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

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.