out for yourself the true culture of their school, making sure to encourage those leaders who are serving well.  If you are in a university school of education, visit some schools in your state and discover for yourself their culture and then set yourself to the task of crafting leadership training programs capable of producing the leaders our children and teachers need.  If you are a teacher, work well with your administrators.  Lead up by sharing good leadership materials with your department chairs, principals, and superintendents.  Encourage them when they do well.  And if the environment of your school or district is such that you cannot be the teacher you were made to be, do not leave the profession, but find another place where you can thrive.  The power of Pharaoh was broken by the exodus.

Whoever you are, as you go about the shared work of ensuring our children are well grounded in the past and present for their callings in the future, allow this extended email from a colleague of mine to motivate you.

It was via email, and regarding an extracurricular position I held. I have done this position for years, and the district has been very pleased with how I managed it, having brought it back from kind of a mess, thanks to my insane organization. However, it's a ton of work and for several years I've been feeling tired of being taken advantage of and tried to give it up. 

This year there were some particular concerns I was raising, ethical concerns about some other staff members' conduct. When I approached admin about the fact that I wanted to give up my position, I told him I was concerned about handing it over to someone not as conscientious of the potential issues, as they've had difficulty getting the position adequately filled in the past, and I wanted to make sure to leave it in good hands because the integrity of the program meant a great deal to me.

Rather than addressing my concern he said, "Do the position or don't do the position. If you don't, someone else will"  (paraphrase... i'm uncomfortable using his exact quote, but he did use the word *replaceable*).  My immediate response was that he'd just made my decision really easy, and I emailed him back and said I wouldn't be doing it anymore.

This was said via email, at 7:28AM, as my 11th graders were walking in the door. I stood up to start class and as I was going over the agenda I just broke down. I had to excuse myself and took a couple of minutes to calm down. I told them "I'm sorry, something just happened that really upset me, and it has nothing to do with you."

There are a few things to this:

1) The fact that it was said in response to me raising concerns... it felt like he was saying "we'll find someone who's not going to raise a fuss" and it discounted all the heart and soul I'd put into the program for six years and trying to do the right thing.

2) While on the surface it's a logical and true statement, it's certainly not a great way to get your people to want to pour their heart into something that has few extrinsic rewards.

3) Our school has a major "positive school culture" initiative. Our principal is a driving force behind it, and goes out of his way to do special things and make it a positive environment. In many ways, he's wonderful at that task. But when he gets stressed out in the spring, he lashes out at people... and often times he lashes out at his best people, the ones who are going above and beyond, the ones who are truly giving their all. But those day-to-day interactions mean just as much, if not more, than all of the positive murals and pep talks and recognitions and assemblies. I suspect he said it out of frustration with something that probably had nothing to do with me, but that's not an excuse, and I will never forget how worthless and unappreciated it made me feel that morning. I don't think I will ever have an interaction with him not colored by that experience.

*Here is an important and related article, whose comments are equally worth reading.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Disposition to Learn

Being willing to be told one is wrong is a necessary disposition for learning.

Docility is crucial for a learner.  In fact, it is a necessary condition for learning, which means that without it, learning cannot occur.  Unfortunately, docility, or the quality of being docile, has taken on the sense of being quiet and meek, shy and retiring, unable or unwilling to raise one's voice.  Yet, as with so many ideas and words in English, if we look at the Latin root we come to a better understanding.  The word "docility" comes from that Latin verb docere, meaning "to teach."  Docility is, therefore, quite simply the quality of being able to be taught, which is not an inherent quality or one shared by all people at all times.  In other words, not everyone is docile.  Not everyone can be taught.

Consider for a moment the obvious.  You could not be taught how to change the oil in your car if you were asleep.  Your dormant state would leave you incapable of learning.  The same would be true if you were listening to music loud enough to render people unconscious.  Unable to hear what the instructor was telling you, you could not learn.  You would likely learn little to nothing about changing your car's oil if you were being instructed while observing the bone protruding from your broken leg.  The intense pain and shock would make you less than docile.

These, of course, are circumstantial limitations to docility, and many people recognize similar limitations at work in the lives of school-aged children.  Poverty, violence, and abuse are but three.

Yet there are other behaviors, attitudes, and mindsets that can limit or entirely block or support a student's docility.  Some of these are derivative of circumstances and others are within the direct control of students themselves, but taken together they form the disposition for learning that every student brings into the classroom, and it is this disposition that determines whether a student at any given moment in any given subject is docile enough to learn.

Perhaps the most significant attitude leading to a docile disposition is the willingness to be told that one is wrong.  Consider two proverbs and the lyrics to a pop song.

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.  (Proverbs 12:1,  ESV)

Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.  (Proverbs 15:32, ESV)

One night, me with my big mouth,
Couple guys had to put me in my place.
When I see those guys these days,
We just laugh and say,
"Do you remember when?"  ("Cherry Bomb," John Mellencamp)

It is no insult to be told that you are wrong about something.  Admittedly, there are better and worse ways of telling someone this, but regardless of how the information is communicated, a person must be willing to accept it when it is true or he cannot learn.  It is a necessary, a without-which-not characteristic of being docile.

One the best ways parents and those entrusted with the care and nurture and education of young children can prepare them for a lifetime of learning is to help them understand what it means when they are told that they are wrong about something.  It means that they are wrong, nothing more and nothing less.  It does not mean that they are bad.  It is not a statement about their character, unless, of course, that about which they are wrong is a moral action.  It does not mean that the one stating the fact thinks ill of them or will no longer love them.  This last statement is vital to understanding this key component of docility.  My telling a student that he or she has formed a verb incorrectly in no way indicates my lack of love for that student, but rather is proof of my care and concern.  I would not want my students to make fools of themselves by writing something incorrectly.  I love them too much.

To be sure, this is a mature concept to grasp, but then education is largely an enterprise for the mature of any given age.  Those called to the shared journey of discovery that is education must help those on the way know how to accept when they have been told that they are headed down a wrong path.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Teacher's Jewels

When I attended the commencement for our high school's senior class, I took pictures.  I was hardly alone in this as parents and grandparents and friends of the graduates took enough photos with their phones and tablets to have exhausted Kodak's store of celluloid back in the day.  As a teacher, whose legal responsibility is to act in loco parentis, I shared their pride and beamed widely as my Latin students joined over eight hundred of their classmates to receive their diploma.

Once they have graduated, these students may join a Facebook group of my former students, which spans more than a quarter century.  There we share photos and memories.

Why do I take pictures of my graduates?  Why do I want to keep in contact with them?  Why do I take as much pleasure in their announcements of collegiate and work achievements, marriages, and births as I did when they won a ribbon in a Junior Classical League competition?  It is because of Cornelia.


In his Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, Valerius Maximus reported this about a woman named Cornelia.

Maxima ornamenta esse matronis liberos, apud Pomponium Rufum collectorum libro * sic inuenimus: Cornelia Gracchorum mater, cum Campana matrona apud illam hospita ornamenta sua pulcherrima illius saeculi ostenderet, traxit eam sermone, <donec> e schola redirent liberi, et 'haec' inquit 'ornamenta sunt mea'.  4.4.init.

"Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, when a matron from Campania showed her her jewels, the most beautiful of that time, plied the woman with conversation until her children returned from school and said, 'These are my jewels.'"


My wife and I have two wonderful children, and they are, of course, the crown jewels of my life.  Yet these students are jewels as well, filling the treasury of teaching.  I take pride in them much as their own parents do.

This young man spent as much time in the French teacher's (pictured here) room as in mine!

And I love sharing this pride with those parents.  I text them the pictures I have taken and tag them with the photos on Facebook.  I know how much it means to my wife and me when we hear from others about our children.  Many teachers take pictures of their students, and I would encourage all to share those pictures with the students' families.  Like Cornelia, they already see their children as jewels, but it is always nice to know that others think the same.