Uncommon Sense

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 22, 2010 by gfreducation

It has been a long while since I have posted.  Plenty of time to read, reread, learn and reflect on teaching, learning and education in general.  Over that time I have come to the conclusion that what I thought of as common sense may not be so common at all.

We have begun to try to establish a PLC at our elementary school over the past two years.  We have had many successes and some setbacks. We are lucky to have a principal who is willing to provide time, resources, support and encouragement for PLCs.  The most difficult task–getting all teachers on board– still lies ahead.

During my coursework, I have been reading  about school reform, teacher collaboration, PLCs, and student success and I have participated in many #edchat discussions on the same topics.  Most of what I have read seems like common sense to me.  So why is it so difficult to implement? Why don’t many teachers want to collaborate?   Even when given the time and resources to engage in a learning community many see it as just one more thing they have to do and may even simply refuse. If collaboration would become the norm, their workload would greatly decrease over time and student learning would increase, making their job more rewarding.  It is almost as if some teachers don’t want to learn!  They just want to put up the same bulletin boards, drag out the same old tired worksheets and do the same thing year after year, acting as if it is going to be 1988 for the rest of their students’ lives.  Is this because it is easy or is there something else at play?

So what really keeps teachers from wanting to work together for common cause?  Why is it “my students” and not “our students?”  Why do we continue to talk about “what I am doing” rather than “is what we are doing working?”  Teachers want students to collaborate with each other on class projects; yet so many teachers see it as a weakness or a chore to collaborate on their own project: student success.  Is it the culture of schools that creates competition between teachers, making needing to learn seem like a weakness?  A friend of mine always says “Go to any teacher meeting and you will see the worst students.” Is it the personality type of many who choose the teaching profession?  I am stumped.  In Pyramid Response to Intervention: RTI, Professional Learning Communities and How to Respond When Kids Don’t Learn, Buffum, Mattos and Weber make  two interesting points that hit home for me:  1.  No teacher can possibly possess all the knowledge, skills, time and resources needed to ensure high levels of learning for all students and 2.  Not working as a PLC is educational malpractice.

What is even more frustrating to me is that not only do some (maybe many) teachers refuse to take part in meaningful collaboration with other teachers but they actively try to discourage teachers who are already collaborating as well as those who want to change and become better.  I have heard many comments  this past year alone that would discourage improvement.  One example  –  “Well we don’t have hours to spend at school like you do”  – was directed to a teacher who was sharing successful results in math. Of course there are less direct ways that this discouragement happens, as when teachers say  to anyone who will listen that planning with their grade level team takes away from “my planning time.” Really? I thought that was planning time.  How can those who are and want to collaborate be supported?  How can the “me” attitudes be changed to “we?” Can those attitudes be changed at all?  How can the climate be changed so those who AREN’T collaborating feel uncomfortable rather than those who are or those who want to?

As you can see, I have many more questions than answers.  I would like to hear from you about your road to building a true PLC.  How do you get teachers to buy in to the common cause?  While our PLC  is still under construction, I believe we have gone from a dirt path to a paved road with occasional tolls.  The superhighway still awaits.


Great Teachers

Posted in 1 with tags on March 16, 2010 by gfreducation

I have been doing lots of reading about what makes some teachers great and have particated in discussions on the same topic.   I was inspired to come up with my own list of characteristics of great teachers.  So here is my Top 11 list in no specific order:

11. Great teachers will never utter this phrase: “There’s no time to…..” Great teachers get it done.  They don’t wait around for time to find them, they find the time.

10.  Great teachers see the big picture.  Every decision that is made affects everyone else.  Great teachers know this. They know that what may be best for them may not be best for the school.

9.  Great teachers put students first at all costs, even when something may make their life a bit more difficult, like covering recess duty, monitoring the hallway, or meeting during planning time. Great teachers will do whatever it takes to make their school great.  They realize that all students are different and that it is their job to meet the students where they are and move them toward their fullest potential.

8.  Great teachers WANT to have the “challenging students” in their class.  They see it as their mission to reach the most difficult students to teach and they never complain about having them in their class. If these students aren’t in their class they will not speak negatively about them and they will look to support in any way they can.

7.  Great teachers’ classrooms are always different.  These teachers experiment with new ideas and continually incorporate them. You will rarely see the same lesson over and over again year after year in a great teacher’s classroom.

6.  Great teachers embrace change.  They are constantly seeking to improve what they already do.  They realize if we aren’t changing we are getting further behind because the world is a constantly changing place.

5.  Great teachers don’t complain.  When things don’t go exactly as they want or planned, they roll with it. No matter how bad their day is going, they always find a way to see the positive.

4.  Great teachers are team players.  They seek to collaborate at all times.  They consider nothing that they do exclusively theirs and share everything with everybody without being asked.  When recognized for their work they direct the recognition to the team.

3. Great teachers do not want or need public praise. In fact, they get kind of embarrassed when they are recognized for something at a faculty meeting or in a newsletter. They know that they are just doing their job and don’t need praise for doing what they are supposed to do.

2. Great teachers WANT criticism.  They feel unsatisfied if after an observation or “walk through” they only hear “That was a great lesson” or “I liked how you did this” or “You are such a master teacher.” They are not satisfied until they hear.  “You really need to improve this.”  See, great teachers know that unless they know their weaknesses they will never be able to improve them.

1.  Great teachers support final decisions that are made.  They get involved in the decision making process, they give their opinion but when a decision is made, even if they don’t agree with it, they don’t seek to undermine the decision or the administrator who made it.  They know this will destroy school climate which in turn hurts students.

While this list is not complete and I by no means have reached this standard, I believe that these 11 things will be at the core of any teacher considered to be great.  I would love to hear your feedback on this list as well as other characteristics that you would add to it.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on February 28, 2010 by gfreducation

I have begun reading What Great Principals Do Differently: Fifteen Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker and I was fascinated by one simple concept of how to improve schools.  1.  Get better teachers. 2.  Improve the teachers you have.  A very simple concept indeed but not so easy to accomplish.  Many school systems keep changing programs thinking that if they can find the right one they can improve their results.  When in reality great teachers would be successful with almost any program or even none at all!  We have all witnessed how some program, whether it be academic or behavioral, can be extremely effective in one classroom and a dismal failure in another.  So a program’s success relies on the quality of teachers.

Whitaker asks How many principals -or teachers for that matter- can predict who in your building will send the most students to the office NEXT year?  Usually an easy prediction to make even without knowing which students are going to be in which class.  His point here is that the teacher is the variable not the student.   For example, if a student in the best teacher’s classroom fails a test, the teacher will blame himself.  If a student in the worst teacher’s classroom fails a test, that teacher blames any number of variables except himself including parents, last year’s teacher, the weather, full moon, TV and video games.  The difference is good teachers are always looking to improve and focus on what they can control–their teaching.   Poor teachers look to the outside and wait for variables out of their control to change.  RESPONSIBILITY lies with the teacher and good teachers know that.  Both good and poor teachers have high expectations for students but as Whitaker indicates it is what teachers expect of themselves that is important.

So can we help our fellow educators improve by showing them that they are the primary variable that determines student success or are teachers who cannot see that doomed to failure?

Who is failing?

Posted in Assessment with tags , on February 5, 2010 by gfreducation

It’s that time of year again.  Its happening in schools all across America.  Students are coming home with the dreaded report card.   The report card is supposed to inform parents of student progress in school.  Students get rewarded for “As” and punished for “Fs.” Do letter grades on report cards really tell us how students are progressing or are they  teacher progress reports? Are the ways students are assessed relevant to the kinds of learning that needs to be happening in schools today?  Do letter grades actually impede student learning? Are there better ways to report progress to parents -and to students, for that matter- than letter grades?

Let’s face it, a grade from one teacher is not equivalent to the same grade from another.  So in essence student “progress” many times depends on teacher philosophy rather than student growth.  Some teachers see the report card as a time to finally exact revenge on students who have not sat quietly and absorbed everything they “taught,”  as if giving  an “F” will suddenly cause the student to pay more attention and learn.  Doesn’t the “F” really mean that the teacher failed to find a way to teach the concept or motivate the child to learn?  Obviously if the teacher was monitoring student progress he/she would have intervened much earlier than report card time and made necessary instructional changes  to ensure student learning.  On the other end of the spectrum, doesn’t an “A” mean that the student was not challenged to his/her fullest potential?  Why would a student take a chance on pursuing challenging material when doing so may result in a “B?” On both sides of the grading spectrum, grades keep students from taking risks and making mistakes– the very thing that leads to learning.

Why are we using a 19th century reporting system for 21st century learners? Shouldn’t progress reports be individualized?   I would love to hear how forward thinking schools have tackled the issue of reporting student progress.


Posted in Assessment on January 24, 2010 by gfreducation

What makes a successful school?  Ask a bureaucrat and you will undoubtedly get  jargon related to test scores.  But is that the same answer you would get if you ask a teacher, a parent or a student?  Definitely not.  So why is there such a disconnect between what government says is success and what teachers, parents and students consider success?   Where is education headed? Maybe a better question is where should it be headed?

I recently surveyed several administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents on their views on the characteristics of a successful school.  The responses, although different, had some key similarities.  The common themes in the responses were safety, leadership, community involvement, collaboration, communication, compassion, student achievement and individual student growth, raising the question:  If we can agree upon so many of the characteristics of successful schools then why the increase in the amount of schools being deemed unsuccessful?   If we know the formula for success, why are we not applying it?  Perhaps the criteria currently being used to determine success do not match our belief system.  Right now it seems test scores are the main public measure that determines which schools are succeeding and which are failing but is that an accurate measure?  Does scoring a certain percent proficient on a state test make schools successful or are there other factors in play, factors that cannot be so easily measured?  Do test scores really measure leadership, community involvement, collaboration, communication, compassion, problem solving, achievement and individual student growth?  Does the general public even know what is on these tests? It can be debated whether tests are important. Can characteristics of a successful school be represented solely by a number on one test?  If we know what the main stakeholders believe make for successful schools, why the discrepancy between their beliefs and how we currently determine which schools are “failing?” Shouldn’t those who provide the most funds for education have a major role in determining if their school is successful?

The current determination of school success seems skewed.  Today, state and federal government have the largest role in determining school success through state tests.  The local community has a much smaller role, the exact inverse of how schools are funded.  Each year we see in the news which schools are meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and which schools are on the improvement list.  Using the current criteria, in a few years all schools will undoubtedly be deemed “failing,” making education the only sector in the country that will be expected to be perfect.  There is no list that is published which shows how much students have grown, how schools and students collaborate to solve problems, how the community is involved with the school or how satisfied the community is with their school so will this label of “failure” be the truth or will it continue to lead schools to focus on preparing for a test more than they focus on serving the community and teaching students how to solve real world problems? Is this how we want our education system to run?

As school leaders, we need to find a way to communicate this discrepancy to our local community and state representatives.  We need to advertise the great things that are happening in our schools since those things are not readily covered by the media and cannot be converted into a quick number.  We need to offer alternatives to the way schools are currently being measured.  Maybe along with test scores, a community survey should be part of making AYP.  I think it would be interesting (and maybe even a dash of common sense) to let the community opinion be part of determining whether or not their school is failing or succeeding.  This would move the focus of the school from preparing for one test to serving the needs of the community.  Imagine, having the criteria for AYP be based 70% on community satisfaction and 30% on state achievement tests.  Would our schools look the same as they do today?  I doubt it.

My First Post

Posted in Reform on January 18, 2010 by gfreducation

Well, I’ve taken the plunge.  I’ve decided that I need to become an active member of the world community and do my part in helping to renew education in America.  Time is limited: we either change or become obsolete.

The purpose of this blog is to promote thought provoking discussions about where we are in education and where we need to be.  If you are not already convinced that education and schools need to change then hopefully I can provide some evidence that that is the case.

You may have already watched these at some point but sometimes we need to see and hear things several times before we become convinced.

If that is not enough to convince you maybe you need to see it from a student’s perspective.

And how many schools allow students to use social media and devices like cell phones and ipods? Are teachers recognizing their value to instruction or do they see them as a distraction?   Isn’t banning these things equivalent to banning access to books?