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Career Questions: Support with Discipline

Q:  The past year was tough.  I had several students who insisted on being disruptive at every turn.  They were disrespectful, used foul language, didn’t do their work, and were just generally unpleasant.  The worst part was that whenever I removed one of them from my classroom, he was back in a very short time.  The principal is completely ineffective when it comes to discipline, and I’m feeling like I have no administrative support.  Any ideas?

A:  I can’t judge whether the principal is effective or not, but I will say that he’s sending you a clear message:  You’re on your own when it comes to student discipline.

As a teacher, I actually once found myself in the situation you describe.  On the rare occasions that I had to Discipline remove a student from my classroom, the principal didn’t seem to know what to do with him.  It wasn’t just my problem; it turned out the principal was unsupportive to everyone in terms of classroom discipline.

So here’s what we teachers did.   We met together as a small group and devised classroom disciplinary rules and consequences.  We shared those rules with our students and sent the discipline plan home to their parents.  We were clear and consistent. We tried to keep all of our students in the room, but when a student had to be removed, he didn’t go to the principal’s office.  Instead, he went to the back of a colleague’s room, where he sat until his regular teacher decided to allow him back into his classroom.  This strategy is particularly effective when the “time out” classroom contained younger or older students rather than the student’s own grade level.  The student simply sat by himself at the back of the room, ignored by everyone else.

We were unafraid to call or meet with a recalcitrant student’s parents, and we frequently did so.  In the end things improved because we realized that it was up to us to provide discipline for our students if we wanted the year to be productive and safe.  We couldn’t control the principal’s behavior, but we learned we could control our students’ behavior.


Career Questions: Changing Assignments

Tingley-021 color-1 Q:  I’ve been teaching the same grade for the last 8 years and I’m beginning to feel bored and stale.  I still like teaching, but I need a new challenge.  I would like to change grade levels.  I asked my principal to consider me for an opening at another level last year, but he said he liked the work I was doing and didn’t want to move me.  Frankly, the thought of teaching at the same level for the next twenty years isn’t appealing.  How can I negotiate a change with my administrator?

A:  One of the problems of teaching as a career is that it is easy to plateau after several years of working at the same grade level or in the same subject matter.  True, the kids change and every year brings new curriculum ideas, but sometimes we need a new challenge to keep our batteries charged. 

While it’s gratifying that the principal appreciates your expertise in your current assignment, you might gently point out to him that you shouldn’t be penalized for doing a good job.  After all, your record suggests that you’d be just as competent at another grade level.

Time-for-change Check to see who might be  retiring at the end of next year.  It’s unlikely that your principal will move someone out of a position just because you’d like to have it, but an opening through attrition should be accessible to you.  (Of course, it’s also possible that someone besides you is harboring the desire to change grade levels as well.)  Next, talk to your principal at the beginning of the year in September about a change of assignment for the following year, and remind him or her every so often of your desire to move.  Finally, think about what other things you can do to stay fresh while you wait for that move.  There may be workshops you could attend (or conduct), leadership positions you might fill, or mentoring jobs that would allow you to share your expertise.  Do your job and do it well, but keep your desire to change on your principal’s front burner.



Career Questions: Usurping Grant Funds

Q:  I applied for a grant from a local agency early last spring and was excited when I learned I had gotten it.  It’s only $3500, but I planned to use the money to purchase some cameras and Ipads for my art classes.  Our school can’t afford this technology, so it’s pretty great that I’ll be able to offer kids something I couldn’t do before.  Here’s the problem:  When I told my principal the good news, she immediately said that while it’s great I won the grant, she’d like to use the money to buy books for the English department.  She justified her decision by saying that art is an elective and offers enrichment, but new English books are a necessity for everyone.  What do I do?

A:  That’s quite an incentive program your principal has!  Let’s set aside for a moment your disappointment, annoyance, and maybe even anger at your principal’s suggestion because while you have a right to feel that way, none of those emotions will help solve the problem.  Instead, I suggest you bring to your principal’s attention the ethics involved in the situation.

Ipad-2 First of all, I hope you talked to your principal before you submitted your grant proposal so that she was on board with your plan right from the start.   If you didn’t, she may feel less commitment to your proposal, but that doesn’t negate the fact that in your proposal you specified what the money would be used for.  The grant was awarded on that premise.  To accept the funds and then use them differently, even for a good cause, is dishonest.  In addition, most grantees are required to submit a follow-up report on how the funds were used.  You cannot pretend that they were used for technology when they weren’t and you cannot compromise your own principles.

Finally, the English department is free to apply for grants too, just like you did.  They are not entitled to the fruits of your initiative.

These are arguments that you can present to your principal, and I hope she abandons the idea of usurping your grant.  To do so would be dishonest and unethical and would certainly deter other independent initiatives on the part of teachers in the future.


Post Script

Tingley-021 color-1 It’s raining and the third graders sit silently at their desks on the second floor of the old school building.  On occasion a child raises her head to gaze out the tall beveled windows that need to be opened and closed with a long pole in the spring and fall.  The rain is steady; it’s a good day for children to be hunched over their desks like miniature Bartlebys, painstakingly tracing the cursive letters arrayed in graceful dots on their worksheets.  They peek at the cursive alphabet posted above the blackboard; a long, sweeping line of capital letters with their smaller regular case siblings beside them.  Doesn’t the capital Q look like a big 2?  The capital X has lines that kiss but don’t cross.  Open the little e; close the little i.  Point and dip and point again – the little r.  It’s hard.

The best thing about third grade:  learning to write cursive.  It takes time, perseverance, and practice, but it’s grown-up writing, not little kid printing.  Writing in longhand shows you’re older.

Looks as if those days are over.  The Common Core State Standards for English do not require cursive.  Over Cursive forty states have adopted the standards so far, and the emphasis is on learning and demonstrating not penmanship, but keyboard skills.  “With guidance and support from adults,” says the Core document for Grade 3, “students will use technology to produce and publish writing (using keyboard skills). “  In Grade 4, students will “use technology … to produce and publish writing and demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of one page in a single sitting.”

Learning keyboarding skills is a good thing, of course.  Even before the Common Core Standards were adopted, many states had already abandoned teaching cursive as the elementary curriculum became more crammed with other items like test prep and technology.  In truth, I suspect that some new teachers never learned to write proper cursive themselves and are not comfortable teaching it anyway. 

Still, not everyone is pleased with the decision, and some states like California and Massachusetts have even re-introduced cursive into the elementary curriculum.  Among the concerns raised: If children do not learn to write their names in cursive, will they be permitted to sign their unemployment checks in block print letters?  Will children be able to read the cursive writings of historical literature?  And from the BBC: "The fluidity of cursive allows for gains in spelling and a better tie to what they are reading and comprehending through stories and through literature… there is a firmer connection of wiring between the brain's processes of learning these skills and the actual practice of writing."

This latter point is interesting and will probably eventually be decided by research.  In the meantime, kids still think it's fun to write their names distinctively, individually, in script.



Value Added for Principals?

The bottom line, and this really isn’t much in dispute, is that we do a really bad job of evaluating and developing teachers.  The most effective teachers seem so much more effective than the least effective teachers, yet we treat them all the same way.

                                                                        Researcher and Professor Douglas Harris

In regard to value added, the question has arisen whether we should be evaluating whole schools and whether value added should be a part of a principal’s evaluation.  Given national teachers’ unions’ tentative support of using standardized tests scores to evaluate teachers, the spotlight now turns to school administrators.

Evaluating whole schools and/or specific school programs is not a new idea; evaluating principals is.  Would principals object that they can’t control what teachers do when they go home at night?  Just a little joke.

Some might say that the principal can only be held accountable for the hires she has made; after all, the Principal clock principal inherits the faculty she has at first.  This is only an argument if you believe that the principal is not the academic leader and doesn’t set the standards for performance.

I always recommend that newly appointed principals meet one-on-one with each faculty member for about 10 minutes during the first couple of months of school.  Principals can find out what matters to teachers, how they perceive their job, the kids, the school, and other aspects of day-to-day life.  Equally important, the principal can begin to establish himself as a listener and as someone interested in each faculty member.  Additionally he can share some of his vision about the school and maybe even begin to see who among the faculty are the leaders.  Seems like a lot in a short meeting, but you might be surprised at how much you can learn.

Meeting with staff is just for openers.  The principal’s major job is to build a strong, caring, and competent faculty to work with kids.  That job includes setting the standards and holding people to them.  It includes mentoring new teachers and providing feedback to all staff.  And it includes building into the culture of the school a strong supervision and evaluation component.

So yes, value added should be part of the principal’s evaluation because the principal is ultimately responsible for the performance of teachers in the building.  If students in your school as a whole are not making adequate yearly progress, you as principal have to take responsibility for a large share of that outcome.




Teacher Effectiveness V Seniority

Tingley-021 color-1 First of all, the terms are not opposites. 

But as schools rethink their “last hired first fired” policies during budget cuts, two recent studies support lay-offs determined by teacher effectiveness.  Remember:  that category could include both rookies and veterans.

Using data from New York City and the state of Washington, the studies compare scenarios in which teachers are laid off according to the seniority system currently in place versus measures of their effectiveness.  The studies reach the same conclusion:  students in affected classes receive a better education when decisions are made based on effectiveness.  In addition, fewer positions are lost.

Both studies were sponsored by CALDER (National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research).  “Effectiveness” was determined by value added.  In the Washington study, researchers found that more than one-third of teachers who were let go were as effective or more effective than the average teacher who retained his or her job because of seniority.  In the affected classes, when less effective teachers retained their jobs at the expense of more effective, students lost about 3 months of learning per year.

In New York City researchers found that under the seniority system, 7% of teachers would be have to be laid off to reduce the budget by 5%.  Under an effectiveness system, about 5% would be laid off.  So we can conclude that not all effective teachers are veterans and not all veterans are effective teachers.

Despite the findings, both studies caution against using value added as the single factor in laying off teachers.  Teacher effectiveness, they say, is more than just test scores.

Fired teachers cartoon So what do we take away from studies like this?  Well, Douglas Harris, author of Value-Added Measures in Education:  What Every Educator Needs to Know, says that first of all we need to define what we mean by “value added.”  In an interview with CALDER, Harris, says, “Value added refers to how much people contribute to the output of an organization.  In education, it usually means how much teachers and schools contribute to the student learning measured by standardized tests.”

But, says Harris, the “cardinal rule” of accountability is “that you hold people accountable for what they can control.”  Teachers can’t control the child’s experiences before they enter the classroom, but “value-added measures try to [take into account] where students are when they come into the door.”  In other words, it’s about growth, not an “end of the year snapshot.”

This seems like a place to start.  Harris also notes that taking into account longitudinal data is essential because scores vary over time just like baseball players’ batting averages.  “Perhaps the biggest valued of value-added,” says Harris, “is that it’s generated serious thinking about what good teaching looks like.”That, I think, is the key.  Value added is just one tool in determining teacher effectiveness.  But it opens the conversation on developing the others.


Baby Steps towards Value Added

So the big news is that the NEA has agreed to using evidence of student learning as a part of a teacher’s evaluation.

But not by using any of today’s standardized tests.

The union will accept tests that are “developmentally appropriate, scientifically valid and reliable for the purpose of measuring both student learning and a teacher’s performance.”  University of Wisconsin testing expert Douglas Harris basically says that those tests don’t currently exist.  But maybe someday they will be available in conjunction with the core curriculum. 

NEA-logoBlueRGB Sergen Eubanks, the director of teacher quality for the union, seemed to recognize that the value added horse is already out of the gate.  In truth, some states have already passed legislation requiring that student performance as measured by standardized tests be part of teacher evaluation.  And some local teachers’ associations, far ahead of their national organization, have already agreed to it.  On a positive note, the union endorsed the idea that failing teachers be given a year rather than two to improve.

“As more states and districts seek to improve teacher evaluation, the risk is that reform is done to teachers rather than with them,” says NEA union president Dennis Van Roekel. “This policy statement was written by and for teachers while heeding others’ expertise as well… It offers sweeping changes to build a true profession of teaching that is focused on high expectations.”

Sweeping?  Hardly.  But it’s a start.

Then, because union leaders couldn't quit while they were ahead, delegates approved a gratuitous item that accuses Teach for America of taking jobs from union teachers available for hire instead.  TFA’s response, solicited by Stephen Sawchuk, took the high road.

Still, there is progress.  Baby steps, but progress.








Career Questions: Ambivalent about Teaching

Tingley-021 color-1 Q:  This past year was tough.  I think I do a good job in the classroom, but the widespread  negativity about teachers in general has been tough to take.  Our school cut about 15 positions, and while some people returning are happy just to have jobs, others feel resentful and angry about the lack of state funding that is going to impact all of us (like larger class size, for example).  I still have my job, but frankly, I’m kind of ambivalent about even coming back next year.  How can I feel good about teaching in the midst of all this criticism?

A:  Here’s a question to ask yourself:  Do you still love working with kids?  Ignore for a minute all the other distracters and just think about that question.  If your answer is no, then you probably ought to be thinking about a career change.  If it’s yes, then you need to be thinking about how you can focus on being an even better teacher while tuning out what happens outside of your classroom. Red-maple-tree

National and state criticism is hard to take for teachers who have been committed to doing the job responsibly and with love.  But there are some things that you can’t control, and general public criticism is one of them.  One of the things you can control, however, is choosing the people with whom you socialize during your school day.  If the faculty room has become toxic, avoid it whenever possible.  Do your job and do it well.  Stay within your lane, as they say.  The satisfaction of influencing kids’ lives is worth it.

There will most certainly be changes to the educational system, but to my mind, what happens between good teachers and kids – teaching and learning – remains the same.  Criticism stings; extra duties take their toll.  And you may need to add your voice to dissent when it’s appropriate.  What’s best for kids is often what’s best for the adults in their lives too – but not always.







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