Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Greatest Barrier to Instructional Effectiveness

I am one of the lucky ones. In my 28 years as an elementary teacher, I have been encouraged and challenged by professionals who work hard to improve their instructional skills. At my current school, we share ideas, analyze data, observe one another in action, and collaborate with colleagues in other grade levels to find innovative solutions to instructional challenges. It's like being on the Dream PLC.

Unfortunately, not all teachers experience that kind of collegial support.  Many teachers find themselves left to solve the mysteries of teaching alone, especially in their first few years. The remote location of classrooms, tight schedules, and considerable work loads all contribute to a teacher's isolation at work. Teachers who work independently, often veteran teachers, may settle into a stagnant routine, one that is dangerously comfortable. This not only slows the progress of a teacher's instructional skills, even worse, it limits student learning. When instructional coaches or administrators do try to get these isolated teachers to try new strategies, they are often greeted with resistance.

For me, isolation is the greatest barrier to instructional effectiveness. However, teachers spend at least ninety percent of the school day in class with their students. How can we bridge the gap between classroom instruction and professional collaboration?

Formal Teacher Leadership Roles

In my experience, it is a lack of properly funded and structured Teacher Leadership positions that has contributed to the prevalence of isolated teachers. Teaching is often an overwhelming responsibility. It is difficult for school assigned mentors to find time during the day to work with their colleagues. By creating hybrid positions of leadership, teacher leaders have flexibility to work with even the most resistant teachers during the school day when instruction is in progress. Distributed models of leadership have the power to make connections and build trust with isolated teachers in every school.

Holding All Teachers Accountable for Professional Collaboration

An isolated teacher is not always given specific feedback by administrators within the teacher evaluation process, and this enables the teacher's choice to work alone. As in most states, the Utah Effective Teaching Standards clearly specify the expectations of educator reflection and collaboration in Standard 8: Reflection & Continuous Growth, and Standard 9: Leadership & Collaboration. Administrators must hold teachers accountable for these two standards when giving evaluative feedback. While we know that punitive consequences do not always encourage participation, authentic scoring on evaluations can initiate a reflective conversation with those teachers who resist working with others. Administrators must take the time to actually have this conversation. As in any profession, all teachers should be held to the expectations of collaboration, and the evaluation process can be a useful tool.

Targeted Professional Learning

Effective schools and administrators also use Targeted Professional Learning that is based on a Professional Growth Plan and Evaluation Feedback. This process includes a collaborative grade level or subject team, formally referred to as a PLC - Professional Learning Community - that attempts new strategies by sharing ideas, analyzing data and implementing observational feedback to improve student learning. Targeted Professional Learning engages teachers in problem solving during the school day and allows them the flexibility to visit other classrooms. This kind of embedded professional development breaks the isolated tendency of teaching and can serve as a catalyst for professional engagement.

Collective Effort

Instructional practice improves when teachers are treated professionally and work in a supportive environment...but it takes the efforts of many to make the needed changes:

Administrators cannot rely on the considerate teacher down the hall who takes time to connect with novice teachers and others detached from their colleagues... they must offer time and support for teachers to observe instructional strategies during the school day.

Teachers cannot wait for hybrid Teacher Leadership positions or embedded PLC's... they must take the initiative to get out of their 'caves' and investigate strategies with other colleagues.

Policy makers, professional associations and administrators must work collectively to fund and implement distributed leadership positions and embedded collaboration time for every school.

Our students deserve models within our schools that ensure effective instruction!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Catch and Unintended Release: Utah's Challenge of Teacher Retention

Utah STOY's: Riddle '14, Beck '11,  Gallagher-Fishbaugh, '09,  VandenAkker, '12

Utah teachers are hard-working, innovative, and among the most dedicated professionals in the nation. Like many other states, however, Utah now finds itself facing a teacher shortage. While our economy continues to grow, our teacher pool is shrinking. It seems even though our administrators may make a strong cast, the best and brightest teachers are slipping from their grasp, released into the stream of alternate occupations.

Representative Carol Moss - former teacher
What is it then, that discourages our most capable teachers from continuing their careers in education? As our Utah policy makers prepare for the 2016 session, I am hopeful their legislative efforts are aimed at improving these critical issues for new teachers:

1 - Lack of Support - Our newest teachers are lucky to have a trained mentor on site; most schools have no comprehensive induction program which includes embedded professional learning opportunities. The 'nice' teacher down the hall who visits before or after school is often not an experienced mentor or coach. New teachers are left isolated, instructional performance plateaus, and teachers with the greatest potential leave out of frustration.

2- Large Class Size - Utah boasts the largest class size in the nation. In some schools even kindergarten classes are as high as 30, and many core classes in secondary schools endure enrollments of over 40. High numbers are especially challenging to new teachers in terms of classroom management, perhaps the most difficult instructional technique to master.  And like their seasoned colleagues, new teachers find it nearly impossible to give the average achieving students - those without special needs or exceptional abilities - the time and attention that would help them soar.

3- Few Teacher Leadership Positions - Ironically, teachers with the greatest abilities to impact student learning are drawn away from the classroom by the same interest that drew them there in the first place. Utah's schools have very few positions of distributed leadership, and many leave the classroom for positions of coaching, consulting, or curriculum leadership on a district level. The lack of formal hybrid mentoring positions in our schools often prohibits us from retaining strong teacher leaders who are eager to share pedagogical strategies with others while staying in the classroom.

4- Disproportionate Focus on Assessment - Heightened standards have shifted instructional focus to mastery of tested content. Novice teachers are often not prepared for the data analysis required to improve test scores. This increased accountability has also weakened emphasis of the arts, history, physical education, and character education. Many early educators leave the classroom disenchanted by the pressure of student test performance - tests that don't measure emotional growth, grit, perseverance, empathy, and other critical life skills.

5- Under Appreciated Role - Perhaps the most frustrating and yes, surprising reality for a new teacher is the lack of respect and voice given to educators in our state.  Many teachers I have mentored have expressed their disappointment in the attitudes of parents, policy makers, and community members. Layering expectations of paperwork, changing curriculum, behavioral challenges, and testing accountability are intensified by the seeming lack of support in a state whose economy is strengthened by the work these teachers do. Increasing pay is one obvious remedy, but pay alone will not keep new teachers in this profession.

Utah must develop structures that will attract, support, and retain excellent teachers!

Governor Gary Herbert
As a member of Governor Herbert's Education Excellence Commission, I am fortunate to discuss these issues each month with Utah's business leaders, policy makers, and education experts. I am encouraged by the Commission's work and the Governor's understanding that a strong education system has a great impact on Utah's economy. I am concerned, however, by the lack of teacher voice in the problem solving process.

As an awarded teacher leader with 28 years of experience in Utah's classrooms, I have two suggestions:

  • To Utah's teachers: Take the time to share your stories with your elected representatives. 
  • To Utah's Legislators, State Board members and State Office leaders:  As you focus your efforts on teacher retention, I ask you to carefully consider Governor Herbert's recent observation:       
"We need to listen to the teachers and give them the respect and appreciation they have earned."

Well said, Governor.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Dualism in Learning: Fast and Slow have Equal Value

During my recent fellowship in Peru, I learned of the Peruvian culture’s appreciation for dualism.  Man and woman. Life and death. Day and night. Light and dark.  Peruvians believe opposite values are to be acknowledged for their strengths and importance in the cycle of life. For me, the idea of dualism extends to teaching and learning.  In particular, the relationship between fast and slow acquisition of skills.

The students in our classrooms today, referred to as Generation Z students, learn faster and are tech savvy.  Comparatively they have a short attention span.  They are comfortable multi-tasking, networking and are used to the convenience of acquiring information quickly.  They can instantly send and receive messages to friends and loved ones who are in the same room or thousands of miles away.  They have high expectations for automaticity in most parts of their lives.

When considering the idea of dualism… we must emphasize to our students and parents that no matter how quickly information can be retrieved, acquiring skills may take time.  We must remember the values of both fast and slow. Not everything can be acquired quickly.  Mastering basic reading and math skills takes effort, focus, application, and yes, time.

In the last ten years or so as a 5th grade teacher, I have noticed a change in student and parent attitudes about the mastery of basic facts.  Too often parents, frustrated by their child’s lack of mastery of times tables, have expressed to me their frustrations and the idea that they have given up trying.  “Oh, yes, those times tables.  We tried those.  We just couldn’t get them memorized.”  For me, there is a connection between the nearly instantaneous retrieval of information and the lack of patience for mastering basic facts and skills.  Our Generation Z students are used to retrieving information and entertainment almost instantly, but the mastery of basic facts takes time.  Time that many in this generation have not developed patience for.  I understand that some students have learning disabilities that may interrupt the process of storing basic facts into long term memory banks.  That aside, even those students who understand the concept of multiplication and could demonstrate it using an array or other method, often struggle to master those precious multiplication facts needed to analyze and solve mathematical problems.  For the Generation Z students, I see a strong connection between the convenience of technology and the lack of patience in mastering basic facts and skills.

Staying in line with this idea of dualism… I have experienced some positive results in spite of this frustrating issue.  Often times by simply describing the conflicting ideas of automaticity and time intensive skill mastery, many of the parents in my class have become inspired to create regular blocks of time for practice at home.  Taken in by the expectation of instant information and resources themselves, parents often overlook the need to spend time playing math games, using rhymes or music, running flash cards, and connecting math used in cooking and other projects at home with their kids.  Too often parents of Generation Z students assume fact mastery will happen easily by using the newest downloaded app.  Emphasizing the benefits of making emotional connections and using verbal and kinesthetic skills with your child while practicing basic facts is very helpful to parents. By simply making them aware of the somewhat slower process of acquiring fact fluency, I have seen many parents make a renewed effort to spend more time helping their children to master those precious facts. 

Fast and slow.  The Peruvians have it right.  Both have value, but when mastering basic facts, slower is definitely more powerful.  After facts are mastered, that’s when the speed begins…

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Beyond Agents of Change: Lessons from Pumamarca

As an NEA Foundation Global Fellow, I recently had the incredible experience of traveling to Peru. I felt embraced by the people and tried my best to soak in the beautiful Peruvian culture in the food, music, handwork, colors, art, and languages that surrounded me. I found myself in awe of the strength of the women and saddened by the obvious challenge of poverty the families face daily.
Our visits to the schools enriched my experience as a global traveler. Much like schools in the states, I found a great disparity between the schools in urban and rural areas of Peru. The private and magnet schools of Lima and other cities are filled with bright students, rigorous programs, and a wealth of supplies. In the more remote villages, schools are poorly supplied and staffed.
For me, however, the most impressive school we visited was a primary school in the mountain village of Pumamarca, just outside of Cuzco.  It was in this small rural community that I experienced the power and influence that education can offer everyone.
Until recently, the children in this impoverished area had no school. In 2008, Peru's Challenge, an organization dedicated to developing sustainable schools and communities in rural Peru, came to Pumamarca.  
When Peru's Challenge first spoke to the villagers, they asked them what they wanted most.  The resounding answer was... a better life for their children.  They wanted their kids to attend a school, but they didn't want them to have to attend a rural school with unqualified teachers.  Peru's Challenge worked tirelessly with the Ministry of Education, who at first indicated that they thought the villagers had no interest in education.  
2nd grade classroom
After much negotiating, the ministry agreed to supply one teacher the first year the school opened. Today they employ all six teachers at the school.  The community members built the eight school rooms themselves, and they now have a fully functioning kitchen.  The women of the village grow healthy vegetables in the school green houses, and they feed the students breakfast and lunch daily.  There are six greenhouses, and the extra food is sold at market.  The profits are used to keep the kitchen running and supply the school.
What is most amazing to me are the lasting results from the efforts of Peru's Challenge.  The people were not given money or supplies.  Instead, they were given the precious resource of knowledge
Before Peru's Challenge came to Pumamarca, most families lived with chickens and guinea pigs in their homes, and 95% of the kids were malnourished. An average family earned about $3 per month. Alcoholism was rampant; many of the men were drinking pure alcohol made cheaply from plants in the jungle. Domestic violence was prevalent, and most of the youth never completed high school.
Peru's Challenge taught the people of the community the necessary skills to run their farms, school, and businesses.  They taught them how to harness electricity and clean water in their homes, work the land with animals, and grow flowers in the green houses to sell.  Most families now make about $60 per month. 90% of the kids are healthy, and the 10% malnourished students are among the incoming kindergartners.  Within the first three years of opening the school, all of the students in grade five graduated to the secondary school in Cuzco. 
Alcoholism and domestic violence are almost non-existent now, although the project did not focus on either of these things.  It has been a bi-product of the efforts to create a sustainable community and school within a small rural village. 
The story of Pumamarca is a powerful example of how educating others creates independence and progressive change. How do we apply this in our own states and communities? We often refer to educators as 'agents of change'.  The strength in this example, however, is not change.  It is sustainable change. 

Every year we are introduced to new strategies of instruction, theories of learning, and technological advances. We have a wealth of resources available to us, and at times, it feels like we are overloaded with great ideas. The question is, when we implement something new in our schools, will it provide skills that teachers and students will continue to use? Will the new resources provide sustainable change? 
Perhaps as educators we should reflect on the resources we provide our teachers and students...
  • As administrators, do we implement only those programs and strategies that will become an imbedded part of the school's culture and enhance instructional practices? 
  • Do our teacher evaluation programs place a greater emphasize on improving instruction, thus increasing student learning? 
  • As teachers, are we able to focus more on the analysis of formative assessments in order to drive our instruction rather than place percentages on our students? 
  • Do our weekly lessons emphasize both individual and group problem solving experiences? 
  • Do we search for ways to connect with parents and develop a lasting trust between home and school that will encourage their involvement? 
  • As teachers, do we focus on integrating critical social-emotional skills that students will need to work with others in their adult lives?
Like the people of Pumamarca, training our teachers and educating our kids is about giving them the experiences, knowledge and skills they will continue to use in their communities. For me, the story of Pumamarca will be a reminder of how important those resources are.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Teacher Leadership: Beyond the Initiative

In my 27 years as an elementary educator, I have experienced many trends, models and 'buzz phrases'. Acronyms such as RTI, PLC, SEP, and CCSS have permeated our conversations at school. Did your school make AYP?  How was your SPED IEP?  Do you have enough OTR's in your lessons?  Oh, I still have PTSD when anyone mentions NCLB...

The latest buzz is all about Teacher Leadership (which I will henceforth refer to as TL).  The recent focus on TL has been spurred by the federal Teach to Lead initiative, and a set of Teacher Leadership Model Standards was even released in 2011 by the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium.

So what is the hype surrounding TL?  Why the focus on something with such a basic title?  How can the idea of a few teachers at each school standing up to represent their colleagues really be all that powerful?  For me, teaching in a state with the highest class size and lowest per pupil expenditure, the need for TL is critical! 

Collective Accountability
TL is connected to the theory that all teachers at a school should feel mutually accountable for the success of all students. Those educators in TL positions do more than just share ideas and strategies; they are empowered to encourage and direct collaboration within communities of teachers. They are willing to model best practices for others. Those in TL positions have a mutual concern for and an expectation of the achievement of all students, not just those in their home rooms.

The Weakest Among Us
In a pack of animals, the weakest are soon isolated and become susceptible to predators. Our weakest educators are often isolated in their rooms and become prey to negative attitudes, bad practices and weakened relationships with colleagues and parents. A true teacher leader will reach out and connect with those teachers who are detached from the social culture within the faculty. Teacher leaders enjoy the benefits of professional memberships and they actively work to draw in more members. TL fosters an attitude of encouragement and the expectation that every teacher can work hard and achieve excellence.

In addition to negative energy, attrition rates also rise when teachers are not actively collaborating with their peers.  Each year many of our potentially strongest teachers leave the classroom due to weak induction programs. Teacher leaders often emerge because they recognize the need for proper mentoring in their schools. Those in TL positions, whether formal or informal, consistently engage novice teachers in reflective conversations about pedagogy and common challenges with classroom management. Teacher leaders take the initiative to guide their colleagues through challenges such as heightened standards, new educator evaluation systems, and the increased emphasis on standardized testing.

Closing the Gap
Educators in TL positions feel empowered to speak openly about education issues with neighbors, family members, policy makers, and other stakeholders. Teacher leaders recognize that community support is critical to the success of schools, and teachers must engage in conversations outside of the school walls. They appreciate and make an effort to learn more about the different cultures in the community. Teacher leaders take the time to advocate for their profession. The influence of TL helps to decrease the ever growing divide between the public and public education.

Go Beyond the Initiative
The demand for TL is expanding as states and districts recognize what many already know: TL can transform a school and increase student learning! Hybrid positions are increasingly prevalent and give teachers the opportunity to stay in the classroom while coaching other teachers. TL is a trending topic at educational conferences and in weekly twitter chats. As TL grows, job satisfaction and teacher retention also increase, instructional practice is strengthened, and students achieve more! Now is the time for us create a powerful culture of TL in every school!

Cross Pollination
Allison Riddle, with the support of her principal, created a hybrid position to mentor teachers without leaving the classroom.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

Show Me the Study

UT STOYS: Allison Riddle ('14) Mohsen Ghaffari ('15) Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh ('09)

THIS was supposed to be THE YEAR.

Governor Herbert's proposed budget last fall gave hope to thousands of Utah teachers.  After more than five years of trying to dig out of a weak economy, our government had a surplus.  Governor Herbert's proposal offered $500 million to public schools and a 6.25% increase in the WPU.

As I spoke with several members of the Utah House and Senate Friday, it became alarmingly apparent to me that the governor's proposal was, in their eyes, not plausible.  Not even close. After years of being told Utah's schools must be patient with the bad economy, now that we are out of the slump and have a surplus, Utah educators are being told the very same thing.  The budget cannot sustain a healthy increase yet again for Utah's public schools.  

As a mentor of teachers, reflective questioning is a powerful tool.  I have a few reflective thoughts for members of the legislature.  I'm not asking for money, rather, I would like to focus on the expected outcomes of the budget.  As an educator, I am immersed in academia.  Every strategy I use in my instruction is backed by research and data.  And so, to the members of the Utah Legislature - to those who publish and grade me on my students' test data - I ask you to...


Show me the study that connects high class size to greater achievement on standardized tests.

Show me the study that reveals increased class time in front of a computer screen strengthens a student's development of critical social-emotional skills.

Show me the study that supports low pay and a lack of proper mentoring as proven methods for recruiting and retaining strong teachers.

Show me the study that concludes a simultaneous implementation of more rigorous standards and computer adaptive testing will improve instruction and student performance.

Show me the study that justifies the solitary use of standardized test results as a reliable source for the evaluation of a public school.

It's time for Utah to pull out of last place in per-pupil spending and to concede the top honor of highest class size in the nation.  It's time to invest in Utah's communities, businesses and families. 

I am proud of what I do each day in the classroom.  Teaching is a complex craft, and I will continue to reflect on my own instruction and mentor other teachers.  While I am discouraged by the lack of support our public school system has, I have enough grit and perseverance to stay in a Utah classroom. 

Ironically, that may be exactly what policy makers are counting on.