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 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.