Posts Tagged 'teaching'

Feeling pride in our profession

My goal at the beginning of the school year was to publish several chapters of my professional memoir each month through May.

But at this deeply troubling moment when so many things in life have been upended that goal doesn’t seem very important.

So while I will not be publishing additional chapters for the foreseeable future, I will occasionally share thoughts with you on other subjects, as I am today.

Sometimes teaching was discouraging. At other times it was immensely rewarding.

And sometimes, like today, I felt immense pride in being a teacher.

I am watching resilient teachers and administrators around the country invent ways of supporting children during the unprecedented educational, social, and economic challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They are creating ways of providing food for children and families in need, such as a Michigan school district using school buses to drop off meals at prearranged times and locations on their routes.

They are staying in touch with their students online and through regular telephone check-ins, particularly those students most in need of such support.

They are finding methods to continue to teach with little opportunity for preparation so that students have purposeful things to do at home and to minimize the academic loss that may result from this unpredictably long break.

And this is just the beginning. 

There will be more inventing ahead as educators care for their own families and their students.

What have you observed or experienced that is causing you to feel pride in our profession?

Ch. 16: Working without a boss

boss noun
a person in charge of a worker or organization
a person in control of a group or situation

boss verb
give (someone) orders in a domineering manner

With the closing of the federal teacher center program in 1981 at the beginning of the Reagan administration I sought a job that would enable me to use the valuable things I had learned about teaching and professional development over the previous 3 years.

Finding nothing suitable, I decided to try my hand at independent consulting on the topics that had consumed my professional interest over the previous decade—alternative education, teacher stress and burnout, professional development, and effective teaching. 

An advantage of such work is the absence of a boss, although unknown to me at the time it may mean having several bosses at a distance. A disadvantage is the absence of a predictable income, or perhaps not having any income at all. 

I had the immediate good fortune through a referral from someone I had met at the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward) of securing a consulting contract for a few days a month with the U.S. Department of Education to support an initiative on professional development for effective teaching.

It was clear even to my relatively inexperienced eye, after just a few days spent in the half dozen or so school systems spread around the United States with whom I was consulting, which ones would likely achieve positive results and which wouldn’t, although I might not have been fully able to articulate the reasons at the time.

In one district, for instance, the professional development “program” involved a box of research reports on effective teaching placed in teachers’ work rooms that teachers would hopefully peruse, study, and implement in their classrooms. Success measured by change in teaching and improved student learning seemed unlikely.

But with another grantee I was part of a well-planned, carefully-implemented, and sustained professional development effort that engaged both teachers and their principals in a multi-year effort to study and apply effective teaching research with generous amounts of classroom coaching and other forms of follow-up.

Most of my other consulting work with schools or school systems extended over one or more years and included at least 5 days of study of effective teaching during a semester or school year with opportunities for classroom observation and feedback.

In a few districts, however, because of a fear of being unemployed, I regretfully signed contracts for three or four workshop days with no classroom follow-up. Not surprisingly, teachers and students saw few benefits, other than those obtained by a small number of highly-motivated teachers.

I vividly remember one such district about which I knew little in advance. Participating teachers were universally angry with district administrators, and that anger dominated every meeting in which I participated. Some of that anger, not surprisingly, was directed at me.

I honored my initial semester-long contract with the district, experiencing the stress of working with extremely unhappy teachers (their principals did not attend). At every opportunity I expressed my concern to the district administrators who hired me, and they beseeched me to continue for another semester acknowledging that perhaps it was a mistake to begin with teachers regarded as “remedial,” a fact that I had not previously known. I gave in to their request, against my better judgement, and the second group of teachers were as angry as the first. I don’t know that I have ever been as relieved and happy as when that school year ended.

During those years I also had an opportunity to closely observe an elementary school that had for many years been a troubled and dispiriting place for students, staff, and parents, which showed up in its low test scores. 

A long-time principal was replaced by a new principal on her first administrative assignment. Over the next 3 years, by every objective and subjective measure, the school became a better place for students to learn and teachers to teach.

But as is often the case, the district promoted the principal to a district office position to spread what she had done to other schools. I don’t know her effectiveness in changing other schools from her systemwide role, but I do know that the principal who followed her was similar to the principal she replaced, and the school again spiraled down.

During the early 1980s I also had the privilege of working with respected colleagues on a videotape-based series on professional development for effective teaching, a first-of-its kind effort for a national professional association. As a result, I found myself in many school systems around the country where I again observed firsthand the impact of school and district leadership on the quality of innovation, professional development, and teaching.

What I learned:

• That the quality of school leadership provided by principals and teachers and of system leadership provided by administrators and teacher union officers matters. It affects educator morale, the spread of good ideas and practices, and the quality of teaching and student learning.

• That learning about something (say, “wait time”) is not the same as learning to do it, particularly when the new practice is contrary to well-established teaching habits. I later would learn that this phenomena is called the “knowing-doing gap.”

• That it is a privilege to work with respected colleagues from whom we often learn far more than we give in return. With them we have a synergy that significantly exceeds the sum of our individual efforts. 

All these “lessons” would take on special meaning when in the mid-1980s my work took yet another unexpected turn.

What lessons have you learned, perhaps the hard way, that have served you well throughout your career?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 12:  Climbing out of a deep academic hole

stu·dent noun
a person who is studying at a school or college
a person who takes an interest in a particular subject

There were many reasons for my academic troubles. 

Because my home life was often chaotic, I had trouble focusing on schoolwork, and when old enough I would often spend my evenings away from home doing non-academic things with my non-academic friends. 

As a result, I wasn’t developing the study habits necessary for academic success.

In addition, I was not a an adept memorizer, especially of decontextualized facts, which was what passed for teaching and testing in many of my classes.

At the time, if asked about my difficulties, I probably would have said, “I guess I’m not very smart.” 

I had the good fortune in high school to spend time with two extended families in which good grades and college aspirations were encouraged.

Nonetheless, raising my high school grade-point average to a level acceptable to a university would be a challenge, particularly given that by 11th grade I was standing in a very deep hole caused by several years of academic neglect.

In my junior year I was befriended by Richard, one of the “smart kids,” who sometimes helped me with my homework and in preparing for tests.

It was a few years later, after I became a high school teacher, that I began to appreciate and to have labels for the learning methods I used with Richard and informally experimented with in high school and beyond.

Richard’s help with my homework, for example, during which we talked through the process of, say, solving a math problem, was a kind of cooperative learning or tutoring that enabled me to understand what I could not comprehend during fast-paced teacher lectures and demonstrations. 

Looking back I remember particularly enjoying a university political science class in which we discussed and wrote about complex issues for which there were no right answers, as well as the rare undergraduate or graduate classes that employed group or project-based learning.

Those instructional methods were new to me and empowering. 

I discovered that I learned best when I saw the big picture of a subject before considering its details, an approach that enabled me to understand the otherwise invisible connections among facts.

In addition, I came to understand that I preferred learning methods which provided generous amounts of “think time,” whereas most of my high school and university teachers used a rapid-fire question-and-answer method which rewarded the fastest thinkers and most verbal students.

Over time I came to see that I had to slow down the learning process through reading, writing, and conversation if I was to truly understand the subject matter. That remains as true today as it was then.

Through these gradually-acquired insights, and the encouragement and support of several people, my grades improved during my 11th and 12th grade years, eventually climbing into the C+ range. That proved sufficient for me to be accepted in the fall of 1964 at a nearby commuter college where I stayed for just a year before winning a scholarship to a larger state university that allowed me to live away from home and have a more complete college experience.

There obviously was a lot more for me to learn about teaching and learning, much of it as a result of the challenges I faced during the day with my alternative high school students and in the evening with graduate students in classes I had started teaching in the mid-1970s near the conclusion of a doctoral program in counseling.

I’ll have more to say about that next time.

Until then, Happy Holidays and best wishes for the New Year.

What were your experiences as a student, and how did they affect your teaching?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 5: Learning to collaborate

col·lab·o·rate verb
work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something

I don’t remember the details of the conversation.

I only remember that the three of us were sitting in a small conference room adjacent to a teacher workroom. We were planning lessons for the upcoming week for the 10 or more sections of the psychology course we collectively taught.

I had been intuitively drawn to this high school because of the opportunity it provided for the flexibility of modular scheduling and the collaboration of team teaching, although I knew little about either.

Modular scheduling involved teaching different groupings of students on different days for different purposes. That meant we worked with various sized groups across a weekly schedule.

Team teaching simply meant that two or more teachers who taught the same subject would together plan lessons, design tests, review the progress we were making, and share teaching responsibility when our sections of 30 or so students were combined for weekly large-group lectures.

Teachers’ offices were in the Social Studies Resource Center where students could come for source materials and individualized assistance.

Unfortunately, I had not experienced team teaching nor modular scheduling as a student, and I had not learned about navigating their unique challenges in my undergraduate teacher preparation courses. 

My high school required that new teachers teach in a traditional way their first semester to get their teaching feet beneath them before adding the complexity of team teaching and working with various-sized groups.

From that semester onward for the next 10 years I never worked alone, which meant I never experienced the professional isolation that is a part of many teachers’ work lives.

And because from the beginning of my career I worked closely with others in the give-and-take relationships that team teaching required, I never feared the loss of autonomy that many teachers associate with such cooperative arrangements.

Teacher evaluation at that time involved an annual visit by the principal or assistant principal who had had no prior experience with the unique challenges of team teaching and modular scheduling, which meant we were assessed by a traditional checklist during the lessons we taught individually to our own sections of the course. In addition, because our evaluators had little understanding of the subject matter we were teaching, the observation and resulting conversation were superficial and generally unhelpful.

To a large extent my first years of teaching required learning to work in productive ways with colleagues and students and becoming more fluent with the content that I taught.

And, too soon, I had to learn to work with controversy within the broader political context of the late 1960s, a responsibility for which I felt particularly ill prepared.

As a beginning teacher, did you work alone or closely with others? What were the benefits and drawbacks of how you learned to teach and work with others?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 4: Learning the basics

ba·sics noun
the essential facts or principles of a subject or skill

In my August 1968 new-teacher orientation I learned that the suburban Detroit high school in which I would soon begin teaching enrolled more than 2,000 students with a faculty and staff of over a 100, which meant there would be more people in the school than in the Western Michigan village where I grew up.

I remember feeling intimated by the seeming poise and confidence of new and veteran teachers alike.

And I felt frightened knowing that the psychology course I would be teaching was limited to seniors, which meant that as a 21 year-old I would be more like an older brother than a teacher to my students who would be just 3 or 4 years younger than me.

Like new teachers everywhere my career began with the day-to-day and hour-to-hour challenges of managing students, planning and teaching lessons, preparing tests, and working with colleagues who were new to me.

In addition, like families and society in general, school faculties, including my own, were often divided into opposing corners by diverging views about the pressing social and educational issues of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Most of what I recall about the first year or two of teaching are in images or shards of memory:

• I remember the pride and sense of ownership I felt in “my” classroom, one I was fortunate to have because many new teachers had to “float” among classrooms throughout the day.

• I remember that when confronted with what were relatively minor behavior problems (students talking rather than listening to me or others) I had only two basic strategies in my behavior-management repertoire—reprimanding students, and when that didn’t work, reprimanding them in a louder voice. Fortunately, one of the two was almost always sufficient. And, fortunately, I became more adept through trial and error and by observing colleagues with whom I would soon be team teaching.

• I remember “running off” tests on “mimeo machines,” and that paper for those machines was rationed by a secretary as were other classroom supplies like notepads and pens. Those tests were typed on manual typewriters whose errors had to be corrected with razor blades which erased the mistakes.

• I remember the perennial problem of students smoking in bathrooms and around the outside of the school. I also remember the problem of teachers smoking. The latter problem was resolved when one of the two teacher workrooms was designated as non-smoking. For whatever reasons, though, most teachers, including non-smokers, congregated in the smoking room, perhaps because many non-smokers seemed to prefer the company of smokers.

• I remember that the psychology course I taught had a textbook, but no syllabus. That meant week by week, and even hour by hour, I was required to invent the curriculum based on what I remembered from my college classes, adapting it to student interests and current events.

• I remember that because a good share of my own education through university required memorization, at which I was not particularly good, I often did not have a deep understanding of the content I was teaching. As a result, I was challenged and frustrated whenever students asked me to explain something in a different way or to provide an example, or worse yet, several examples.

Not only was I a poor memorizer, I was not a particularly disciplined or successful student until I neared the end of high school. As a result, I tended to gravitate toward students who were struggling with school as I had and who were sometimes held in low regard by other teachers.

• I remember that I often thought the best part of the school day was the quiet before students arrived and after they left, which was perhaps the first obvious sign of my introversion.

• I remember department and school faculty meetings. Both seemed to have more than their share of complaints about decisions made by school or system administrators, with a great deal of time given to what seemed like trivial, but emotionally-charged, issues.

How and when did you learn the “basics” of teaching?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 3: An alternative to fighting in a war

al·ter·na·tive noun
one of two or more available possibilities

“The eastern world it is explodin’, violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?” 

“Eve of Destruction”

I began teaching in the fall of 1968 at a time not unlike our own.

Social and political turmoil drove Americans to opposing corners and divided families, including my own, on issues like the Vietnam War and Civil Rights.

The 1960s saw the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.

The chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention that selected Hubert Humphrey as its presidential candidate had occurred just a month before I reported to my school to begin teaching.

Richard Nixon, who would later resign in disgrace, was elected president that fall. 

These issues divided the generations, and the disruption created by those events did not stop at the schoolhouse or classroom door, as I was soon to learn.

For reasons that were inexplicable to me then and now, in the 1960s the Selective Service System granted college students deferments from the Vietnam-era draft that exempted them from military service during the period of their deferments.

That was one of the many loopholes that enabled some students to postpone or completely avoid military service while others, primarily poor and minority, saw the majority of Vietnam-era fighting.

Some young men burned their draft cards in protest. Others did not seek deferments or surrendered them in recognition of the inherent unfairness of the system. Still others enlisted based on that same principle.

I’m not proud to say that I did none of those things.

Like others I was deferred throughout college until the spring of my senior year when a few months before graduation my local draft board reclassified me “1A,” which meant upon graduation I would immediately be eligible for the draft.

During several months of emotional turmoil I carefully considered the options available to me if called for military service.

A friend who would be attending a divinity school that fall suggested I talk with a college chaplain who told me that enrolling in a seminary would defer me from the draft. I said that I was not a Christian, and he said that he believed that God worked in mysterious ways. He also suggested a couple of liberal seminaries that I might find compatible with my views.

The chaplain and I also talked about seeking conscientious objector status, and he said that he would write a letter in support of my application.

There also was fleeing to Canada, a much-publicized option.

And there was another choice. Jail.

During those months I talked with my parents about what I might do. I remember one particularly emotional conversation with my father, a World War II infantry veteran, during which he said that he would rather I die in Vietnam than be a coward. That was probably the low point of our gradually-deteriorating relationship.

Late at night, a few weeks before graduation, I sat alone in a dorm room pondering my future when a deep feeling of serenity overcame me, a feeling that I would be okay no matter what happened. The source of that feeling was unknown to me then and now, although the college chaplain I talked with might have attributed it to God’s mysterious ways.

That spring I had applied for two teaching positions for the 1968-69 school year, and was offered positions in Spring Lake, the small Western Michigan village in which I had grown up, and in Livonia, a Detroit suburb with a reputation for innovation. 

In Livonia I would be teaching psychology to high school seniors, a position I coveted. In Spring Lake I would be teaching various 9-12 social studies classes. For that reason, among others, I wanted to teach in Livonia.

I consulted my draft board to see how it viewed my two offers, and I was told that my draft deferment would continue if I taught in Spring Lake, but not Livonia.

For reasons I cannot recall nor fathom today, I accepted the Livonia position, putting myself at risk of being drafted before the school year would even begin.

I appealed my local board’s decision to the State of Michigan draft board, and when I returned home on the day I graduated from college I received a letter saying that the state board had overturned the local board’s decision, which meant I would be free to teach in Livonia.

I took a job for that summer as a night desk clerk at a local motel which provided generous amounts of time to read.

In August I watched the tumultuous Democratic Convention in Chicago on TV, and later that month packed everything I owned in the back seat of my old Ford sedan to drive east across Michigan to begin my teaching career, a career that would be filled with both unanticipated challenges and opportunities for which I was wholly unprepared.

By what path did you find your first teaching position?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 1: More than I could have imagined

im·ag·ine verb
1. form a mental image or concept of
2. suppose or assume

If someone in early September 1968 had asked me to sum up my first day of teaching, I would have had little to say other than I felt both eager and anxious when it started at 7 AM, and that at its conclusion I was happy to have made it through the day having done little  harm to myself and my students.

But now, 51 years later, my perspective on that day and all that followed is more complex and nuanced.

I think about the ideas, events, and people who influenced me throughout my career.

I think about the expected and the unexpected, the intended and the unintended.

Most of all, I think about what I have learned, the opportunities I’ve been given, and how easily “it might have been otherwise,” to borrow a phrase from Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Otherwise.”

I am a fan of “6-word memoirs,” and the title for mine might be “More than I could have imagined.”

At  the conclusion of that first day of teaching I could not know or even begin to imagine the experiences I would have over the next 50 years from the simple plan, “I want to be a teacher.”

While I don’t believe in predestination, when I look back, much of my career seems inevitable, although at the time the path ahead was far from obvious.

I once read that a miracle is an extremely low probability event, which makes the stories I will tell in the months ahead truly miraculous. 

What would be the title of your 6-word professional memoir?

[This post is the first in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

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