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

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

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.