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Monday, August 25, 2008

Throw Down the Gauntlet: Break the Chains of Bad Practice, Build Our Future



This is a copy of the post I shared at the Supercool Blog This weekend.  Because it was a live event, I waited a few days to post it here.

Throw Down the Gauntlet:  Break the Chains of Bad Practice, Build Our Future





I always enjoy reading the articles that talk about what kind of students that we need to create for our future, and I feel strongly that this is where I head in my own classroom.  However, as I talk to many friends in education, they feel that they are educating industrial age workers, largely because the system is itself a product of the industrial age.

This week, Education Week says in its article, The Case for Entrepreneurship Education

"As leaders, how can we develop a systemic initiative to keep young
people in school, learning academic and work skills effectively,
motivated to be productive and engaged in their communities and the
larger economy, and developing success-oriented attitudes of
initiative, intelligent risk-taking, collaboration, and opportunity
recognition? Entrepreneurship education is one answer to this question,
and an important tool to help every child explore and develop his or
her academic, leadership, and life skills, as well as potential."
Unfortunately I cannot read the rest of the article (hidden behind a subscription wall), however, I've been turning over some very thoughts related to this subject lately and would like to use this opportunity to share them.

Before I share my "gauntlets" - here are a few thoughts:

1 - Excellence & Excuses

Excellence is assumed.  Everything we do should be aiming for excellence.  Every school and teacher has its excuses.  Good teachers don't make excuses, they overcome them.  We all have our trials, but a commitment to excellence and drive to succeed no matter what is a prime ingredient in excellent teaching and excellent classrooms.  Teaching is toxic, but the best teachers turn it into a joy.

Excellence doesn't settle but finds a way to achieve anyway.  Excellence, quite simply, overcomes excuses. 

2 - Empowerment & Accountability

I don't believe that technology is correlated with high achievement, any more than rubbing Einstein's head would have made someone smarter.   However, a common denominator of successful schools is that they have technology and are EMPOWERING.  They give their teachers flexibility but they also hold them accountable.

I had a long talk with a fellow teacher in a large local public school system.  She has two planning periods.  One period is "team planning" with four other teachers about how they work through individual issues with the 140 kids that they "share."  She says she really needs this time.  The other planning period is "team planning" with the math department.  They all have to stay together so that they can keep the standards together.  She can't move ahead.  She's not allowed to enrich or add anything.  And every Friday, an "official test" graded by the "officials" comes down to her to assess how she's doing her job.  She's fine, her kids ace it.  Another teacher across the hall doesn't do well at all.  (And of course, the students will be punished!)  She usually finishes her weekly tasks by Wednesday but isn't able to fill up the extra time with enriching activities.

And yet, she says that she could do so much MORE.  And that is what standards do, they often pull up the lower performers but they can suppress the higher performers if poorly implemented.

Instead of hiring and requiring people to be great teachers and empowering and expecting them to do their job, we are trying to make mediocre teachers better and keep the great ones from upsetting the applecart and "going to fast" and making the others look bad.

Tell the teachers what the students need to know by when and let them get there in a way customized to the students in the classroom.  No two classrooms are alike.  No two students are alike.  Welcome and encourage enrichment.

And when a teacher is a poor teacher, it should be dealt with.  Every staff has their "duds" - the teachers that everyone knows don't teach.  And yet, these teachers are allowed to stay in the classroom for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes they are a coach, sometimes they are related to the "right person."  Accountability should be applied equally and not meeting the standards of excellence should have consequences for not only students, but teachers.

3- Room to Breathe

So many teachers have no time alone in their own rooms.  My friend with the two planning periods, has other classes meeting in her room.  If she finishes planning early, she cannot go back to her room.  So, she can come in before school (and she does) and stay well into the night to get things in order.  Good teachers need some time to think, organize, get their rooms in order, and get things done. 

When is she going to get things done?  I just don't understand it.  This is a challenge for me as well as my room is usually bursting at the seams! 

4- Hope and the ability to "fix" what is broken

Where there is no vision the people perish, says a proverb.  So many feel like hamsters on a wheel.  Do the same thing every year, don't change, don't improve, be here.  I think that many teachers are as disillusioned.  Recently, a local school system here spent a small fortune to bring in a motivational speaker for teacher preplanning.  The teachers were brought in, shown a fashion show about how to dress, and then berated for several hours for being unprofessional.   The teachers were upset and the debacle ended up in the local newspaper.  Motivational is when someone actually listens to your problem AND DOES SOMETHING TO HELP!

Most teachers are idealists.  We teach because we believe in what we're doing.  Believing that we are shaping the very future of our country and world, we want to do our best by these children of the future.  So, when we see something broken, WE WANT TO FIX IT RIGHT THEN.

The nature of teachers is to fix the boo boo, wipe the tear, listen to the teenager's gripe.  When we come up against hopeless situations that are irreparably broken and some consultants or business people in a room who have no clue about education try to think of another idea to "fix" the problem that they do not understand nor know how to fix, we get frustrated.  We can lose hope.

If someone would ask and involve teachers. 

Now, there is a fine line.  There are many teachers who see only the classroom, the micro view, and cannot see the macro view.  And yet, there are many teachers who do see the macro view and could help and advise situations.  Teachers cannot do it alone, but efforts to reform education sans the classroom teacher WILL fail.

Problem solving should go on the front burner and empowering people to FIX problems instead of just complain about them should be on the first order.  (Good principals do this already.)

5 - Let them create

In a society that needs creativity, innovation, and common sense more than ever -- why are our school places of routine, standards, and senseless bureaucracy.  I know teachers that spend an hour of time filling out forms for every hour of class time.  When do they plan?  What are most of the forms?  A nothing piece of paper that no one reads!  I'm sorry, but the volume of paperwork in most American public schools is asinine.

Let bureaucrats come in and fill out the paperwork and let the teachers teach.  Empower teachers to create projects and engage students.  This is where the teacherpreneurship really comes in.  Let teachers connect, give them the tools that they choose. 

Let teachers TEACH!

Let them do things to allow for creativity and innovation in the classroom.  But remember, such creativity starts with the teacher.  If the teacher is using their own strengths and is engaged, the students will follow suit.  What is an exciting tool for me to use, may be not so exciting for another teacher. (I'm terrible at podcasting in the classroom -- since I'm not a very auditory learner, it is hard and frustrating for me.  If my husband had to blog he would roll over and die!)

6 - Respect Individuality

Teachers and their students are individuals.  We are as different inside our heads as we are on the outside.  To require a standard lesson plan that is one size fits all is just not the right thing to do.  Differentiated instruction and learning styles teach us that this is not true.  So, we need to be able to customize the classroom.

Get over the buzzwords and do something

It is so wearisome to hear all of the buzzwords.  I came from the business world and often business people think that they have education all "solved."  I can tell you that I didn't understand ANYTHING about the classroom until I entered one.  I didn't understand teenagers, puberty, kids, or even parents until I had a few years under my belt and there are still a lot of things I don't understand. 

But I do know this.

If we improve every individual classroom in America, American education will improve.  Adding bureaucracy and diplomacy on top of the struggling teacher will only continue to drive the hope, innovation, and individuality out of our schools that we so desperately need.

It is obvious that we can produce athletes, a well rounded person is important.  But now we need more.

The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.  Right now, I don't see anything really changing except in the pockets where administrators have inspired vision and teacherpreneurship in their teachers.

So, I throw down the gauntlet. 


  • Stop reducing headcount and start reducing paperwork


    • Require bureaucrats to spend time in the classroom and let THEM record their observations.  The teacher writing down what they are doing ISN'T an observation. 

    • Use webcams or podcasts to stream out of the classroom what is happening -- observe and let the teachers teach.  There is no excuse for having teachers WRITE down how they are accommodating a student when you could literally record with a webcam everything that happens with that student in class.  The teacher's view is just that - the teacher's view. 

  • Common Sense Curriculum and Professional Development Activities


    • Let curriculum directors and teachers decide what gets through the filter. Give them rights to unblock the tools that they need to teach.
    • Move towards a model of embedded professional development.  Binge professional development that happens in one day rarely creates sustainable, system wide change.  Move toward embedded programs like the 23 things that involve teachers in their own pd and requires them to research, reflect, and use the tools.

    • Put technology that teachers use on the top priority list.  If they cannot print, fix it.  If their computer doesn't work, get them a new one.  Does the vice principal really need a new computer every year?  
    • Realize that not every teacher doesn't want or need to use technology all the time.  
    • Stop paying for gurus to "travel" on site and link them in virtually.
      Find and empower local "gurus" that you have right on your campus.
    • Consider letting students create teacher PD as part of their technology education program.
    • Provide technology integrators to work with teachers and projects in the classroom on an ongoing basis.  Mentoring through a project the first time is often what many teachers need.

  • Common Sense Leadership


    • Be careful about all edicts.  Respect the individuality of teachers, but expect them to teach and do a good job.  When they don't do a good job, remove them. 

    • Boards of Education need to hire administrators and empower them to hire and fire. 

    • Too much political turmoil is BAD for education if it keeps teachers from teaching and administrators from doing the right thing.

  • Digital Citizenship In Schools


    • Put in a little preventative education by putting digital citizenship components at every grade level. 

    • Educate students on the proper use of their tools and on what it means to be a professional student.  
    • Put in digital citizenship behavior codes in addition (or as part of) honor codes.  Students should respect the privacy of other students and should not have the right to film or transmit the image of another without their permission.  Students who do so, should be disciplined.  The enemy is the behavior, not the tool.  It is time to teach people how to behave and to teach students that online behavior has offline consequences.
    • Understand that cell phones are part of the Internet and part of digital citizenship.

  • Reject Ethnocentrism


    • Move away from ethnocentric viewpoints.  Yes, this article has been driven at American education, but not because it is the only education, it is the only educational system with which I have any authority to speak.  I've done a lot of work with schools of all types here in the US and this is what I've seen here.  I've seen my students have their world view blown wide open when they see how incredibly competent students are in other countries.  When they realize that competent people live all over the world, their viewpoint changes.  An entitlement mentality is a ticket to the poorhouse for any nation.  Understanding that working hard and doing one's best is essential for success in today's society.

  • Look at the Whole Mind


    • Put art and drama back into schools.  We have a whole brain -- we are creative and logical, we are artistic and textual -- we need all aspects of life to be included.  Sometimes if a student can have ONE class that they LOVE, it helps them tolerate the things they don't love.  People aren't going to go into fields that they are poor at and hate, but things they are good at.  So, we need choices!  Let them paint AND do math.  Let them act, run, dance, and read!  They are a whole person, it is time to treat them that way.  I think kids are quitting school because there is nothing there they even enjoy.
    • Integrate digital storytelling at every grade level in all subjects. 

And I'd like to ask you, if you were able to be brutally honest, what would your gauntlet be?  What gauntlet would you throw down to improve education?

Photo license purchased from istockphoto, you do not have permission to copy or reprint this photo.

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