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

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.