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You Know It When You See It

Sometimes when I am giving a workshop, I’ll ask teachers to close their eyes and think of the worst teacher in their school.  No one has ever had difficulty coming up with the worst --or even the second-worst.  We don’t name names, of course.  Instead, we make a list of characteristics of these folks.  Wherever I go, the lists are always similar:  poor attendance, negative attitude, ineffectual discipline.  Doesn’t care about kids.  Doesn’t care about teaching.  Just waiting for it to be over.

Teachers never cite poor test scores as evidence of poor teaching.  Instead, their definition of bad teaching is sort of like the definition of pornography:  You know it when you see it. 

Then I ask teachers to think of the best teacher in their building.  Again, nobody has any problem naming one or even several.  They talk about these teachers’ energy, their commitment, their enthusiasm.  They talk about professionalism.  They talk about how kids love them.  They never mention how many years the person has taught

The Washington, D.C. school district, laying off hundreds of teachers, has decided to try an innovative approach.  Teachers will be laid off according to effectiveness rather than seniority.  Effectiveness will be judged by observation and by test scores. 

The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER), a federally funded agency, recently released a report that reveals that students taught by strong teachers get nearly triple the results on tests as their peers taught by weak teachers. Experience doesn’t seem to influence results.  “So which teachers stay and which teachers leave matters,“ says CALDER director Jane Hannaway. 

Cleveland9236.preview   Cleveland students won’t be so lucky.  Ohio is one of 15 states where the idea of layoffs by seniority is written into law.  Two years ago the city recruited teachers new to the district to staff the MC2 STEM High School located on the lakeshore at the Great Lakes Science Center.  The new school focuses on science, and teachers recruited to the school averaged over 400 hours of professional development.  Now most of them will lose their jobs.  “When you recruit someone and [then] pink-slip them, it’s just not right,” says teacher Christa Krohn.

Teachers know who among their peers is good and who isn’t, even if it’s hard for them to admit it publicly.  This week the House voted more federal monies to save teachers' jobs, so it turns out that in many schools, both the good and the bad may get to stay.






















Career Questions: The Role Model

Q:  I’m one of a very small group of male elementary teachers in my school.  We got our class lists last week and once again I am overloaded with boys, especially ones who are famous for acting out in class.  Every time I question why my class list contains so many difficult kids, I get the same answer:  the boys don’t have a father in the house and will benefit from having a daily male role model.

I appreciate the concept, but there’s a question of fairness.  Every year I’m handling a plethora of discipline problems (although things improve by Thanksgiving) while my female colleagues’ classes are decidedly easier to handle.  Any ideas?

A:  We know it’s important for all kids --both boys and girls -- to have good role models and regular strong adult guidance.  However, there are some gender stereotypes operating here as well as some issues of professional fairness.  The idea that a student misbehaves because there is no father in the home is an assumption, not a fact.  Well-behaved kids can come from single-parent homes and poorly behaved kids can come from 2-parent homes. 

Superhero_girl  You don’t want to appear unwilling to do your part, but students should be assigned to classes for reasons other than gender.  I suggest you meet with your principal and the other teachers at your grade level and talk about how kids are assigned.  You might also suggest that you team up and share students (for example, you can teach reading and language arts and your partner can teach math and science).  That way all students will have exposure to both male and female teachers who might be role models.

I should note, however, that if you have your class in shape by Thanksgiving, you must be doing a pretty good job with both boys and girls!




Money for Something That Actually Works

In my many years in education I’ve seen programs come and go.  Some of them were old wine in new bottles; others worked in theory but not in practice.  All came with great fanfare and excitement, only to be jettisoned or forgotten a few years later. 

One of the very few that delivered on its promise was Reading Recovery.

The program wasn’t cheap, and it was intensive.  Teachers needed to be trained in the methodology and they needed continued training as long as they were Reading Recovery teachers.  Teachers could do the program only half a day because of its intensity and because they needed preparation time for each individual student.  The program could not guarantee its well-documented long-term results if teachers decided to freelance and deviate from the program.  Frankly, not every teacher was Reading Recovery material.

It’s a program that comes with a lot of baggage.  So why would a school adopt it?  I’ll tell you why.  Because it worked.  Unlike the dozens of programs I’d seen in my school life, RR taught kids to read. And teaching kids to read is the single most important thing we do in elementary school. 

So it’s old, and it wasn’t part of Reading First.  I can only speak to the huge success I saw in my district and the difference it made in kids’ lives.  Expensive?  Yes.  But so are years and years of remediation, most of which isn’t effective after third grade anyway.  Reading Recovery actually taught kids to read and consequently kept more than a few out of that parallel universe we call special education.

So I was pretty delighted to see that my alma mater, The Ohio State University, received almost $50 million to train 1500 teachers in 40 states, bringing the program to nearly 500,000 faltering early readers.  We’ve spend a lot more with far fewer results.

Below, Ohio State students react to the news of the grant.

Ramona Redux Redux

I give the 7-year-old a copy of Beezus and Ramona and say, “OK, if you read the book, I’ll take you to see the movie.”

“Woo hoo!” she says.

But I’m wondering if Beverly Cleary’s books will resonate with this generation. First published in 1955, sisters Beezus and Ramona didn’t have cell phones, didn’t play computer games, and didn’t play soccer.

A week later the 7-year old announces, “I’m done!  I read it! The movie opens this weekend!”

“So did you like it?” I ask.

She nodded.  “It was funny, “ she said.  The 7-year-old has a younger sister not unlike Ramona.

To be honest, the movie is loosely, loosely based on the Cleary characters.  In an attempt to update the plot, Dad has lost his job.  Beezus may have to move away from Henry Huggins, her first love.  But in the sweet dream world of the movie, everything turns out all right except that (spoiler alert), the cat dies (works for me).

The children in the audience loved it.  The adults, mostly women, were delighted with their children’s delight.  Most of us loved Sandra Oh’s performance as the teacher and as usual with any John Corbett performance, wondered why all men can’t be like that.  I had to adjust to Margene as Aunt Bea, but I'm guessing that most of the kids in the audience (I hope) weren't familiar with her role in "Big Love."

So the characters and the story still resonate with kids today, 55 years after the first book appeared. As for the 7-year-old, she’s on to Ramona the Pest and Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

Career Questions: The Interview

Q:  It’s August and I finally got a job interview. The job isn’t exactly what I wanted, but it’s a job! Any hints regarding how I can best prepare for the interview?  What questions can I expect?

A:  Ah, August interviews!  From the administrative standpoint, August openings are unexpected openings.  You hope to have everyone in place by the end of June.  In August you begin to wonder if most of the outstanding teachers have already been hired.  So do your homework!  Learn everything you can about the district by checking online or talking to people who might work there.  In addition:

1) If you don’t know what the interview format is (principal only, small group, committee), call the school secretary and ask her.  It won’t change your answers to the questions, but you will feel more comfortable and confident if you know what to expect.

2) Arrive at least 10 minutes early.  If you don’t know where the school is, take a test drive.

3) Dress professionally – coat and tie for men, skirt or suit for women.  If you get the job you may dress more casually on a daily basis, but for the interview, conservative professional is the idea.

4) Think about what you would want to know if you were the interviewer.  If it’s a committee, what would each person want to know?  You can expect questions about discipline, classroom management, differentiating instruction, homework, and your content area.  Write down the questions you might be asked, think about your answers, and then write them down.  You may think you’re overpreparing, but you never want to look like a deer in the headlights during an interviewj.

5) Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand the question.  A little dialogue with the interviewers is a good thing.

Finally, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!  Ask a friend or significant other to go over the questions with you and give you some feedback.

Good luck! 



Recess Coaches

When the recess bell rang when I was a kid, the boys grabbed a big red ball for kickball and the girls got their ropes for double dutch.  If we were lucky, one girl’s mom let her bring the rubber coated clothesline to school.  It was great to twirl because it was heavier than regular rope, but if you were hit with it during “Red Hot Pepper Burn,” you had a welt on the back of your legs for 2 or 3 days.

We played softball, 4-square, hopscotch, tag in all its variations, and kick the can.  We divided up our own teams, umpired our own games, and solved our own differences, nicely or not so nicely.  The teacher who oversaw recess was someplace on the playground, but nobody paid any attention to her until the bell rang and we had to line up.

All of those games, for the most part, are lost to kids on playgrounds today.  But as writer David Elkind notes, “We have to adapt to childhood as it is today, not as we knew it or would like it to be.”  So some schools are hiring “recess coaches” to work with kids on the playground.

Playworks, a non-profit groups based in California, has placed coaches in 170 schools in low-income areas.  Funded by an $18 million grant from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, the agency has coaches in nine cities including Boston, Washington, and LA.

Not all kids are delighted that they have to participate in a game, preferring to hang out with their friends.  But discipline referrals have dropped, and today’s kids, like yesterday’s kids, are getting the hang of it.

Elkind points to the benefits of recess coaching – kids who are more fit and who can still enjoy kids play rather than immersing themselves in singular activities via technology.  Part of me wishes we didn’t have to teach kids how to play like kids – but it is what it is.

We were not this good at double dutch, but you get the general idea.




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.