My Hopes for Education in 2015 – It’s about time.

2014 will be known to me as the year that I left the classroom. I left it for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that teaching is exhausting. It is tiring in every way that work can be tiring.

It’s physically tiring. The days are long. Teachers are on their feet a lot. They are always in a hurry. The breaks are famously short. My new boss asked “How long a lunch do you think you’ll take every day? Half-hour? hour?” I responded “I’m still on the teacher lunch pattern,” to which a listening co-worker chuckled in response, “Ah… the 12-minute scarf.”

It’s emotionally tiring. Teachers are constant fighting for goals that aren’t attainable. Even the most idealistic, optimistic, and resourceful teacher in the country will admit that expecting 100% of your students to reach their top learning potential is ridiculous. But that’s the goal. And it’s the perfect goal to have. The problem is that it isn’t ever going to be reached on a large scale. Which means that teachers are going to constantly be faced with failure, with students who aren’t going to make it. They are going to craft lessons that flop. They are going to hear students reject their favorite ideas. This happens regularly.

It’s mentally tiring. The targets are so often changing. The data doesn’t mean what the data says. Michigan went through a reform of it’s “cut scores” for it’s state test proficiency categories recently. It’s press release included this statement that is just… well… here you go: “The metrics are obvious: with the improved cut scores, for example, it most likely will show that our 3rd graders are not really 90 percent proficient statewide – but only 39 percent proficient.”

When 100% is your goal, 90% will work. It’s not perfect, but it’s darn close, but what happens when that 90% is actually 39%. Like, it’s not that your students got worse. They didn’t. They are what they’ve always been. You were just always told 90% were proficient and that was totally false because only 39% of them actually were. How on earth is someone supposed to cope with that reality?

At the risk of sounding long-winded, I’ll spare you the recent law changes to retirement, certifications, professional development, and other parts of the teaching profession that are frightfully confusing. (Ask any #MichEd teacher about the transition from CEUs to SB-CEUs to SCECHS… and ask them to explain how a 3-credit college course plays into that. It is terribly difficult to keep up with.)

This is tiring, tiring work for practically everyone who does it. And the incentives for excellence are purely internal for each teacher. There isn’t a lot of upward mobility. If you are a great teacher, you’ll be asked you do more, like chair committees and departments, mentor younger teachers, lead professional development sessions, these are good things. But they take time and they are hardly compensated appropriately based on the time commitments. Besides, there comes a time when money isn’t really what’s needed.

What teachers need is time.

Time.

Time to rest from the exhaustion. (And please think really long and hard before you allow yourselves to think “That’s what July and August are for”.)

Time for research. Teachers are smart people. They can understand all of the confusing (and ever-changing) requirements for retirement, PD, certification. It just gets a little tricky when they are doing all of this research after supper. When they should get a chance to turn their brains off.

Time for development. Good lessons and assessments are getting a little bit easier to come by with the increasing use of social media to share good stuff, but not every good idea fits in every classroom. It takes time to develop good resources, good curriculum, especially when one doesn’t exists. Fawn Nguyen and I agree on this point, and she says it better, “Let’s not follow that textbook that we hate — so what if the school had adopted it. Just because we inadvertently bought spoiled food does not mean we should consume it.” I made that decision when we ditched our geometry book in favor of something better. Something that took HOURS to find, write, and battle-test (and a lot of help from collaboratively-minded colleagues like Cresta Wright (@wrightc2) and Jennifer McCreight (@RealJMcCreight))

Time to analyze. Reading adolescent body language is tricky, tricky business. Using data to tell if your lessons work is a lot more reliable. But it takes time, because lessons rarely 100% work or 100% don’t work. Completely scrapping a lesson is a fairly quick process. Tweaking a fairly effective lesson is where real effort and energy are involved. Looking at the data to figure out where the lesson worked, where it didn’t and then updating it effectively can be a time-consuming exercise. It should be a time-consuming exercise, because there should be time to do this necessary work. But there isn’t.

And yet, as we move forward with reforms, we are still asking our teachers to do more and more and more and giving them less and less time to do it. One district laid off all their elementary art and music teachers and asked the classroom teachers to provide art and music education. Classroom teachers, already pressed for time, are being asked to spend larger amounts of time with students in their classrooms AND develop and deliver new lesson plans. While taking away time, they are being asked to do more.

What does success look like in a situation like that?

In 2015, I hope to see this tide start to turn. To understand that teachers NEED this time. They need it. They can’t do their jobs well without it and for us, as a community of motivated, highly-qualified educators need to start helping drive the creative processes that will help create time for the people who need it.

I have some ideas, in my next post I will throw out a couple of ideas. Please share your ideas. We need all the good ideas we can get.

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If education REALLY needs a game-changer, then…

So, I got a “what-if”…

What if teachers only taught half their day?

Follow me down this rabbit trail for a minute. It started with a video. This one. Watch it if you haven’t already.


It’s kind of long, sorry about that.

So, technology isn’t a game-changer. That’s because it doesn’t change the game. It’s a different strategy to bring to the same game. Instructional technology is just that: INSTRUCTIONAL. You don’t change the game by changing INSTRUCTION.

You change the game by changing LEARNING. That’s where the revolution comes from. It’s fair to say that one definitely leads to the other and it certainly isn’t valuable to separate those two practically Siamese educational activities. Teaching and Learning.

So I began to ask myself, what produces high amounts of learning? Well, at the risk of oversimplifying: good teaching. And good teaching rests on foundation of good lesson-planning and good lesson design.

In fact, according to L. Dee Fink of the University of Oklahoma, “designing and managing an instructional event” is the “most crucial” quality in “ensuring whether or not students have a significant (rather than a boring or trite) learning experience”.

That having been said, take a look at The University of Michigan Center for Research on Teaching and Learning’s Guide for Effective Lesson Planning. Many seasoned teachers look at that list of super important items and chuckle to themselves at how no one in the teaching profession has time to put that kind of detail into their lessons.

So…

We have created a situation where the people who have the most impact on the learning don’t have the ability to do the thing that research suggests will have the largest impact on the learning.

Well, what are they doing instead?

Well, here’s an infographic. (I’m not sure if infographics count as “citing research” or not, I’ll let that come out as critiques as my peers review my blog posts, but I think the point is well made.) In a typical work day, teachers spend the majority of their time instructing students, which might seem like a no-brainer except they have to teach them something. The typical processes include using instructional materials (which have to be chosen or designed) and giving assessments (which need to be chosen or designed, and then graded and returned with feedback.) Without those things, we don’t see learning. And learning is the goal.

Which means this super-important lesson design work, which has to be done for high amounts of learning to occur, is not given sufficient time within the typical teacher’s day. Most days it isn’t given ANY time in the teacher’s day. Or it is given time that is supplanting family time, relax time, or hobby time. That isn’t just me being sympathetic. Those things keep teachers from getting burned out.

So, you can’t really change the job of teaching. It is all of those things and not because we chose them to be.

But our culture doesn’t need teachers who lesson plan. It needs teachers who lesson plan WELL. It doesn’t need teachers who assess learning and give feedback. It needs teachers who assess learning WELL and give GOOD feedback. It doesn’t need teachers who reach out to reluctant learners. It needs teachers who reach out to reluctant learners PERSISTENTLY and EFFECTIVELY.

Those things take time. Time our teachers don’t have because of the way our education system requires its teachers to work.

So, enter my original “what-if”. What if teachers only taught half the day?

Secondary teachers would teach three classes. or elementary teachers would teach either the morning or the afternoon. Secondary folks might have 75-80 students instead of double that, in some cases.

Then, the other half of the day, they are collaborating, researching best practices, lesson planning, giving feedback, observing each other teach, making contact with parents. Young teachers could experience real mentorship. Teachers could really reflect and really collect, look at, and examine student data.

I know, I know, I know. Money, money, money. I understand that this plan isn’t a cheap one. I get that. I don’t think this plan is going to be the next one tried. But it is simple. It is elegant. And it probably would work. And if education needs a “game-changer”, then we need to think about ACTUALLY changing the game. This plan does that.

There are teachers out there doing amazing things right now. Imagine what those folks would do if you gave them that kind of time. They wouldn’t be amazing anymore. They might just be revolutionary.