Demoralizing Teachers Does Not Solve Problems

Many public school systems are discussing whether or not to publicize teacher effectiveness data. As a parent, I already know in whose classroom I hope to have my child. Because I’m involved with the school, I know who to support and who to challenge. I can pick my battles.

Parents who do not become involved in their child’s school are not going to be motivated to do so by public reporting. Did you all not read The Scarlet Letter? Was this not a metaphor that proved that shaming people publicly causes more problems than it solves?

I am posting a link to an interesting article online that supports what I am saying here. If our effectiveness measure is truly about growth and not “gotcha,” then publishing grades for teachers is not going to assist teachers in finding ways to improve their practice. Instead, we might just frustrate someone who has a lot of potential, causing them to find another career. There is no guarantee that the person who takes that job instead is going to have a higher score.

Article by Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America

Learning Is Like a Good, Quality Game of “Jenga.”

For a teacher to be purposeful with instruction, he/she must spend time planning each step of the learning process. Based on the research findings, featured in Table 2.1 of The Keys to Effective Schools edited by Willis Hawley, teachers must lead students to access prior knowledge at the beginning of the lesson. This can be done by having students complete a K-W-L chart or a journal entry that is focused on the theme or topic of the day’s lesson. Effective teachers also embed motivation into the learning exercise by matching student interest to the learning discussion. This could be by giving examples orally that include what you know about the students, such as, “When Jorge plays soccer, he tends to…” or “Since most of you enjoy science fiction, you should appreciate this short story.” Connecting student interest to the learning makes instruction seem more personal and more attainable.

Strategic processing is also necessary for an effective lesson. Basically, students must connect new knowledge to the time and space of what already exists in their schema. To fit it into their “mental filing cabinet” allows them to access that knowledge when they need to. For example, in a math lesson, the teachers should mention what part of yesterday’s lesson is the new lesson building upon or taking further. What’s important is using clear, specific vocabulary with kids so that they know how to label the folders in their “mental filing cabinet.” Even in third grade, when a teacher is having kids make inferences, the teacher must tell the students that they are making inferences. That way, when their sixth grade teacher builds upon that skill and asks them to make inferences again, the students aren’t anxious about the lesson thinking it’s something completely new and different. Even struggling students are more willing to try difficult concepts if teachers can show them how the standard is simply building on something they already know.

Teachers should embrace student differences and diversity within the classroom. Gone are the days where there is only one right answer to an open-ended question. As long as students are able to defend their argument using accurate evidence, then the student should receive credit for answering the question correctly. This is particularly true in a humanities-based class. With math, teachers should absolutely give partial credit to students who may not have the right answer but are able to show their work as following the correct process. On the other hand, if the student has a correct answer but does not show a logical process, the teacher should not give full credit. The student should be able to follow a different process from the teacher if it makes sense and would work in any situation, but if that process is fallible, points should be deducted from the work. Ask any student in elementary school, and you will find there are now, like, three different ways to complete multiplication with 3-digit numbers. Who knew?

Situation or context matters when students are building schema. Does the teacher want to alter the prior knowledge? If so, discussion has to be purposeful so that the student changes opinion or reality. Nobody can go into someone else’s “mental filing cabinet” and switch things around; only the owner has the power to do so. During instruction, this means that instead of always giving students the answers, teachers must ask purposeful questions to lead students to creating their own conclusions. For example, when starting a novel study, I always used an anticipation guide. When I taught a story about the Holocaust, I gave the students a “quiz” where they answered True/False questions about themes within the story, worded as statements about human relationships without using the words “Nazi” or “Jewish.” I then took up the papers and kept them in a folder while we studied our novel. At the end of the unit, I gave the students their paper and asked them to retake the “quiz” in a different color. Many students had changed their answers and opinions. Now, will these questions be on TCAP? No. However, this activity enhanced our discussion of character development, conflict, climax, and theme – all of which are indeed on TCAP. Through this strategy, the learning is more likely to “stick” in long-term memory and be accessible during the state test.

In any given school, it is probably safe to say that there are teachers who address all five areas every day and there are some teachers who do not. Some teachers are purposeful when planning a lesson, and some are not. Learning is like a good, quality game of “Jenga.” When it’s your turn, you cannot change the stack you are given. All you can do is carefully select what to move and replace. If every teacher was purposeful in this endeavor, maybe the stack would never fall? Maybe our students would build a knowledge base that could stand up to any challenge? I do believe that if we had effective vertical planning with teachers who are committed to purposeful lesson planning, then we could plan new lessons that keep kids moving forward with learning. Many of us have had classes where we feel like we have to start completely over because the teacher before us messed up the strategic process or created huge gaps in learning. Maybe this is the way to prevent that from happening again.

School Culture Makes the Difference

I wrote the following piece as a response to a discussion in my graduate class and thought I would share my thoughts on education reform.

It seems that every time I engage in a discussion about student achievement and teacher effectiveness, I always come full circle to the conclusion that the quality of leadership in the school can make or break any initiative.

For example, I am the lead real-time coach for Memphis City Schools. We use the “bug-in-ear” coaching model that is in real-time in the classroom with the teacher. Once a teacher receives training on the No-Nonsense Nurture Classroom Management model – which is coming to a school near you on February 7, for anyone who is interested – I go in with a team, and we coach the teachers. Over the last year, I’ve coached in several schools that, in my opinion, represent the continuum of student achievement across the district. Interestingly enough, this management model works with all types of students and all types of teachers.

What I discovered was a strong correlation between how much difference I could make as a coach and how much support was given to that teacher from the administration. For example, at one school, with full support from the principal and facilitator, I was able to coach a teacher from not being able to execute a lesson to teaching a full period with think-pair-share activities, in only four visits. On the other hand, we took a team to one school to coach and constantly were met with barriers. This teacher was unable to offically start class because kids came to class in waves. He kept having to repeat directions and his lesson introduction and couldn’t get the kids settled down. When we advised him to close his door at the start of class and hold kids accountable for being tardy, he was almost “afraid” to do it because the administration had fought him on that point all year. The administrators just wanted kids out of the hallway, and apparently arriving on time to class was not a priority for their school. We advised a few other teachers at that school to make basic teacher moves that would yield structure in the classroom, and we were told the administration wouldn’t allow it. To our credit, we did not leave that school until we had a serious sit-down with the principal to talk about school culture. He said he would have to think about our suggestions, even though the assistant principals agreed with our points.

So, bottom line, you can have the best instructional materials, instructional curriculum, professional development, and teacher talent. If you have a poor leader who will not support his teachers, then nothing will affect meaningful change. I believe that improving the school culture can make the difference in student achievement. Having a school where all staff members, meaning teachers and administrators, have a shared understanding and commitment to student achievement is the only way improvement can make a lasting difference. Improving school culture is key to making any meaningful change because it’s the culture that will endure the marathon – real change is not a sprint.

Ted Talk

Thanks to my colleague, Jessica Lotz, I have found this wonderful website called Ted Talk. There are many math and science videos that can inspire our kids and even teach some of us adults.

I wish I had this website when I was learning about the cells in our bodies. I enjoyed drawing my 3-D picture that was then hung on the wall outside my science classroom in the fifth grade, but I know I would have had a better understanding of the power of a cell had I been able to see this video years ago.

As a musician, I would be remiss if I did not include this awesome video of Jennifer Lin. While I have played around with piano improv myself, I can humbly admit she does this way better than I. The video begins with her playing a classical piece, but the fun part is towards the end when Goldie Hawn comes out of the audience to choose the five notes Jennifer will include in her improv. Awesome!!


Teacher Effectiveness in Chicago

The Teacher Effectiveness Movement is happening all over the country, not just in Memphis. It is interesting to read the outcomes of different ideas and pilots, like this one in Chicago. Take a look!

Student Achievement, Observations Correlated in Chicago Pilot

Data-Driven Decisions

About 14 weeks ago, Memphis City Schools implemented a new teacher observation rubric, the Teacher Effectiveness Measurement Rubric that we call “TEM.” As part of the district’s effort to raise the standards of teaching excellence, the TEM is structured with 5 levels of measurement, each with its own specific language of observed teacher actions and student actions. While raising standards is not a new idea, what we’re doing with the results of these observations is going to revolutionize how we support teachers.

While teachers and building-level administrators are working to analyze individual teacher data, district-level leaders are working to make meaning of aggregate data. We are spending hours discussing “big picture” implications so that we can meet that need by designing specific professional development programs for teachers. For example, we have noticed scores trending at a lower level in Teach 5, which is the area focused on higher order thinking skills and identifying the level of rigor in the teacher’s instruction. We are working on creating modules to support teacher understanding of scaffolding, higher level questioning, and metacognition, but we have also discussed working with observers to explore what teacher and student actions would look like when this indicator is being performed effectively. Because our rubric has such specific language, we are able to prescribe strategies to affect performance accurately, which is an improvement over not being able to do much with the previously vague rubric.

We are also working proactively to anticipate teacher needs as the first year with the new rubric progresses. The most exciting way to be prepared is to equip each school with a camera that is available to teachers for reflective practice purposes. We will be having workshops to train teachers on reflective practice, which involves using concrete evidence like student work or a video capture of a teacher in the field. Research has determined that this type of individualized professional development is the fastest way to affect teacher improvement. The best part is that any teacher at any level no matter the years of experience can benefit from watching a video of himself in action as this activity will either reinforce effective practice or reveal strategies or movements that need to be revised. Teachers will also be able to share these videos with mentors, professional learning teams, administrators, or even as part of a district-wide video library. We believe this tool will enhance our targeted teacher support efforts and allow those teachers who are superstars to display their talents for all to celebrate.

About 20 years ago, the typical approach for making instructional decisions was for the principal to analyze the big picture of how students were achieving in the school. A school improvement plan would be created to outline big goals for the school, teachers were trained, and students were taught using the new strategies or curriculum. About 10 years ago, educators realized that if student data was used to determine next steps in their instruction, then student scores showed gains faster. This approach met individual student needs so that ALL students were able to improve. Now, leaders are realizing that if we use student achievement data and various teacher data that we can differentiate instruction for teachers, which will improve student achievement and enhance retention efforts. By having specific language in the observation rubric, teachers and administrators are able to use the measurement to determine next steps for growth, and district-level leaders are able to use aggregate data to determine the support to provide for teachers. It’s the give-and-take that is changing the way we support teachers, who now have input and a higher level of participation with the entire process.

Communities for Teaching Excellence

Please check out this great community blog about the positive changes happening in Memphis. I like this source because a variety of writers are able to contribute different perspectives to the work. Note the September 29th blog – I met Darrell this week at a Teaching Channel dinner. He’s a great teacher who is very enthusiastic about teaching his kids at Cordova Middle, and I appreciate his notes featured here. Enjoy!

Enjoy the Silence

As part of a post-conference with a new teacher who I have been coaching for the past few weeks, I shared my observation that she talks at a non-stop pace. I then asked her, “Are you afraid of silence? Are you worried that if you stop speaking, that the kids will then begin talking again? Then, you might lose control of your classroom?”  I was moved by the fact that she honestly answered that I had identified her paradigm of classroom management. I believe that the fear of silence is a common struggle for new and seasoned teachers alike.

I was reflecting upon the coaching conversation one morning when I awoke. I am the type who loves my quiet time in the morning, but others wake up and immediately turn on the television. While driving in the car, I am always playing music or listening to someone else talk on the radio. When kids play, they giggle, sing, laugh, and add sound effects to their actions. So, the reality is that kids always seem to have noise in their lives. While I grew up in a time where silence was appreciated because it offered an opportunity to read or draw, our students live in a more technologically enriched environment. The simple activities of reading and drawing have been elevated to a more interactive level with apps and software that add animation and sound. If you think about it, children are rarely given meaningful moments of silence.

In discussing this point with the new teacher, we agreed that students who are rarely exposed to silence might be uncomfortable with the quiet in a public space, like a classroom. Maybe the students are talking to add noise to the environment as a way to comfort themselves. What does this mean for the teacher? To address the needs of the students, the teacher must strategically use noise to affect student behavior in a positive way. The best way to do this is to fill the void with music.

While I enjoy my 80’s music and Katy Perry as much as the next gal, I’m not too sure this music would increase my effectiveness in the classroom. Successful teachers are very purposeful when choosing the type of music that could support student engagement in an activity. While soothing, monotone music can calm down a group of hyper kids, music that is upbeat and has interesting syncopation can wake up the lethargic group in first period. My students also enjoyed listening to music from the time period we were studying, which added a whole new dimension to their understanding of the specific culture.

While most kids enjoy a brief musical interlude, some students do not benefit from this strategy. A student with Asperger syndrome or autism might bristle if the wrong type of song is played or if the volume is too loud. I have found that sometimes making sure the sensitive students are sitting on the opposite side of the room from the speaker tends to help. Also, having speakers that provide the tone dial that you can adjust helps minimize certain pitches that may tend to irritate a student. So, as with choosing any type of teaching strategy, a teacher must know his/her students in order to effectively implement this approach.

The exciting news is that I have heard back from my teacher who has tried this method. She has used music for the past two days as a way to drive the pace of her lesson and sustain those moments of “silence.” Her students have loved the entertainment in the lesson, like it’s a commercial break or something, and it enhances their time spent writing and reflecting. Playing the music has given her a chance to breathe and collect her thoughts as she prepares to deliver the next phase of her instruction, and she reports that it works “like magic!” I cannot wait to see this practice in action during our next real-time coaching session.