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Capturing the Spark

November 19, 2016

cts_frontIt’s been a long time since InterACT was an active education blog, though I remain quite proud of what we did here. Those of us who wrote blog posts here have all continued to advocate for public education and the strengthening of the teaching profession. For anyone still receiving updates when posts appear here, I wanted to let you know that I’ve written and published a book about teachers and public schools in California. Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teaching, Thriving Schools is on sale now. Many former members of Accomplished California Teachers are featured in the book, which is based on my visits to 63 public school campuses around California, and observations of 78 teachers at those schools. For more about the book, you can also visit

New Beginnings: Kickstarter and EdWeek Teacher

September 22, 2014

Greetings to InterACT readers one and all! If you’ve been following posts here recently you might recall that I’m moving my blogging activity to other locations for the most part. I’m also starting a new project that involves traveling around California to visit many of the teachers I’ve met over the years through my work at Accomplished California Teachers – which led to work with various other organizations and groups of teachers. Here are two links that went live today, which I hope you’ll follow.

First, for posts most similar to what appeared here at InterACT, I’ll be blogging at Road Trips In Education, at EdWeek Teacher. My goal is to continue the kind of focus I had here, trying to link policy and practice. Of course, as the title suggests, the new blog will benefit from observations and learning derived from my travels around the state this year.

The other link I’d like to share will take you to my Kickstarter campaign (which is not officially affiliated with EdWeek, or Accomplished California Teachers). I’m raising money to fund my travels and then to self-publish a book about the experience and the take-away lessons. Please take a look, and if you consider a contribution to the project, please remember the project will not be funded at all if I don’t meet the goal, and successful campaigns usually depend on strong starts! Thank you.


Relying on Half-Truths in Vergara P.R. Push

September 15, 2014

Writing in The San Diego Union-Tribune this weekend, San Diego County Superintendent Randy Ward offered lots of rhetoric and insufficient evidence to explain the educational benefits leading to his support for the Vergara ruling. At various times over the years, I’ve formed a positive impression of Ward, and even enjoyed a brief chat with him at a California Teachers of the Year event. He has decades of experience as a respected administrator in multiple districts and counties around California. My earliest impression of him came from a panel discussion he did with John Merrow several years ago; when asked the extent to which he would hold unions responsible for certain problems in education, and Ward answered that every contract is signed by two sides, so you can’t hold just one side responsible.

This time around, I have to take issue with his assessment of the state’s current education policy drama. Regarding the Vergara decision, Ward offers plenty of basic observations about the challenges of educating children in high-poverty, high-needs schools, and the maldistribution of highly-qualified teachers among schools. Like the Vergara attorneys, he suggests, without evidence, that the most challenged schools would improve student learning if not for ed. code provisions relating teacher job protections – especially concerning seniority and dismissal proceedings; they want to remove bad teachers more easily, and target less effective teachers for layoffs when necessary. It sounds like I’m arguing against an idea with benefits that are self-evident, but there are some potentially flawed underlying assumptions:

  • Loss of seniority protections won’t have a negative impact on school climate and staff collaboration.
  • Schools are able to evaluate teachers accurately and effectively.
  • The new teachers coming in will be better than those they replace.
  • The ineffective teaching is mainly a result of flaws in the individual rather than in the school system.

Certainly, there are individuals who need to be dismissed. I tend to think that the much larger problem in our field is that over-stressed school systems create a lot of sub-optimal teaching, and unsatisfactory teachers.

Ward concedes that charter schools have the flexibility he wants the Vergara decision to create statewide – and yet don’t, as a sector, have better outcomes. Perhaps he could also have noted that many states are similarly challenged to show better educational outcomes, even though they also lack California’s due process protections for teachers, commonly but erroneously called “tenure.”

But what bothers me most are the points on which Ward is most specific. First, regarding teacher dismissals:

Pre-Vergara, out of 275,000 teachers statewide, 220 teachers were dismissed for unsatisfactory performance per year on average. Do you believe that only 0.0008 percent [sic] of professionals in any given field are unsatisfactory? Then why would that be the case in the teaching profession?

First off, let the English teacher correct the math here: 220/275,000 = 0.0008 or 0.08 percent.

Now, to the point Ward is trying to make. The state might be forgiven for only having data compiled for certain years by a certain point in time; I’m less forgiving when it comes to some information that Ward either should have had, or chose to omit. When LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy made up his mind in the past few years to have the district engage in more rigorous efforts to evaluate teachers and dismiss underperforming teachers, the number of teacher dismissals in that district jumped dramatically. It sure looks like willpower and resources can overcome the supposedly insurmountable ed code.

But Ward’s number is even more distorted, because as Ward certainly knows, teacher turnover is a staggering problem. With so many teachers leaving the profession voluntarily, Ward’s numerical argument only works if all of the teachers leaving are satisfactory, and the only unsatisfactory teachers are the ones who choose to stay in the system and fight their potential dismissal all the way to the point that it is accounted for in government statistics. Furthermore, we first and second-year teachers who turn out to be unsatisfactory are simply not offered contracts. Administrators need not take any steps to “fire” them, so their unsatisfactory work would similarly fail to enter into Ward’s calculations.

According to California government statistics in this blog post, 20% of new teachers are gone in two years, and 31% are gone in five years. Let’s focus on the 11% leaving in years 3-5 (since teachers can be dismissed without cause in the first two years). That’s 30,250 teachers (using the state’s percentage and Ward’s estimate of teacher workforce). Now, if you ask among teachers and principals, I think you’ll find some agreement that some of those departing teachers are ineffective, but leaving public education without going through the complete process that would land them in Ward’s statistics.

If a mere 11% of those 30,250 teachers departing in years 3-5 are doing unsatisfactory work – 1 out of 9 – then Ward’s numbers (via Students Matter?) are off by more than 500%.*

Yes, I’m engaging in speculation, but I think if Ward were pushed on this point, he’d back off from using those numbers; they only hold up if every teacher leaving the profession voluntarily is “satisfactory” and the only “unsatisfactory” teachers are the ones whose dismissal procedures go the distance through official channels. The bottom line is that he’s choosing a tiny number that we know something about in order to make a dramatic point, and ignoring a vastly larger number of teachers who leave for reasons unknown to state statisticians, but certain to significantly undermine his argument.

The one other point on which Ward is most specific is citing the costs of teacher dismissals, using the Vergara trial testimony of superintendents from Oakland Unified and Los Angeles Unified. It’s not surprising that the Vergara lawyers solicited testimony from among the poorest, largest, and most difficult to manage districts in the state. The struggles that they confront, however, hardly indicate to me that teachers in 1,000 other California districts have due process rights so cumbersome that they are unconstitutional. I’m sure there are plenty of additional superintendents who would have gladly testified for the plaintiffs – but Ward is silent regarding the superintendents who testified for the defense. Judge Treu’s ruling was similarly opaque on the same matter.

If Randy Ward was hoping his op-ed would encourage more people to embrace the changes Vergara might bring, I’d prefer if he offered a more complete picture of the issues, and without the misleading numbers.


* 30,250 teachers leave in a three-year period = 10,083/yr.; 11% of 10,083 = 1,109, which is 5.04 times 220.


I’m about to switch over to blogging at my new web site, and I’ll also be blogging at EdWeek starting any day now. And on top of all that, I’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund a book writing project about great teachers and public schools all over California.
Please sign up for my email updates to follow all these developments! Thank you.

Transition Approaching

September 11, 2014

Next week I expect to launch two new blogs – one of my own, and one at EdWeek – and a Kickstarter campaign to fund a travel project leading to a book about some of the great teachers and public schools all around California. Over the years, I’ve worked with or talked to so many outstanding educators in our state. We’ve met through Accomplished California Teachers, the National Board Resource Center at Stanford, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the California Teachers Association (and its Institute for Teaching), the California Teacher Union Reform Network (CalTURN), the California Teachers of the Year, the Carlston Family Foundation, Facing History and Ourselves, and then through some personal connections, events, or even through blogging, Twitter chats, and EdCamps.
I’ve already committed to a year out of the classroom in order to hit the road, see all of these people in their classrooms, visit schools I’ve already heard so much about. I’m hoping readers of InterACT will come along for the journey, and ask you to sign-up for my updates along the way, using the form at this link. Thanks!

School Reformers’ Pledge of Good Conduct

September 2, 2014

Larry Cuban has another great post here! I missed this when it first went online, but love the idea of a reformer’s pledge. This should go far and wide – not only to the think-tank crowd, researchers and punditry, but also legislators, school board members, journalists and editors, and even parents, voters, and the broader community.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

School reformers now (and in the past) are (and have been) divided among themselves. So often, they seek similar goals–students who are literate, can think clearly, have requisite skills and knowledge to enter and finish college or start a career,  and  contribute to the larger community– but split over which of the goals should have precedence and how to achieve the ones they prize.



Reformers fighting among themselves, of course, is hardly new.  For generations, traditionalists have fought progressives over the purposes of schooling, what content and skills had to be taught, how teachers should teach, and how students should learn. Whether it was the 1890s, 1960s, or the 1980s, ruptures between school reformers occurred again and again (see here, here, and here). And so it is today over how best to educate poor white and minority children, whether Common Core state standards are a boon…

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Beyond Labor

August 31, 2014
Photo by Anthony Cody.

At a San Francisco rally, Feb. 2011

As we enjoy the Labor Day holiday this year, it’s important to keep in mind the role of the labor movement in securing workers rights and better working conditions for nearly all Americans. The struggles of labor unions in recent decades have accompanied a continually widening gap between rich and poor, with frightening implications for our shrinking middle class and the working poor.

My social media streams are full of reminders about the importance of unions, in the past, present and future. And I agree completely. But it’s not enough to just say we support workers. Those of us in teachers unions need to step up our actions to match our words.

On this Labor Day, I encourage teachers to do what we can to help our unions advance in a three-pronged approach to unionism:

  • labor issues – negotiating for compensation, benefits, working conditions, etc.
  • professional issues – advocating for better student learning by supporting teacher leadership in areas of curriculum, pedagogy, and professional development.
  • social justice – taking an active interest in the well being of everyone in our community, especially those who are currently underserved, struggling, and less empowered.
This approach is not something I came up with, nor do I know how far back it goes; the influences I’m aware of come from union leaders like Pat Dolan, Adam Urbanski, and Bob Peterson. The first of those areas of focus is sometimes referred to as the “bread and butter” of union work, and it probably isn’t necessary to take that up in detail here. As for the second area, this blog has frequently touched upon ways that teachers unions and their members are working to support stronger schools, better teaching, and improved learning. Simply do a search for any of the following terms: CTA, CalTURN, IFT, QEIA
But I think we can do more in every area, and invite teachers to make a new school year resolution relating to labor and unions.  I’m not claiming to be the role model for everyone to follow; I’ve done some of the following, and will try to do more of the suggestions below.
  • Support labor and unions in general by making informed choices about your own consumption. Pay attention to labor issues in the news, and to buying guides from our own unions. If you’re planning any kind of event at a hotel or restaurant, try to find out if it’s a unionized business. If you need work done by someone in a trade, try to find union workers. Yes, it’s possible you will pay a little bit more. Remember that the difference is going to a worker or family in your community, and it may be the difference between a living wage and a poverty wage.
  • Encourage your local association to be more involved in teaching and professional development issues. Talk to teachers in other districts to get ideas of what unions are doing in this area. Ask your local association to pay for teacher professional development activities that districts can’t or won’t cover. If we argue that the district alone bears the responsibility for quality teaching, then we have less reason to expect administrators to engage with unions on this issues. The California Teachers Association has an Institute for Professional Development, and they put on conferences that you should look into, and then ask your local to send a team of teachers.
  • Look beyond teaching and learning and contracts, and see about getting your local engaged with the community. Sponsor or otherwise support events, activities, and other organizations that strengthen our communities. Organize drives, give-aways, fundraising, etc.
Labor Day has to be more than a one-day nod to our past. The day off is a treat, beaches and barbecues are pleasant enough, and there is good reason to recall past success. But without present and future action to strengthen labor and unions – and the values they stand for – we risk letting Labor Day turn into a sad, ironic, vestigial observance of an outdated concept. Instead, let’s take stock of the situation for workers in our community and country, make individual choices that are part of the solution, and organize for change.

Controversial Topics in the Classroom, and on WBEZ

August 30, 2014

A bit over a week ago, caught in the grip of  the national tensions surrounding Ferguson, MO, I wrote a blog post arguing that teachers need to bring this event and others like it into the classroom. The post was picked up and re-blogged at “The Answer Sheet” at the Washington Post, and also at the National Education Policy Center (link). Then, a school district superintendent in Illinois announced that if the events and tensions in Ferguson, MO, were mentioned by students in the classroom, their teachers should change the subject.

At WBEZ-FM in Chicago, Tony Sarabia’s show The Morning Shift decided to take up the topic of teaching about controversial issues, and they asked me to participate in a 15-minute segment after seeing my blog post. I was glad to be asked and to be part of the program, and I’m also glad they were able include Steven Becton, who does some important work around these issues with Facing History and Ourselves, in Memphis. (You can see Steven in this video from FHAO). I hope anyone reading or listening to any of my thoughts on this topic will notice my insistence that I’m not putting myself out there to prescribe any specific content, focus, methods, etc., but rather trying to articulate a broader principle; in order for schools to maximize their effectiveness in supporting student learning – in the most lasting and transformative sense – schools have to stay relevant to students’ external lives and concerns. It’s also in our best interests as a country to promote deeper understanding of these issues among our students.

Here’s the segment from WBEZ.


The Trouble With “The Trouble With Tenure”

August 21, 2014

EDIT 8/24/14: Corrected information about Michael Johnston’s experience as a principal.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times on Aug. 18, 2014, cobbles together a series of assumptions and quotations to join the trendy but under-informed chorus speaking out regarding “The Trouble With Tenure.” You’ve heard this all before: too few teachers are fired because it’s too hard to fire them, and since they know they can’t effectively be fired, they don’t worry about their job performance. Those assumptions are, at best, difficult to support and to apply broadly – and at worst, they’re just wrong about teachers and organizational management.

First problem – it’s not tenure, in the sense that university professors have tenure. It is not a “job for life,” but rather, a due process protection that ensures teachers who need improvement or dismissal are given appropriate chances to address the issues raised. The details of that process may be worth revisiting and refining, depending on the state or system. And to be fair, I don’t see anything (in this column) to indicate that Bruni, or the main subject of his column, Colorado state Senator Mike Johnston, are suggesting the elimination of teachers’ due process rights. The problem I have is that the underlying assumptions in their arguments for reform are the same underlying assumptions for elimination of those rights, and so the assumptions need to be challenged.

I’m going to quote Bruni from nearer the conclusion than the introduction of his piece. He recognizes the need for some caution in conversations about this issue: “There are perils to the current tenure [sic] talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.” That’s an important and appreciated caveat – but the problem is that Bruni, and Johnston, simply aren’t mindful enough of that peril. Their apparently shared viewpoint is one that fundamentally misdiagnoses the problems undermining our systems. Bruni, Johnston, and too many reformers are focused on pressuring, and maybe punishing the individual, seeing those “bad” teachers as a cause rather than an effect of struggling school systems. Instead, they should be focused first on addressing the systemic problems that create the “bad” teacher. (Yes, “create” – because if someone hires bad teachers, and retains bad teachers beyond the probationary years, that’s not a problem with due process).

Back near the start of the column, Johnston tells Bruni that teacher job protections “[provide] no incentive for someone to improve their practice [and] no accountability to actual student outcomes. It’s the classic driver of, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, not my problem.’ It has a decimating impact on morale among staff, because some people can work hard, some can do nothing, and it doesn’t matter.”

Regarding incentives to improve, I suggest that Bruni and Johnston read, or review, Daniel Pink’s excellent work on the topic of motivation – Drive. There’s ample, well-researched evidence that people doing complex and cognitively demanding work like teaching are inherently and intrinsically motivated to improve, or in Pink’s terminology, motivated to achieve mastery. We don’t need a built-in threat of losing our jobs, and in fact, to the extent that fear motivates action, it leads to worse performance, or cheating (cf.: Atlanta, Washington, D.C., etc.). So, if reformers want to incentivize improvement, their first step should be to figure out what the hell already went wrong: how did the school or the system manage to crush the motivation to improve that we should assume was there at the start (and is probably still there underneath the surface)? At this point, my fellow teachers, you can stop reading and skip to the next paragraph – you know what’s coming. For those who are wondering, a teacher who doesn’t appear interested in improvement is actually a teacher reacting to stress. Sometimes it’s personal stress of the kind that might affect anyone in any job, coping with the challenges of living life. But if it’s job-related stress, reformers could go a long way towards motivating teachers by helping us tackle sources of the stress: overcrowded classrooms, lack of classroom supplies, inadequate facilities, inadequate or faulty technology, lack of training and professional development, lack of support for our students’ nutritional, physical health and mental health needs, the accumulation of non-teaching tasks and unsupported mandates, ill-conceived changes in policies around evaluation and accountability, and sub-professional pay and benefits. If we want to get those test scores up (good grief!)*, try SUPPORTING teachers instead of leaping to conclusions about why they lack motivation.

Johnston is partially correct: teachers don’t like working with colleagues who don’t pull their weight. But it’s too easy to point fingers at due process, or unions in that situation. In districts that function well, teachers who aren’t performing well are helped, and if they are impervious to help, removed. Union leaders and administrators testified to that fact in the recent Vergara trial in California, and New York has made progress in streamlining that process according to recent data from the state. And many teachers who should leave the profession simply reach a point where they decide to do so, without going through the formality of fighting the process. (Though hard data on that is admittedly hard to find, I think most experienced teachers have seen it first hand, and union leaders I talk to also say it’s common). When due process does seem to protect “bad teachers” it’s important to be clear about whether it’s a problem in the contract or a problem of administrative capacity. We should certainly be open to negotiating contracts and policies that help everyone do a better job and do it efficiently, but we should not give up protections just to compensate for the fact that districts and states have overburdened administrators.

Johnston has some experience as a school principal – multiple brief stints at alternative high schools – and he relays this lesson from his experience: “You saw that when you could hire for talent and release for talent, you could actually demonstrate amazing results in places where that was never thought possible,” he said. “Ah, so it’s not the kids who are the problem! It’s the system.” Interesting observation. On one hand, he sees that systems shape outcomes for students. On the other hand, it seems the teachers who were hired for talent are the same ones released for talent. Um, what did the system do with, or to, that talent in between? And logically, we should then expect schools without due process protections to generally outperform their counterparts with due process, since their teachers have incentive to improve and their principals can hire and release at will. Inconvenient truth: that’s not happening in charter schools, and not happening in state-to-state comparisons. I’m not saying Johnston didn’t do a good job managing “talent” – but even if he did, one school’s success hardly indicates that broadly reducing or eliminating teachers’ due process protections will bring about systemic improvements.

Until reformers, policy makers, and the media move away from this fixation on bad teachers as the cause rather than the effect of under-performing schools, we’re going to be spinning our wheels on teaching quality.

Think about that image for a moment. Do we need to change the engine? The suspension? The tires?

No – we need to get pulled out of the mud, and then learn to avoid it in the first place.


* Johnston cites test scores from Harlem’s Success Academy as evidence against tenure. Um, Sen. Johnston, be careful about that…



Time and Space to Learn and Reflect

August 19, 2014

Some thoughts prompted by ten days of Michael Brown, Jr., and Ferguson, Missouri in the news, and through interaction with many colleagues and acquaintances in various online communities, including #CAedchat …


What do we do in school communities when events of historic proportion take place? Or overwhelm us? What do we do when our communities are in grip of trauma, fear, or grief? How many ways are we willing to define, or redefine, “our community”?

I think we have to be willing to toss out the lesson plan, or revise it. This must be done thoughtfully and advisedly, of course. A teacher needs to know the students, the community, and have the skills and sense to manage whatever is about to replace the regular lesson. But certainly, if we place the lesson plan ahead of significant moments in our communal life, we not only rob students of a chance to learn something more lasting and potentially important, but we also unwittingly reinforce the oft-heard but incorrect message that school is separate from “the real world.”

Let me share a positive example first. When I was in fifth grade, Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term as President. That alone would be an event worth watching – on the small tv with the big antennae. Set aside spelling lists and geography for a while. The math lesson can wait an hour, or a day. (In 2009, I had the chance to watch the Obama inauguration with my American Literature classes, which made for an interesting study in the iconography and symbolism in American political rhetoric). IMG_1227Then, of course, on that same inaugural day in 1981, the American hostages were released from Iran. Our principal asked us to bring the American flags out of our classrooms to display in front of the school, to show our patriotism and celebrate that the hostages were coming home.

I can’t tell you any specific academic content I learned that year, except maybe that Louisiana is The Pelican State; I did a report on it. That may have been the first time I learned anything about Louisiana. Certainly, I learned and practiced some other skills that year. I probably made adequate yearly progress. After all, I went on to 6th grade with no struggles, and so on and so forth. (I’ve actually written about 5th and 6th grade before – a satirical Thanksgiving post, here).

What did I learn from watching the Reagan inauguration and participating in the patriotic display for our returning hostages? I understood on some level (that I probably could have articulated even then, had I been asked), that I was part of America, that I should know how our government works, and that I should show thanks for the safe return home of my fellow citizens.

Six years later, there was a tragedy: the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. I was on my way to physics class when one of my friends told me. Our teacher didn’t expect us to study physics that day – not in the expected, planned, or assessed ways, at least. We watched the tv again – I think there was cable by then – and again, I felt connected to a broader community, but in grief.

Do we, collectively, feel connected to the events in Ferguson, MO? Should we? Should our students?

Here’s the way I see it. With younger children, we actually have some influence over what they will remember, what they feel connected to. If my teachers and principals had ignored the events of 1981 and 1986, I would have less of a memory that they occurred, less of an authentic sense of meaning. My recollection of the events of January, 1981, are all connected to school, not home, not my synagogue. For some students, if we don’t talk about this, it will not be part of their memory of our country’s history. And for some students who will most certainly remember this time, we’ll have to explain why this particular event – and the tragic pattern in which it fits – that mattered so much to them, was not worth our time, not considered educationally relevant.

It’s true that events like this present us with a complex narrative, one that exposes divides and uncomfortable truths about our nation – legacies of violence and discrimination going back centuries, still unreconciled. Talking about these issues in the classroom may be daunting for some: it’s difficult for many of us to bring up even in passing, among adults. Or maybe I should say, it’s difficult to talk about for those of us who have the privileged option to ignore race in America when we choose to. If we don’t talk about Ferguson, about the life and death of Mike Brown, Jr., then we miss an opportunity to help our students understand and develop a connection to their country’s living history. That’s not something we cherish – the recognition of seemingly perpetual conflict – but if we ignore it, we don’t equip students to deal with it any better in the present or the future.

DSC_0189I titled this post Time and Space to Learn and Reflect.” That’s my hope for students in the coming days and weeks – that they’ll have time and space, in school, to learn about and reflect upon what’s happening in the country right now. Teachers, administrators, parents and community members – we all need to see this as part of our work. We pledge allegiance to the flag of our Republic, affirming that it stands for a nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. If we believe that pledge, we are not to be divided from Ferguson, nor are we to ignore liberty restricted and justice denied. We have a duty to ask why, and must be brave enough to follow where such questions lead.

I’ll leave the means and methods for teachers and schools to figure out, the how, where, when and how much. There are many, many ways to address this topic, acknowledge what’s happening, make it a teachable moment that has both personal and academic relevance for students. It’s important both to make an effort, and to get this right. Don’t back off because you can’t do it perfectly, but make sure you handle well whatever aspects of it you address. I think it’s possible to provide a basic context and framework for some conversation with even young children, and then to provide appropriate levels of depth and complexity for older students. It is not likely to be a discussion or series of lessons that lead to clear outcomes, answers, resolution. We need to be okay with that. And of course, the conversation will vary depending on where it’s taking place – Staten Island, NY, or Bainbridge Island, WA; Sanford, FL, or Stamford, CT. But I hope anyone who’s read this far sees that we can’t just carry on, business as usual.

We have history to confront, many threads connecting the past and present; we have differences to reconcile, and a potential for unity worth striving for. Ferguson is our country, our legacy, and our challenge for the future – you know, the one our students will be helping us create.

Update: When it comes to issues like this, my thinking and my pedagogy are deeply influenced by years of work with the wonderful educators at Facing History and Ourselves. Their L.A. network recently posted these resources for educators addressing this topic.


And now for something completely different

August 15, 2014
Back to school time (photo by the author)

Back to school time (photo by the author)

I went to the annual opening-of-school event for my district again this year – my 13th time. It’s a small enough district that we can bring together all 1,600 staff members to celebrate the start of a new year, hear from some of our district’s leaders, and acknowledge our new staff and those returning for their 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 30th, or 35th year. There are some people who skip it every year and consider it a waste of time, and if we measure the quality of time strictly in terms of getting stuff done then I suppose that’s true.

Not for me though – I look forward to this event each year as an opportunity to connect with colleagues across the district, and to take in some of the best of our district’s organizational culture. There’s food, music, humor, and genuine appreciation for the work of every staff member. Veteran teachers will tell you that the people who really keep our schools running, by the way, are the custodial and clerical staff. They know everyone and everything and they’re the ones we turn to for getting stuff done. I also heard today that our district staff, overall, includes roughly 50% teachers, 44% classified staff, and 6% administration.

I must really like this event, because this year, I’m on a leave of absence from teaching – and I went anyways. (More about that to follow. Something completely different. Please read on!)

I like clapping for my colleagues as their names are announced in honor of their years of service. I marvel at the longevity and commitment, and appreciate the depth of their experience. I chat with people sitting near me and as familiar names go by, we share what we know about these friends, neighbors, peers, the teachers of our own children in some cases. I enjoy even more applauding our new staff members. I remember feeling a bit surprised at that welcome myself, and now take note of those whose smiles or laughs reveal a similar feeling; I hope their work experience in our district is similarly positive, and includes more pleasant surprises.

This year we welcomed a new superintendent as well. My colleagues who missed the event will have to trust the rest of us to convey something of his message, his outlook, his personality. I think it’s important to know how our district leaders think and what they say they value. Their remarks at these events provide a useful insight into their way of thinking, their frame of reference. When the time comes to work together more substantively, it helps to have a feeling for the people leading the system. If we’re really doing our jobs, there will be times ahead that are challenging, even uncomfortable, and moving through those moments successfully seems more likely when we have a well-rounded view of our partners in this work.

Well-rounded is actually an apt description for our new superintendent. Without reciting his bio and resume for us, he managed to let us know about his experiences as a teacher, administrator, and scholar, his experiences working in schools with students of varied ages, in varied subjects, in rural and urban settings. He used his own children and former students as examples urging us to take the long view of students’ lives and their needs. He focused on relationships and potential and reasons for learning, without edu-jargon, without a single reference to standards generally or the Common Core specifically, without flattering us about our district’s test scores, rankings, or college placement successes, without using the word “data” even once. Of course there will be a time to discuss all of those matters in those terms – but I was grateful that he recognized this opportunity to engage people as people first, and to talk about students as people first as well.

He also challenged us, putting the district mission statement on the screen without identifying it, then asking who recognized it. I inferred pretty quickly what he was doing, but had I been presented a multiple choice question, I couldn’t have confidently picked our district mission statement from among three others. I have a feeling I was in the majority. He promised us we’ll be revisiting that mission statement in the future. And yet, that particular move didn’t feel like a scolding, delivered the way it was, and following his confession about arriving for the event having forgotten to put on a belt while dressing this morning.

It’s so easy to assume things about people, and so easy to be wrong. Our superintendent advised us that his approach is “seek first to understand” – and that’s part of why I go to these kickoff events every year, seeking to understand the people I work with and the place where I work, where my children are going through school. I think that approach serves us all well – as teachers, parents, school leaders, and policy makers. Not only to understand, but to facilitate understanding in others by speaking plainly and focusing on what matters most in the moment. (And for a quick example of how action unsupported by understanding can fail an individual or organization, check out the criticisms of Michelle Rhee/Johnson in this article on the occasion of her decision to step down from leading Students First [sic]).

And now, for something completely different.

IMG_2144This post is about the beginning of a school year, but the year ahead has many differences and beginnings in store for me. In a way, “seeking first to understand” is an idea that is leading me out of the classroom for a while – or rather, seeking to understand more, and better. I’ve taken a leave of absence from teaching for 2014-15, and plan to visit and write about dozens of schools and teachers all around California. My work in various settings and organizations has created an opportunity to learn more about great teaching and schools by actually visiting, and after a few years of thinking and imagining, I’ve decided to act on my ideas and take my chances. I’ll be creating a new website, starting a new blog, and writing a book about the experience. Details coming in the next couple weeks – stay tuned!

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