An End to the Blame Game Starts at Home

By Jim Barnhill

Let’s face it. We are all exhausted from the education wars between education reformers and teachers. It’s time to end the polarized debates and find a new way to dialogue. This is not going to happen in the current climate unless we all do something radical. The ongoing battle has had harsh consequences in districts around the country, as evidenced by massive school closures, attacks on collective bargaining, and an unprecedented testing-industrial-complex. Caught in the middle of it all are kids of color in the ever-widening opportunity gap. The longer labor and management fights, the more students suffer. But they aren’t the only ones because we all suffer with them. Every player in the education conversation—teachers, administrators, board members, reformers, and community activists—has handed out and been on the receiving end of verbal bullying, hostility and misrepresentation. We all say we are on the side of students, but are we willing to put down our agendas just long enough to listen to one another?

Before I became a teacher, I worked in family counseling. In any family conflict, identifying one person as the “sick” individual is a recipe for family stagnation and dysfunction. Focusing on the one person allows the rest of the family to deny any responsibility for the overall patterns of dysfunction. Worse, when a family tries to force that “sick” member to change, it often backfires miserably. And so it goes with our education debates. Depending on who writes the article or who testifies before the legislature or who rises to speak, a “patient” is often identified in the debate. It might be the bad teacher, the incompetent district administration, the uninvolved parent, the self-interested teachers union, or the corporate-backed education foundation. However, when we talk about each other in such a way we create resistance to change and make it nearly impossible for others to hear our very real concerns. In effect, we all become tone deaf.

There seems to be no shortage of blame and shame going around, or an end to efforts to force change through legislation, contracts and local elections. The inability to see that we are all a part of an interdependent system ‑ with mutual responsibility for the failures and the solutions in education ‑ is a communal failure for our children. The way forward must start with an acceptance of our mutual responsibility for the education of our children and a focus on how we can change our part of the system. Put simply, the more time we spend pointing fingers at the “sick” member of the system, the more polarized we will become.

The Way Forward

It’s not an easy thing to do, but we won’t see an improvement in the quality of our national dialogue until educators and our unions take the unilateral step of naming our responsibility for the improvement of public education. For example, as a teacher in this multicultural society, I must be culturally competent in my classroom. I need to be aware of the positive and negative ways in which my teaching impacts the diverse students in my multi-national classroom. I also must be aware of, embrace and implement research-based teaching methodologies without remaining stuck in techniques that are past their prime. Moreover, I have to learn to become a collaborative teacher. Gone are the days when I can just teach behind closed doors in the ways I see fit. Today’s profession requires that we collaborate with teams of educators, and support one another in the goal of improving our craft.

My responsibility does not end in the classroom. Like so many of us, I have more than one role in education.

As a union member, I have to ask if we as teachers are willing to hold ourselves to the highest standards of the profession by asking for support when I need it, offering support when others need it, and embracing a fair evaluation process as a path for professional growth. Knowing how important it is to communities of color that their children also be taught by teachers from their own race or culture, I have to be willing to find ways to help our district attract and retain a racially and ethnically diverse workforce. I will also stand up for my profession and remind others that the best and brightest teachers come to and stay in this profession when we pay them enough to provide for their own families.

As the parent of three children in public schools, I will read to them nightly, volunteer in their schools, and offer homework support. For the sake of equity, I will also advocate for those schools that need more resources in communities with greater needs. I will assume responsibility as a taxpayer to write my elected officials urging them to sufficiently fund public education so schools don’t have to rely on Target or General Mills Box Tops to pay for critically important programs.

Responsibility for the improvement of education in our country is in everyone’s hands. By accepting our own responsibility for finding solutions for improved educational outcomes, we are not accepting all of the blame for what ails our schools. We are, however, creating the climate in which others can start to own up to their own responsibility for this very complicated public good. In this way, we stand a chance of breaking out of polarized education debates for the sake of our children.

jim barnhillJim Barnhill is a special education teacher at South High School in Minneapolis, Minn. He’s a member of the Minnesota Board of Teaching and served as the Recording Secretary of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers #59 from 2008-2012. He was a member of the VIVA Minneapolis II Writing Collaborative on teacher evaluation.


What I Would Tell the New Mayor of NYC

By Ann Neary

Begin by respecting educators. Show that respect by appointing an educator as Chancellor. Business people have transferable skills certainly. But as one who spent 30 years in business before becoming a teacher, what is often lacking is the empathy needed to work with children. Then show your understanding further by turning over your eight appointments to the Panel for Education Policy to educators who have that heart sense.

Bring back comprehensive high schools. They have a place in our large school system. They mirror the existing diversity by offering a myriad of academic challenges, after school activities, sports teams, and clubs. Children can test their wings on many levels all within the school community. No data has shown that creating multiple small schools on one campus has benefited any student.

Support partnerships with the community surrounding the schools. Because of the “choice system” allowing students to select a school, our students travel long distances every day. They are not connected to the community in any way. Job opportunities cease to exist, parents are not able to be a part of the school fiber; there is no pride in place.

Allow teachers within classrooms the freedom and flexibility to be innovative. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, “do not be loose on goals but tight on how to get there.” We all want our students to be ready for the next step, and college and career ready. Teachers know there is more than one way to get there.

Support teachers to prepare our students by offering creative, useful and timely professional development. Afford them what we all want for our students: multiple ways to access and use knowledge.

In NYC we know that struggling schools have a disproportional number of high needs students. Give NYC schools the resources needed to help those students succeed.

When expanding student choice of schools by building charter schools, ensure that all financial data, political donations, student demographics-including suspension rates and attrition-are transparent. Give the same advantages offered charter schools to public schools. Do the same with the new small schools. And if you decline to disclose, do not compare these schools to existing schools.

Finally, listen. Listen to what children are saying about their educational experiences, listen to what parents want for their children, listen to what teachers need in order to prepare their students for the future that we envision for them, for our city and for our country.

AnnNearyAnn Neary teaches at DeWitt Clinton High School in Bronx, NY. She was a member of the VIVA MET Idea Exchange.


It’s a New School Year: Confessions of Your Classroom Teacher

By Kathleen Sullivan

A new school year is upon us, so many students in Malden are feeling high anxiety.  We all remember that night before school started when we were students ourselves. We spent our last few weeks of summer vacation preparing for school.  There was the excitement of getting our new school supplies and going shopping for new clothes and shoes. Our emotions were mixed.  We felt a sense of sadness that summer was ending and we felt excitement to see our friends.  Those emotions were coupled with some apprehension about meeting our new classmates and teachers, and beginning a new school year.

Well, here is the truth, teachers feel that same apprehension and anxiety. We get nervous about setting up our classrooms so they’re just right for our students.  We worry about getting to know our new students and their families.  Our stomachs are in knots and we wake up at night thinking about the upcoming school year, the challenges we will face reaching all of our students’ academic learning styles, and creating lessons that will engage our students as well as reflect their new knowledge in standardized testing for which we are all accountable.  There is something bigger than all this though.  The students who walk through our doors on that first day of school are our students and they are our kids.  We will be connected to these individuals for the rest of our lives because they spent time in our classroom.

During an academic school year, students and teachers spend hundreds of hours together.  We share our students’ successes, failures, joys, and their sorrows.

So there it is. Students and teachers share the same anticipation, anxiety, and excitement as a new school year approaches. We’re connected by these shared emotions. We know from experience that once that bell rings on that first day, the school year will be in motion and much of our anxiety and apprehension will subside as we become submerged in teaching, learning, and getting know each other.  School year 2013-2014, ready or not, here we come.

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

Teaching: A Social Profession

By James Kobialka

The best way to create an ethos of respect and community in a school is to practice Zero Indifference.

This is a term I borrowed from my time as a camp counselor for Center for Talented Youth (CTY). You could also call it constant vigilance, active empathy, constant enforcement, or even just being nosy.

Zero Indifference means that you don’t let anything slide. You don’t ignore two kids punching each other because “they always do.” You don’t let that girl cry quietly in the corner because you’re uncomfortable with talking to her. You don’t pretend not to see those cigarettes in a student’s pocket or those headphones in their ears.

That second example is the key one. A principal I once met told a story of seeing one of his youth out of sorts for a few days – not passing in homework, generally distressed, uncooperative. After the third day, he confronted the student: “What’s going on? Why haven’t you been doing your work? I’m disappointed in you.”

“Mister, my house burned down. I’ve been wearing the same clothes for three days. I don’t care about my homework right now.”

Let’s process that. Three days of indifference. Three days of letting it slide. Three days of failing to accommodate a student in the midst of crisis, capped off by a moment of embarrassment, regret, anger.

Sometimes I hear from teachers, “It’s not my problem.”

That gets to me almost as much as “I can’t.” Almost as much as “I hate that kid.”

They are all our children. They are all our problems, our joys, ours to help.

The most important skill to teach teachers – new and old – is empathy. This is the ability to bend the rules of the day for the student, to share information, to let guidance counselors know, and to engage students when they are troubled.

Here are some useful phrases:

“You seem a bit out of it today. What’s up? How can I help?”

“If something’s going on, you can talk to me or to the guidance counselor about it, but sitting here doing nothing doesn’t help anyone.”

“Go take a break. Grab a drink, wash your face, and come back. We’ll chat at the end of the period.”

Teaching is a soulful profession. We teach people. We don’t teach subjects. It’s something worth remembering and worth acting on every day. Don’t let things slide; don’t let things snowball. Be a teacher of life.

James Kobialka teaches Science and English in Worcester, Mass.

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.

My “It” Moment at VIVA Teachers

By Charlene Mendoza
VIVA Arizona Teachers Idea Exchange

As teachers, we know that moment when “it” happens. That moment when we know the bait was taken, the interest engaged, the inquiry begun or the spark ignited. That moment when the energy begins to flow and the classroom transforms into an active, engaging learning environment. For me, that describes my experience participating in the VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange.

When I first saw the invitation to participate, I was mildly interested. As a teacher, my inbox is flooded with messages that appear to be similar in nature. Check this out! Buy this resource! Tell us what you think! Stop this! Start that! I am accustomed to being asked for a “teacher’s perspective” which often seems to give credence to another initiative or plan which typically does not really represent what I said, wrote, feel or believe. It is more like a celebrity endorsement…I talked to a “real teacher” and so my (fill in the blank here) is valid. Needless to say, I was skeptical.

Joining the Idea Exchange Conversation

I participated in an Idea Exchange about implementing the Common Core Standards in Arizona. As the topic was relevant to me, I logged on. At first, there were not a ton of responses, so, I decided to make a post that was relatively benign. Then, I began to get notices of responses to my post, questions from other teachers, ideas from other teachers, challenges from other teachers and suggestions of resources from other teachers.

I began to read other posts and respond to them. I was hooked! I had discovered a forum where a group of interested, articulate teaching professionals were engaged in a collaborative, collegial, constructive, critical conversation on my own schedule!

Although I was intrigued, I did not recognize at the time how valuable that experience was and still is. I continue to be enriched by the experience. Too often, talk in education devolves to complaints about what is being forced upon us or why whatever “it” is really is not much different than whatever “it” was before.

Rediscovering My Voice

By participating in the Idea Exchange, I rediscovered my voice and reignited my passion and found a place to use both.

This certainly does not mean that we all agreed about everything or even that we all became lifelong friends or anything like that. What it does mean, though, is that participating in the Idea Exchange connected me to others who were willing to be interested and engaged in real life conversations that pushed my thinking, sparked my interest and helped me to work more effectively with my students and colleagues.

I hope you accept the invitation to participate in the VIVA New Jersey Charter Teachers Idea Exchange! The experience is more than worth it.


How to Successfully Implement Common Core

Source: AZ Charter Teachers’ Association

In a meeting with Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal and State Board President Jaime Molera, VIVA Teacher Leaders offered their advice for smoothing the transition to Common Core State Standards for all schools in Arizona.

Two hundred VIVA Teachers who teach in Arizona’s charter schools, where they already are implementing the new, higher Common Core State Standards in their classrooms, participated in the first phase of the VIVA Arizona Charter Teachers Idea Exchange, from April 16-May 13, 2012. They shared 50 ideas for ways to ensure the transition to Common Core. Then, seven of those teachers distilled the ideas into the 36 recommendations they delivered to Huppenthal and Molera on June 13, 2012.

Read an executive summary of the report, or download the full 32-page report, “Arizona Charter Teachers’ Guide to Common Core Implementation: Advice from the Classroom,” here.

Read the press release here.


Glimmers of Hope for Teachers

By Jesse Bacon
Social Media Consultant to VIVA

Karaoke night at Netroots Nation, the nation’s largest gathering of online activists. This crowd knows how to get down, sometimes drowning out the singer! Elana from Brooklyn, her bright orange hear shining like the sun, sings “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder. When she gets to “Teachers..keep on teaching” she gets the largest cheer of the night!

Netroots Nation was not a teachers convention. Education occupied maybe the second tier of panels, the subject of four panels, a caucus and a movie. There was some division about what to do about it among the attendees, and a general despair at tackling such a difficult issue in the wake of Wisconsin. But, more importantly, love of teachers came out in the most spontaneous and beautiful moments.

It’s out there…plenty of evidence that tide of anti-teacher sentiment may be turning.

Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood was walking the floor of the exhibition hall at Netroots Nation 2012. She was one the most popular figures at the 2700 person progressive conference because of her  status as a right-wing bete noire. She cut a striking figure, as she passed a teachers’ union booth, she said “It’s nice to see someone standing up teachers!” She was one of the many who took a photo to thank their favorite teacher.

Van Jones, former Obama advisor and dreamer-in-chief at Rebuild the Dream, was delivering the keynote speech of the conference about the conference’s central dilemma of how to simultaneously disagree with Obama on some issues and ensure his reelection. He used the word quandary, then said off-handedly “Thank you public school education. Thank you teachers.”

So from all of us at VIVA Teachers, whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you teach in a public school or some other kind, we want to echo those leaders: Thank you. You are not alone.”

What do you think, teachers? Is the tide turning?

VIVA Chicago Teachers Project Launches

The high volume “debate” over extending the school day for Chicago Public Schools students has left Chicago taxpayers, parents and many teachers wondering what we’re actually fighting about. A longer school day? A better school day? Whatever you call it, we want to know how exactly it will help Chicago’s 400,000+ public school students.

There is a better way to ensure that decisions made in the offices of government leaders, legislatures, and boardrooms ultimately play out in the best interests of students: Ask the classroom teachers.

Legislation has ruled that Chicago Public Schools will lengthen the day by 90 minutes beginning next fall. There are legitimate questions about that which will be settled at the bargaining table. But there also are big questions about how to use that additional time to improve student learning. That’s why we are launching The VIVA Chicago Teachers Project.

The VIVA (Voices Ideas Vision Action) Project is a new way to connect big systems to the experts who work in them.  Using cutting edge technology, we conduct online collaborations that give any teacher a chance to share ideas with each other and create solutions together that will improve the chances that the policies made at the highest levels actually work  inside classrooms.

Too often in the heated debate over education reform, whether at the state, national or local level, we forget who the real experts are.

The teachers who spend their days teaching, cajoling, entertaining, nurturing and engaging students in the classroom and then spend more hours of their day consulting with colleagues, planning tomorrow’s lessons, grading papers, keeping parents up to date, and looking for great resources to hone their own skills are the people who know best what students need to excel.

We spend so much time deriding the “bad” teachers that we forget most teachers are good. They want to be treated like the professionals they are. They want to be consulted before policy is written. They want someone to listen when they talk about how that policy plays out in their classrooms and affects their students.

Too often the conflicts over contracts get all the press while teachers in classrooms across the city are focused on figuring out how to reach the kid who still hasn’t learned to read or the one who has trouble sitting at a desk or the one who falls asleep 10 minutes after school starts.

There are studies and professors and administrators and consultants who have ideas about the best way to use time in class to ensure students learn. We want to know what the real experts—CPS classroom teachers—believe will help their students learn.  It’s time we bring those two perspectives together.

The VIVA Chicago Teachers Project, which launches Oct. 13, will give all Chicago Public School teachers a chance to do what they so rarely get to do: exchange ideas with one another and take a step back from their daily work to connect the dots to education policy.  With a little time, and their own professional space, we know that they will share their ideas for making school work for their students and their peers. They will issue a summary of their best ideas in the coming weeks.

After all the debate, isn’t time we all listened more closely to what teachers are saying?