Saturday, October 17, 2009

30 years in the desert

Over the summer I joined the "World's Largest English Department," a social-networking Ning begun by Jim Burke, author, practicing teacher, and titular head of said English Department. I've only used the Ning sparingly, but I'm glad to have it there because I know I will turn to it often.
I have a long history (if 7 years can be considered long - and I suppose in the electronic world that's practically a century) of relying on my digital friends for support, education, feedback, humor, support, resources, technology training, support and - oh, did I say, support?
More than anything, I value the voices of my peers to shore me up during the storms of educational reform. I value the voices that keep directing our efforts to what matters most: making sure students are continuing to achieve and find pleasure, growth, and relevance in our classrooms.
I have waited most of my career to have the System of Education endorse--through the allocation of resources--the most valuable development of my skills and knowledge as a teacher: working with other teachers.
I came to this resource accidentally, in my third year of teaching in 1981, but it was like water in the desert.
At that point in my career I had gotten over the "what will I do tomorrow?" phase of learning how to teach and was beginning to look at what I was accomplishing with my students.
Not much, is what I thought. I felt like a failure.
My students weren't responding and the veteran teachers around me seemed much more capable and self-confident. I taught lesson after lesson that only seemed to get through to a few. I'll admit that I began looking for clues to what my colleagues were doing by "stealing" their mimeographed tests and quizzes from the workroom. In those days no one shared anything. On top of that, the curriculum did not always match my students abilities. (Should I be teaching persuasive essays when my students didn't seem to know - or even care - what a sentence is? Augh!)
In 1981 I took a course through the Northern Virginia Writing Project called Writing Across the Curriculum. In that course our coordinator, Marian Mohr, broke us into writing groups. She had us writing for each other and for our own purpose. She brought in classroom teachers who shared a best practice and - for a novice teacher, the truly helpful part - those teachers shared student work. And that student work looked familiar: Veteran teachers had students who needed lots of help "getting it" just like mine did.
The doors of other classrooms were flung open, and I found that my struggles were shared by all the teachers in the room. I wasn't alone! We were ALL trying to get students to care about sentences or literature or the lesson-du-jour. We talked about what worked, what didn't, our frustrations. We were encouraged to try something different, something that didn't look like the room down the hall. Then we came back together and shared what worked, what didn't, all over again.
That year I went from potential teacher drop out to a comrade-in-arms. It was a marvelous bonding experience that fueled me for a long time. It modeled a professional relationship that our department sought to recreate in our shared work space.
Ever since, I have hungered for the voices of teachers, but that goal often is hit or miss, depending on the leadership. Or I had to find it independently on my own time. Creating the atmosphere of sharing has been a personal goal wherever I've worked. I need the community of my peers. Without it, the work of a classroom teacher can be a joyless stab in the dark.
And, sadly, its been nearly thirty years since I discovered the wealth and power of talking with fellow practitioners, and this is still not a job-embedded expectation for every teacher in every school. Teachers must find their own communities as an "add-on" when they are finished all the other demands of the job.
The electronic world has made PLC's more accessible. Jim Burke's Ning is the latest incarnation of electronic voices that have evolved from listserves to the web 2.0 world. (My first electronic community was the JEA, Journalism Education Association, listserve and a lifeline for teachers who are the "only one" in a building. I am forever grateful to my colleagues across the nation who held my hand through some scary professional arguments over student first amendment rights.)
We have PLC's in our building now. I embrace the idea.
But the implementation is leaving much to be desired.
The goals are being set from above rather than generated by the teachers themselves - which is where the real power of a community is built.
If you doubt that teachers can and will set their own agendas, just visit the English Companion Ning and read the voices of those who are pursuing their own questions without any interference from supervisors. Teachers desperately want to be effective with their students.
My second complaint about the adaptation of PLC's is that the goal seems to be to generate lots of paper in order to verify that teachers are actually working. Our group works quickly through the mandated goals of the division so we can pursue tools and strategies to help our students achieve. We've already worked together on reading workshop, a grade level vocabulary unit, handouts for teaching reading competencies, and sources to make use of our smartboards, computer carts, and adolescent literature libraries.
And finally, our mandated PLCs are now add-ons to already overburdened teachers -- not embedded practices that could include common planning time, opportunities for classroom visits, or lesson studies. Meetings occur after school. The required reports fall on someone's shoulders to complete after the daily work of shepherding students through lessons, grading, posting grades to electronic boards, posting work to school web sources, etc. etc. Rather than feeling exhilarated, teacher morale is low. In a time of budget cuts, larger class sizes, and the ratcheting up of NCLB AYP benchmarks, adding more work to the day is crushing us.
If you want your faculty to reject a very good idea follow these easy steps:
  • Require more work.
  • Provide no additional time to complete the work.
  • Apply no additional compensation.
  • Reject teacher voices as a beginning point for problem solving.
Unfortunately, I fear that add-ons will only add to the number of teachers leaving the profession rather than build the kind of community that is ready to take risks to ensure student achievement. I WANT a PLC but I really want to do it right.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


The Washington Post Sunday opinion page has Five Myths about Paying Good Teachers More. This is the second time in recent memory that the Sunday Op-Ed has featured school reform in its "5 Myths" feature. The last time was Five Myths about Education Reform back in February.
His take? Earlier stabs at merit pay didn't really work. One reason: the higher pay was not all that much higher, and two, decisions were made by somewhat arbitrarily by school principals. (Still a very bad idea in my estimation. Too political. Too ripe for abuse.) He adds that basing higher pay on narrow standardized test scores is a poor plan indeed if we want to turn out kids who can think and problem solve.
What does work? Teachers who were polled would forgo a pay raise to work in a building where the administration supported them.
Yeah. I'm for that.
These two Myth columns taken together provide a pretty good overview of the issues in education reform for an uninitiated public.