These are my final hours here in Chicago for the 2013 ASCD annual conference. All kinds of posts have been swirling around in my head for days, and I feel like things are just now settling down to the point where I can begin to process everything I’ve learned and experienced.
The generosity of ASCD in offering me conference admission and a press pass for the last 5 years is really humbling. It probably wouldn’t have been possible for me to attend consistently otherwise. I save up for the travel expenses every year no matter where the conference is held because I know I will walk away with a powerful learning experience, guaranteed. This year was no exception.
Previously, I’ve attended conferences with a particular learning goal in mind: high-poverty schools, understanding Common Core, supporting teachers via coaching, and so on. This year, I decided to go with the flow. I focused on making connections with other educators and let the big take-away kind of present itself naturally. I’m really glad I did that, because the end result was something I would not have pieced together on my own.
Education is about the whole child and the whole teacher
Toward the beginning of the conference, I attended an Ignite session, which is structured so that each presenter has 5 minutes to inspire the audience with powerful stories about education. PowerPoint slides advance every 15 seconds automatically, so it’s a fast-paced, exciting format in which you can gather a lot of big ideas very quickly. A presenter from Argentina tossed out these statements which I shared via Twitter:
“The whole teacher” is a phrase I don’t think I’ve heard before this weekend, and I have to say it clicked for me on so many levels. Those of us who are fed up with the data-driven rather than child-centered focus of our educational system talk so much about educating the whole child. But what about the needs of the whole teacher? After the Ignite session, every conversation and every presentation seemed to point back to that thought and give me more perspective.
Blaming teachers distorts the bigger picture
I attended a session by Kevin Kumashiro called “Bad Teacher.” Kevin asked, “How did we come to the point where we blame teachers for everything? What gets masked when we do that?” He explained that there’s a story we tell the losers in any game to get them to continue playing and convince them that the unfair game is worth pursuing, and the stories eventually become “common sense”. In our field, an example is “test scores tell us everything we need to know.” So, we create policies and practices that emphasize tests. Another example of story we’re all buying into is that “If you marketize something, that will improve it.” And so smaller and smaller groups of people are making decisions about how we educate kids, and increasingly, those groups are corporations and people driven by money. There are enormous profits to be made in the field of education and kids and teachers become the last priority.
There’s hope though–Kevin believes that there are actionable steps teachers can take to reframe the conversations about education and refocus on the things that matter. Teachers don’t have to settle for being the scapegoats, and our voices count. I’ll be reading his book Bad Teacher! How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture (Teaching for Social Justice) in the next few weeks so that I can articulate those points for you all here on the blog in more depth.
Evaluating teachers, not penalizing them
I also had the privilege of listening to Charlotte Danielson speak (yep, she of The Danielson Framework for Teaching, which is used in many schools for teacher observation and evaluation.) Ahem. Let me clarify that I have no connection to the frameworks at all and have nothing to gain or lose by supporting or opposing the framework. I am an advocate for teachers and kids, so if an initiative supports teachers in supporting their students, I’m for it. And vice versa.
When I entered the session, I had very limited knowledge of the Danielson Framework. All I know of Danielson’s work is what I hear anecdotally from teachers and principals around the country via my blog and social media, and let’s just say, it’s not good. What I hear most is horror stories about how the framework is being used to bash and bully teachers, and to turn them into robots who follow a checklist for good teaching instead of using their professional expertise to make informed decisions about what’s best for their students.
So to say that I entered the session as a skeptic would be an understatement, and the fact that I got pushback from teachers the moment I mentioned her name on Twitter definitely reinforced my preconceptions. I expected Danielson to be a dry, boring presenter who lectured principals about how to catch teachers not doing their jobs and get them fired. What I encountered instead was an extremely knowledgable, thoughtful, and believe it or not, hilarious woman who seems to care a great deal about teachers and kids.
She asked the audience (almost all of whom were principals or district leaders) to talk with a neighbor about what that person looks for when walking in a classroom to determine if a teacher is an expert. Almost every single person spoke about student engagement as the key piece of evidence of teacher expertise. Not an organized data binder, not test scores, but the way he or she was interacting with the kids. Then she had us think about the best teacher we ever had as a student, and talk about what made him or her great. Again, we all spoke about the relationships and personal connections. Everything else was secondary. Finally, we looked at the Danielson Framework and figured out which domain those qualities fell under.
I thought this was a powerful way to get principals to think about what really matters in teaching. The whole session was really focused on the heart of great teaching and how school leaders can support their teachers. I don’t think that most of these principals would have gotten that message by attending PD in their own districts. I will reiterate again that I am no expert on Danielson’s Framework, but there seems to be a huge disconnect between what Danielson herself was advocating in the session and what is actually happening in schools. In many places, things are happening at the state, district, and school level that are not in alignment with what seems to be the true intention of the evaluation framework. Danielson’s message was in many ways about acknowledging and supporting the whole teacher.
I really hope that some of you with experience in this area can fill me in a little bit in the comments.I ’ve seen the same types of problems with Marzano’s Teacher Evaluation System (his intentions are totally different than the way some school systems are applying his work, and the results are often disastrous.) I did just read this EdWeek interview with Danielson which you might find interesting–she directly addresses situations in which her research is misused and unfairly punishing teachers.
Transforming a toxic school environment in which people are afraid to be human
Later on, I spoke with author Robyn Jackson, and her thoughts on meeting the needs of the whole teacher were incredibly thought-provoking. She talked with me about how teachers get lost in trying to do everything they’ve been taught to do. They’re trying to do whole brain teaching and incorporate Bloom’s taxonomy and focus on the Common Core standards and the other 3,472 initiatives their district insists upon, and they lose their sense of self. Morale drops as they become a caricature of what they think the principal wants. Schools create a toxic environment in which people are afraid to be human.
Robyn spoke passionately about how we have to be confident enough in ourselves and our beliefs to help kids access the instruction based on the unique qualities and personalities we each bring to the classroom. I think she and I both could go on for a few hours about that, and I’m going to do an entire separate blog post about figuring out your own teaching style, tapping into who you are in the classroom, and being your authentic self in an age of accountability. In a few weeks, I’ll also be reviewing and doing a giveaway for Robyn’s book Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching.
Being a rainbow in someone else’s cloud
For me, the highlight of the conference was hearing Maya Angelou speak. Maya’s powerful message to educators deserves its own blog post, and though I swear I’m not trying to do a bunch of teasers here, I haven’t dug into my notes from Maya’s session yet and I’ll share my thoughts on her talk later on. I will say now that Maya, too, spoke about the importance of teachers, and the power we have to be the “rainbows in someone’s cloud.” Education is a dark place for many right now, but we can be the light for our kids and our colleagues.
What I love most about big conferences like this is the chance to have one-on-one conversations with educators I’ve connected with via social media. I got the chance to sit with several “online friends” who quickly became “real life friends” as we spoke about the challenges teachers are facing in different parts of the country and what we can do to make a difference. We conversed in the conference hall, and in cafes, and even in our hotel lobbies. Often we chatted well into the nights. There’s nothing like speaking with other people who passionate about the same issues you are. These friends are my rainbows, and they challenge me to be rainbows for others.
A shift in perception, from powerless to empowered
After this weekend, I’m starting to feel a small, slow shift in the ways educators are treated and perceived. My sense is that there are a growing number of people within the educational system who are beginning to realize that teachers just can’t take it anymore. The educational system cannot continue the way it is. We’ve got to start simplifying the role of the teacher so that only the most critical elements of the curriculum remain. We’ve got to cut out the extraneous, useless, test-driven assignments kids are asked to do and focus on meaningful, authentic tasks that are engaging for kids and that teachers know are worthwhile. Both kids and teachers have to be allowed to embrace and learn from our failures instead of feeling like a single mistake can cost us our entire future.
There needs to be a human element in education again. We need to be allowed to make personal connections with kids, and treat them as individuals and not as test scores. We need to meet the needs of the whole child…and the needs of the whole teacher.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve shared here. What resonated with you? What’s different in your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments.