Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Parent-teacher events

It's time for parent conferences, parent evenings, back-to-school nights, and all the rich variety of ways that schools devise to bring families into schools to build important connections and begin essential conversations (as Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has so aptly called them) between teachers and parent/guardians.

As much as anything, parents and guardians want to be reassured that their children are in good, caring hands and that their children are doing what is necessary to be successful in school. For schools, the time is right to make sure that teachers are confident and comfortable either sitting down with individual parents or standing up to explain what they do to a room full of them.

For new teachers, especially, these events can be nerve-racking, and so it is the job of department and division leaders and mentors to work with new teachers to develop successful approaches or even something like scripts. For class presentations, the teacher should be ready to introduce himself or herself, to discuss the aims of the course, and to model in some way the classroom culture that the students experience. The "Be yourself" advice that is true for a classroom of students is every bit as true when the desks are occupied by curious parents. Some teachers will want to try a class-like exercise, but this should be simple, contained in its aims, and clearly connected with the purposes of the class. As parents we have noticed that these events don't always provide opportunities to establish relationships with our children's classmates' families, and a clever teacher might even integrate some "getting to know you" elements.

For conferences, teachers need to prepare themselves by having anecdotal and specific information about each student; what families want to know most is that a teacher knows and cares about their child. The point is to talk about the child, so the focus should be on aspects of behavior and performance and not just on grades--I always advise keeping the gradebook off to the side, closed but bookmarked, and not in front of me like a sacred text. Teachers should not be afraid to ask questions: "How does the student talk about the class at home?", "What are the student's interests?", and "What are your concerns?" can yield really valuable answers. Above all, the teacher should have some positive things to say, observations of strengths as well as weaknesses. Behavioral concerns should not be whitewashed, but they should be presented based on anecdote and not as labels or judgments. Teachers must be careful about either dragging other students' behavior into the conversation or about shooting themselves in the foot by alluding to general problems in the classroom. Good teachers understand that children of particular ages will have particular foibles and refer to these not as character flaws but as developmental issues to be acknowledged and dealt with as part of helping the student grow up.

Teachers almost always dread events involving parents, but in my experience such things almost always go well; parents genuinely appreciate caring teachers and precise, well-intentioned feedback that they can use to support their children in finding success in school. There are always a few parents who in the course of their children's education will feel the need to launch a zinger question or comment at a teacher, but the best deflection is either a bland "I think that's a great question (because often it is, even if framed unpleasantly), and it's something we think about quite often" or to suggest a separate conversation at a later time. (I once innocently asked such a question of my spouse when I sat as a parent in her classroom, assuming that I had pitched her a beachball that she would hit out of the park, but the way I phrased it so flustered her that I am still ruing that moment six years later.)

The economic turmoil of recent weeks will be having an unsettling effect on families, and so there may be some new symptoms of parental anxiety around the very appropriate but usually unspoken question, "Is the money we are spending on independent school worth it?" The best answer is not so much a specific cost-benefit analysis but rather what I would call a cultural response by the school and all of its teachers. Families are paying the long dollar to have their children challenged, nourished, prepared, and above all cared for as individuals. Parent-teacher events are the ideal opportunities to showcase the depth of the school's collective affection and concern for its students, and above all, teachers should understand this and see this as a primary goal of these occasions.

In troubled times, especially, using family-teacher events for sharing both positive feelings and well-meaning concerns about students can be extremely comforting for both families and faculties. We all found that to be true in September of 2001, and it will be no less so now, and so let us enter the season of such events in a spirit of positive anticipation and mutual support.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

A New "Digital Divide"?

There was some talk on one of the educator listservs this past week about technology and teachers. We've fussed for a decade or more about "technology competency standards" for teachers, with early adopters holding up the highest standards and the rest of the profession wondering a bit anxiously about where it will all go. At times I've been glad that the technology sluggards I know have not sought access to some of these discussions, as talk gets heated and opinions can become intemperate.

Lately the "2.0" revolution has swept through schools; at some point I think the enthusiasm of many of us for the likes of Daniel Pink and our own explorations of new possibilities in technology and communication reached a tipping point (reflecting our fondness for Malcolm Gladwell here, too), and things have begun to develop. Teachers with podcasts, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Delicious accounts, Flickr pages, and other presence on Web 2.0 suddenly found themselves not just mainstream, but vindicated in a way. The potential of educational technology in the digital age needed only to become interactive to invite the digital natives we teach into our virtual classrooms and discussions. It looks as though learning really will be different, and potentially much better, as we learn how to realize this potential.

Not surprisingly, those teachers who have not embraced Web 2.0 as part of their pesonal lifestyles are having to play professional catch-up in this new world, and for some of them it is a challenge. This has been the way of teachers, no doubt, since someone suggested giving students individual slates and bits of chalk; that we are all doing something for a living that was done unto us for sixteen or more years in a certain way tends us toward conservatism, perhaps. And most of us were reasonably good at things as they were done unto us, inclining us to the notion that it was a pretty good way, at that.

What I have observed signs of for the past 25 years (since I went into hideous debt to purchase my first desktop computer and printer) has been a kind of fear among the late adopters and Luddites. The world is changing around them, and they either don't want to or don't know how to keep up. The techies (and I have been one of them) have been quick to proclaim their own role in "the future of education." A first this created what was for a long time a subtle separation between those who, say, word-processed their comments in 1985 and those who hand-wrote or typed them. By the early nineties everyone had mastered word-processing and simple spreadsheets at least enough for schools to standardize expectations, but the folks on the cutting edge had already discovered email, and the esoteric secrets of the World-Wide Web, and they were soon to begin leavening their lectures with PowerPoint. That each innovation could cost frugal teachers quite a lot of money out of pocket made the purchase of modems and CompuServe accounts into bold lifestyle choices that must have looked awfully extravagant to more skeptical colleagues.

Now we're in the midst of a new whirlwind, sanctified by speakers and special programs at NAIS conferences and best exemplified by the things we are told our students can already do instinctively with wonderful and expensive gadgets. Get on board, the word seems to be, or get left behind. There has never been a time when the technology enthusiasts among us have been able to feel so superior to those who are not.

But we techies had better take a moment to think about what is going on. What has been an observable but relatively benign rift within faculties for a couple of decades threatens to become a new Digital Divide. No longer separating those who have the economic wherewithal to participate fully in a digital age from those who don't, the new divide severs those whose innate understanding of technology's potential is still "1.0" from the 2.0 crowd. With the future so clearly apparent to many 2.0 dwellers, it is easy to feel justified in considering with scorn those who do not yet share their vision. "2.0 talk" is even becoming a new kind of political correctness; if you aren't sharing it with the world on your Facebook page or your blog, you had better not say it at all. If you are skeptical when you hear all students described as being up to their cerebella in New Technologies, you had best keep such thoughts to yourself.

It's easy to understand the anger, perhaps. We have spent half a century pulling one another forward around issues of diversity and multiculturalism, and these issues lie at the very core of student experience; laggards in these areas are in the wrong profession nowadays. Likewise, for technological true believers, the promise of interactive, pervasive technology is every bit as wonderful as the promise of culturally inclusive teaching, and teachers who can't see that and jump on board may be short-changing their students.

But we've learned a few things from our work on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. We know that we need to keep our focus on the kinds of communities we want to create and the kinds of experiences we want our students to have. We know that we have to begin this work by first acknowledging where people are and what frightens and excites them. We know that we must include everyone, and that no one can opt out, either because they don't want to do the work or because they think they know it already. We even admit that we have taken false steps: the color-blindness training teachers received in the '70s was a mistake, and recruiting diverse student bodies was barely a start toward building multicultural school communities.

As the 2.0 revolution moves through schools, the best schools will do their best both to harness and encourage the enthusiasm of the early adopters and to provide strong and comprehensive support for all teachers. It's not just about "tech plans" any more; good schools will build in professional development that encourages experimentation and risk-taking by all teachers--starting where they are and acknowledging their anxieties. Schools will work hard to bridge this new digital divide and to avoid character judgments based on teachers' degrees of technological expertise and enthusiasm.

As this work goes forward, there will be those whose struggle and succeed beyond their wildest dreams and some who will just struggle, and schools will have to work with the latter. There will also be a few who reject or rebel on principle, just as there have always been when the winds of change blow through schools, and these will either have to find new schools or new professions.

I like this technology stuff, and I do think there is an educational revolution at hand. As an old guy, I admit that I'm not as adept at all the new technologies as I might be, and I'm unlikely to be the first to spot a new application for Twitter. But I know that I have colleagues who don't know what Twitter or Jott are, and I still respect them as educators. If it is what we decide to do, I want our schools to help these folks along, not by scolding and harrying them, but by supporting them in their explorations. Teachers want to do the right thing, and we are at last learning to work together as educators rather than as isolated individuals. Just as 2.0 technologies promise to bring people closer together, we need to use learning about these technologies to close the digital divides within faculties.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Feedback for new teachers

I just finished writing up a precis of my check-in conversations with all our new faculty, and I am giving ourselves a big pat on the back not only for a program that has so far kept these good people free from huge surprises but also for having done two things pretty thoughtfully and, it appears, well.

The first is hiring. Our main thrust for many years has been to find people who are really well matched in values and skills not just with our subject-matter teaching needs but with our school. The administrators who do this read lots of folders, talk to many, many candidates, and engage in a very intentional process of informed consent with finalists. I'll write more about this at a later time, but in a nutshell we don't shy from telling people what is hard about working at our school--mainly the need to be passionate about and attentive to both students and the craft of teaching--as well as what the rewards are.

The second is a kind of full-court press of support. The new teachers have all been in department meetings and divisional meetings in which the subject is pedagogy and best practices, and they have all been visited by now by both a department head and a division head. These are not formal evaluative observations but rather opportunities for administrators to understand the classroom cultures that are forming and to offer warm feedback and input based on what is observed.

As a school we seem to be moving hopefully toward what I would call an open-door policy, where colleagues and academic administrators are in and out of one another's classrooms all the time, normalizing the "adult in the back of the room" as a friendly part of the landscape of a learning community.

All I can think of is my first years of teaching. In the first school, no administrator or supervisor entered the building where I taught, much less my classroom; my close friend who taught in the classroom next to me was in and out of my classroom, as I was in and out of his. Together we moved by trial and error toward what felt like but may not have been competence. I'm still in the biz, but he left after a year. In my second school a walkabout head poked his face into my room pretty regularly, but only once did I receive direct feedback and only once, in my third year, was I formally observed, in response to a "problem" (which was easily and painlessly solved). The next school was about the same, as was my current school for the first eight or nine years I was here.

Steve Clem, of AISNE and "Eloquent Mirrors" fame, likes to point out that he might have been a much better teacher much earlier in his career if he had received feedback on his work, and I feel this just as acutely. We serve our teachers badly and our students even more badly when we don't do everything we can not just to give teachers the materials they need and goals to meet but also immediate, regaular, and clear feedback on their work that will help them realize their potential as educators as quickly as possible.

It seems quite silly (and worse) in retrospect when schools fail to make an early and positive effort to make sure that the new teachers they are at such pains to hire are both comfortable in their work and given the real, immediate feedback--on curriculum, on classroom management, on professionalism--they need to take their work to the highest level.

So if you are an administrator reading this, check in with your new faculty soon. Drop into their classrooms, find out how things are going, and let them know how you think things are going, based on some real observation. It's never too early to start, but after a while it may be too late.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

On Nightmares

I have had a couple of conversations with teachers lately about nightmares--those anxiety dreams that many teachers seem to experience around the beginning of the school year. Underdressed, underequipped, and certainly underprepared, the dreamer finds himself or herself "on" in a situation, often but not always school-like, from which there is no escape and in which the audience can deliver summary judgment.

Several cycles of these anxiety dreams had passed through my consciousness before a chance comment by a colleague taught me that they are nearly universal among teachers, young and old. I found this quite reassuring, and now that we are in an era when sharing at least some of our worries is allowed, I've decided to treat my own pre-school nightmares as old friends who reappear on cue each August and whom I share with fellow teachers around the world. In time they drift off, perhaps enjoying an eleven-month vacation before returning to work. (Or perhaps it's not that long, as I suppose that the school year must be starting somewhere almost every day.)

For some teachers, however, the anxieties don't diminish, and the nightmares haunt their working days. I'm in correspondence now with a veteran teacher in his first year at a new school who is finding every day to be just such an experience. Feeling un-oriented, un-noticed, and un-appreciated, this teacher lives in a world in which every word feels as though it might be the thing that "gets me fired." The students have discovered that they can go to the teacher's supervisor and complain about the teacher's manner, standards, words, and even choice of materials, and that the supervisor's response--or lack of one--can unsettle the teacher. "Every day is hell," says the teacher. I suspect, from our conversations, that the teacher has retreated to a place in which instead of teaching each class, he is play-acting the role of teacher in the hope of getting the lines right to please the audience.

It's no way to live, and we have probably all been there: that period when something real or not quite so real seems to loom over our work to the point that we feel like Emily Dickinson's poetic persona stepping "from plank to plank, a slow and cautious way" and not knowing whether "the next would be [our] final inch." We're good people, and we're trying our hardest, but someone has questioned our work, fairly or unfairly, and dread fills the pits of our well-meaning stomachs and eats at our well-intentioned souls. In time something happens to reassure us, and we return to more optimistic attitudes and cheerier ways.

The living nightmare is probably a combination of things, at least some of which stem from schools' willingness to permit rumor or innuendo to linger when clarity and support would ameliorate matters quickly and effectively. The teacher may be spinning within his own unhealthy response to anxieties, but anxiety is a product of uncertainty: What are the norms and expectations of this institution's culture, and will I ultimately be supported and helped or just left to twist in the wind?

Three things, I think, would help my friend. The first would be a more focused and intentional indoctrination as to the ways and mores of the school; it's late, perhaps, but not too late, for a friendly mentor--a mentor whose belief in the both teacher and in teaching itself is strong--to help the teacher through this period with some thoughtful listening, advice, and affection.

The second would be evidence that the school is listening not just to the students but working to help the teacher and the students alike to bring their expectations into alignment . It's likely the teacher, lacking much in the way of aims and materials for the course he has been handed, has goofed, and students sometimes take our goofs as evidence of incompetence or even apathy. It is someone's job to sort this out, redirect the teacher, and assure the students that the teacher is working hard on their behalf.

The third lies with the teacher. After finding myself frozen with fear during the first couple of weeks at a new school many years ago, I was finally brought back by a loved one's sharp reminder to "Be yourself!" Like my friend, I had been trying to channel every teacher or teacher character I had ever known, no doubt becoming more inauthentic and more untethered in my work every day. It's a wonder my students--who had been gentle and supportive from get-go--hadn't eaten me alive. In retrospect I hope they at least got some pleasure in imitating my "teacher voice."

So my friend, like all good teachers, must remember to remain true to the sources of strength and individuality in his character that have made him a great teacher and a great person. He needs to dig deep for the sources of confidence and self that have working for him for four decades already and to approach his students as trusted colleagues and his new colleagues as friends and supports. He needs to be himself, the person who is a teacher and not the person playing a teacher.

In time I hope his waking nightmares will end and that he will rejoin the rest of us in a world in which anxiety dreams come only at night as "nature's way" of reminding us annually to do our best--and to be ourselves.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Recruiting Readers


Admirable faculties are the engines that power great schools. More than a group of fine teachers, the very best faculties share a both culture and a fundamental belief in their students and their schools' missions and values.

Drawing on the ideas presented in An Admirable Faculty: Recruiting, Hiring, Training and Retaining the Best Independent School Teachers (NAIS, 2005) , this blog will address the challenges of building great teaching bodies and helping faculties grow. We won't shy away from talking tough about some of the bumps in the road or about the ways in which certain policies and behaviors can corrode the educational experience for teachers and, more importantly, for their students.

You may have seen the keynote address delivered to the teachers of the Dallas (TX) Independent School District. It was high concept indeed: going beyond Heidi Hayes Jacobs' hypothetical student Alex, who occupies the empty chair on stage whenever she presents, the district leadership chose a charismatic young student to remind teachers that they must believe in their students. I think all great teachers have this understanding at the core of their being, but we all need to be reminded, sometimes, of where our priorities and our focus must lie. As the head of my school reminds us each year, "School is for kids."

I hope that you'll bookmark this page and come back regularly to see how the work of creating Admirable Faculties is going.


Induction and Orientation for New Teachers

By now new teachers are in at least in the second weeks of school, and we like to think that they are settling in comfortably.

Experience, however, suggests that many are still in something resembling panic mode: student work is piling up, conferences and parent/guardian events are looming, and they are holding onto their curricula by the skin of their chattering teeth. Each day brings its little pleasures, but it also brings the possibility of stepping on one of the little landmines with which school cultures seem inevitably to be littered.

More and more schools have introduced some kind of mentoring program, but the multitude of things that new teachers must learn are often left to trial and error. In the old days--my old days, at least, which were a long time ago--new teachers had about an hour's head start on the veterans before opening faculty meetings began, and the on-the-job training that accompanied the first weeks in a new school was supposed to toughen us (if anyone thought about it at all). Most schools are doing better than this, but I'm a big fan of serious, thoughtful, and detailed induction and orientation programs.

Maybe the horse is too far out of the barn by now, at least for this school year, but I think the essential elements of a great program that really prepares teachers for life in a new school include:

* "Electronic induction"--giving new teachers access as soon as possible after hiring to the school email system and other important digital resources that will be essential to his or her life and work; this would absolutely include a curriculum map, if the school maintains one
* Pre-service inclusion--making sure that new hires are included in any summer meetings or planning sessions that will be in any way relevant to their work
* Access to texts and materials--delivering to the teacher early on any textbooks or other teaching materials that he or she will be using
* Access to handbooks and manuals--delivering to the teacher any student or employee handbooks that would help explain the culture and policies of the school; I would modestly recommend the manual we use at our school as a model (after the link, look for the download link to "The Teacher's Guide to Life and Work" in the upper right-hand corner of the page)
* An orientation program that focuses on school culture and values, unique aspects of the instructional program, and lots of "nuts & bolts"--no opportunity to introduce new faculty to key people in the school community, including students and parents/guardians, should be lost
* Dedicated guided prep time--giving the teacher the opportunity to develop lesson plans and activities for the first days and weeks of school working directly with a mentor, co-teacher, or department leader
* A mentor, or at least a close contact whose experience has been similar to the new teacher's, and who will be working geographically near the new teacher during the year

The school that is wiling to take the time and trouble to support a program that includes these elements and works hard to see that they are well carried out will have gone a long way toward easing the transition of new teachers. If the program has the elegantly simple goal of eliminating surprise from new teachers' lives, those little landmines we all remember will be reduced to mild bumps that are part of a gentle acclimation process rather than terrifying or demoralizing jolts .

As for the student work and parent/guardian events, I'll get to some of that in a later post.