Applying Growth Mindset to our Teachers

I enjoy reading/hearing discussions of education from the perspective of non-educators. Dan Carlin goes there occasionally as does Steve Dubner from Freakonomics and it was one of Dubner’s posts that captured my attention today.

The piece (entitled “Is America’s Education problem really just a teacher problem?”) explores the conjecture that has been expressed by a wide variety of people that the issue that our modern education system is dealing with really boils down to teachers. If teachers teach well, then the education goes well. If teachers don’t teach well, education doesn’t go well.

While I’m not prepared to validate the conjecture, I do think there is some value in exploring the power improved teacher performance might have to address some of our systems lingering issues. For example:

  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors we can control. Blaming the parent, the kid, the politician, the funding, etc. might be accurate and possibly satisfying, but we can’t control how those behave, so let’s not create solutions that require one of those “uncontrollables” to act a certain way.
  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors that are close to the students. Curricula, standards, college entrance tests, etc. are all going to have to be figured out eventually, but those are slow-burning solutions.
  • By focusing on teaching, we get a chance to explore a wide variety of the educational experience of the student. Instruction, assessment, feedback, engagement, classroom management, community relations, positive behavior supports, data collection and analysis all play a part in the work of the teacher. In addition, we can explore teacher training, recruitment and hiring, mentorship and development, pay, evaluation and union politics… I could keep going. That is an awful lot of the education sector that opens up when we start examining the work of the teacher.

And while I’m not in any position to put the salvation of the American public education system on the shoulders of the teaching profession, I would imagine if we give ourselves permission to examine the teaching profession, we might find some areas of improvement that would allow our system to better serve our young people.

Let’s also get out of the way right now that there aren’t any simple explanations to this problem and, as such, there aren’t any simple solutions. Also, let’s get on the same page about something else. From the article:

“When we say that U.S. students aren’t doing very well, and that U.S. teachers aren’t the best and brightest, let’s remember that we’re talking about averages. There are of course millions of American kids who get a great education in public school. There are of course many, many excellent teachers. We should also note that just because a future teacher finishes near the top of their high-school or college class doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a great classroom teacher.”

American schools aren’t universally awful and it can also be a little tricky to predict what kind of student will end up becoming an excellent teacher. And while the system is complex and there’s a lot of moving parts, the teacher plays a central role in designing the experiences that students have during the school day. From the article (this quote is from David Levin):

When you think about the most important people in a kid’s life outside of their family it starts with their teacher. I mean for the obvious reason, right? You leave home, you go to school, and the teacher is the determinant of how that day goes. And even as the kids get older, when all the research says the peer effect is so essential, teachers have a huge impact on how peers interact in the classroom.

So, perhaps the most reasonable next step would be to make sure that each classroom has a talent teacher in it. Get rid of the lousy teachers and replace them with better ones. Right?

From the article (this quote is from Dana Goldstein):

And what I found is that this pair of solutions, driving people out, bringing new people in, it’s not enough. Because the demand for teachers is so high — we do need 100,000 new teachers every year to satisfy the labor market. So, what I suggest is, instead of starting with our fear of bad teaching, we look at teachers who are excellent at what they do right here in the United States, and we ask about how to create systems where we can replicate their best practices.

That’s a lot of teachers. 100,000 new employees every year? That’s a ton. And as far as best practices go, there are a couple of pretty approachable frameworks that are becoming pretty common place (Bob Marzano and John Hattie are becoming household names for a reason), so choosing a framework around the teacher development programs in school districts shouldn’t be the hard part. So what is the hard part?

Perhaps the hard part is that many schools envision their roles as developers of young people. (I don’t disagree with this, by the way…) Schools are in the human growth business. I suspect every single school in the country has a mission/vision statement that includes a lot of student-centered language about growth, development, and the like.

At the same time, I reckon hardly ANY of those districts see themselves as TEACHER development institutions.

But why not? If the data, research, and logic trail all point to excellent teaching being a huge indicator of overall district excellence (read “district excellence” as lots and lots of young people learning lots and lots and lots of good stuff), then wouldn’t a constantly improving teaching staff be a pretty reliable pathway toward improvement?

But what might that look like?

  • Schools subscribing to professional journals on behalf of their teachers and developing norms that the articles are read and discussed.
  • Real, effective mentorship programs that nurture the growth of their young teachers instead dumping them into classes and schedules that veterans would NEVER stand for.
  • open door policies where teachers are expected to visit each other’s classrooms to support, watch and then ask questions about what they saw and heard.
  • peer observation and feedback sessions with the intention of supporting the growth of a teacher who is struggling in an identified way. (Perhaps learning walks a la Kevin Feldman.)
  • teachers who are taking college course work getting opportunities to showcase their projects, discuss the texts that they are reading, and lead discussion in staff meetings.
  • high school math teachers (for example) being invited into an art teacher’s classroom so that the art teacher can demonstrate a really effective technique. (I am not a big fan of “only a math teacher can help/support/advise/understand another math teacher.)
  • a principal making sure that as many possible people on staff are qualified to lead a classroom of students for an hour so if a teacher needs to observe, discuss, consult, or brainstorm there is a variety of paraprofessionals, interventionists, guidance counselors, administrators, and other personnel who can stand in and let the growth process happen. (I can remember one school I worked at where even the athletic director could manage a classroom.)

This mindset see schools as the last part of the teacher training process. What if we saw the schools as the place that completed the training? (Not unlike teaching hospitals that openly have developing doctors learning their craft with real patients.) Not only will you be serving to improving the skill set of the teaching staff, but when professionals are cared for, have a sense of ownership and autonomy, their motivation and morale tend to improve.

Schools have long understood their role in developing humans, but perhaps they’ve fallen short because they’ve behaved as though their only task was to develop the minors. Perhaps if we get to the place where our schools understand their role in developing the adults as well, then we’d start to see the improvement that we’ve been seeking for so long.

The two key ingredients of real problem-solving

A quick word about dissent.

During a recent conversation with a teacher-friend I we stumbled into an area of conversation that allowed me to see dissent through the lens of leadership and problem-solving in a way that I hadn’t before.

Acceptance of dissent isn’t a new idea in leadership. Lots of writers talk about the need for leaders to appreciate it… here’s an example.

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another on of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.”

– Michael Fullan (From Leading In A Culture of Change, 2001, pg 74.)

We were talking about problems that tend to have some pretty zealous advocates. For the sake of exploring a concrete situation, I’ll choose one for an example. How about student retention? This is a topic that can bring some energy out of some folks. It’s an important conversation, too. What happens when a student finishes a school year without meeting the minimum expectations to complete the grade/course they are in?

To push them forward would mean pushing the student forward into academic challenges that they likely aren’t prepared to tackle.

And making student repeat grades has just not been an effective solution according to ASCD, Education Week, John Hattie, etc…

So, when a district sits down to really solve this problem, they need to accept that they probably are going to need to choose a third option. Carelessly moving the student on is probably a poor choice. Making the student repeat the grade is also a poor choice.

The better option, the third choice, the one that will work better, is likely going to have to be crafted on site and with the resources available helping to guide the process.

This is where I began to see the need for two very distinct groups of people.

One group of people creates the boundaries… I’ll call them the idealists. These are the people who say, “We can’t retain them. We can’t. I don’t care what we do, but we aren’t retaining them. It doesn’t work.” Every issue has these people. Most of us can become these people when the issue at hand strikes us right. Luckily, they seem to be essential to the process. They also happen to be very frustrating to people who either disagree or just don’t see the issue as important.

The main issue with these folks is that zeal often doesn’t really solve problems. It creates boundaries for the solution, but (in the case of our example issue) simply eliminating retention doesn’t actually solve the problem of students falling behind. It just eliminates a series of potential solutions.

So, we need to bring in the dissenters… I think of them as the holders of the “yeah, buts…”

“We can’t hold them back.”

“Yeah, but they are still behind in their learning, so we can’t just move them on.”

Now… at this moment… as long as neither the idealist or the dissenter storms out of the room, the real problem-solving work can begin. The boundaries are set, the reality checker is in place and now the focus can turn to the ACTUAL problem In the case of promotion v. retention, it’s the fact that students are making it to the end of the school year not ready to move on.

And that takes some deliberate focus and patience. The zealous boundary-setters don’t want to hear about “yeah, buts…”. The dissenters tire quickly of the perceived inflexibility of the idealists. But I’m not sure real solutions to tricky, messy problems are more likely than when these folks can unify around a common goal.

American education (shoot, American culture as a whole) has a whole variety of problems that we are having trouble solving because the zealous idealists and the persistent dissenters have such a hard time embracing the valuable contribution that each other makes in the course of creating real solutions.

But real solutions… solutions that are effective and sustainable… probably require the active presence of both.

The effective leader has all the right… questions.

effective leader

There’s plenty that’s been said about effective school leadership. (Here, I’ll save you a couple of key strokes.) I don’t think that I am going to share anything revolutionary here.

But I want to share an anecdote that I heard recently from a trusted colleague that I thought spoke very clearly to the power of an effective leader. As he reflected aloud on his first couple of years teaching, he made a couple of statements that I found to be very powerful. (I’m using quotes, but this is certainly paraphrased.)

“I was blessed to have a principal that asked a lot of questions. It wasn’t that I was doing wrong things or bad things, but it showed me that I was doing a lot of things without having a very good reason.”

It was an outstanding summary of the role of mentoring a new teacher. Teacher prep programs in most universities fall short of their goals. It isn’t necessarily their fault. The teaching profession largely sets new teachers up to be steamrolled and as the model currently exists (a ton of content courses, a few professional prep courses, a short internship and go forth and prosper), it would be pert-near impossible for any new teacher to enter fully prepared.

So, most teachers fall back on what “teachers do.” But why? And if you don’t know why, then (at the very least) leaders need to make sure they can get that far. It might be that talking at the board is the right move for that young math teacher. It could also being fully blended with instructional technology would be better. But the teacher needs to know why. What goals will that meet? What content will that work best for? How are you making sure it’s effective in meeting its goals?

We should all be blessed to have leaders that ask a lot of questions. I don’t think it’s enough to have everyone doing the right things. It’s good. But people who do the right things without knowing why can’t reflect on their effectiveness, they can’t be flexible within the systems, they can’t roll with the punches when the results don’t appear as perfectly as they should.

There are a lot of excellent teachers making a lot of excellent innovations and building a lot of excellent systems in their classrooms and in their school communities. What makes them excellent is that they know what problem they are trying to address and they have the means to verify whether or not the innovation is solving the problem. It’s effective because they know the why.

And rather than instructional skills or techniques, perhaps it’s more important that leaders lead their people to be able to think about their classrooms like that.

And reminding myself that teachers are the leader of their classrooms, if instilling this thought process is so powerful for young, developing teachers, what would it look like for teachers to instill this in young, developing students?

Reflections on the teaching profession and the potential for leadership

Recently, I got a chance to sit down with #MichED-ucators Melody Arabo (@melodyarabo) and Jeremy Tuller (@jertuller) to discuss (among other things) the teaching profession along with it’s potential for leadership and advancement.

I’ve learned a ton this year in my new role at Ingham, and that work has helped me become knowledgeable in maybe a dozen districts, in addition to the four I’ve been involved with already in my career. I’m starting to get a sense that there are some patterns to the teaching profession that aren’t specific to a single district. Sitting with Jeremy and Melody for a 90-minute discussion brings the knowledge of the experience of scores of other educators in districts all over the state. After that conversation, it seems there are definitely patterns.

1. There are very, very few distinctions that separate rookies from veterans. The job of someone with 50 clock hours of classroom experience is remarkably similar to the job of someone with 50,000. The expectations are the same. The workloads are the same. The evaluations are the same. The professional development is the same.

2. There are remarkably few advancement opportunities within the field of teaching. Don’t confuse this with the education industry as a whole. There are lots of career pathways within education. But if someone is an exemplary talent in teaching (Every field has its hall-of-famers. Teaching is no different…), the field doesn’t offer much in the way of advancing in the field WITHOUT having to leave the classroom. Which is a little risky because…

3. … teachers trust the advice of teacher far above and beyond the advice of non-teachers. This is why #MichED and it’s motivated leadership have done such important work. Teachers need to be connected to other teachers. The masters of this craft need to be able to share their work with others. They need to be able to advertise their expertise. Which used to be difficult because the technology didn’t allow for it. Not so much anymore.

Flexibility holds the key to the solution to a lot of these problems. I have a series of what-ifs…

1. What if each leadership position in a school district included a teaching component? The superintendent, the directors of curriculum, technology, grounds, special education, athletics, the building principals and assistants all could teach one hour per day. Anyone who is certified to teach will. This would have several positives.

First, it would keep all the decisions very close to the classroom (and that means close to the students who should ALWAYS be the main focus.)

Second, it would force collaboration because a full-time job like curriculum director needs full-time attention, but with the director also being a part-time teacher, then those decisions would all get made in committee with the curriculum director as the chair.

Third, it not only frees up hours for teacher fluidity, but also opens up committee positions to build in leadership capacity among the teaching staff. Now, we are expecting exemplary, veteran teachers to contribute to district-wide decisions. And that would be built into the day. This wouldn’t be after-school work that endlessly interferes with their down time. When the curriculum leadership team needs to meet, the building principal can cover for the teacher in that building that needs to be out. After all, they teach too.

Fourth, it would make decisions coming down from the central office more likely to be accepted by the teaching staff (which can be a contentious issue in schools.)

2. What if we increase teacher “fluidity”? I don’t think we take advantage of our teachers who can teach multiple subjects nearly well enough. Having a teacher that is able to teach any math class and any science class from grades 6-12 is not an uncommon skill set. Having the finance director coming to your school every day to teach a math class not only frees up that math teacher for an hour, but imagine if that math teacher (who can also teach science) is now free-lance. This isn’t necessarily an additional prep hour, this is an hour when that teacher can step into another teacher’s classroom. Perhaps because they have a cool cross-curricular project they want to have their students experience. Perhaps that teacher is going to cover for a colleague who is at a conference or professional learning activity. How about all of these benefits?

First, curriculum would need to be coherent, clear, and consistent. That math teacher wouldn’t be coming into the science teacher’s classroom to be a place-holder. She is teaching that class that hour. That means she needs to be able to step into the flow of the unit.

Second, how much better of an understanding would teachers have of each other’s practice, classroom experiences, struggles, and strengths? Imagine if a teacher whose classes are regularly rowdy and difficult to control goes into their colleague’s classroom and sees those same kids quiet, focused, and attentive? There’d be some powerful observation and discussion happening.

Finally, this flexibility would allow for my third “What-if…”

3. What if we completely rethought new teacher mentorship? I get so discouraged when I hear of the lousy workloads and complete lack of support that new teachers receive. I’ve seen fresh-out-of-college teachers given 4 and 5 brand new preps with daily travel between buildings without full-time pay. I’ve seen new teachers (when they should still be working on their classroom management and assessment/feedback of student work) asked to build new classes into the curriculum because the rest of the veterans in the department wanted it done and didn’t want to do it themselves. I’ve asked brand new teachers “who is your mentor?” in December of their first school year and watched them not know the answer.

This is madness. At some point, we have to stop allowing veterans to look at new teachers the way seniors look at freshman.

In combination with my other two What-Ifs, we can completely overhaul the idea of teacher development around a few premises.

1. New teachers teach a full-day no more than two days a week their first semester in the classroom.

2. New teachers co-teach a lesson with their mentor (either in the new teacher’s classroom or in the mentor’s) at least two hours per week for the first semester. One hour a week for the second semester. Two hours per month for the second year.

3. New teachers and mentors have built into their schedules one hour per week of collaboration/discussion/mentorship time.

4. Building leadership will observe new teachers at least two separate half-hours per month.

5. Each department will designate the two most difficult classes to teach well in terms of student behavior and struggle to learn the material. No teacher in the first three school years out of college will be allowed to teach these classes.

These are all things that can be address if we just rethink the idea of leadership and the teaching profession. Everyone in our district who is certified to teach will. This will add opportunities for teachers to grow into leadership roles. This will also create chances for teachers to become active members of the school community in different ways that was previously possible. It will give a better chance for our exemplary teachers to support the improvements of everyone.

How the other half works

I was a classroom teacher until this past November. The last 6+ years were spent in the high school math classroom. I got pretty comfortable in the high school classroom. In my new role, I’m collaborating with teachers at all levels.

In fact, I was fortunate enough to explore the extremes of that spectrum in the last week. A few days ago, I spent about a half-hour brainstorming with a teacher regarding his calculus class. He had some outstanding (and quite lofty) goals about integrating STEM ideas of authentic problem-solving and authentic assessment, experimentation, design and engineering into his calculus class. I didn’t have much to offer him, I’m sorry to say. I’ve never seen a class operate in the way that he was hoping.

Two days later, I was observing a math instructional strategy for about a half-hour in a kindergarten classroom. The teacher was fantastic: talented, warm with her students, and quite skilled in the areas of classroom management and math instruction. I was observing her class as they explored some quantity discrimination with manipulatives. Beans for counters and a spinner to determine whether that pair of students would express a “greater than” or “less than” sentence. I really enjoyed this teacher’s style. She chuckled as she said, “whoever decided that beans and spinners should be used together with kindergartners really should have rethought that.”

It got me thinking about my own background. Teaching is immersive. It isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Even aside from all of the time a teacher spends in his/her classroom (or working outside of their classroom), the work is very stressful and requires a lot of mental energy. Teachers seek other teachers’ counsel, other teachers’ advice.

In the end, no one can help a frustrated teacher quite like another teacher who has walked a mile (or seven) in the same frustrated shoes.

This reality leads to two very understandable outcomes. First, many teachers I’ve talked to have expressed that advice is only helpful when targeted directly to their specific situation. (“Well, that fella had some good things to say, but has he ever tried to teach Algebra I? No…” I’ve heard different variations on this many times.)

Second, there is often a huge, HUGE disconnect between secondary teachers and elementary teachers. Since 2005, I have been a team member in three different districts as a secondary teacher (one very big, one very small, and one medium) and I can think of exactly two times… TWO… that I was in a instructional math meeting that involved bringing any elementary teachers in.

Both times, the vibe was very much, “Hey listen, you elementary school teachers are making our jobs harder, so I tell ya what: why don’t you let us tell you how this should be done and then we’ll all get back to work.” I’m sorry to say that I’m not blaming others. I know this is how I was in those meetings.

As a secondary teacher, I never had a classroom full of students who were struggling to understand that 5 x 2 = 10. Sure, I had students who certainly didn’t know their multiplication facts, but I never had to build 5 x 2 = 10 as new knowledge. What’s that like?

As a secondary teacher, I never had a classroom full of students who needed time to develop the understanding of the statement: “If you are counting objects, the last number you say is the number of objects there are.” What’s that like? How do you structure that lesson? How do you differentiate that?

I’ve never watched a student struggle to learn a new topic only to realize that the reason they are struggling is that they don’t know how to read or conceptualize that the two digit number they are seeing on the page in front of them. I had some students who didn’t read well, but I don’t recall having a student in class who didn’t know what 12 meant.

But there are places where this is commonplace. And I’ve learned so much by having to consider what math education looks like at this level. And it makes me wish that I had been forced to walk a mile or two in their footsteps while I was struggling to understand why my students couldn’t understand fractions.

In the modern times, it seems there is a resurgent appreciation for collaboration, classroom observations, and teachers learning from each other. I wonder what value it might add to a teaching staff to have the teachers from the high school take a day to watch expert practitioners at the elementary level? And what value might it add to have the kindergarten teacher sit-in on an Algebra I lesson?