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’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.