When You’re Ready to Notice It

The other morning I was driving my daughter to school and me to work when Train’s song “50 Ways to Say Goodbye” came on the radio. I’ve heard the song hundreds of times; it’s hilarious (and the video is even funnier). But I had never noticed the lyric “How could you leave on Yom Kippur” before. I laughed out loud and my fourteen-year-old looked at me like I was crazy.

But I’m learning that’s the way it is. Not my daughter looking at me like I’m nuts, but how we often hear a song over and over again, and then we hear something different and it makes sense in a different way.

The same is true of educator learning.

Teachers and administrators, we are all trying to grasp how standards implementation, the formative assessment process, the work of PLCs, etceteraetceteraetcetera, merge and then separate and then merge again (the synthesis of new learning sometimes feels like trying to find the right camera focus, zoom in, zoom out–nauseatingly unclear at times).

But if we don’t build in time for adults to practice, whether a classroom teacher or a building level administrator, if we buy into the myth of accountability that assumes immediate expertise, then we don’t allow for moments of learning when we are “ready to notice it,” like the lyrics of a song.

Which is why this morning on Twitter I was ready to notice a blog by Larry Ferlazzo which linked to a blog by Doug Lemov.

The messiness of kid learning that most of us are comfortable with needs to extend to grown up learning, lest we get “run over by a crappy purple Scion” (thanks Train).

Metaphorical Bullets

It’s been a busy month.  In the last 4 weeks I have worked with 8 different content cadres, facilitated 3 department-level trainings, and participated in meetings with various groups of department chairs, academic coaches, and staff development specialists.  That represents over 200 amazingly dedicated teachers and a total of about 80 hours of facilitation and training.  And the planning that goes into it.  I’m not complaining; I LOVE my job.  But this weekend I am pretty whipped.

In my last blog I wrote about a lesson the teachers I am blessed to work with have taught me.  In this one I want to add to the lessons I have learned from them.

A little over two years ago I was hired onto a team of four classroom teachers whose major task was to implement the Common Core Standards, soon renamed the Arizona College and Career Readiness Standards (AzCCRS for short—a teacher told me a few weeks ago that she calls them the Az Kickers).  The high school district I work for has six comprehensive high schools and one alternative academy.  The overall enrollment is over 10,000 students.  Prior to the 2013-14 school year the sites had largely operated as their own islands. The reality that the new standards, and the accountability measures that accompanied them, required a major shift, prompted the district to bring us “specialists” on board.

I was excited by the new challenge.  Twenty-four years in the classroom, experience as an instructional specialist and a department chair gave me confidence in my skill set.  Working with groups of teachers, both large and small, in professional development had begun to shift my passion from high school students to those who teach high school students.  This was going to be a natural fit!

And it was.  But the first year was rocky.  Bringing in representative groups of teachers who had previously been able to shut their doors and teach content they loved, and telling them that we were going to create a district-wide scope and sequence that articulated standards quarter-by-quarter resulted in some…dissonance (and in the case of what quarter To Kill a Mockingbird was taught, it resulted in tears).

Year Two arrived.  Our team of 4 was downsized to 2.  We added 10 classes to the process so that we were working with a total of 22 of the largest course offerings in the district to align to standards (on-level and honors math, English, social studies, and science).  The returning cadres had settled into a rhythm and trust, and the new ones had heard word that THE DISTRICT wasn’t really interested into turning them into lock-step robots—they didn’t need to come in prepared for battle.

So last year when I realized that I was working with groups of teachers who, instead of viewing me as part of THE DISTRICT, trusted that I was an ally, a teacher who just happened to work at the district office, and in some ways a person who had the connections to get messages to the higher-ups, I started really understanding my passion.

It’s not to deliver professional development to teachers or facilitate curricular conversations.  It is to take care of them.

Teaching is hard, for the reasons you see in the paper, but more so for what the general public doesn’t see.  Most teachers I know take bullets, metaphorically, for their students every day (and most would do it literally as well; it is instinct).  High school teachers love their content (sometimes too much), but most of all they love kids.  Because of the state of education they have larger class sizes, they have new obligations as a result of the standards and outside accountability.  Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and I totally understand it.  Teaching is HARD, and if you can make more money doing something else that is easier…well, that old adage that “Those who can’t, teach” is a bunch of bs.

What I have learned in this position is that there are people who can help take care of teachers.

District offices can make sure that teachers understand WHY whatever the new initiative is connects to what they do in the classroom.  If it is a random dictate from the state (new evaluation system), tell them the truth, but tell them.  If there is a bigger picture, make sure the teachers understand it, clearly.  We are going 1:1, this is how it is going to impact you; we are focusing on the formative assessment process, this is why we are doing it.

Building level administrators need to reinforce the district information, but they also need to understand what is REALLY happening instructionally in classrooms.  If there are new standards, read them, understand them, know what it is that teachers are charged with.  The job of managing the small city that is a comprehensive high school is important, but the purpose of it is learning—make sure that, to whatever extent possible—more effort is focused on supporting learning.  At one point in time most administrators were teachers.  Let teachers know that you understand what they do and how important it is.  Not just during Teacher Appreciation Week.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t keep track of how many copies they make.

And to the teachers who are in positions like mine, at the site level or the district level, our charge is to support and listen to teachers, to make their lives easier.  As busy as my last month has been, it hasn’t been even CLOSE to what 400 teachers in my district have been doing.  I honor them and will gladly take a bullet (metaphorically).

Thank You For…

When I made the decision to leave the classroom and take a new position working with teachers, I was afraid that the warmth and humor and communion of a classroom working with high school students was forever gone.  Some days I still miss it in ways that make me want to throw up.  The synergy of a group of 17 year olds who love you, want to learn, and hate that you are making them learn, is a balancing act that—really—only school teachers understand.

Starting my third year in a district office position working with teachers, I am often jealous of what they are experiencing in their daily lives in their classrooms.  I am NOT jealous of the sheer exhaustion that goes home with them every day as masters of this calling.  And never, in my 26 year career as a public school educator, have I have been so keenly aware of the dedication that these teachers show.  And this weekend I realized that, in addition to my awe of their dedication, I have been humbled by a kindergarten-ish lesson they have taught me.

Two years ago I started working with a cadre of world and American history teachers from the seven high schools in my district to implement the new literacy standards and create a district-wide quarterly scope and sequence.  I was warned that this would not go well.  A few years earlier there had been an attempt at curriculum mapping that had been just plain ugly.  Professionally, I don’t know that I have ever been as nervous as I was facilitating that first conversation.

The day went well, some honest conversations, no tantrums, and at the end of it I read their feedback and evaluations.  Several teachers wrote “Thank you for treating us like professionals.”

Those comments inform the work I continue to do with the 700+ teachers in my district.  When I read their evaluations (and they are not always positive—that’s a different blog), when they say “Thank you for the resources” or “Thank you for helping us connect the dots” or “Thanks for the M&Ms,” that has become a mental note.  Things I can do to validate their dedication.

But this weekend I realized that the lesson has subconsciously extended to other parts of my life.  It is one thing to say thank you.  It is a different thing to say “Thank you for…”

Thank you for talking to me while you help me check out in the grocery line.

Thanks for cleaning up the cat poop without me asking.

Thanks for still being on my side when I’ve been a pain in the ass this week.

Thank you for providing this opportunity to do this work.

Thanks for reading this!

Tech Support, Please

I am having a technology issue.

In the last 3 semesters that my daughter has been in middle school, I just realized that I haven’t seen a bonafide mailed home report card or progress report.

I have had test results mailed home. I have had computer printouts that I have to sign informing me of her grades. And, because my daughter talks to me daily about what is going on in her classes, I am not concerned about her grades.

What I am concerned about is the ease of technology that keeps teachers from having to connect when they notice that a student is struggling.

The grades, the points, the data are on the computer. Login.

Unfortunately, numbers don’t give us the big picture.