Leading, Gently

Today, on my way out of his office, I realized how much my vice-principal has taught me about how to lead:

  • Openness: he is always available.  If he’s out of his office, he returns phone calls or e-mails right away and works around my schedule to find a time to talk.  And once we are talking, I never feel a bit rushed or foolish for bringing up my concerns: he really listens and wants to help.
  • Trust: when I recently asked his advice about a situation with a student, he first responded, “What’s your feeling about this?” I told him, and he said, “That’s what I was thinking, too.” There are no words to describe the gift of a principal who trusts his teachers.  I know that he will defend me and my actions.
  • Joy: he has a wonderful sense of humor. I frequently leave his office laughing, with a healthy distance between myself and my problems.  His quick wit helps me realize how utterly unoriginal my situation is: others have endured this before me, and I too will endure it, with God’s help and his support.
  • Love: he helps remind me of why I am a teacher.  At the close of our conversation today (which centered around three separate incidents of parent communication) we both ruefully acknowledged that this was the season for such flare-ups.  People are overcome by the pressure and stress of the holiday season, and this causes them to get angry or hurt by situations that are really not so bad.  And then he took one more step: “We need to pray for peace,” he said.  “Peace for the whole world,” I remembered, as we pray at each Liturgy.  “Yes, for the whole world,” he said, “and for ourselves, too.”

Five Happy Thoughts

Boy, what a week.  It began with, literally, hundreds of essays to grade; having lost so many days from the beginning of the year, I had no choice but to push everything to the last day possible (and even asked for an extension so I could finish marking them over the weekend and still get a little sleep.)  A deep breath and then we launched right into the second quarter: new lesson plans, new texts, new questions.

I laid down the law about absences and trips out of the classroom, both of which students have more control over than they’d like to admit.  (One student asked me first thing if she could use the bathroom; I asked her to wait. Once I’d outlined the new policy limiting everyone to four trips per quarter, it turned out she didn’t have to go after all.)  Discussing these things is awfully tedious for everyone, but when they’re not addressed, loads of tiny interruptions add up to a vaguely chaotic feeling in the classroom, and ultimately it distracts everyone from our real goal: teaching and learning about English and life.

But there were so many bits of happiness sprinkled throughout all this drudgery.  Here are the highlights:

  • ONE father called to thank me for tutoring his daughter, who has several rather severe learning disabilities. We’d been studying techniques for test-taking on the SAT, and when her newest scores came in, the guidance counselors were simply shocked she had done so well.  She was accepted to her school of choice within a day, where she’ll be able to play field hockey (her sport of choice) and get an education with the supports she needs.  “I have two more kids,” he said at the end of the conversation, “so you’ll be hearing from me soon.”
  • TWO former students flew at me for hugs and gushing greetings.  “Mrs. LOWE!  How ARE you?  I haven’t seen you in so long!”  A third thanked me for all my help preparing her for the SAT; it was even more of a gift to see how much she’d matured in the intervening years, from an awkward and slightly-sullen teenager into a glowing, self-possessed young woman.
  • THREE students who were struggling took the time to complete an extra-credit assignment (seeing a play and comparing it with the written work we’d studied in class.)  They enjoyed the experience and their grades rose along with their confidence.  
  • FOUR pianists are progressing by leaps and bounds because they get to work together.  It’s amazing to see how much more they learn from each other than from me.
  • FIVE minutes after the bell rang, I dashed into class (my first tardiness of the year; I was blindsided by a schedule change and sabotaged by an uncooperative copier.)  When I entered the classroom, breathless and on edge, every student was sitting in her desk with her book open.  “Oh, hello, Mrs. Lowe,” one called out.  “We’ve just been discussing what we think of Hester Prynne.”

So, you see, it wasn’t all bad.  It rarely is.


Calm in the Midst of Chaos

The strangest thing happened last week.

It was a really awful day.  Rainy and cold.  The mulch shivered under inadequate tarp protection, icy puddles pooling on the surface, breaking and sliding down to the asphalt.  So much for our designs on a day in the garden.

At school, too, plans fell by the wayside.  My nefarious ambitions rivaled King George's; I concocted schemes for a Staple Tax, a Printer Tax and an Anonymity Tax as students scurried around with almost-finished assignments and valuable class time slipped away.  Not everyone got to present their projects.  Meanwhile, I struggled to defeat the worst feeling of all -- the feeling of Not Being Heard.  Colleagues and students alike seemed bent on talking over and cutting under my ideas.

I arrived home just in time to meet a student who was coming over for tutoring.  Still, I remained grumpy.  This was the icing rosebud atop the cupcake of my inconvenience.  The last thing I wanted to do after a day like that was teach.

But here's the strange thing.  Almost instantly, I felt the tension of the day slip off my back as I eased seamlessly into the role.  With one student, I could be patient, smile at her insecurities and encourage her strengths.  She didn't bring a pencil, but it was no problem -- honestly -- to walk into the kitchen and select a nice, sharp one, the same kelly green as her headband.  It seemed an easy, enjoyable job: making Geometry a little clearer to one person for one hour.  She left empowered and charged up, her target SAT score one step closer.  And I left with more peace and centeredness than I had found all day.  In the hubbub of red tape and record-keeping, it was a great relief to finally be able to focus on pure, simple instruction.

My dear friend Michiko's words came to mind then: "I am very close to my teaching.  What I mean is that I do it as easily as I breathe. I have come to realize that I am most relaxed when I am teaching . . . I have become it and it has become me."

It is.  I have.  I am grateful.

The Pentavirate

If you’re at all prone to conspiracy theory, avoid reading this interview with John Popham, an educator and former standardized-test writer, in which he gives some awfully sobering facts about standardized tests:
A nationally standardized achievement test is given in about an hour. In about an hour, you can't test all that much, so you have to sample from larger domains of knowledge and skills. And what you end up with sometimes does not match at all well with what's being taught in school or what's supposed to be taught in school. Some studies suggest that fully 75 percent of what is on a test is not even supposed to be covered in a particular school. Clearly, it's unfair to judge the quality of schooling based on a test that's largely covering things that ought not be taught.


If one compares the content of textbooks used in mathematics with standardized achievement tests in mathematics, you will frequently find that fully half of the content in the test is not addressed in those textbooks.

So the tests aren't assessing retention of the facts and concepts we teach in class?  What are they intended to do, then?
You want to have a very substantial spread of scores. And one of the best ways to do that is to have questions that are answered correctly by about 50 percent of the kids; 50 percent get it right, 50 percent get it wrong. You don't want items in there that are answered by large numbers of youngsters: 80 percent, 90 percent. Unfortunately, those items typically cover the content the teachers thought important enough to stress.

So the more significant the content, the more the teacher bangs at it, the better the kids do. And as soon as the kids do very well in that item, 80 percent, 90 percent getting it right, the item will be removed from the test. ... So you miss items covering the most important things that teachers teach. ...

The rest of the interview is just as troubling: he mentions, among other things, that the cheapest test-scoring option (multiple choice) is the most frequently used, even though more expensive options (written and performance-based responses) are far better at measuring the nuances of a student's knowledge. Overall, the piece does give an ominous feeling of behind-the-scenes collaboration, the kind designed to make educators and policy-writers look good at the expense of struggling students.

The only encouragement came from Popham's own opinions about how to write tests.  Here, the interviewer asked him how he would go about creating a fair assessment:
I'd go to a specialist and I'd say, "Isolate the things that you want children to be able to do and put them in three piles: the absolutely essential, the highly desirable and the desirable." And having done that, then I get those two piles away and just go with the absolutely essential. And then I would say, "Now rank them from top to bottom; the most important, the next most important," and so on.

And then I would have the assessment people come in and say, "These four can be assessed in the time we have available, and can be assessed in such a way that teachers will know how to promote children's mastery of them."

Advice worth taking for any teacher who writes a test.  I like that: separate the essential from the desirable, and figure out how to assess knowledge.  Sounds simple enough, but I'm guessing it will take a lifetime to even come close.

What's in a Grade?

Our final project for my grad school course this semester sounds an awful lot like a teacher invented it.  It's called Problem Based Learning.  Basically, the students have to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it, and then solve it.  The teacher hangs around and answers questions if they have them, but doesn't volunteer anything except for the premise.

As I said, it sounds like a dream come true for a teacher, and it sure is applicable to real life, but I don't think it would ever work for the demographic I teach.  In fact, considering how many questions I have after assigning half a page of homework, I could probably guarantee myself a migraine.

In spite of myself, however, I'm starting to enjoy the project.  The premise, which is loosely based around the professor's other teaching job, is that an inner-city school is struggling to make state-mandated standards.  They have decided to create a yearlong tutoring program for the approximately 25% of the student body that has failed the last achievement tests, and they've given us $200,000 to plan and execute it.  My job is to write the budget: snacks, transportation costs, teacher salaries, materials, etc.  I've talked them into using Music Mind Games as an enrichment activity and to improve reading, math and test scores (all of which are proven to happen, by the way!)

So during class last week, I suddenly realized why the activity was so enjoyable, and so unrealistic, all at once.  We were coming up with the best strategies, the coolest ideas, the most enthusiastic instructors, in order to help these struggling students gain their footing and succeed.  And the one conspicuously-absent factor was GRADES.

As you may have read recently, grades are more controversial than ever: should teachers grade effort, achievement or both?  Presentation, content or both?  Are tougher grading scales, like the one we use, better or worse than the standard 10-point scale, or do they cause grade inflation?  Should we let a student volunteer for extra credit if she wants to bring her grade up, or deny it on the basis of fairness?  What if the parent calls, irate and demanding?  How much do we care, really, about the grades we assign?

I love teaching, but I hate assigning grades.  It seems so counterproductive to the work we're trying to accomplish: the betterment of human hearts and minds.  How does a number on a piece of paper help with that?

Here With Us

Last week I met with our new assistant principal to discuss my performance after a classroom observation earlier in the week.  He's a monastic, one of the most joy-filled people I've ever conversed with, and I liked him immediately.  Our meeting had been postponed several times, however, and by the time it came around I was grumpy, hungry and eager to get home.

We sat down.  "Shall we pray?" he asked.  I felt a little like my aunt Connie, who famously grumbled at bedtime, "Do we HAFTA pray?!"  But of course I chirped, "Sure!"

He bowed his head, and I followed suit.  "Lord, You have told us that when two or three are gathered in Your name, You are there also."

Then he paused for a long beat.  I have always admired Catholics for being so comfortable in silence; in Orthodoxy, we panic if there's any downtime between the clergy and choir responses, but in the Catholic Mass, there are long stretches of silence, and that's okay.  In fact, it's lovely.

"So we know," he continued, "That You are here with us."

Suddenly, I felt a lump rise in my throat.  Here?  With us?  With me, in all my wretched self-involvement and preoccupation?  Why on earth, Lord, would you be here with US?

But, of course, He is.  And that changes everything.

Cutting Off our Noses

Show me a Roundtable Discussion and I'll show you a presenter who was too lazy to come up with a plan.

My most recent experience with this was during Towson University's High School Journalism Day.  I brought five young writers to a day of workshops and was pleased with the overall quality of the instruction.  In fact, it seemed like the only place they cut corners was with the faculty instruction, which was limited to said Roundtable.  The moderator started with a question, something like, "How has technology impacted your work with the school newspaper?"  Then, as is generally the case, one or two loudmouths monopolized the discussion while the rest of us just blinked at each other.

Sensing that this was going to be a painful hour otherwise, I suggested we each introduce ourselves and talk a little bit about our schools and the journalism programs there.  Out of about a dozen instructors, one or two others were from private schools.  I was half grieved and half relieved to see that many of our problems were universal: lack of funding, overabundance of micromanagement, difficulties in organization.

What shocked me, however, was the universality of a problem that's almost nonexistent where I teach: access to the Internet.  I would think that at a public school, students would have greater freedom to online resources, but in fact the opposite is true.  Most often, the ironclad firewalls are controlled by one or two people per county who work at another location, and getting websites un-blocked for educational use is close to impossible.  And it's not just access to web-based e-mail and blogs that's blocked.  Most schools can't get to news outlets like the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal; some can't even get to the Maryland State Department of Education site.  They don't even think about creating a student blog, as I did last year, or of using Wordle to graphically represent thoughts and ideas.  WebQuests (about which my feelings are mixed, though I do like the one I designed to help make Billy Budd more fun) are another no-go.

This all came rushing back when I read this article (it's really more of a rant, though I think it's right to lean in that direction) about blocked technology and the headaches it creates for instructors:
We can't assess whether students are learning Internet literacy or responsibility if we don't give them access to the pool to swim in. We also can't expect students to think of school as a part of real life if we continue to create such big differences between the two.

So what we do now is say, "I know you can't go watch that award-winning speech while we’re here at school, but when you get home, go on YouTube and watch it there." Is this teaching them how to make wise decisions or protecting them? No. Is this offering one more reason why school is not applicable to real life? Yes.

Ouch.  Thank God for the two smart and helpful technology coordinators at our school, who can unblock a site in a matter of minutes, and for the administrators who trust us to make responsible decisions about Internet usage in the classroom.

Still Waiting?

In case my glowing review of Waiting for Superman wasn't enough to drive you off the couch and into the theater, here's a good excuse to go: teachers can see the movie at a discounted price this week.

Okay, so it's only a three-dollar discount, and it's only for three days.  But you really should see it anyway.  And I might even go with you!  :)

A Different Side of Parent Conferences

"Okay, guys.  Let's get started.  How are ya?" my professor stood in front of the class, smiling brightly.

"NOT looking forward to parent conferences," said an outspoken classmate in a bright blue sweater.  "What is WITH these parents?  I have fifteen HOURS of meetings, most for students who are doing fine --"

"Fine, right?!" said another classmate in a burgundy tie and a Burt Reynolds mustache.  "Why do they need a conference when their kids aren't having any problems at -- "

"At ALL!  I mean, it's hard enough dealing with the ones who want to know why their kids are failing -- "

"Whoa, whoa, WHOA!" the poor teacher held her hands up in the same gesture many of us had found ourselves in when the screaming hordes threatened to sack and pillage our lesson plans for the day.  "How many of us are parents?"  Half the hands went up.  "Of kids who get A's and B's?"  Most stayed up.  "Well, look.  Once a year we should be able to show up at school to have someone tell us our kids are brilliant.  Okay?  End of discussion!"

Chastened, we began class . . .

You Heard it Here First!

No sooner did I call Michelle Rhee an anomaly amid an archaic, ailing school system, than she resigned her position as chancellor of DC schools.  (Mayor Adrian Fenty, who hired her, was voted out of office several weeks ago after aggressive campaigning by aggreived teachers' union, so it hadn't looked good for her even then.) 

I wish I were less cynical, but when I read about her racial "divisiveness" amid a city that is mostly black, I can only hope that this is a step forward and not what it looks like: a petty foray into the murky, racially-troubled past.  People, why can't we move past this?!

The Times staff, nevertheless, appears upbeat:
A Colorado state senator, Mike Johnston, who like Ms. Rhee is also a Teach for America alumnus, said her work had inspired hundreds of young people to work for education change.

“Maybe Michelle’s greatest contribution is that she is no longer an anomaly,” Mr. Johnston said.

Here's one instance in which I'd love to be wrong.