A Call for Investment: Our Schools, Our Children, Our Future

By Kathleen Sullivan

Teaching is challenging, rewarding, exciting, exhausting, and never boring. Actually, every day is a new adventure. Lately, I’ve been struggling; Not with teaching students, but with everything else that goes along with being a teacher in a needy urban district where resources are stretched thin.

I am struggling with teaching well over 100 children a day while wearing so many other hats. Our students walk through our doors saddled with burdens. Some children are from difficult home lives, some are homeless. Others have arrived on our doorstep from war-torn nations, refugee camps, or from countries of sheer chaos. Students often show up hungry. Others are in need of shoes and clothes. Some are grieving the loss of a parent, which vary from parents who have no contact with their children, to parents who have died or been killed, to parents who have been lost to addiction, mental illness, or incarceration.

Even so, teaching is easy compared to the mental anguish and emotional drain of serving as counselor to children who are emotionally scarred. Our social worker/adjustment counselor oversees 600 students four days a week. She has a consistent caseload of 40 students, and an additional 10 plus extra students each day to tend to as each daily crisis arises. If you do the math, you will understand that teachers absorb much of the pain and agony some students bring to school with them each day.

In addition to students in crisis, we are also teaching students with intellectual, emotional and mental disorders with limited special education support in our classrooms. I love my job, I love my students, but I am exhausted and drained. If teachers are to prevail at making every child successful, we need help in our classrooms. We need help to meet the needs of our kids who are experiencing personal and emotional crisis. We need special education assistance for our students who need individual support.

When I think about what our struggling students lack, I have come to realize that no matter what their burdens are, they are each lacking consistency. School is their safety net. School is their refuge. Each day, for eight hours, they are safe. They have structure and they are surrounded by people who want them to grow into productive, conscientious, caring adults. For our students to succeed, they need assistance within the walls of that refuge.

Teachers will teach all students. Teachers will accommodate workloads and differentiate instruction to reach all types of learners. We will provide kindness, empathy, and respect. We step in when counselors are not readily available to children in crisis. When special education students are not getting enough individual attention, teachers spend extra time to meet the needs of these students and give them the academic support they need to make gains. How do we continue to spread ourselves to meet the needs of all our students?

Should we invest in staffing counseling within our schools so that counselors have reasonable caseloads of students and teachers can teach? Should we rethink how special education services are delivered by special education teachers so that students are properly supported, and budget appropriately?  Should we have additional staff to teach and support the large number of English language learners so that they are successful in meeting standards?

The answer is yes. We need to invest in our kids by providing them with access to counseling. We need to invest in our kids by providing our special needs students with specialized teachers working alongside general education teachers in their classrooms. All children can learn with the proper emotional and academic support no matter what their challenges. Some may learn differently, at a slower pace, or at different levels, but they can achieve if we provide the proper support.  We must support our students.


Kathleen Sullivan teaches 5th grade science at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts.

Teacher prep: Let’s get clinical

by James Kobialka

Teaching is not a profession which can be taught through lectures and reports. Just  as doctors must be trained in hospitals, in practices, so must teachers be trained in classrooms in what is called the clinical model of teacher preparation.

I remember student teachers coming into my high school class. They would sit at the back of the class, scribbling in notebooks. After two weeks of this, they’d teach one lesson and disappear, presumably off to present a signed form and get a degree.

I finished my own teaching degree in May of 2011. I spent well over 300 hours teaching. I designed lessons, units, and curricula. I watched others teach. I videotaped classes; I wrote reflections; I received critiques; I did research; I earned my degree with ink and tears, as did the rest of my cohort.

I feel privileged to have been taught by great teachers. Every step of the way I was supported and challenged.

Not everyone made it. Some quit. They couldn’t hack the long hours and the stress of teaching. While I feel for them, I also am thankful. Their leaving did not hurt students – if they had burned out in their first year of teaching, it would be a different story.

Those of us who graduated did so knowing who we were – not as people, but as educators. We had a feel for our classroom persona, our strengths and weaknesses, our goals.

A lot of eyes are turning towards teacher preparation right now. 25 state school chiefs recently agreed to “take action” towards renovating their states’ teacher licensure and preparation programs.

Their recent report identified “Licensure” as a main area to change. I hope they will focus on the clinical model of teacher preparation that mimics how doctors are trained.

The state chiefs aren’t the only people asking these questions. How do we train good teachers? How do we know whether a first-year teacher will have a high- or low- performing classroom? How do we train what TNTP called the “irreplaceables”?

Here are your answers:

Stop hiring people who worked in industry for fifteen years and think that qualifies them to teach high schoolers.

Stop hiring subs who have been in the system for ten years but never designed their own lesson.

Stop hiring people who majored in Education but have never stood in front of a class.

Call up Clark University, my alma mater. Call up the Urban Teacher Residency United. Call up any of a long list of schools. . Ask them which of their recent graduates need a job – because many of us still do.

Start hiring people with classroom experience. Start hiring people with portfolios, with lessons, who can show you videos and student work samples. Hire people who know their weaknesses as educators and are willing to improve them.

Learn from the programs that work. Stop sending low-performing teachers to endless Professional Development lectures; set them up with a mentor instead. Have them reflect, read, write, and think – just like we want our youth to.

I wouldn’t trust a doctor who has never been in a hospital. I would never trust a pilot who hasn’t flown.

So why do we think we can trust teachers who’ve never been in front of a class?

James Kobialka teaches Science and English in Worcester, MA

Driving Lessons: Putting the Data-Driven Map in Perspective

By Kathleen Sullivan

Data is defining the self worth of our children, the value of a dedicated, compassionate caring teacher, and the marketability of our homes. Data has proven to be invaluable as a tool to identify weak spots in curriculum and also as a way to identify students in need of academic intervention. But with the focus on data, something else happened. Education leaders, administrators, and teachers stopped talking about students as individuals; instead we began to hold data meetings and we started to refer to students simply as “above grade level”, “at grade level”, “progressing, but below grade level”, or “needs improvement”. At the same time, new students test scores began to be the first thing we checked to see how their scores would affect overall data for the upcoming testing season

Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, an aggressive education reform organization, appears to believe the only way to measure student and teacher success is through test scores. StudentsFirst recently released a report grading states on how they are working to elevate the teaching profession, empower parents, spend wisely, and govern well. Florida and Louisiana were at the top of the list. The problem is that the initiatives being promoted by StudentsFirst sounds great in theory but education reform goes well beyond test scores and data.

We need an education reality check. I recently “liked” a Facebook posting that read “I Care More About the Person My Students Become Than The Scores On The Tests They Take”. This doesn’t mean I don’t care about test scores and data. It does mean that society needs people who have integrity and character. Test scores are important as a way of measuring what students are learning. Does it measure smart? What does smart mean? Does it strictly mean a high test score? Personally, I think data and test scores are part of the puzzle. Students can explain a concept but often can’t write it. Students can demonstrate a concept by creating a project but they may not be able to read a word or understand a word on a standardized test and lose points.

We need to broaden the way we think about and use data so we can make sure we’re giving each student what they need to succeed. Some students need extra academic supports to increase their capacity to learn. Students with learning, physical, and emotional disorders also need special supports.

If we invest in supporting our children academically and emotionally, we will invest in children who can not only answer questions right but also can face challenges and seek solutions. Let’s figure out how to measure those skills too.

Kathleen Sullivan teaches 5th grade science at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts.

VIVA Teachers and MTA in Worcester Telegram

State teachers’ union sets educational goals

Report targets achievement gaps

By Jacqueline Reis, Telegram and Gazette Staff
The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state, has released recommendations from teachers about narrowing achievement gaps in Gateway Cities such as Worcester, Fitchburg and Leominster.
Gateway Cities are the 24 communities with populations between 35,000 and 250,000 and income and education attainment levels below the state average. The report also includes input from teachers in Cambridge and Somerville.

The six recommendations are:

• Have all students learn a second language to fluency, starting in kindergarten, and adjust MCAS rules to give English language learners more time before they must take the test.

• Reduce student suspensions to all but the most egregious offenses, end zero-tolerance policies, create supervised spaces within schools where students can refocus rather than being sent to the office, and develop programs that reward positive behavior and evaluate disruptive students for special needs.

• Ensure all teachers are prepared to teach diverse students and have the autonomy to apply their skills in their classrooms.

• Strengthen school-community relationships by designating an educator to serve as a community liaison and by creating schools that stay open beyond school hours to serve the community, including new immigrants.

• Lengthen the school day and reorganize the school year to better serve students.

• Encourage Gateway Cities to collaborate and jointly seek grants.

Click here to read the rest of this article

Press Release on VIVA Report from Massachusetts Teacher Assocation

Classroom teachers recommend ways to narrow achievement gaps in Gateway Cities

CONTACT: Laura Barrett, MTA, 617-878-8267

Download the Report

The state’s largest teachers union has released recommendations from teachers in low-income urban districts about ways to help narrow student achievement gaps, including replacing “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that lead to high suspension rates with programs aimed at improving behavior within school settings.

The teachers’ recommendations stem from a collaborative project of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and New Voice Strategies, a nonprofit that has engaged in similar “idea exchanges” elsewhere. They are contained in a report titled “Addressing Educational Inequities: Proposals for Narrowing the Achievement Gaps in Massachusetts Gateway Cities,” which has been endorsed by the MTA.

Through the initiative, more than 300 teachers in 24 Massachusetts Gateway Cities plus Cambridge and Somerville shared their views in a freewheeling online discussion. Active participants were then asked to join a writing collaborative to craft the recommendations.

“We hope that the MTA VIVA project inspires discussions at the local level about what schools and districts can do about the critically important issues that our teachers have raised,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “The wide variety of opinions expressed during this project reminds us all that there is no single solution. Rather, there are a variety of strategies that can be effective if teachers, administrators, parents and community members all work together on behalf of students.”

The recommendations include:

  • Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline by reducing suspensions and promoting positive student behavior through in-school initiatives.
  • Offering both bilingual education and Sheltered English Immersion instruction to English Language Learners and promoting second-language fluency among native English speakers.
  • Transforming teacher preparation and professional development to address the challenges of a diverse student population.
  • Strengthening school-community relations.
  • Using flexible staffing schedules and collaboration with community-based organizations, among other methods, to lengthen the school day to provide enrichment and academic support for students and common planning time for education staff.
  • Encouraging Gateway Cities to collaborate on initiatives and jointly seek grant funding.

Gateway Cities are midsized urban centers that often serve as the “gateway” into Massachusetts for immigrant families. Many of these communities, including Holyoke, Springfield, Lawrence and Lowell, were former manufacturing centers. They have faced significant social and economic challenges since manufacturing has been in decline in the United States.

Education is often seen as the best means for building stronger economies in these communities, yet – as in Boston – student performance and graduation rates are significantly lower in Gateway Cities than in the rest of the state. For example, the five-year graduation rate for high school students is just 69 percent in Gateway Cities as opposed to 72 percent in Boston and 91 percent in the rest of the state.

One of the biggest challenges for school districts in Gateway Cities is that they serve a relatively high percentage of English Language Learners. Among other recommendations, the MTA VIVA teachers recommend a change in state law that would allow bilingual education services to be offered as well as the currently mandated Sheltered English Immersion. They also call on districts to do a better job of identifying ELL students who have learning disabilities so they can receive appropriate services at a young age. In addition, they encourage districts to provide early and effective second-language instruction to native English speakers so that they can become fluent.

On the issue of suspensions, the report recommends, “End all ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ disciplinary programs and policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules and limit both in-school and out-of-school suspensions to only the most serious disruptions.”

The report also recommends strengthening school-community relations by, among other measures, extending school building hours “to allow students to have a safe place for before- and after-school activities” and establishing “home-school visitation programs,” such as one  in effect in parts of Springfield.

The authors recommend that Gateway Cities administrators work more closely together to share ideas and professional development opportunities and to apply jointly for grants.

The teacher-writers for the MTA VIVA project and the districts in which they teach are: Nancy Hilliard and James Kobialka, Worcester; Joel Patterson, Cambridge; Chelsea Mullins, Springfield; and Kathleen Sullivan, Malden. To reach any of these participants, contact Laura Barrett at MTA at 617-878-8267.

Public Education in a Global Economy: An Agenda for Massachusetts Public Schools

Download Full Report as a PDF

On June 23, 2012, members of the VIVA MTA Writing Collaborative presented their ideas to the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. The process continued on Aug. 5, when the teachers presented a revised version of their report, incorporating suggestions from MTA Board members.

Download a copy of “Public Education in a Global Economy: An Agenda for Massachusetts Public Schools.”

Executive Summary

Massachusetts Gateway Cities have a high percentage of residents living in poverty, growing immigrant populations and multiple language-minority residents. The tremendously dedicated classroom teachers in these communities and the Massachusetts Teachers Association recommend that Gateway Cities work together to share resources, address common challenges and advocate for more financial support.

Our goal as teachers is the education of creative and critical thinkers. Our students deserve to learn the skills that we use to be successful: critical thinking, adaptability and a whole host of others. Our current system makes choices for students: what they learn, when they learn it, and even how well they are capable of learning in general. A powerful education system should have different characteristics. Instead of making choices for our students, we should be empowering them to make their own choices. Students are not buckets to be filled with information. They are fires to be lit.

Teachers are already working on this change. There are thousands of dedicated teachers who strive every day to get their students to read, write, think and apply their knowledge. They are not always supported. Some teachers need to bend the rules, sneaking in labs or writing projects in circumstances where they have been instructed to give practice tests and multiple-choice exams. When every teacher in a district is directed to follow the same timeline
and scripted curriculum, then student questions and student engagement are not driving instruction. This is not a sustainable model of education. If we hope to help our students, to narrow the achievement gaps and to improve the quality of life in our Gateway Cities, we need policies to reflect the intensely personal and provocative nature of education. We need our schools to be growth-focused communities of learners.


Expand language acquisition programs by valuing the existing multilingualism in our Gateway Cities schools and enabling all students to achieve fluency in a second language.

Break the school-to-prison pipeline through student engagement programs focused on positive behavior outcomes.

Transform teacher preparation and professional development to ensure that all teachers are prepared to address the challenges of a diverse student population; then give teachers the autonomy to apply professional knowledge and skills in their classrooms.

Strengthen school-community relationships.

Lengthen the school day and reorganize the school year to better serve students.

Focus the existing Gateway Cities Coalition on identifying and sharing resources to support the recommendations in this report.