Education: Everyone’s An Expert

How many times have you had something go wrong with your car, something that you know needs attention? If you’re like me, it happens occasionally. And, if you’re even more like me you don’t attempt to fix it. There are people who are experts at fixing cars, in my case a Jeep, people who have a lot of experience and expertise fixing Jeeps. I always defer to the experts, because I know they know a lot more about it than I do.

I know there are some people who do not work in a garage who can fix much of what goes wrong with their cars. I have a level of respect for them, no desire to emulate them, however, and say “good for them.” Those people are the very rare exceptions.

Now I’ve driven a car since I could drive, and I’ve driven a Jeep specifically for the past 27 years or so. But, I don’t try to fool myself, or others, into thinking that I know everything there is to know about my Jeep. I especially don’t attempt to fix my Jeep when something’s amiss with it. I leave that to the experts. So why don’t people look at education the same way?

I’ve mentioned in previous posts an excellent book I read this past summer, Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan. The administrators in my district were tasked with reading this book for our summer professional development workshop. It’s made an impact on me and we’re using the book to change some of our practices at Shaker JHS, but how we’re doing that is a subject for other posts.

In this book Fullan and Hargreaves write:

“What is teaching? Most of us think we know. After all, we were taught by teachers…Teachers were a big part of our lives, and many made a big impression on us…These memories and feelings profoundly influence people’s views about teaching today and what they want from it…They affect how people vote and the reforms that politicians feel they have to pitch to them to stay in office…Memories of teaching, then, often become stereotypes of teaching that profoundly influence how people want to change teaching and teachers.”

My point exactly. It amazes me, and other educators, when non-educators think they know education, how to “fix” its flaws, how to “fix” teachers, how to improve student results, you name it. It is because John Q. Public spent time, a lot of time, in school that anyone and everyone has firmly held opinions on schools and on educators. And it irks me as well.

I wouldn’t think to tell my doctor how she should treat an ailment or an illness, other than a common one such as a cold, even when it’s my ailment or illness. I’ve never suggested to my dentist how he should attend to a cavity in one of my teeth. I don’t attempt to tell my garage mechanic how to fix my Jeep. I ask my financial planner how best to maximize the money in my 401k. I respect experts and their knowledge and, more importantly, their advice and expertise.

People, educational lay people, should do the same. Having gone through school, even a lot of school, is nowhere near the same as running a classroom, or managing a school, or being responsible for a district. Your neighbor, who has never taught anyone a day in her/his life, thinks they know how classrooms should be run. The local store owner believes she knows how to improve student test results. The parent of a current student who sells insurance thinks he knows how we should discipline kids for misbehaviors. Executives of non-profits have clear ideas of how my district, a one hundred million dollar business, should be managed. And the list goes on.

Do you think these same people ever wonder why their opinions aren’t solicited by the Center for Disease Control regarding specific illnesses? Do you think they’re upset that the CDC is informed by doctors? Yet whenever an educational issue arises, and educators express opinions, the response is always “Well, of course you think that, you’re an educator, you’re not objective.”

We are educators, and we are objective about specific and general education issues, and our objectivity is based on our experience and developed expertise. Does anyone really think that any educator doesn’t want his/her kids to be successful? Don’t people realize that if there was a magic bullet that would insure any student’s success it would be used? Politicians really don’t believe we have students’ best interests at heart and that we have excellent insight on how to approach providing for these best interests? Give me a break. Trust those teachers who you respected and maybe even admired during your schooling…they’re still here, in classrooms just like the ones you were in as a kid.

And that’s my perspective.



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GSA: The Need Persists, As Expected

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) recently conducted their biennial National School Climate Survey. This survey was introduced in 1999 and it serves as a reminder, to some it’s a wake-up call, that we all have segments of our populations that continue to be targeted.

Quoting from the GLSEN email:
The latest edition of GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey…includes four major findings:
-schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBT
-a hostile school climate affects students’ academic success and mental health
-students with LGBT-related resources and supports report better
school experience and academic success
-school climate for LGBT students has improved somewhat over the years, but
remains quite hostile for many.

The report from GLSEN included some specific survey data regarding New York.
-Almost all LGB T students (90%) heard “gay” used in a negative way, and more
than eight in ten (83%) heard other homophobic remarks at school regularly
-The majority experienced verbal harassment: 70% based on their sexual
orientation and 53% based on the way they expressed their gender
-Students also reported high levels of other types of harassment at
school: 58% were sexually harassed while 51% experienced “cyberbullying.”
-Only 30% were taught positive representations of LGBT people, history and
events, and nearly half (49%) could not access information about LGBT
communities on school Internet.

It’s disappointing to read, and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I keep hoping that we’re making inroads. Perhaps we are, but it doesn’t bear out in the survey.

Our GSA is up and running and, like our inaugural year last year, we’re encouraged by the support we have for it from students and adults. This week is Transgender Awareness Week and we will have a representative of the transgender community present at our scheduled meeting to talk to our kids. Our objective hasn’t changed: provide a supportive environment for students who are dealing with LGBT issues and to educate our school wide population to develop a cadre of supporters for these students.

As written in the GLSEN email by Nicole Burjetka, a co-chair of GLSEN New York Capital Region, “There is no excuse for a hostile school climate. We all have a responsibility to ensure that our schools have the necessary resources, supports and training to create a safe and affirming environment for all students.”
I, and many of my colleagues at Shaker JHS, second the comment, and we understand the needed emphasis on ALL students. We have an obligation to each student who walks through our doors to provide a safe, supportive environment.

Recently I co-presented (with CJ Gannon, a GSA advisor) on the topic of forming and running a GSA at the NYS middle Schools Association annual conference. We were disappointed: four middle school teachers attended our presentation. Four! I know that every middle school has a need to support LGBT students, and I tend to think that these segments of their populations and not even being recognized, let alone supported. One of the attendees was very honest is saying he didn’t think his school or community would approve of creating a GSA, even given his perspective that a need existed.

It’s not surprising then that the survey results indicate what they do…there’s still a long way to go in a lot of communities, and schools. Let’s hope that more educators realize that steps need to be taken and more schools begin to provide for the support of ALL their students.

Here is a link to a great article, written by Don Gately, Principal of Jericho MS. He clearly expresses why Jericho MS has a GSA.

Middle school people out there would do well to take Gately’s comments to heart, to follow Shaker JH’s approach, to realize that every middle school has the same need. Stand up and provide for your kids!

And that’s my perspective.

Posted in Administrative Experiences, Bullying in Schools, Gay/Straight Alliances in Schools, School Climate | Leave a comment

Cuomo: Education As A Stepping Stone

Andrew Cuomo is no friend of public education. He’s not even a sometime acquaintance. Public education is Cuomo’s whipping boy, just an easily accessible target for him to take aim at as he builds a resume for national office.

Cuomo is a product of private education, and his daughters are also enrolled in private schools. He knows nothing about public school, has no experience either as a student or as a parent with public schools and, thus, has no attachment to them. As a complete outsider he has no personal knowledge of what public schools are like, instead his whole frame of reference is private biased. Yet he speaks as if he knows of which he talks. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

During his reelection campaign, Cuomo said his aim was to break up the “public education monopoly.” Huh? The bedrock of our society is public education, and he sees it as an entity that shouldn’t exist? He wishes to break it up? What does that even mean? Do away with it? Kind of do away with it? Push kids into private schools, like his daughters? Take money from public schools and give it to private schools? Wait, that could be.

Charter school development and funding has increased since Cuomo has become governor. It appears that’s what he would like to increase…charter schools. Charters aren’t the same as the expensive private schools his daughters attend, but that’s not his aim. Most charter schools don’t compare well to their area public schools, despite being able to cherry pick their students. Charter schools’ enrollments don’t mirror their public counterparts in demographics, especially when one considers students with disabilities. Yet they don’t outperform the publics. Yes, there are a few that do, but there are many more public schools that outperform the charters.

But again, Cuomo isn’t interested in providing the best education possible for students, he’s more concerned with resume building. It would look good on the national stage to say he’s pushed for greater options for students, that he’s taken on the powerful teachers unions and won, that he has gravitas when it comes to education. That would play well in Peoria.

Let’s be real and let’s not be fooled by his bait and switch. He says he wants to “improve” public education by implementing a meaningful evaluation system for teachers and by taking money away from public schools. Neither makes sense regarding improving education. The former would have no impact: it is based on the inaccurate belief that teachers aren’t effective, when the vast majority are. The second would just serve to further deteriorate already inadequate funding. Cuomo has yet to attempt to address the money that was taken from all schools by his predecessor, Patterson. School budgets were gutted by that mid-year take-away and Cuomo hasn’t yet felt it necessary to correct the intentional mistake.
See the emperor without his clothes…don’t be fooled by what he says, observe what he does. He’s a man who has his sights not on the education of New York children, but instead on himself. He is just attempting to use education to further his own personal agenda. What’s been particularly galling is that he says he’s attacking education for our children…

And that’s my perspective.

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Do You Like Your Job?

I like my work. Just like any job, however, I make that statement looking at the totality of what constitutes my job. There are parts of it that I don’t like, which I am sure is true of any position, but I make the statement “all things considered.” And, like every endeavor, my job is different today than it was 10, 15 or even 20 years ago. Many facets of my job are better today than when I first began because of the work I put in way back then to establish parameters. It wasn’t fun at the time, for sure, but it paid off down the road.

I just finished a very interesting book, one that many of you have probably read as well. It was The Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you give it a try. Anyway, in the book the author writes,

“…autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward – are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It’s whether our work fulfills us. If I offered you a choice between being an architect for $75,000 a year and working in a tollbooth every day for the rest of your life for $100,000 a year, which would you take? I’m guessing the former, because there is complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work, and that’s worth more to most of us than money. Work that fulfills these three criteria is meaningful. Being a teacher is meaningful.”

I don’t think what Gladwell wrote is surprising at all, I agree with it. And I think most people would also agree. The bigger question to me is whether you would prefer to work out of a tollbooth and make $100,000 a year or keep your current job? Now that’s a comparison that perhaps merits thought.

Comparing being an architect or a tollbooth operator is hypothetical to most of us, (unless you’re an architect or tollbooth operator!) but looking at your satisfaction with a current job, which could be part of a career path, compared to some other hypothetical position makes you think. It may not be that easy, or that clear, when you talk “what-ifs.”

All of us go through times in our careers when we wish we were doing something else. I think it’s the rare person indeed who does not have such times in their career. My thinking is that very few people actually change jobs, or careers, however, when dissatisfaction with their current job arises. And I believe this is the norm even with people who do not find “complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward” in their current position. It’s too hard to change jobs let alone careers. Let’s call it inertia.

I’ve written about this inertia before, as I’ve mentioned people, who, if just beginning a career and had to choose, I’m pretty sure would not pursue education. They do not find education rewarding or challenging in a way that engages them, or autonomous enough, or some other reason(s) from a long list of possibilities. But, unfortunately, these people stay, shortchanging themselves, the people they work with, and the kids they are supposed to be serving. And they would not take the $100,000 tollbooth operator position if offered. Therein lies the issue.

They aren’t interested in changing jobs, that would require too much work and they know they wouldn’t be satisfied in another job. What the job is doesn’t matter. The job portion is just one part of their overall existence and they look at it and react to it the same way they do any other facet. These are also the people who think it’s up to others to make them feel good, to validate what they’re doing, to provide positive feedback, to appreciate them. Their morale, good or bad, is, in their minds, due to what someone else has done or has not done, not their own actions, or lack thereof.

If you’re not careful, these peoples’ views of their work can affect you. They don’t enjoy the connection between their work and a sense of accomplishment like most of us do. Too bad for them.

And that is my perspective.

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Who Wants To Teach?

I clearly remember some very good teachers I had growing up in Lisbon during my K-12 education. You’re probably like me in this regard; you had some great teachers whose classes you enjoyed almost daily. Also like me, you can probably remember a couple who you did not like, whose classes you did not enjoy attending, who when you think of them today you say to yourself “how did he ever become a teacher? It’s interesting, I remember both types of teachers quite well. Time hasn’t dulled my memories of them. I had many more good teachers than ones I didn’t care for, and I can honestly say the number who I considered to be less that good was minimal (I would say three in my experience).

I’ve spent my adult life in the world of education and during that long period of time I have met and interacted with countless teachers and administrators. I can confidently say that, based on my professional experiences, I have only met a small number of teachers who I believe should leave the profession. (As a percentage of the total population, however, I can say that I have met more administrators who should not be in their positions than I have teachers! That’s a good subject for another post.) Anyway, these people are not good for schools. They don’t hurt kids, but they don’t help them either. And they serve as bad representatives for the rest of educators. I’ve written about these educators in other posts…you’ll read about their characteristics here and there in my writings.

How do they come to be teachers? Some of their characteristics are obvious to anyone, characteristics that often provide the clear message “this person should not teach.” Yet it happens that some of these poor choices for teachers find jobs and end up as colleagues of good educators.

The problem lies with our teacher preparation programs. It doesn’t matter which teacher prep program you consider, public or private, they all have the same built-in problem…you don’t get a glimpse of the finished product until the preparation process is pretty much finished. As with any course of study at the college level, the preparation starts early in the college career. In general, students pursuing education often start taking introductory education classes, beginning the prep work, in their freshman year, although it may begin during the sophomore year. These students complete a sequence of classes over a three or four year period of time, with the increasingly focused coursework prepping them for the ultimate college teacher prep experience of student teaching.

Student teaching is always completed during the senior year, when done during the undergraduate years. (Teacher prep can also be completed as a graduate program. When this option is pursued, the same issue I am identifying occurs; student teaching is the last facet of the preparation.) So, colleges have students who have spent three of four years prepping for teaching, and you don’t get to see them actually teach in any meaningful way until this culminating experience. It’s during this final “rehearsal” that the true nature and characteristics of the future teacher can be observed. And it is after all of this preparation that the real teachers who serve as supervisors for these practice teachers, and their administrators, get to determine the “fit” that these candidates have for our profession.

As I wrote previously, in my experience this is a very small number of teachers, but they exist nonetheless. They’re there because of the lack of will on the part of colleges, and supervising teachers, to weed them out. A college is not going to say to a senior, someone ready to graduate, who has spent three or four years prepping for a career in education that he/she is not going to be recommended for certification and that he/she should look for another profession. That’s just not going to happen. It could, but there’s no will there to do it. A college has nothing to gain by doing so, and a whole lot to lose. It doesn’t matter to them that a person unfit for teaching is leaving their institution with their recommendation for employment. That’s a minor issue compared to losing students due to the word being out that the college doesn’t support its graduates. Hey, if nine out of ten of their education graduates are good for education, then they’re doing all right.

Similarly, a real teacher who serves as a supervisor for a poor student teacher is not going to stick his/her neck out, especially if the college is supporting this student. No one teacher wants to be the sole reason that a soon-to-be graduate is not employable in the field he/she spent four years prepping for. They end up writing lukewarm letters of recommendation and telling their principals to be sure to not hire this person.

So, I’m going to think that my high school social studies teacher was one of those. I’m going to tell myself that his college and his supervising teacher knew he shouldn’t go into teaching, but neither was going to pull the plug. He was the one in ten…hmm, doesn’t change the teaching I received…

And that’s my perspective.

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Courage Is…

Courage is being who you are every day, not who the world tells you to be….

This is the message on a poster that we have hanging in the junior high. It was put up by our Gay/Straight Alliance as an advertisement for their first meeting of the school year, held a couple of weeks ago. And it’s a great message.

Notice that it’s not specifically about the GSA. That was done intentionally, not to hide the ownership of the poster or to shield the GSA from public view, far from it! Instead, the message was intended to promote the idea that all students (and adults!) need to figure out who they are and then live that life. And doing so is often not an easy task. This is especially true at the middle level, where the world so clearly identifies for young adolescents who they should be.

Both adolescent boys and girls are bombarded with messages about what “men” and “women” should look and act like. They are given clear messages about the clothes to wear, the body types to maintain, the accessories to purchase, the way to act, in short, they are given an advertiser’s model and told this is who/what you should emulate. Helping middle age youngsters to realize, to truly internalize, that these “ideals” are not ideal at all is a very difficult and unending task. Adolescents are so impressionable, and it is work indeed to alter firmly set impressions.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publishing of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Lives of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher, Ph.D. If you have girls, you should read the book. Even if you don’t have girls, the book is worth reading. As written on the back cover of the book:

“As a therapist, Mary Pipher was becoming frustrated with the growing problems among adolescent girls…Why had these lovely and promising human beings fallen prey to depression, eating disorders, suicide attempts, and crushingly low self-esteem?…Crashing and burning in a ‘developmental Bermuda Triangle,’ they were coming of age in a media-saturated culture preoccupied with unrealistic ideals of beauty and images of dehumanized sex, a culture rife with addictions and sexually transmitted diseases. They were losing their resiliency and optimism in a ‘girl-poisoning’ culture that propagated values at odds with those necessary to survive.”

A short six years later, Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., and Michael Thompson, Ph.D., released a book addressing the other side of the coin. Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys does for understanding what the male adolescent is faced with as Reviving Ophelia does for girls.   As excerpted from the back cover of this book:

“They illuminate the forces that threaten our boys, teaching them to believe that ‘cool’ equals macho strength and stoicism…the authors shed light on… the emotional miseducation of boys. Kindlon and Thompson make a compelling case the emotional literacy is the most valuable gift we can offer our sons, urging parents to recognize the price boys pay when we hold them to an impossible standard of manhood. They identify the social and emotional challenges that boys encounter in school…”

You owe it to your young sons and daughters to understand what they face, usually on a daily basis. It is also quite instructional to learn to identify the messages that girls and boys receive and help your children counter that miseducation.

One of the assists that kids need can come from allies. We just celebrated Ally Week last week at Shaker Junior High School, an attempt on our part to educate students to the need to be an ally when situations arise and for kids who need those allies to be able to recognize some friendly faces. Kids took selfies, each student holding a card giving their name and showing their pledge to be an ally for anyone needing one. We hope this week of emphasis will bear fruit. We have a lot of great kids here, many who regularly step up when needed. But, like society, we can always use some more.

We want kids to figure out who they are, and we realize that they may not achieve that realization by the time they leave our school. But we’re working at it…we work to provide a safe environment for all of our students, regardless of color, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, you name it. We have a responsibility to do so for each kid who walks through our doors. And we know the adults cannot do it alone…we need kids to play a role with their peers, so we work to guide them into that role. We aim for understanding, tolerance, acceptance, and empathy, all accompanied by supportive action when needed. We’ll see.

And that’s my perspective.


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Learning To Be A Principal: Lesson #6

I’ve written several times already about the environment I walked into at Shaker Junior High School 26 years ago. In short, the faculty was dominated by a small group of very experienced teachers who had pretty much done their own thing for several years. They were comfortable doing what they were doing and certainly weren’t too interested in a younger principal working to change how things were done. I’ve detailed several specific experiences I had with these “reluctant learners” and, even given a fair level of openness in their attempts to make me uncomfortable, which they were at times successful at, I learned quite a bit from them. My backbone got a little stiffer, my skin got a tad thicker, I learned how to make progress even while difficult staff members were working just as hard to undermine that progress. I also began learning who I wanted to be as a principal.

Yet another attempt at intimidation, or at least creating discomfort, involved liaison meetings. Each school has two or three teachers designated as liaisons, members of the teachers association who work with the building administrators to address concerns that arise as identified by varied association members. The idea of the liaison meetings was to work to resolve identified issues or concerns outside of making it a contract issue, and, thus, we could avoid the filing of formal grievances. Early on, these meetings served as a vehicle for this cadre of older teachers to, in my view, hassle me. They would want to meet right after students left, usually on a monthly basis, but would ask to schedule meetings more often as they deemed necessary. And the topics that were of a “concern” were nothing that, in my mind, rose to that level. They were little things, often issues that had minimal, if any, connection to the teachers’ contract. Many were not even issues, just items to fill an agenda. The meetings were intended, clearly, to bother me.

So I didn’t want to just flat out say we weren’t going to discuss an item, I didn’t think that was the right message at all. Even resolving some of these minor concerns helped someone do their job a little easier. And I didn’t want to come across as someone who wouldn’t discuss items put forward as concerns. I knew that some of the topics were manufactured solely for a liaison meeting, but I couldn’t be sure which ones. I still wanted to help colleagues if possible. But I had to come up with something to reverse the tables.

As I always did in my early years when I was finding my way, I had a conversation about the liaison meetings and my perceptions of them with Pete McManus, the Assistant Superintendent. And, also as always, he gave me great advice, specifically two actions to take to switch the liaison climate.

First, he said to stop thinking that liaison meetings were solely for teachers to share their concerns. Instead, I should start looking at them as opportunities to share my thoughts and concerns, to use them as a forum to discuss different programs that we needed to consider, to discuss building practices that needed to be changed, to put on the agenda as many items as the teachers did. Fair enough, and good advice, as the concern sharing should swing both ways. But the second suggested action was the key.

He said to schedule the meetings after the teachers’ contractual day had ended, and to put some time between the end of the contract day and the meetings. His perspective was that if the teachers’ concerns were truly concerns, the teachers would be interested in discussing them at any time. If they weren’t that important, they would not want to remain well after their day had ended to discuss my items.

He, again, proved to be all-knowing. There was initial griping about the time scheduled for the liaison meetings, but setting the time was my prerogative. It was clear after the first couple of late-scheduled meetings that the liaison members’ hearts were just not in it. The agenda items were not that important anymore. Maybe we could discuss some items if and when they arose during the day, they asked? I said maybe, but we may need to schedule a late meeting again if too much arose. The quality of my professional life improved significantly, and I had sent a clear message to these teachers. If they had legitimate issues to discuss, I was more than willing to do so. But, I was not going to waste my time with trivial topics manufactured to make my life difficult.

We don’t hold scheduled liaison meetings anymore, mostly because the climate is so different today than it was a couple of decades ago. (It certainly helps that I’ve hired all but four of the current faculty members!) Instead I’ll have a conversation with a union rep as needed. And our way of doing business works. I ask to speak to the rep about a concern I have as often as he/she will ask to discuss a concern of theirs. We co-exist quite well. And the level of mutual respect is where it should be.

And that’s my perspective.


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