On the Greatest Virtue

Juliet Macur, the author of this recent NYT article, in an unrelated interview was asked, “What is your favorite virtue?” “Kindness,” she answered, and then added:

“My earliest memory of it is my mother taking the train to Manhattan from our house in New Jersey, toting three freshly baked loaves of bread. She would leave each loaf next to a homeless person sleeping on the floor of Penn Station.”

I sent an email to a student of mine this week to see if there was anything I could do to support her in the last stages of her teaching certificate work. From Central America, a wife and mother, Rosa is struggling to complete the high-stakes performance assessment she has to pass.

She wrote back:

“I think the only reason I will end the program is thanks to you all. Every time I was about to break there was one of you to hug me, encourage me, smile at me. Remember when you stopped to talked with Rebeca, Drew and I one day? You called us “three of my favorite teachers.” You have no idea how much that meant to me. Now every time I feel like dropping out, I get my journal and read. Stop Rosa you are already a teacher and not only that, you are one of Ron’s favorites so get it together and finish! You haven’t come so far to come just this far!”

I barely remember that interaction. My words that afternoon were a spontaneous, simple, seemingly forgetful greeting that I never would have guessed any of them would’ve remembered very long at all.

As teachers, parents, and coaches, we forget that our words, whether we think before speaking or not, whether kind or not, have lasting impacts.

In the New Testament, James (Chapter 3, verse 5), encourages his readers to “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”

Think first, convey kindness, and most everything else will fall into place.

Can You Will Yourself to be More Humble?

Friday I found myself in a day long diversity training workshop. The first of six days spread throughout the academic year.

It was a good experience only in the sense it made me much more empathetic towards teachers who routinely complain about ill-conceived professional development.

Organized in small groups of four, we were repeatedly given two minutes to discuss complex questions and topics that required paragraph-long responses. But since there was only time for a sentence or two, I mentally checked-out. On top of that, the facilitators didn’t provide an overview for the day which proved frustrating.

We did lots of activities, but too often the purposes of each weren’t clear enough. Even more confounding was the fact that the sum of the activities did not equal more than the individual parts.

The whole experience was repeatedly described as a “training”. “Training” works well when talking about labradoodles learning to stop at street corners, but when it comes to human beings and human diversity, it masks the subject’s inherent complexity. In frustration I wrote to myself, “I don’t want to be trained. I would like to be more aware, more understanding, more caring when it comes to colleague’s and students’ whose life experiences are markedly different than my own.”

My biggest problem was thinking I knew more about the subject than the facilitators because I’ve been teaching in culturally diverse settings for most of three decades, I’ve read extensively on multiculturalism, taught multicultural education courses several times, and published essays on the challenges and rewards of multiculturalism.

Of course I have a lot more to learn, but the facilitator’s assumptions about how adults learn made it nearly impossible for me to benefit from their efforts. In short, they seemed to think adults learn through small group activity after small group activity.

I would have liked to have learned more about diversity and equity through extended, open, and honest conversation with people different than myself. As in a graduate seminar. I don’t know whether my fellow participants felt similarly. Or whether you would have. Maybe I’m an outlier, in which case, never mind.

On The Challenges of Groupwork

I doubt anyone is terribly interested in what goes on behind the scenes at my workplace. I share this abbreviated story in the hope that you’ll apply it to your own life. The basic question is this: how does a medium or large sized group of people—a school faculty, a church council, a local government, a non-profit organization, any work team really—reinvent their work?

My colleagues and I are redesigning our university’s undergraduate teacher education program again. Instead of annual incremental tweaks to individual courses, we wait until dissatisfaction builds to a breaking point. Then, instead of identifying and building upon existing strengths, we commit to a complete overhaul. We repeat the process every five to seven years.

The problem is whole scale curriculum redesign is very difficult to pull off. I’ve lived through multiple attempts at two institutions. This time, despite different people in leadership, we’re following a nearly identical path as all our previous efforts. In our last meeting I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

We never improve the process because no one makes the time to carefully consider alternatives. That’s the point of this exercise in self-efficacy.

The basic challenge is to improve the preparation of our teacher candidates by: 1) eliminating curricular redundancies; 2) filling in curricular gaps; 3) reversing “credit creep” by reducing the total number of semester hours needed to complete the program; and 4) updating the curriculum to address changes in K-12 education, changes like the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Things always start positively with creative and invigorating whole group discussion about “essential elements” or “themes” that everyone wants included in the new and improved program. Then we add in additional content determined by professional standards and (jargon alert) a new high stakes performance based student teacher assessment (otherwise known as a student teaching test). Next, advocates for specific curricular interests—technology integration, special education, reading instruction, etc.—remind everyone of just how important all of that content is. Then we try to pinpoint what will be taught when. That’s when enthusiasm wanes and things inevitably bog down.

We struggle at this work for many reasons. Two in particular. First, we’re much, much better at adding content than we are removing it. And second, it’s nearly impossible to do the careful type of deep thinking, tentative and creative sketching, and initial draft writing that program redesign requires in large group meetings.

We would make more progress in less time if we did three things:

• First, take whatever time is necessary to reach a consensus that it’s impossible to include everything our candidates might need to succeed in their first few years of teaching. Come up with a written statement to that effect and communicate it to the students at different points throughout the program. Our inability to embrace our limits is like a misaligned brake rubbing against a bicycle rim, no matter how hard we pedal, we tire before making ample forward progress.

• Second, delegate the drafting of a new program outline to one or a few people. This means trusting they have the students’ and all of the faculty’s best interests at heart. Ask that person or those people to talk with individual faculty members about what they like most about the existing program and what they’re most intent on changing. Count their curriculum redesign work both as service to the department and as scholarship of teaching.

• Third, use large group meetings primarily to receive suggestions on how to improve the most recent program outline draft, and in the end, to reach consensus on a final draft.

Teaching Teamwork

In May, 2011, Atul Gawande gave an insightful commencement address to Harvard’s Medical School graduates.

He reminded the graduates that the practice of medicine had changed markedly, and that increasingly, the best docs are members of teams.

Gawande pointed out that, “The doctors of former generations lament what medicine has become.”

I’m having my graduate-level teacher certification students read the address. On the copy I’m providing them, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “medicine” and written in “teachers” and “education”.

Here’s Gawande’s primary point:

The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. We could set the fracture, spin the blood, plate the cultures, administer the antiserum. The nature of the knowledge lent itself to prizing autonomy, independence, and self-sufficiency among our highest values, and to designing medicine accordingly. But you can’t hold all the information in your head any longer, and you can’t master all the skills. No one person can work up a patient’s back pain, run the immunoassay, do the physical therapy, protocol the MRI, and direct the treatment of the unexpected cancer found growing in the spine. I don’t even know what it means to “protocol” the MRI.

Today, isn’t it a workplace truism for nearly everyone that “. . . you can’t hold all the information in your head. . . and you can’t master all the skills”?

Gawande adds:

The public’s experience is that we have amazing clinicians and technologies but little consistent sense that they come together to provide an actual system of care, from start to finish, for people. We train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews people need.

On my students’ copies, I’ve lined out “doctors” and “people” and substituted “teachers” and “students”.

Gawande acknowledges that medical education fails to teach docs to function like pit crews for patients. The same is true for teacher education.

Too often nursing, medical school, and teacher education faculty wrongly assume that novice nurses, docs, and teachers will naturally, through osmosis, form knowledgeable, skilled, interdependent work teams. Absent intentional team-building curricula, in which case studies would be an integral component, professional apprentices depend upon the modeling of their veteran colleagues, often out-of-step ones pining for old school independence and autonomy.

When in comes to intentionally teaching teamwork, what can and should professional preparation programs do to shift the balance from cowboys to pitcrews? More generally, what can employers do to teach teamwork?

They shouldn’t assume it’s something someone is either born with or not. Effective teamwork can be taught through case studies that illuminate what the best teams do and what commonly trips up most others. And by proactively providing pre-professional students positive examples of excellent teams during their fieldwork.

The Limits of Obama’s Liberalism

Post Inaugural Address, Slate Magazine trumpeted, “A Liberal Love Letter”. The tease read, “Obama’s partisan speech was a pledge to gays, women, immigrants, and the working class.

So forget all that January 2009 naivete about bipartisanship. The plan is to put the activist government pedal to the metal for the next 16-18 months.

Except when it comes to teachers and education. Obama’s education policy is nearly indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s whose reform proposals were nearly indistinguishable from Bill Clinton’s, whose policies were nearly indistinguishable from George Bush Sr’s. Pre-Senior, the education policy pendulum swang about every ten years between traditional schooling practices and progressive reforms. About twenty years ago the pendulum got seriously stuck. Wedged in wet cement that then dried when Bill Clinton adopted Senior’s narrow, uninspiring, national education goals.

Granted, President Obama jammed a lot into his inaugural address and inaugural addresses are more about vision and guiding principles than specific policies. Given that, here’s what President Obama should do before (#1) and during (#s 2-5) his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, February 12th, to extend his “liberal love letter” to education.

1). Thank Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his service and appoint someone with real life K-12 teaching experience. A woman with credibility. Someone less inclined to use international test scores to criticize teachers. Someone less likely to mindlessly preach the math/science “economic engine” gospel.

2) Repeat this weekly. “We must learn to think about students as future citizens first, not consumers or employees.” And also, “We’ve erred in thinking about schools like businesses and only emphasizing math and science education. For the sake of our democracy, we must pay much more attention to the arts, the humanities, and social studies education.”

3) Empower teacher leaders—not Governors or other politicians, business people, or education bureaucrats—to design rigorous teacher evaluation systems. Acknowledge that the curriculum grew frighteningly narrow over the last twenty years in part because education bureaucrats have insisted on tying together students’ standardized test scores, teachers’ evaluations, and teachers’ compensation.

4) Acknowledge that appeals to economic competitiveness and national greatness don’t inspire teacher or students. Stop asking teachers and students to work harder for the sake of the country. Remind everyone that academic achievement results when students have inspiring teachers; positive peer pressure; and most importantly, caring adults in their lives who combine high expectations with tireless support and encouragement.

And since I’m in “pie in the sky” territory. . .

5.) Start a “MaD” program or “Mothball a Drone” and use the Defense Department savings to A) fund scholarships for especially capable, culturally diverse, college students pursuing teaching certificates and B) to boost teacher compensation more generally.

imgres

I hereby swear to continue the education policies of George W. Bush (whereever he might be).

The Teaching Profession Desperately Needs Some Linsanity

ESPN’s Elizabeth Merrill waxes philosophic about Jeremy Lin of New York Knick NBA basketball fame. Her angle? Lin is inspiring legions of young Asian American ballers to rethink what’s possible.

In some classes I teach, I use an activity I created titled “The Making of a Multicultural School.” In the activity students assume the role of teacher leaders who advise me, the principal, on the most important changes to make in order to manage conflict and strengthen teaching and learning at an increasingly diverse, hypothetical high school. First the “teacher leaders” individually rank seven specific challenges nearly all culturally diverse schools struggle with and then in small groups, they share their rankings and work together to establish common priorities. I wrote the challenges by working backwards from a list of multicultural education “best practices” as described in one of James Banks’ many books on multicultural education. Our discussion is always around their rationale for their priorities.

One of the seven challenges, recruiting and retaining a culturally diverse faculty, almost always gets rated as the seventh most important challenge. Meaning in my mostly white, mostly middle class students’ minds, it’s the least pressing issue. This happens over and over. The usual reasoning, a teachers’ attitudes are all that matter.

My students, tomorrow’s teachers, are unable to imagine what it would be like to be a student of color and hardly ever see anyone that looks like them standing in front of the class, a graduate of college, with a professional license, assuming a role of serious responsibility. Janitors, bus drivers, and office staff, sure; teachers and administrators, very rarely. Year. After year. After year. What is the cumulative effect on what young people of color think is possible?

The bad news is far too few Jeremy Lins and Latino and African-American candidates are pursuing teaching credentials today. Meanwhile, the country’s K-12 student body grows increasingly more diverse every year. So the “looks like me” gap steadily widens. To make matters worse, fewer students of color can afford four or five years of higher education even with targeted scholarships and financial aid. Plus the Supreme Court is revisiting decisions that colleges have relied upon to admit moderately diverse classes and states keep ratcheting up teaching licensure requirements and fees.

Many newer state requirements, like content exams in Washington State, are proving nearly insurmountable to too many of the handful of candidates of color who persevere to the final stages of the constantly changing, ever more challenging, teacher certificate journey. These realities don’t bode well for schools hiring and retaining many Asian-American, Latino, or African-American teachers. It also makes it more difficult to successfully implement a multicultural education that inspires all students and provides them with equal educational opportunities. This is doubly true when too many teachers expect less from students of color as illustrated by this highly recommended personal story by Ed Taylor.

There are 3.2 million teachers in the U.S. As many as half are expected to retire in the next decade. Figuring out how to make sure more of those 1m+ are strong Asian-American, Latino, or African-American men and women is among the most important public policy issues of our time. Instead of focusing intently on that, opinion leaders and policy makers are choosing to tighten the screws on today’s experienced classroom teachers. They’ve convinced themselves there’s a panacea for what ails public education—making teachers more accountable for student learning by tying together their students’ test scores, their evaluations, and their compensation.

All of this does not bode well for an increasingly diverse country.