Keeping it Real in 7th Grade Math

One of the slipperiest slopes school leaders fall down is the one that leaves us out of touch with the realities of the classroom. The kind of out-of-touch that allows us to forget what it’s like to teach 5 of 7 periods with a team meeting, advisory, study hall supervision, and middle school student crises in between. The kind of out-of-touch that causes us to miss out on rich conversations about students and teaching over packed lunches in a colleague’s classroom. The kind of out of touch that left me completely drained at the end of the day Friday.

In an attempt to remain as close to in-touch as I possibly can, I have committed to teaching one day each month. I taught 7th grade math on Friday. Thanks, Mr. Souhrada, for trusting me with your students and your content. I learned a great deal. I hope the students learned a few things too.

Relationships matter.

As I stood in the hall outside my temporary classroom home before the first period of the day, I immediately recalled why relationships matter. The students had no idea who I was, but in their ego-centric, adolescent angst-ridden way they needed to connect. They engaged me in conversations about the contents of their lockers, their yet-unfinished homework, and their meticulous fashion choices. These students needed to trust that I was interested in them as people. I would not have been able to engage them in the hard work of learning without their trust that I had their interests in mind.

This is true for adults too. I’ll admit to the blogosphere that I heard the words “team planning” and “lunch,” as “time to check voicemails and emails in my office.” I am so grateful for the detailed sub notes that directed me to the team room during team planning time and to Mr. McMillan’s room for lunch. I now better understand the importance of having time to talk to colleagues in both structured and unstructured settings. I gained valuable lessons about students, teachers, and my work that I could not have learned in any other way.

Content knowledge matters.

I was an 11th and 12th grade Language Arts teacher for the first eight years of my career. While maybe not polar opposites, middle school math is certainly in a different hemisphere. I specifically requested to be entrusted to teach, but this expectation was overwhelming. I came face-to-face with the chasm between talking the talk and walking the walk. For years I have worked in professional development settings with math teachers. I can impressively sling phrases like “deep conceptual and procedural knowledge” and “teaching for understanding” at timely opportunities.  

When I had to figure out how to engage students in meaningful learning about solving equations with variables on both sides of the problem and applying strategies to organize information from a math problem to create a mathematical model, I choked. I did what I so often criticize others for doing—I defaulted to re-creating the educational experiences I had—or at least I tried to. Thankfully, my trusted PLN (on Twitter) called me on this and saved me from myself.  I have no question the quality of my teaching was seriously sub-standard that day, but I learned about high quality math instruction at a depth I would not have otherwise.

Good teaching is universal.

This was the realization that got me through the day. While there are some content-specific nuances, there is much about good teaching that is universal. Connect to the real world. Connect to the students. Meet the students wherever they are. Ask questions, rather than provide answers. And, lastly, allow yourself to join in on the fun of being a kid. We adults have a lot to learn from them. And I have a lot to learn from the classrooms around me. 

Next month I teach elementary physical education. I'm already nervous...


News Flash: This is Complex Change

Hang on, folks. We are in a world of complex change. We feel very little certainty about the future, and there is very little agreement about where we are going. By definition, this is complex change. It is, understandably, a little unnerving.

Let me assure you, once again, that we are the people we’ve been waiting for. Together we will bring clarity and certainty to our future. Be reflective. Be open to change. Be committed to becoming the very best we can become. Our kids are counting on us. 


Moving Beyond "In Spite of”

While it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to bring a speaker as well-respected as Mike Schmoker to the district, what’s most important is what we do from here. That work begins today. We can’t look to anyone but ourselves to effectively prepare our students to meet the challenges they will face in life, work, and post-secondary pursuits.

There were two points from the morning keynote that resounded with me: quality teaching makes all the difference and effective teacher teams plan, teach, assess, and improve together. My opportunities to reflect with all of you Friday afternoon have left the phrase “in spite of” nagging at me all weekend.

First, quality teaching makes all the difference. It’s easy to default to a position that blames the problems in our classrooms on factors outside the classroom. We can say some children come to us under-prepared. We can point to the less-than-supportive, sometimes-damaging home environments in which some of our children live. We can balk at what the teachers who had these students before us neglected to teach.

We can blame a system that forces us to work in isolation, creating (in the best scenarios) islands of disconnected excellence. We can blame policies, practices, and biases that place undue emphasis on test scores. We can blame higher education, saying their slow evolution holds back our own. You could each add your own list of crippling outside factors to mine.

At the end of the day, none of this blaming does any good. In fact, the reality is that great teachers still get great results—in spite of all these factors. We have to push every outside factor out of our minds and put every ounce of our collective and individual energy into what we can control.

Secondly, effective teacher teams ensure both what and how we teach are of the highest quality, resulting in high quality student learning. These teams plan lessons and units together. They teach these lessons and units together. They assess their impact and adjust instruction accordingly—together. They look closely at examples of student work to move their focus beyond instructional intentions to get real about instructional results. They make adjustments to increase the likelihood that our outcomes match our intentions. This process is happening in isolated pockets, but it should be the norm. All teachers should have a team to support continuous improvement. 

I can point to examples of excellent teachers. I can point to examples of highly functional teams. Unfortunately, they all exist in spite of a system that doesn’t support them. They exist in spite of a lack of time and opportunity. They exist in spite of meaningful and informed support from school leaders--myself included. It’s time that we move beyond a system in which good things happen in spite of. It’s time that we create a system in which these things can thrive. Now is the time to change the system that relegates our work to “in spite of” conditions. Let's work together to create and capitalize upon teacher collaboration time to ensure the best possible learning experiences for our students. 


Our Opportunity: Learning with Dr. Schmoker

With just a week before our September 17 professional development day, I’d like to provide some background information and context to set the stage for what promises to be an exciting day of meaningful shared learning. This day is a collaborative effort among the Cedar Falls, Denver, Clarksville, Independence, Janesville, Tripoli, and Waverly-Shell Rock School Districts that will bring together more than 800 area educators here in our district.
The morning session will be an interactive presentation from Dr. Mike Schmoker entitled The Opportunity: From “Brutal Facts” to the Best Schools we’ve Ever Had. Dr. Schmoker will provide a reality check about schools, effective teaching and learning, and reform efforts. He will further clarify what it means to work as a professional learning community to improve student learning. This is an important opportunity for us to begin to move from a vision for teacher collaboration to action that develops and supports a professional learning community.

We say we value time for teachers to talk to each other about evidence of student learning. We say we want all our teachers to be members of highly functional teams that engage in ongoing cycles of questioning to promote deep team learning. We say we need a structure that allows teachers to collaborate on a regular basis in a way that facilitates both common learning and individualization. We say that we are the people we’ve been waiting for, that there are steps we can take right now to move closer to our vision.

Next Friday will be our first district-wide opportunity to define what those steps look like. Throughout the day you will have opportunities to process individually, as well as with your colleagues within and beyond our district. Remember, the time to act is now; come ready to think, collaborate, and learn!