Advice for new teachers from a veteran: If you don’t have their hearts, you won’t have their heads

PHOTO: Janine Logar
Janine Logar takes a selfie with some of her students using an app that adds cartoons.

When Janine Logar first stepped into a classroom as a career-changer studying to be a teacher more than a decade ago, she remembers thinking, “Oh, this is what I want to do.”

“I felt like when LeBron James discovered a basketball,” she said recently. “This is what I was put on Earth to do. … I’m not artistic. I don’t find myself to be particularly good with finances. I’m a terrible driver. But I have a specific set of skills that really meshes with teaching.”

Logar is now entering her ninth year as a fifth-grade teacher at Sabin World Elementary School in southwest Denver. In 2015, she was the sole teacher to be awarded the distinguished Denver Public Schools Leadership Lamp Award, given to employees who go above and beyond.

And at a welcome event last week, she dispensed wisdom to a concert hall full of teachers who’ll be starting their first year in the district later this month. We caught up with the boisterous and passionate Logar to ask about her own experience and her advice for first-timers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was your first year of teaching like?

I think I was probably overconfident going into it, like, ‘I totally got this.’ Because maybe you need to be. Maybe you need to feel more prepared than you are.

I came in at a low morale point for the school. The week I got there, they’d been told that they had two years to get it together or they were going to go into turnaround. (State test) scores had just come out and people were crying because they were awful. It was a rough transition.

I found out pretty quickly that the kids at the school were awesome. They’d had some pretty checked-out teachers for a really long time. They’d say things to me like, ‘It’s nice that you always have lesson plans.’ I was like, ‘Yes but you should expect there to be lesson plans.’ So in a lot of ways, they were like a little desert: They were so thirsty for rain.

Denver didn’t really have a (new teacher) mentor program at that point. That part was really challenging. What we forget as veteran teachers is that we veteran teachers know things that our new friends don’t know about. There are so many acronyms and abbreviations (in education) that you can sit in a meeting and be like, ‘I didn’t understand anything.’

I’d just gotten married and I had no children, so I’d scare the janitor in the morning because I’d get there at like 5 in the morning. At nighttime, the custodians would come over the intercom system and be like, ‘Janine, we are trying to go home. We have families and we don’t have time for this.’ I was working 70 or 80 hours a week. I thought that if I had every minute of the day scripted, I was going to do a good job.

What was the hardest thing about that year?

Not really feeling like there was any place to go to get feedback on whether I was doing it well or not. I wasn’t getting any coaching. I would get observed. The only thing that was telling me if I was doing a good enough job or not was the once-a-year evaluation and the kids’ feedback. Some of the kids really loved me and some of the kids really didn’t love me.

I didn’t have a lot of the social emotional stuff. I didn’t know how to support kids like that. We only had a part-time psychologist my first year. The data from tests was saying I was doing fine, but there is more to teaching than how kids are scoring on a test.

Because I was working so hard, everything felt so intensely personal. If a kid told me he didn’t like me, I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t like me? I’m working 70 hours a week and you don’t like me?’ Whereas now a kid could tell me he doesn’t like me and I’m like, ‘Okay. You’ll love me by May.’

What was the best thing about that year?

Without a doubt, the kids. Those kids were so patient and forgiving with me because I was a first-year teacher. Because we went through so much together, we were incredibly bonded. It felt so urgent. They knew the pressure was on them to try to keep the school open.

What was the most important thing you learned that year?

That if you don’t have their hearts, you’ll never have their heads. If they don’t love you and believe in you and look up to you, you can move them intellectually but I don’t think you make long-term intellectual connections with them. I don’t think you draw out their gifts and talents and help them understand their uniqueness if you don’t have a relationship with them.

How do you establish that relationship?

You have to treat them like they’re people. Sometimes in teaching, we talk to kids in a way that is unauthentic. Kids need to know that you’re a person. A big thing is to say you’re sorry. Not, ‘I’m sorry, but –.’ But, ‘I messed that up and it’s going to take some time for me to fix that with you and here’s how I plan to do that. Is that going to work with you?’ Or, ‘That lesson was horrible and how can we make it better tomorrow?’

Some of the inroads I’ve built with kids is when I’ve been really real with their parents and helped them out or bought a coat or helped some of my parents with their college stuff because they’re like, ‘It’s been so long since I’ve written an essay.’

Some of my tougher kids — the kids on the class list that people say ‘oh my gosh’ about — I usually try to reach out to them over the summer under the guise of, ‘You can help me set the classroom up,’ because it’s not threatening, their image and ego isn’t there, they don’t have to perform for anybody. It’s just them and I, and I can say, ‘What hasn’t worked with teachers before?’ If they’ve laughed with you and picked music while you’re painting the room and you take them to Cicis Pizza, you’re going to start on a very different foot.

What’s one thing you know now that you wish you knew then?

Biology trumps psychology every time.

You can have norms set up in your room — and I’m not saying you shouldn’t — you can build relationships with kids, all of those things, but if you have a kid who’s been through trauma, some of that behavior they have when they get escalated can trigger them into fight or flight. They will either attack you or they will run.

It feels incredibly personal. For a really long time, I’d be like, ‘What is wrong with this kid? I have done this and this and this, I’ve had lunch with them, they know that I know their mom, they tell me I’m their favorite teacher and now they’re cussing at me.’

But when you start to do the research on kids engaged in trauma, you realize that a lot of these behaviors really are not in their control. Kids can’t really articulate it. They’ll say things like, ‘It’s almost like I black out,’ or ‘I see red, and this thing is in my body and I can’t stop it.’ That’s fight or flight. We need to adjust our practices with discipline when we’re in a situation like that.

What should a teacher do if they find themselves in that situation?

Discipline works in the moment but it doesn’t do anything to change behavior. So I think a teacher should always think about, ‘Ten years from now, how do I want a kid to respond to this behavior?’ It’s probably not getting sent to the principal’s office that’s going to fix that.

If you have a nondisciplinary option for a kid, that’s the best course of action. Some kids need to walk the track or shoot baskets for 10 minutes. They need time away from the thing that’s irritating them.

I do a lot of conversations with kids. It does take time. Some of that time is my planning time. Some of that time is my lunch time. But for a lot of our kids that go straight to anger, if you can get them talking about what’s hurting them in their heart, then they can usually get through the angry. They have to understand why this behavior is counterproductive to their existence for the rest of their lives, not just today.

What’s one piece of academic advice you’d give new teachers?

Make sure you’re allowing for failure in your classroom, where the whole point of the exercise is to redesign it and make it better. Allow for more student-driven opportunities to make mistakes because they’re going to learn a ton from that.

What’s one piece of nonacademic advice you’d give new teachers?

To try to make a classroom environment that allows for all of your kids to shine at some point.

I was at (a store recently) and one of my former kiddos was there. I asked about his little brother. He said, ‘He dropped out of school. School is not for him.’ I don’t think there’s any statement more heartbreaking for me than that statement. It’s (dependent) upon us to make sure kids are allowed to express what they know and their passions, no matter who they are. If that kid had been in the right kind of environment, school would be for him.

What advice would you give a new teacher who might want to give up?

Everybody feels like that at some point.

Check the calendar. Are you feeling like this in October or February? If your answer is yes, give it a month. You’ll be better, I promise. First-year teachers should know there are valleys — and October and February are the months.

In September, (your students) are trying to make you like them. Especially the younger kids. And then in October, some of their real personalities start to emerge. In February, it’s been a long time since you’ve had a bit of a break. And for tested grades, it’s the pressure of the (state) PARCC test coming and how much weight is on that. See how you feel in November and March.

I’d (also) say find a mentor who can say, ‘I get it. It sucks. But here’s the thing…’ You need that person who will say, ‘It’ll be better tomorrow. And if it’s not better tomorrow, it’ll be better in a month. And if it’s not better in a month, we’ll talk.’

And take time to have fun. If you spend 10 minutes lip syncing to Justin Bieber, they’re not going to fail arithmetic.

teacher prep

Three of Tennessee’s largest teacher training programs improve on state report card

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Three of Tennessee’s 10 largest teacher training programs increased their scores on a state report card that seeks to capture how well new teachers are being prepared for the classroom based on state goals.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville became the first public university to achieve a top score under the State Board of Education’s new grading system, now in its second year. And Middle Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University also improved their scores.

But most of Tennessee’s 39 programs scored the same in 2017 as in 2016. Those included the University of Memphis and Austin Peay State University.

And more than 40 percent landed in the bottom tiers, including the state’s largest, Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, along with other sizable ones like the University of Tennessee’s programs in Chattanooga and Martin.

The report card, released on Thursday, is designed to give a snapshot of the effectiveness of the state’s teacher preparation programs, a front-burner issue in Tennessee since a 2016 report said that most of them aren’t adequately equipping teachers to be effective in the classroom. Teacher quality is important because years of research show that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

State officials say the top-tier score by UT-Knoxville is significant — not only because it’s a public school but because it was the state’s sixth largest training program in 2017. “As one of the state’s flagship public institutions, UTK is setting the bar for how to effectively train teachers at scale,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the State Board. She cited the school’s “model internship program” and “close partnerships with local districts.”

In the previous year’s report card, the top scores only went to small nontraditional programs like Memphis Teacher Residency and Teach For America and private universities such as Lipscomb in Nashville and Union in Jackson.

That demographic recently prompted a call to action by Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. He told state lawmakers last month that it’s time to put traditional programs at public institutions under a microscope, especially since those colleges and universities produce 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

“Sometimes an undue amount of discussion happens around alternative new teacher programs like Teach For America or the New Teacher Project …,” he said. “If we’re going to move the needle (on teacher training), it’s going to happen at the campus of a college or university.”

Tennessee has graded programs that train teachers since 2009 but redesigned its report card in 2016 to provide a clearer picture of their effectiveness for stakeholders ranging from aspiring teachers to hiring principals. The criteria includes a program’s ability to recruit a strong, racially diverse group of teachers-in-training; produce teachers for high-need areas such as special education and secondary math and science; and its candidates’ placement and retention in Tennessee public schools. Another metric is how effective those teachers are in classrooms based on their evaluations, including state test scores that show student growth.

Not everybody is satisfied with the report card’s design, though.

“It’s a real challenge to capture in one report the complexity of preparing our candidates to be teachers, especially when you’re comparing very different programs across the state,” said Lisa Zagumny, dean of the College of Education at Tennessee Tech, which increased its points in 2017 but not enough to improve its overall score.

She said Tech got dinged over student growth scores, but that only a third of its graduates went on to teach in tested subjects. “And yet our observation scores are very high,” added Associate Dean Julie Baker. “We know we’re doing something right because our candidates who go on to teach are being scored very high by their principals.”

Racial diversity is another challenge for Tech, which is located in the Upper Cumberland region. “The diversity we serve is rural, first-generation college students who are typically lower socioeconomically,” said Zagumny.

Tennessee is seeking to recruit a more racially diverse teacher force because of research showing the impact of having teachers who represent the student population they are serving. Of candidates who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent were people of color, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

Morrison said this year’s report card includes a new “highlights page” in an effort to allow programs to share a narrative about the work they’re doing. 

You can search for schools below, find the new 2017 scores, and compare them with the previous year. A 1 is the lowest performance category and a 4 is the highest. You can sort the list based on performance and size. This is the state’s first report card based on three years of data.


With changes coming to New York’s teacher evaluations, union and state officials prepare to clash

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School.

New York’s education policymakers got a lesson Monday in how treacherous it will to be revamp the state’s highly controversial teacher-evaluation system.

Just minutes after the state education commissioner laid out a detailed plan for coming up with a redesigned system by fall of 2019, a state teachers-union official rebuffed it. Arguing that teachers cannot wait another year for fixes to a rating system they say is fatally flawed, the union will ask lawmakers to change the underlying evaluation law this year, the official said.

In fact, she said, the union won’t even ask its members to take a department survey meant to gather feedback on the current system, which rates teachers based on classroom observations and other measures of what students are learning.

“First and foremost, the teachers that we represent believe that the time to fix [teacher evaluation] is this year,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of the New York State United Teachers, in a conversation with reporters after the state outlined its plan. “Now is the time — we’ve been talking about this for years.”

Even as state policymakers face political opposition from the teachers union — which has long opposed using state test scores to judge teachers, as was required by a 2015 state law — they are likely to run into practical challenges as well.

Any effort to come up with statewide alternative assessments to use in evaluations could prove too costly at a time of fiscal uncertainty for the state. And major changes to the system could require reopening the evaluation law, which sparked a fierce backlash when it was passed. So far, lawmakers have not indicated that doing so is a priority, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo may want to avoid such drama during an election year.

“We have lived in a very toxic landscape,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa said Monday during the Regents’ monthly meeting, where state officials laid out their redesign plan. “I think that we have to be so mindful and so strategic and so intentional in our plan.”

The 2015 law — which Cuomo aggressively pushed for after calling the previous evaluation system “baloney” — weakened the role of local districts and teachers unions in crafting teacher ratings, instead shifting more authority to the state. That opened the door for ratings that relied much more heavily on student test scores — a move fiercely opposed by the unions, which worked to fuel the state’s massive parent-led boycott of the state exams.

In response to the backlash, the Board of Regents placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations until 2019. Instead, districts must find different measures of teacher effectiveness.

But now, the teachers union wants to repeal the state law entirely, and return evaluations back to local districts. Doing so would allow educators to help design systems that take into account unique conditions in each district — and to likely greatly reduce or eliminate the role of test scores in teacher ratings.

“We believe local control is the key,” DiBrango said. “What will work in one school district will not work in another.”

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia did not rule out returning control of evaluations back to districts. But the lengthy redesign plan she laid Monday seemed aimed at improving the statewide system.

The state will form two redesign workgroups, state officials said. One will concentrate on the components of evaluations, including whether there should be classroom observations, tests, or other ways to judge teachers — and how much weight to give each part. The other group will focus on how student learning is measured, which may include developing new tests.

The education department will also continue to collect feedback from teachers through a survey, which 9,000 educators have already completed. However, DiBrango said the union will not encourage any additional teachers to take the survey in part because they were not consulted about the survey questions, which she said leads teachers into choosing among predetermined ways to evaluate them.

“We have not encouraged our teachers to necessarily take the survey if they don’t want to,” DiBrango said. “They have free will, so certainly some will take it and some will choose not to.”

As the union and the education department pursue their competing plans, the legislature could prove to be a serious roadblock.

Cuomo and state lawmakers have indicated that their top focus this legislative session is beating back funding cuts from Washington — not revisiting a deeply controversial law that is technically on hold until the moratorium ends next year.

On Monday, Elia suggested that her department may be able to make certain adjustments to the evaluation system without changing the law. Still, any major changes would likely require a new law. However, the department’s plan to present its redesign proposal by spring 2019 would give lawmakers little time to debate the proposed changes before the end of their legislative session.

Even if department officials could get lawmakers on board, a new evaluation system — with new tests — could prove too costly to adopt.

Officials recently said they would not join a federal program to create alternative state assessments because it would cost too much. On Monday, Elia said any new tests tied to teacher evaluations wouldn’t necessarily have to be given to as many students as the annual state exams, so they may be less costly.

Still, Regent Judith Chin, who chairs the board’s workgroup that focuses on standards and assessments, questioned whether the state could feasibly create a whole new set of tests to use for teacher ratings that would be ready for the 2019 school year.

“Is it realistic that we could build that capacity in a short period of time?” Chin asked.