Category Archives: Teacher Appreciation

Rethinking Parent-Teacher Conferences: Putting People First

Our older son had a significant speech delay and a summer birthday. We decided to send him to preschool on time, and he did fairly well. But, his anxiety and speech challenges led to our decision to work with the school and teachers and repeat his preschool year; so, he was in preschool for two years and attends the Pre-K class this year. The school has been wonderful in supporting our decision and communicating his socialization successes and learning gains.

Preschool Craft Project by Lisa @ Sierra TierraI attended my first parent-teacher conference this week as a parent instead of a teacher. I knew that our son’s teacher would show me examples of his handwriting, paper cutting, gluing, and other fine and gross motor skills work. I knew she would discuss his behavior in class and interaction with the other children. I knew she would tell me what we can work on to support him at home.

I also knew that she would talk to me about my son as the small human that he is. I did not hear about any data, any test scores, or any state-level assessments. Yes, this is because he is in Pre-K. But, what if every teacher approached this week’s parent-teacher conferences in the same way, regardless of the grade level?

An article by Randy Turner, a former English teacher, got me thinking about this idea of humans, rather than data, in the classroom. I also spoke with several parents and attended a community meeting this past week regarding issues in my local school district, and the theme of teachers and kids, not test scores, was prevalent. One parent even said, “I don’t care about the test scores. Well, I care about them, but you know what I mean.”

I did know what the parent meant; in this age of Common Core, we speak about kids and schools and teachers in terms of numbers and not in terms of people. We can change the course of the discussion this week, as thousands of parents enter schools for conferences before Thanksgiving break.

Last week, I urged teachers to have TRUTHful parent-teacher conferences. In that article, I pointed to states like Colorado and Florida that are making strides in the Opt Out Movement and shared information on opting out in Pennsylvania. I heard from several teachers who said they planned to share the opt out information this week with parents; but, I also heard from a few teachers who were afraid to do so because they do not know what administration would do if they found out what the teachers were doing. Fear is understandable in the current climate, though I urge teachers to keep in mind that the current course will not change without their courage to speak up and share information with parents.

One thing that all teachers can and must do this week during their conferences is to put the kids back at the heart of the discussion. Talk about them as the creative, inquisitive young people that they are. Talk about their progress in terms of learning and understanding. Talk about their challenges and struggles in terms of obstacles that can be met with a team approach from school and home. Don’t talk about them in terms of percentages, DIBELS levels, or predicted scores.

Student Led Conference 20 maart 2009 by De Rode Leeuw in BeijingBetter yet, help students lead the discussion during the conference. If you’ve been keeping a portfolio of their work, ask them to choose two or three samples to share with parents during their conference. If you don’t have time to do this in class this week, ask students who attend the conferences with their parents to go through their folders while you begin the conference and then bring them into the discussion with their samples. Facilitate the discussion by asking them which samples they chose and why. Encourage them to talk about their success as well as their challenges, because they will take ownership of their work and their responsibilities moving forward if they take part in the decision-making process.

My favorite line from Turner’s article is: “There is no data that has ever been created that can replace an excellent teacher.” He is exactly right. But, there is no number that truly represents what a student is capable of, or already is achieving, either. Make your parent-teacher conferences count this year by talking about kids, understanding, and learning instead of the data. The parents will thank you for it.

Images via Flickr by Lisa @ Sierra Tierra and De Rode Leeuw in Beijing

Teachers, Not Superintendents, Deserve Recognition

The TRUTH is, teachers are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Tug of War by JoePhilipsonadministering standardized and high-stakes tests. While the opt out movement gains steam and moves forward, teachers face a very difficult reality of playing by the rules or risking their jobs by being insubordinate. Recently, more and more teachers across the nation are choosing to refuse to administer the tests; but other teachers face backlash and repercussions for doing so.

The irony of the situation is that when the test scores are released, it often is the district superintendents who receive all of the praise. If teachers are abiding by the rules and administering the tests, and often putting aside their own feelings toward the testing madness in the process, let’s give credit where it is due.

During this era of low morale, increased responsibilities for data collection and analysis, more hoops to jump through in the evaluation process, and larger piles of paperwork that include several extra hours of work for lesson planning and completing report cards, it is the teachers who work tirelessly in the trenches to teach and support their students. Often, all of the district and state mandates are a tough pill to swallow for educators who just want to teach, so giving them the credit is the least their administrators and communities can do.

A September 2014 blog post, “The Myth of the Superstar Superintendent,” points out that school district superintendents “often get lots of media attention, are in charge of big budgets and, in theory, set the educational agenda.” But, it questions whether these administrators truly matter in terms of student success and cites a study that analyzed student scores from two states over a ten year-period to determine the answer.

Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, co-authored a broad study that examines the link between superintendents and student achievement. Chingos and his co-authors, Grover Whitehurst and Katharine Lindquist, determined that “hiring a new superintendent made almost no difference in student success.” As Chingos puts it, “‘We just don’t see a whole lot of difference in student achievement that correlates with who the superintendent happens to be.’”

Another important finding of the study is that student achievement does not improve the longer a superintendent serves in a district. In fact, Chingos contends that it is the wider school system, including the culture, community, and local school board that are much more influential than the person serving as the superintendent. “‘When you see a district that’s doing really well with a visionary superintendent, it may also have a very proactive school board, a very involved community, and a whole bunch of other things.’”

Along the same lines, education writer and author Dana Goldstein contends that “‘too many Paperwork by luxomediasuperintendents have been paper-pushing administrative overlords wedding to traditionalist views and averse to change.’” Goldstein also differentiates between successful and poor superintendents: “‘A good superintendent empowers leading visionary principals and teacher leaders at the school.’ … But what actually happens too often is that superintendents ‘squash interesting ideas, so you’d have principals afraid to try something new, afraid to try something innovative.’”

As author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, Goldstein reflects on the public school system and contends that public schools “desperately need more autonomy and authority to innovate.” Goldstein says, “‘Sustainable education reform in the United States is going to come from the bottom up.’ … ‘There is too much focus on these top-down reformers and the idea of the crusading, superstar superintendent. And not enough on the people who matter more – the principals and teachers.’”

_MG_9850 by Saul LewisUntil the high-stakes testing madness ends or a national moratorium on standardized testing is put into place, we need to consider where we place our praise and recognition. Let’s give teachers the credit they are due, even if we don’t agree with the current testing, curricula, and timelines under which they are suffering.

Images via Flickr by JoePhilipson, luxomedia, and Saul Lewis

Listen, Understand, Act by Steven Shorrock

Teachers Need to Send a TRUE Message

So many teachers responded to my post, “The Tide Is Turning.” As per the norm since Angela and I started TRUTH In Teaching, the majority of responses came through email and personal messages. Again, I am reminded of the sad reality that teachers are afraid to tell the truth and share their thoughts publicly, because they are being subjected to intimidation and retribution. A very telling theme emerged from the responses: teachers are being told to be positive and to put on a good face for the public.

I wish I could say I was surprised by this, but I’m not. All too often, administrators who are pushing their own agendas and interests encourage teachers to stand united in support of the district and don a facade for the public, especially when negotiations are occurring. The problem with this directive, of course, is that it paints a false picture. It makes school boards believe that teachers are on board with policies and directives that are not in the best interests of students or teachers. It makes parents think that the teachers whole-heartedly accept all of the paperwork, assessments, and curriculum changes that follow the corporate, Common Core, and administrative agendas.

Make Our Schools a Priority by GreenNetizenI am discouraged by the fact that so many educators from all corners of the country are hearing the same messages from their administrators. Making it work and smiling for the parents and public is what has gotten us into this mess. Of course parents and community members are going to sit back and allow students to be tested incessantly and teachers to be burdened with more district-level lesson plan, assessment, and curriculum responsibilities when the teachers appear to think those things are a-okay.

The front office directive of “Be positive (or else”) is irony at its worst. There is a reason districts feel compelled to demand that their teachers be positive. Morale is at an all-time low across the country. Teachers are being tasked with more and more at every turn. Students are spending more time preparing for and taking assessments than ever before. Funding is at its lowest levels and class sizes are at their highest.

But, revoking the teachers’ ability to have honest, open dialogue with each other, parents, and community members, as well as administrators and school boards, in the name of “positivity” is absurd. Holding meetings to tell teachers to refrain from participating in public discussions about the current state of things in classrooms and schools cannot be a better use of time than truly listening to teachers’ concerns. Hiding behind the premise of an “open dialogue” and then telling teachers who have lists of questions that it would be better to meet one-on-one is insulting. And, telling teachers they cannot speak with school board members is unethical. What are districts so afraid of? Why are administrators so afraid of having discussions in a large, open forum? It seems as though they are following the “divide and conquer” mindset. That only works if we allow them to do it.

Again, I encourage you to look to the districts who have not taking things sitting down. Teachers in Chicago, IL; Reynoldsburg, OH; York City, PA; Jefferson County, CO; Philadelphia, PA; San Ysidro, CA; and others have had the courage to publicly speak out against policies that negatively impact their profession, classrooms, and students. Individual teachers are joining the Badass Teachers Association, and many of them also are supporting the United Opt Out movement and Peggy Robertson (we are sharing much of Peggy’s work on our Facebook page for easier access). These teachers are making sure that they share the TRUTH about the things that are occurring in their districts. Instead of facing an angry mob of parents and community members, they are finding overwhelming support from Listen, Understand, Act by Steven Shorrockother teachers, parents, community members, and students. Teachers have found allies in other stakeholders and are still working together to rally, protest, and explain their side of things with TRUTH at the heart of the gatherings.

Censorship has no place in public education. Teachers are professionals. They have a right to stand up, speak out, and share their opinions and concerns. They should not fear a confrontation with an angry administrator for using their First Amendment right. They also have a right to educate the public about the challenges, problems, and issues that are occurring in their classrooms, schools, and districts. Teachers work every day to eradicate ignorance. It seems as though administrative and corporate agendas want to foster it.

Teachers: Which message are you sending?

Images via Flickr by GreenNetizen and Steven Shorrock

The Tide Is Turning

Teachers are notorious for being the ones who don’t want to rock the boat. They are hesitant to speak up and speak out, fearing backlash from administrators, parents, the community, and other stakeholders.

But, we teach the First Amendment in our classrooms. We teach our students to stand up for themselves and to support their ideas and opinions with what they learn. So, we must practice what we preach, if we are to be the role models and teachers that we strive to be. We are the ones who know what will and will not work in our classrooms. If people don’t hear from us, they won’t know what things are really like. If people don’t hear from us, they won’t know that we see an urgent need for change. If people don’t hear from us, they won’t know the TRUTH.

The First Amendment by Ed Uthman

Yet, the current system places “gag orders” on teachers. Yes, even in a country where ALL of its citizens are protected by the First Amendment in the United States Constitution, teachers do not have the right to free speech. As Franchesca Warren points out in “The Deafening Silence of Teachers,” the teachers do not feel that they have the ability to speak without fear of retribution: “Somewhere between the United States Constitution and modern day education reform in America, teachers have lost their ability to speak up about injustices without fear of retribution.” And, she questions why teaching is the only profession where this seems to be the case.

Warren points out what we have seen since August, when I wrote my letter to Campbell Brown about her group’s attack on teacher tenure in New York. The emails, messages, and phone calls have been pouring in ever since from teachers across the country – teachers who thank us for speaking out when they cannot. We have provided a space for anonymous submissions simply because teachers have expressed a desire to speak out without fearing for their jobs. But, we still hear from teachers who want to talk “off the record,” who don’t want to share their names, and who only want to interact with us privately because they are afraid, are being intimidated, or both.

Warren perfectly captures what we are experiencing with our followers: “there are educators who are petrified of speaking out against the wrongs we are currently witnessing in education today. To demonstrate how freedom of speech is nonexistent in some schools, walk into any school and ask a teacher to go on record to discuss the ills in public education. Instead of getting an abundance of answers you will be met with a deafening silence. Silence not because teachers don’t have an opinion, but silence because their words many times are used to hurt them professionally. Apparently, the First Amendment does not apply to teachers.” Warren describes the same problems we are seeing with TRUTH In Teaching.

She approached teachers to write about their classroom experiences, only to be told that they were too scared about upsetting their principals if they did. Her reaction? “I was floored. When did it become okay for administrators, school boards and district offices to decide what OUR truths were?” We want to know the same thing.

But, in the past few weeks, we have seen the power of teachers speaking up. Publicly. Loudly. Warren points to district administrators like John Kuhn who have had enough: read his “Exhaustion of the American Teacher.”

We at TRUTH In Teaching have been bringing you the stories of teachers like Susan Bowles and Peggy Robertson, both currently teaching while refusing to administer assessments and using social media to explain themselves.

We also have been sharing blog posts and updates from York City Public Schools, where teachers, community members, and now education activists are fighting back against Governor Tom Corbett’s appointee’s attempted corporate takeover of York City schools.

Free speech = reason = progress by Simon GibbsAnd, we have been sharing news out of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, where teachers are receiving overwhelming support from the parents, students, and community as they strike to make their voices heard.

Even more encouraging is the fact that students are taking up the charge against unfair practices and changes in the classroom. Not only are students supporting teachers in Reynoldsburg, but students in Denver walked out to protest the new AP U.S. History curriculum.

Look. Listen. Teachers are not just beginning to rock the boat. They are starting a tidal wave, along with parents, students, and community supporters. The more voices that join in, the louder we will get. There are more teachers than there are opponents.

Speak up. Join in. Send education reform, Common Core, and the people trying to silence us out to sea. It’s time.

Images via Flickr by Ed Uthman and Simon Gibbs

How the LLWS Can Change the Discussion on Education

Who was your favorite teacher? No, seriously. This only works if you play along. So, think about it. Ready? Okay. Who is it? And, more important, why did you pick that person? I’ll bet you smiled just thinking about it.

Now, name your favorite test. Go on. Need more time? We’ve got all the time in the world. I’ll bet you still can’t do it.

One last question: Why are people celebrating the Rhode Island coach from the LLWS? That’s an easy one, if you’ve seen any news channel, sports channel, newspaper, or social media outlet in the past few days. People are praising and loving Dave Belisle. And, they absolutely should be. He took a group of devastated young players and gave them the speech of a lifetime. Dave transcended the role of coach and became a mentor, counselor, cheerleader, and confidante in those few minutes on the field. In other words, he became a teacher.

So, in the middle of thBaseball by Joel Dindais war on teachers, why is this guy getting so much attention and so many accolades? He simply was talking to a bunch of kids. They didn’t even win. What’s the big deal?

The big deal is, he has built a relationship with those kids. You can see the pride in his eyes, and you can hear the love in his voice as he addresses his players. He is their Coach. They showed up to practice for him. They missed family gatherings and summer holiday fun time for him. They hustled around the bases and off the fields for him. And, they gathered around him when they most needed comfort after their heartbreaking loss.

You see, he does deserve the attention he is getting. He took the time to get to know those players and encourage them to be their very best, for months. He challenged them and pushed them, and they made it all the way to the Little League World Series. They probably exceeded their expectations and their predicted performance levels that were set on that very first day of practice, oh so long ago. So, I’m not too far off when I call him a teacher, am I?

The glaring disparity between this coach and a teacher is that the public at large has embraced him as a role model and a hero among men while they criticize, belittle, and attack teachers who do the very same things. And, don’t forget, teachers do these things for kids on a daily basis, outside of the limelight and often without the support of parents. I’m not saying teachers are better than this coach. I AM saying that teachers deserve the same respect as this coach.

But, this guy’s kids are losers: they’ve been eliminated. They weren’t proficient in the game of baseball. Where’s his improvement plan? Where’s his cut in pay? Where’s his constant monitoring and evaluating of scores and performance? It seems ridiculous to even ask these questions because it is ridiculous. These are kids. They were playing baseball. There has to be a losing team because it’s a game. But, they played their hearts out for their Coach, and they gave it their all because that’s what he taught them to do.

And yet, we hold teachers responsible for the very same things that seem so ridiculous for a baseball coach. The students taking those high-stakes tests that determine their teachers’ evaluations and, oftentimes, their schools’ funding levels, are kids. And, those kids need love and praise and encouragement just like Dave’s players; the sad thing is, they often need it most after they have lost the testing game despite putting in so much effort all year long. In spite of it all, kids are learning so many things as they make their way through school, thanks to the teachers who don’t think the assessments are the be-all and end-all of the public education system.

Teachers will tell you that education is not a game, but the assessment companies (aka Pearson) and state and federal governments have turned it into a game by incentivizing education and declaring that it’s a “Race to the Top.” Whose scores can improve the most and the fastest? Which kids can be declared proficient? And, even worse, Pearson and the state of New York reportedly changed the rules of the game while it was being played, by toying with the number of questions students needed to get correct in order to be declared proficient.

LLWSIt’s amazing how hard kids will work when they have a person that they know, trust, and respect leading them. The same certainly cannot be said about kids who are being taught with technology and computer systems that assess the daylights out of them. When you take the teachers out of teaching, you take the kids’ motivation and effort in learning along with them.

So, Dave Belisle should be your favorite coach. And, the next time that you share or comment on that video of his speech, or even talk about it at your own kid’s Fall ball practice, point out that those coaches are teachers, whether they have an education degree or not. You just may get people thinking about all that teachers do for kids, and you may just start to change the discussion about public education in this country.

Then, send your favorite teacher a thank-you note. It’s the least you could do.

Baseball image via Flickr by Joel Dinda