First Person

No professionals say, ‘I became great at my work by attending workshops.’ Why do we treat teaching differently?

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty

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.

Try this: Find a few friends or relatives who have a variety of professional careers. Start with people who have been successful for some time, and proud of the work they do. Ask them how they became good at their jobs.

With virtually every professional other than an educator, you will hear strikingly similar answers:

I became great at my job because of my mentor. I worked on her team for the first two years. She taught me what to focus on and how to generate my best work. She helped me think through difficult issues, pushing me to produce work of much higher quality than I otherwise would have.

You will hear a lawyer, for example, explain that he handled cases on teams. The junior associate on the team wrote the first draft of briefs, and a senior attorney edited it, rewrote parts thoroughly, and improved it substantially. Only then did the firm send the brief to the client and submit it to the court.

You will hear a doctor who completed rounds at the hospital for several years, while the experienced doctors on her team corrected her mistakes and explained anything she did wrong. You will hear an airline pilot explain that he learned how to be successful from his copilot, assisting on hundreds of flights before he became the lead pilot on a flight.

There are also some answers that you’ll never hear from a highly talented professional, such as these:

• “I became great at my work by attending workshops or training sessions.”
• “I became great at my work because my boss visited once a week for 15 minutes and then rated me with a rubric and gave me a next step.”
• “I became great at my job by analyzing data that measured my results daily and weekly.”

Yet these answers represent the most common strategies schools are currently using to develop teachers.

Consider annual evaluations. Doctors and lawyers are evaluated, promoted, and earn pay increases based on their performance. But these assessments are typically done to provide information about status and areas for growth. They are not considered to be a central part of the employee’s training. The real training happens during the completion of the work itself.

Of course, a doctor might attend a training to learn how to use a new medical device, or a pilot may be trained on a simulator before flying a new plane. But these are targeted training sessions to provide specific content knowledge. Training sessions are not considered the mechanism for the fundamental development of a professional.

Similarly, data analysis is important in many fields. We look at athletes’ statistics, success rates of hospital procedures, and crime rates for local police precincts. But that work is done by central administrators to decide how to allocate funds and how to make big-picture changes.

The current trend in education is to talk constantly about the need for teachers to use data — giving students pre-assessments, setting goals, giving interim assessments, setting goals again, reanalyzing, and reassessing. We are losing hours, days, weeks of valuable time when students could be doing engaging work and teachers could be collaborating on improving their craft. Other professions recognize that data is not, itself, a mechanism for improvement.

How did we get here? How did educators in the United States reach a point where we are, incongruously, using a completely different set of practices to help adults learn to be great than any other field?

Our contention is that schools in the United States developed over many years as institutions where teachers work largely in isolation.

In reality, teaching is no more solitary than any other job. Classrooms can be shared; lessons can be written in groups; curriculum can be designed as a team; discipline and data can be analyzed as a normal course of the daily work of the team; colleagues can routinely watch each other work, as a part of a team that maintains the quality collectively for all children they serve.

New teachers can write first drafts of lessons, while the master teacher on the team can edit, modify, and correct the mistakes of their apprentices. The work of a school could have been designed to be done collaboratively in groups. But it wasn’t.

Recently, many educators have attempted to solve this problem.

By scheduling a weekly training session after school, and still not collaborating to plan tomorrow’s lesson, we’ve simply added a Band-Aid. Same with providing two hours of “mentoring” from a teacher in a different grade, when this mentor doesn’t work collaboratively with you on any of the work you normally do. And we add yet another Band-Aid by scheduling a meeting after school to analyze data trends, although the data analysis isn’t a part of the work you really need to do that day.

All of this means we are often putting new groups of adults in a room, at the same time, to do new work. Calling it “collaboration” doesn’t make it so.

At our school, the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science in the South Bronx, we’ve been trying a different way.

A small group of adults — three or four is best — should work as a team toward a common goal, like educating a group of seventh-graders in social studies. They should write the lessons, edit and improve their work as a team, organize and decorate their classrooms, strategize about how to work with challenging students, analyze data when they review student work every day. More experienced teachers serve as mentors for the newest member of their team while they do all of this daily work.

This is how we foster greatness everywhere, by working closely in small groups that include someone whose work is already great. Artisans teach their apprentices. Apprentices work alongside artisans for years while they hone their craft.

We contend that schools need to stop adding more new work for teachers to do in newly created groups and partnerships in an artificial attempt to create “collaboration” and instead, reorganize the real work teachers already need to do every day, creating authentic teams.

It is easy to miss the distinction. Training sessions and feedback cycles appear to involve teachers “working together,” just as teams appear to function in other professions. But one is collaborative and one isn’t. We believe understanding this begins the path to improving teaching.

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.