Teacher Blog Posts

The following posts are authored by Teacher Leaders who participated in a VIVA Idea Exchange. The opinions expressed are their own.

The Potential to Lead

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by Freeda Pirillis

Teachers strive to foster leadership and initiative in their students, as they recognize the future workplace will require a different set of skills. Our students will need to collaborate, to problem solve, to compromise, to craft conversations and articulate their thinking in a manner that persuades others to follow. There are those students who naturally lead and those who willingly follow. Yet our goal is the same. Teach to lead, and lead to inspire.

Teachers differentiate their classrooms to reflect their students’ personalities with the understanding that some students shy away from the limelight and quietly resist, while others actively participate in the social construct and community of the classroom. There are those outliers who do not lead, who neither resist nor follow, but sit restlessly awaiting recognition of their unique contribution to the world.

As educators, we have a heavy responsibility to identify in our students the leadership qualities they possess in order to ensure a successful transition into adulthood. And for those students who don’t naturally lead, we work to foster a strong sense of self so they are able to constructively contribute to the workplace and the social world.

Teachers, much like their students, strive for recognition of their strengths, their unique contributions to the world, and for opportunities to participate in collaborative conversations that are grounded in their experiences. Teachers specialize in content, in developing students’ social/emotional needs, and in developing curriculum that is reflective of their students’ interests. Yet, in talking with teachers I meet across the country, the meaningful opportunities for teachers to lead themselves are not easy to find, particularly in their school building.

Leadership is not often fostered, encouraged, recognized, or valued by administrators and district leadership. Teachers who naturally want to lead are not able to find the space to do so in their school buildings, so they look beyond their classrooms and past their administrators for what might lie ahead. Why aren’t teacher leaders being celebrated in their schools? Is there a potential for administrators to harness the power of a teacher’s passion to act and drive their school forward?

Examining the culture of a school directly reflects an administrator’s ability to identify the strengths each teacher possesses and tap into their potential to lead others. Likened to a classroom, administrators must recognize the natural ability of teachers to lead their peers in collaborative discussions, to develop and drive new initiatives, and to lead outside of their school building as an advocate for their students, their colleagues, and the profession as a whole.

Further, administrators must identify multiple ways to engage, recognize, and distinguish those teachers who may quietly resist the limelight or traditional leadership roles. Their leadership may be reflected in their classroom practice, in the mastery they’ve achieved over their career that inspires their students to follow. That, too, is teacher leadership.

As the teacher leadership movement grows in the U.S. and educational organizations look to identify the greatest, most passionate, and most driven individuals to inform educational policy, administrators, too, must begin to look inward towards the teachers in their school community for the positive distinctions that demonstrate leadership.

Imagine the potential for students, parents, and the school community when teachers are being sought out for their expertise, celebrated for their contributions to the profession, and elevated. Classroom teachers can attest to increased student engagement and learning when students are recognized for their strengths.

Imagine a school culture that celebrates, elevates, and promotes leadership. Imagine the possibilities.

freeda_300Freeda Pirillis, NBCT, First Grade teacher, 2015 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow

Is Kindergarten Really Kindergarten?

The Kindergarten Dilemma
by Judy Smizik

Article after article has been written regarding the conflict in kindergarten education. Is “too much, too soon” helpful? harmful? inappropriate? beneficial? or all of the above? These questions have been popping up in educational journals, research articles, opinion pieces, and parent magazines.

Why the controversy? Have you visited a kindergarten class recently?  Kindergarten education has changed so much over the past ten years, you would barely recognize a kindergarten classroom as being kindergarten.

I was a Kindergarten teacher for over thirty-five years. I chose to teach kindergarten because I felt that was the most important time in children’s lives. Back then, Kindergarten was the time to build a strong academic foundation, to introduce children to formal schooling and joyful learning. It was a time for children to foster positive relationships with their peers and school staff.

Kindergarten exposed children to the world around them through creative experiences that incorporated the arts, rich literature, and meaningful learning. It addressed the needs of the “whole” child.  Kindergarten programs were developed to allow for the differences that naturally occur in kindergarten-age children. The curriculum and program were flexible enough to accommodate the educational learning needs of all children.  Play was a vital component of all kindergarten classrooms.  Today many children are not allowed to play.  I have been in kindergarten classrooms where there were no toys or standard kindergarten equipments such as blocks, puzzles, and dramatic play areas.

Many of today’s kindergartens no longer reflect the basic mission Frederick Froebel set out to create for Kindergarten.  Today,  children are sitting for long periods of time, learning curricula that were once considered first grade skills. Instruction is focused on teaching kindergarten children to read, write, and perform mathematical skills involving adding, subtracting, and advanced problem solving.  While some children may be developmentally ready to read and perform advanced mathematical thinking skills,  many are not.

Last September, I visited a kindergarten classroom that was administering a district-mandated writing sample assessment. The directions to the teacher stated:

Distribute copies of the prompt, writing papers, and checklist. This assessment should be administered to the whole class. Today, you will draw and write about fun things you do with your family. Be sure to include at least one event. You will also describe your feelings and include an ending to your personal narrative. You will do this by yourself. You will draw your picture in the box and write about the event on the lines below.

The checklist that was given to each child was a list of criteria that included:

I included an ending for my personal narrative that told how I felt.
I used the words me, I, You, and Us.
I began each sentence with a capital letter and capitalized I.
I end each sentence with punctuation (.,?,!).
I spelled words I know correctly.

Do the developers of this checklist realize that most beginning kindergarten students can’t read, nor should they be able to read?  Even first graders would have difficulty reading this checklist.

The Task Planning Template came from applying ideas from McTigh & Wiggins’ Understanding by Design Professional Workbook (2004, JThompson Center for Assessment)

When sharing this writing activity with a few retired primary teachers and reading specialists, I asked, “What grade level do you feel this task was designed for?”

They all responded, “Second grade.”

Children entering kindergarten today are at the same developmental levels as they were a decade or two ago. Their academic and developmental needs have not changed. Children entering kindergarten come at all different readiness levels and therefore the curriculum needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the educational needs of all children.

Kindergarten should be just that: Kindergarten!  Frederick Froebel’s blooming garden of children needs to bloom again for the sake of our young vulnerable children who yearn to learn about the world around them.  A true kindergarten is a place where children develop friendships, where children are free to move about, explore, create, imagine, problem solve, and learn at their natural pace in a nurturing and enriching environment that accommodates their social, emotional, physical, and developmentally appropriate academic needs.

It is not beneficial, helpful, or appropriate to create a kindergarten program that does not meet the educational needs of our young children. We are doing more harm than good when we ask young children to perform tasks that are beyond their natural ability. I witnessed young five-year-olds putting their heads down and crying over performance tasks that were developmentally inappropriate.

Is this what we want for our children? Are we setting up kindergarten programs that promote stress and failure instead of true kindergarten programs that allow children to bloom and grow at their own developmental pace? Bring back the toys, paints, clay, building blocks, music, dramatic play areas, hands-on experiences that foster joyful learning! All of our children will benefit from an enriching, authentic, and developmentally appropriate kindergarten environment.

Judy_SmizikJudy Smizik is an educator with over 35 years of experience. She is a  former President of the Pittsburgh Association of Kindergarten Teacher and a member of Delta Kappa Gamma, an International Educational Society.  Presently, she mentors new teachers, provides professional development workshops, and has a private practice.

The Best Way to Keep Students and Teachers Safe

by Katherine Doerr Morosky

“April is the cruelest month…” When TS Eliot wrote that first line of “The Wasteland” almost 100 years ago, could he have known what significance it would have to American survivors of gun violence and domestic terrorism today? What is it about April that made the disaffected want to bomb a federal building and a marathon, or to kill classmates and teachers in Virginia and Colorado? As the earth awakens with flowers and green grass, why does violence awaken in some evil hearts?

On April 20, after I changed my Facebook picture to a columbine flower with a tear falling from its petal, I read Charles Blow’s column in The New York Times, “Has the N.R.A. Won?”. Mass shooting incidents always result in a spike in gun sales, but the wider question is if gun “control” advocates have failed to make a moral argument for the fact that public safety is reduced when greater numbers of more powerful guns are in ordinary citizens’ homes, cars, bags and pockets. The 300 million guns in the United States are enough for every person to own one, but in fact the percentage of Americans who own guns is around 35%.

What does this mean for teachers in schools? We work in inherently dangerous environments. Schools are attractive to those seeking to do harm: large numbers of vulnerable citizens (women and children) congregating on a predictable schedule. What is the best way to prevent mass death in schools? Should teachers be expected to defend their classrooms with guns as so many Americans expect to defend their personal safety?

If those ideas sound silly, it’s because they are. When people live together as societies, there is absolutely no way to be completely insulated from violent crime. Mass shootings and certainly mass violence are not uniquely American. March’s shooting at a university in Kenya resulted in the murder of 147. Tragically, mass deaths happen: the Germanwings pilot inflicted nearly equal carnage with an airplane and a mountain.

What makes the United States a more dangerous place to live is not “crime”. It’s the sheer number of guns in our country. They result in what should be an unacceptable amount of random, senseless shootings in homes, on streets, and in public. Americans are twenty times more likely to be murdered by a gun than citizens in other developed countries. These completely preventable deaths are robbing communities of their futures.

The best way to keep students and teachers safe is for better laws to be created that keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people. You may think that a background check is necessary to purchase a gun. It’s not: guns are sold to all kinds of people who are legally prohibited from possessing them at places like gun shows and on the internet. Without universal background checks, it’s legal to sell a gun to a felon. Some states do require background checks for all gun purchases, but until there is a federal law, the state-by-state approach is weak. After all, it’s not very hard for a felon in Connecticut to travel to New Hampshire.

If teachers are armed in schools, the one predictable outcome will be more shootings in schools. More guns anywhere means more deaths. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Having a gun in the home is associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home, regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of guns in the home.” Bringing guns to school will have the same effect.

KMorosky-150x150VIVA Teacher Katherine Doerr Morosky teaches online at Connections Education. She participated in the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

Let’s Be Honest

by Freeda Pirillis

Educators possess a moral authority that exemplifies the values we strive to teach our children, our students, and even the adults around us: the value of being honest. We teach Character Education lessons on communicating your feelings when another person has called you a name, identify mentor texts that demonstrate how children can stand up for themselves when they are being bullied by a peer, and engage our students in role playing activities to build their self-esteem.

There’s a natural developmental milestone children reach when they begin to realize being completely honest is not always best. Children start to recognize when and where honesty is valued, how to convey a message without hurting another person’s feelings, and when it’s better not to say anything at all. As educators and parents, we begin to explicitly identify those situations for children so they can transition into adulthood with a deeper understanding of the human condition and successfully navigate the social world.

Let’s shift the focus to educators, who are at the forefront of shaping children’s understanding of themselves in a world full of conflict. How do educators learn to navigate their school buildings, their districts, or the world of education? How do educators craft their conversations with colleagues or their principals? Are they truly being honest when conversing with the various stakeholders in their school building?

In the book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, Rick Hess reports teachers are simply not being honest. When dissecting the topic of professional development, Rick Hess reported that in 2012, 73% of teachers surveyed felt their professional development was excellent or good. In 2013, 60% of teachers that teach ELA or Math stated their CCSS PD to be extremely helpful. Yet, as teachers, we can attest to the numerous times we’ve heard a colleague privately complaining about the last PD they attended or the grade level meeting they sat through. What accounts for the discrepancy between what teachers say and what teachers “say”?

We could look no further than a school’s culture. There are some school buildings where teachers are hesitant to be honest on a survey or on an exit slip for fear of being singled out by an administrator.  There are schools where administrators ask for honesty from their staff, but respond with disappointment or frustration when teachers provide critical feedback. There are teachers who have become apathetic simply because no one has ever asked them what they think. What can be done to improve the professional culture of these school buildings so teachers are providing honest, critical feedback to their colleagues and administrators?

Much like teachers, school leaders possess a moral authority to establish trusting relationships with their staff, likened to the classroom community that educators strive to build with their students. A community based on shared responsibility, respect for one another, and trust that when one student (or teacher) shares their thinking, it will be received with an open mind and a willingness from the listener to meet in the middle.

A school’s culture is a reflection of a school leader’s ability to establish systems for collecting feedback from teachers that not only engages the top 5% of teachers, or those that are often the loudest in the room, but the remaining 95% who have valuable perspectives to offer, but may not be willing to raise a quiet hand. As educators, we strive to engage all our students and validate each person’s contribution.

Providing teachers with a multitude of platforms for providing honest, critical feedback can ensure school leaders have an accurate pulse of how teachers are feeling and what they can do to improve the school culture. Engaging all teachers in the hard, but crucial work of fostering a culture of openness and respect will result in greater gains for students, greater teacher retention, and an increased commitment to the school leaders in the building. Honesty is a virtue which necessitates open dialogue between all stakeholders, within the classroom and beyond.

 
freeda_300Freeda Pirillis is a First Grade Teacher in Chicago, an NBCT, and a 2015 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow.

Lowering the Expectations of Our Students

by Kelly Waller

Should students receive half credit for an assignment they didn’t even bother to turn in? That is the new trend sweeping across the country in our public school system. District leaders are either strongly encouraging or making it mandatory for teachers to change their grading criteria so that 50% is the lowest score a student can earn, even when they fail to turn in the assignment.

According to Douglas B. Reeves, Chairman and Founder of the Center for Performance assessment in Boston, “it is mathematically disproportionate when a student receives a 0 on a 100-point scale when the interval between numerical and letter grades is 10 points. Therefore, when applying a 0 to a score, the interval between a D and an F is not 10 points, but 60 points.” (The Case Against the Zero).

So, taking this theory into consideration, should schools and teachers change their grading scale so that a 50% is the lowest possible score and, likewise, give a student credit for no work at all?

The logic sounds solid, but can (or should) teachers alter their ideals and make this adjustment?  After all, our education system is not only responsible for instilling knowledge in their students, but also for life skills such as accountability. When our students grow up, will they still get paid for their job if they don’t show up to work?

There is also another factor that should be taken into consideration: the weighing of the assignments. Most teachers, me included, weigh an assessment at a higher percentage than a homework assignment. So, if a student doesn’t turn in their homework, a “0” will not drop them significantly. On the other hand, if a student decides they don’t want to complete their essay assessment, should they still receive 50%?

As a middle school teacher in the public school system, I feel an immense amount of pressure from my administration and district to make sure my students pass, especially since the dropout rate in the United States continues to rise. However, should one of those opportunities be to change a grade and give credit that wasn’t earned?

Like most teachers I’ve spoken to, I already give students every opportunity possible to help them pass my class (extra time, replacing lost materials, extra credit, in-school make-up work days, parental communication, incentives, etc.). Should changing their grade now be one of those opportunities?

If we continue to lower our expectations for our students, how will they be able to compete with graduates from higher performing schools that expect students to be successful by earning their grades?

Furthermore, how will they learn the importance of responsibility if they no longer need to be accountable for their own work?

Kelly Waller 150Kelly Waller teaches middle school language arts in Hillsborough County, Florida Public Schools. She participated in the VIVA MET Idea Exchange.

How Can a Teacher Make a Difference in Education Policy?

by Sara Arnold

Seems a bit ironic, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t changes in education be made by well-trained educators?

Shutting our doors and teaching is no longer an option.

I used to believe that all I needed to do was be the best teacher I could be for my students. I had control of what happened in my classroom, but I had no idea how many decisions were being made about my profession by non-educators.

Many decisions that drive education are made in the state house, not the school house. Two years ago, I realized I could no longer sit idly by and allow policy to be made for me. Many people don’t know where to begin when it comes to education policy, so here are three things you can do to make a difference for your students.

Tell Classroom Stories to Your Legislators

It seems scary and intimidating, but your legislators want to hear from you. I made my first trip to the state house this January to be a voice for adequate funding for our schools. I was able to tell my story and offer my input back to my legislators.

You can talk about increasing class sizes, reductions in programming, increased testing….but also share your heartfelt stories. Stories of a student who learned how to read or a class that organized a food drive for a local food pantry. These stories are the reasons we became educators: to make a difference in the lives of others.

Just Say ‘Yes’

Whether it’s a state or local committee, say “yes” when you’re asked to serve. I said yes to a few local and state committees and I’ve learned so much through the process and had the opportunity to share my voice. Decisions are no longer being made for me, they’re being made with me at the table.

Always Do What’s Best for Your Students

You are the expert in your field. You know and understand your students, so do what’s best for them. As a teacher, I would never try and tell a neurosurgeon how to perform brain surgery, just as legislators shouldn’t be telling us how to do things in our classrooms. Sometimes we must stand up for what’s right and make decisions based on what’s best for our students.

Sara Arnold teaches elementary gifted and talented students in Iowa’s Cedar Rapids Public Schools. She participated in the VIVA ISEA Teachers Idea Exchange.

Things I Never Would Have Guessed About Teaching

 

by Amanda Morick

When I first entered the field of education, I never would have guessed that the teacher leader role would take on a mind of its own. I looked at administrators and thought, “There is no way I would want that kind of position. Way too much pressure is associated with taking the reins and spearheading change. I just don’t have the wherewithal for that sort of thing.”

I understood that teachers are lifelong learners, but I assumed that meant we needed to stay up-to-date in our content areas. I have found, through my work with Teach to Lead, that lifelong learning means meta-cognition at its finest. We must be constant innovators and introspective nearly to the point of mania in order to do the best for our students, families, and communities.

When I was pursuing my Master’s degree, I never would have guessed how a course entitled “Teachers as Leaders” would eventually relate to my daily practice. I successfully completed the course with an A, but I didn’t comprehend what this would look like or how I could put it into practice for myself.

The theory of how this type of leadership benefits the greater system of education made basic sense, but I didn’t have a vision for how I would fit in on my end. How could I have known I would proudly label myself as a teacher leader just a few years later?

When I received a call from my colleague, Lesley Hagelgans, I never would have guessed how our action research would emerge into a system-changing initiative. We began researching, surveying, and harvesting/analyzing data for our school alone. Before I knew it, we were ready to take on the whole field of education for our proactive efforts.

When I attended the Louisville Teach to Lead summit, I never would have guessed that our project would be encouraged and highlighted in our state and even the nation. Through the time spent seeing what other individuals, schools, districts, and states were doing to develop innovative ideas, I felt propelled in my interest to develop a stronger school community. Hearing success stories encouraged my belief that I really could do more to increase student achievement on a larger scale, even though I’m “only a teacher.”

Only a teacher? What? Is there anyone who knows more about the needs of learners? No way! If this is the case, then we should be the ones figuring out what’s best for our kids.

Even better, we are absolutely in the position to do just that. I learned ways to communicate with administration in a way that aligns their vision with ours. We discovered how others were already pioneering the road to teacher voice. The Teach to Lead initiative also showed me that there were significantly more resources available to me than I could have guessed.

I don’t dare to guess—now that I’ve seen the many surprises that teacher leadership has provided—what the future will hold for me as a teacher leader. As I develop my own ideas about what it means to lead from my role as an educator, doors continue to open, and progress continues to be made.

After we were selected to have a Leadership Lab at our school, our scope of possibility seemed nearly limitless. What we discovered was that because the community as a whole is striving to see successful, healthy humans, we were all invested in the same effort.

Providing a connection and common ground, the Lab put us all at the same table both literally and figuratively. Teach to Lead has pushed me to be a better teacher and a better contributor to society. Encouraging us to challenge the status quo has provided a platform for trying new things.

Self Portrait- Amanda

Amanda Morick teaches six graders at Marshall Middle School—specializing in Language Arts. She contributes to The IF Team’s Action Research Project, is the co-chair of the School Improvement Writing team, and teacher leader within the Language Arts committee. 

Let’s Talk about Your Dedication to Teaching

by Lesley Hagelgans

Being in the classroom for 15 years and being a teacher leader for the past five, young people looking for direction have often asked me about going into education as a profession. Well…it’s a loaded question.

I usually tell them, “RUN!” After a good laugh, a reflective and meaningful conversation occurs. This same conversation has been provoked on a wider scale in recent weeks.

Unless a teacher is living under a rock—or just plain buried in term papers at the end of a marking period—most have heard that Nancie Atwell won the first Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, the $1 million “Nobel Prize for teaching”.

What most educators probably didn’t see was the interview on CNN where the media took a whole 2 minutes and 24 seconds to acknowledge her award. During the last 40 seconds of the interview, she answered a question about what she says to kids who are thinking about going into teaching.

“Honestly, right now I encourage them to look in the private sector…if you are a creative, smart, young person, this is not the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”

I myself have told young people who want to go into teaching something similar, so my gut reaction is the same as Nancie Atwell’s.

Following Atwell’s interview, Dan Brown wrote an op-ed piece, “$1 Million Global Teacher Prize Winner is Dead Wrong”, where he criticized Atwell:

“The most celebrated educator in the world is discouraging creative, smart young people from considering teaching in the American public school system, which serves 50 million children. That’s shocking. To support that position to its logical end, in which creative, smart young people steer away from teaching in public schools, is to surrender the future of the public education.”

Brown’s criticism challenged my own thinking and motivated me to reflect on the conversations I’ve had with young people considering education. For a brief moment, I felt ashamed of those times I had told young people to run.

I had to ask myself, “Why?” I value the same things as Dan Brown. I want creative, energetic people teaching my own children and others, too. Let’s face it: the future of this country depends on educators educating students, parents, other teachers, and policy makers.

Again, I asked myself, “Why did I tell young people to run?” What I had forgotten about were those meaningful conversations after the first laugh. Ironically, it’s because I want only the best and brightest to go into education.

I like to ask young people why they want to go into teaching. Most of them tell me they like working with kids and having a work schedule similar to the school year (going home at 3:00 and getting summers off).

That’s when the conversation gets real. I explain to them the demands of the job: lesson plans, grading, curriculum documents, assessments, data collection and analysis, counseling, parent teacher conferences, staff meetings, continuing education, PLC’s, etc.

I try to show them that a lot of time away from kids goes into making the time spent with kids as meaningful as possible. I invite them to come spend an hour, a day, a week, or even longer in my classroom.

I want these idealistic young people to know that teaching is a lifestyle, not a job. If they can’t handle that, I respectfully ask them to invest their efforts somewhere else. I only want the most dedicated people working in schools.

Did Nancie Atwell get it wrong? Not entirely. Was Dan Brown too harsh in his criticism? I don’t think so, either.

Schools need intelligent, young professionals full of enthusiasm in classrooms. However, as experienced professionals, we have a responsibility to make sure that these young people know what they’re getting into. Once they have a clear understanding of the big picture, seasoned educators also have the duty to cultivate the talent and energy of those that commit to the lifestyle of teaching.

So, what do I tell those young people now? “Let’s talk about your dedication to teaching.”

 

Lesley-Hagelgans-150(2)Lesley Hagelgans teaches Language Arts at Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Mich. She was a member of the National VIVA Task Force.

 

Learning to Listen to Teachers: Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education

By Lynn Otaguro

 

Have you ever been in a room full of people when an idea starts to grow like an avalanche, moving in one direction, with everyone being pulled along? But you’re the one who has to take responsibility for the decisions made in the room, so you ask a question. People rethink their positions and suddenly the answer is very different, because the information considered is more complete.

This is the value of giving people a voice and listening to diverse points of view. I have been in that room and I have been that person, but in a former life, not as a teacher.

This fall, teachers came together in the VIVA Idea Exchange to talk about accountability in public education. Over 900 teachers responded with ideas, sharing comments with one another. Seventeen teachers then worked collaboratively to create a report reflecting those ideas and made recommendations for transforming the present systems of accountability and responsibility in public education. I was fortunate to be one of the seventeen teachers in the Writing Collaborative.

The report we wrote, “Changing the Story: Transformation Toward Fair Accountability and Responsibility in Public Education”, takes a broader view of accountability in education. It asks that we treat our children as individuals and teach them so that they can be successful in all aspects of their lives. It asks that schools be funded equitably so all children have the best chance at success. It asks that schools be structured more collaboratively so that they are more supportive of parents, students, and teachers. It asks that teachers be allowed to use specific knowledge of their own classrooms, students, and themselves, to choose the steps that will best help them improve and serve their students.

Sometimes, as a teacher, it feels as if we are in those rooms where decisions are being made about education, but unlike my own former experience, we have no voice and are unable to provide input. The national conversation about accountability and responsibility in education tends to be very narrow: teacher evaluations, high-stakes testing, and who is responsible (or to blame) for public education. I first approached the issue in that way, but then, for me, the teachers in the Idea Exchange and the Writing Collaborative served as the person in the room raising a question, and I began to think more deeply about the issues.

When we talk about our responsibility in education, shouldn’t we be thinking about how our current policies and decisions affect the next generation? Are we giving our children what they need to lead a full, well-rounded life? Are our schools structured in a way that gives our children what they need or that allows teachers to provide these things?

These questions need to be raised, but they will only be raised and considered when we give our teachers a voice. Our educational decisions will only be complete when we listen to those who must implement our policies. The report written by the Writing Collaborative is a step toward giving teachers the kind of voice that can make a difference.

You can read the “Changing the Story” report online. Please read it. Talk about it. Agree or disagree with it, but let it be the beginning of a conversation that includes teachers in the decisions that affect our schools and classrooms. Teachers care deeply about their students. Let teachers help find solutions to the issues surrounding public education.

 Screen Shot 2015-03-19 at 10.27.51 AMLynn Otaguro is a first grade teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii. Previously she was an attorney who represented the State of Hawaii Department of Education. She participated in the NEA 360 Idea Exchange; Changing the Story

Breaking Through the Barriers Between Disciplines

A Job for 21st-Century Teacher Leaders

By Kellyanne Mahoney and Catherine O’Flaherty

 

Our students have never lived in a world without Google. And through the increasing prevalence of technology, they possess unprecedented access to knowledge and exposure to divergent opinions. At the same time, they live in a world in which global problems abound, and many of these call for interdisciplinary solutions.

In charting this terra incognita, the role of the teacher leader seems more essential than ever for mapping a curriculum for the 21st Century and beyond—one that not only empowers students with relevant learning experiences, but also empowers their teachers.

Specifically, as teacher leaders, we work collaboratively and diligently with our interdisciplinary teams of teachers to remove the unnatural divisions between academic disciplines at the middle- and high-school levels.

  • How can an ordinary person change society?

  • Why do leaders sometimes lie?

  • Is it possible to solve a problem as big as child labor or poverty with just a peace treaty or agreement? Or does there always have to be violence?

  • How can children show leadership in a society?

  • Do you think that the way we are currently living is “civilized?”

As veteran seventh-grade English Language Arts teachers and teacher leaders of our grade-level teams, we know that we do not have all the answers to these questions. In this digital age, we also know that our students shouldn’t be expected to leave us as walking, talking encyclopedias, either.

In fact, for us, the mark of true learning is when our students leave us with questions—interesting questions that indicate authentic mulling over of academic content, important questions that seem to drive further exploration.

In June, our seventh-grade students filled out a Google Form in preparation for a Socratic Seminar that would culminate our annual interdisciplinary capstone project. They were asked to provide new questions to prompt discussion, but their questions also revealed meaningful reflections on our shared instructional practice.

For example, Tyler’s response demonstrated that his questions weren’t for the teachers, but for his peers:

I have one major question for the class and that is: Is it okay for someone to commit a crime if it’s for a good reason? Why or why not?

Nathalie’s question elaborated on a theme from our Shakespeare unit:

Does being born into power make you a leader?

Omar’s question evoked research he conducted in Latin class on the effects of deforestation in Ancient Rome:

What can cause a global issue to become extreme enough for civilized people to react?

Jenny’s questioning seemed to indicate that an earlier debate in Humanities class had hit an emotional nerve:

How do you think life on earth would be impacted if everyone had an opportunity to earn more than 10 dollars a day? If those who need a job can’t get any and actually wants one, whose fault is that if they’re always told to get one?

And so, in 2008 we felt ready for change, spurred by our beliefs that early adolescents:

  • want to understand and imagine a world beyond their everyday existence,

  • should be encouraged to actively explore ideas that are important to them,

  • can apply their learning in school in order to engage in rigorous and creative problem-solving around global issues.

Thus began the design of an interdisciplinary, thematic curriculum that deepens students’ understanding of essential concepts and poses questions that challenge students to synthesize their learning across content areas.

Re-creating curriculum for students required teacher leadership in order for grade-level teacher teams to embrace this unconventional instructional approach. The result has been the development, over time, of a divergent school culture that embraces risk-taking, collaboration, shared leadership, intellectual curiosity and persistence: a culture that drives both teaching and learning across the entire grade level and is used as a model for other teacher teams.

So, for the past seven years, we have been developing our roles as teacher leaders of this interdisciplinary and, some might say, disruptive approach to learning–a vision which has recently been validated by the Common Core. We have found that this type of learning requires leadership and collaboration from teachers who are willing to break away from the traditional curriculum and forge a new path.

Through our personal journey, we have discovered key attributes necessary for teacher leaders and collaborating teachers embarking on this work, as well as strategies for modeling them. There are too many to mention in one blog post; however, being a reflective and open practitioner who is willing to embrace feedback and change is the most critical to beginning this process.

As accomplished teachers, we know that feedback and reflection are necessary components to our work, which consequently leaves us destined to a recurrent state of flux. The fluidity of curriculum as a result of change–both self-initiated and brought upon by outside forces—has been a constant of our work together.

One of the greatest obstacles we have encountered as teacher leaders is that this kind of dynamism isn’t always welcomed by all of the teachers, nor administrators, with whom we have worked over the years. Once a curriculum is established, many educators tend to prefer editing and simplifying to any kind of robust change, and sometimes effective teacher leadership requires implementing this type of tailoring, too.

However, if we constantly seek feedback and are consistently reflective about the feedback provided to us—which is one aspect of our leadership—it becomes essential to develop and learn how to foster a certain comfort level with variability in the curriculum.

As a collaborative team of lead teachers, our shared reflection, mutual trust and honest feedback with each other eases us through the more stressful moments of making this happen.

Despite the challenges, we know that this is work worth doing because we know that what we do with feedback determines our success as teachers. It is critical for teachers to both seek feedback and to reflect on it actionably.

Feedback should come from a myriad of inputs: from students, parents, assessment data, administrators, other teachers, and any person or organization with a vested interest in the classroom. The goal of feedback is for us to stand back and be able to articulate our successes and failures.

Successful teachers communicate with their students and develop relationships with them and their families that invite them to get a pulse on how effectively things are going, or perhaps on how ineffectively things may be going.

In addition, when another content area teacher provides anecdotal evidence of a student making a connection to something learned in our content area, or when a student connects content learned in another class to ours, we know that that student has begun to successfully think and problem solve in the interdisciplinary manner we believe will help that student achieve.

Furthermore, most successful teachers we know possess a heightened awareness and curiosity about what is happening in their classrooms, what is happening in the world outside their classrooms, and what their role should be in bridging these two worlds. For this reason, we also feel successful when we find that what we uncover through our reflective practices aligns with current educational research.

It is our goal as successful educators to both maintain and model high expectations, pushing our students as well as ourselves to think creatively and to develop a willingness to take intellectual risks. Yet we also see success when our students appreciate how much fun can be had in life and learning, and when they are able to connect the two in a way that inspires them to engage in rigorous problem-solving and thinking—viewing learning as a challenge worth their time and effort.

Feedback can be found through the kinds of questions our students ask us and the kinds of questions we ask of them and those that we ask each other as colleagues. Our collaboration begins with our work together as leaders and then translates into a consistent approach with our interdisciplinary teaching teams.

This builds the foundation for our work as reflective practitioners–something both of us learned during our process for becoming National Board Certified teachers.

This approach models the role of being a lifelong learner: one who reflects on the surrounding world and draws from knowledge and information provided from many directions in order to problem-solve through life’s issues, and, moreover, interact with and even change our society and culture in meaningful and impactful ways.

Kellyanne Mahoney and Catherine O’Flaherty are both National Board Certified teachers who work in the Boston Public Schools. They can be reached at kmahoney@bostonpublicschools.org and coflaherty@bostonpublicschools.org

mahoney

Kellyanne Mahoney

cathy

Catherine O’Flaherty