First Person

First Person: It doesn’t matter how ‘proficient’ a potential teacher is. Here’s what we look for instead

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

This post is adapted from Kenneth Baum and David Krulwich’s new book, The Artisan Teaching Model for Instructional Leadership: Working Together to Transform Your School, available from ASCD.

One of the most common laments we hear from school leaders is that that there are so few great teachers available to hire. We agree. That’s why we don’t try to find them.

In our experience looking for teachers to join us at the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the South Bronx, most proficient teachers at other schools have parlayed their skills into desirable teaching assignments and are already held in high regard by their colleagues and supervisors. This leaves little incentive to search for a similar new job, earning essentially the same salary, at a different school. From a school leader’s perspective, it is a losing proposition to try to find excellent teachers and convince them to leave the school where they have had success and somehow, without any significant additional money, lure them to a new school.

Given those hiring realities, a next logical attempt might be to try hire the best teachers one can find, even if these teachers are not yet great but merely, say, proficient. Or, put another way — assuming a continuum of teacher proficiency starting with new, moving to proficient, and eventually landing on great — many leaders assume that hiring proficient teachers is the best way to develop great teachers, because they are further along the continuum.

We reject that logic. We believe that current placement along the proficiency continuum is essentially not relevant to the potential to become great.

It’s not that we refuse to hire teachers who are already excellent (sometimes we do); it is that this event is such a rarity for a school serving our neighborhood that we cannot build a staffing plan around it.

While this approach offers more candidates, it also means we need to look at way more candidates to get the ones we want — and that we have developed an effective, efficient process to get to an eventual hire.

Our process has several steps, including an interview. That’s when successful candidates are able to describe in good detail one of their favorite academic classes that they have ever been a part of (as teacher or as a learner) and, without prompting, link their enjoyment to the way the teacher made the students think in new ways. They should talk more about poetry or the Pythagorean theorem than about data. In fact, they do not need to mention “Common Core,” “data,” or “no-excuses” policies at all.

But the most critical part of the hiring process — and the most time consuming — is when we ask candidates to perform a “demo lesson” and participate directly afterward in a debrief of that lesson. This is where we test for the key quality of reflectiveness and the ability to receive feedback in a team-based format and immediately translate that feedback into improvement. This, we have found, is the single biggest indicator of potential for growth.

From the school’s perspective, the teacher demonstration, then, is not a showcase in which to gauge proficiency. This can be quite counterintuitive, necessitating that hiring managers remain disciplined and not conflate the ideas of proficiency and potential.

We’ve found that in almost all demo lessons (especially with new teachers), there is a definite lack of student interest and higher-order thinking, something that, as we mentioned earlier, we expect. The question is, how quickly does the candidate acknowledge this, and to what extent does the candidate, with our help, make her lesson substantially better?

If the teacher is not reflective, by the 20-minute mark of the debrief, it will become apparent. She will be unable or unwilling to accept an accurate picture of the classroom. Or she may see the lack in her lesson but be unable to come up with alternative approaches or activities that would generate better results. If given help in coming up with better ideas for tasks, she will be unable to explain why they are better and will be unsuccessful at fleshing out those ideas into actual directions for students and the teacher.

On the other hand, reflective teachers seem to readily agree with the deconstruction of the lesson at about the 20-minute mark, and the best of them, without prompting, are starting to think about what they could have done differently. These teachers relish the idea of helping to reconstruct the lesson so that it is of much higher quality.

And when the debrief turns the corner at the 20- to 30-minute mark, and during the next two hours the candidate greatly contributes and enjoys a difficult conversation that pushes towards excellence, an inescapably emotional experience has occurred. We believe this emotion is the reason that the vast majority of candidates offered employment at Applied Math and Science choose to accept their offers.

By the end of the four-hour total experience, the candidate has been frustrated, challenged, helped, challenged more, and improved. Not just the lesson, but the candidate’s thinking and understanding of quality and excellence have come into sharper focus. The interview itself, consisting of the demo and debrief, has been a challenging but significant learning experience for the candidate. At this point, we don’t have to tell the candidate what support looks like in our school. They just experienced it.

Adapted from The Artisan Teaching Model for Instructional Leadership: Working Together to Transform Your School, by Kenneth Baum and David Krulwich, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. © 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.