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.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.