Friday, April 15, 2016

The Power Of Teacher Bias

As a standard practice at our school (and I'm sure many other schools), when we get a new a student during the year, the teacher reaches out to the former school for information about the student that may be helpful in better teaching them.  But is this information truly helpful?  Or does it create bias about the students abilities and personality before they've been given a chance to demonstrate otherwise?

Mrs. Fontenot reached out to Jerome's former school when he arrived a few months back.  Phone messages were not returned, and e-mails received no response.  Jerome was a little rough around the edges when he arrived, but in a matter of weeks his effort in class began to increase, his quality of work improved, and his behavior was a non-issue.  He went from one of the lower small groups for reading to one of the higher groups is less than a quarters time.  Mrs. Fontenot confessed he had become one her favorite students, and certainly one that she had immense pride for his accomplishments.

Then she heard from his former school.  Jamal's former teacher had been out on a maternity leave.  She apologized for not getting back sooner, and commented that by now, Mrs. Fontenot had no doubt learned that Jamal was lazy, often disruptive, and disrespectful when re-directed.

Imagine if the teacher had heard these things before Jamal had been in class a week?  Would the teacher have had lower expectations?  Would she have treated his minor misbehaviors different ("I'm going to set a tone with him right away!")?  A bevy of research suggests it would have- to the detriment of Jamal.

While collecting information to help better understand students is done with sound logic and wonderful intentions, the unintended consequences of this habit deserve reflection.  Different adults connect with different sorts of kids in different ways.  Because a students second grade teacher couldn't stand him/her, does not mean that a different person a year later will feel the same.  Schools that systematically organize conversations between former and future teachers, or have teachers call former schools are seriously jeopardizing children's opportunities to find success in a new environment. 

Low expectations are already a hurdle many students have to overcome.  Let's be cautious as a profession about creating such expectations in advance.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Viva Las Vegas?

Randall was a sweet likable boy, despite his cognitive challenges.  Teachers enjoyed having him in their classrooms over the years despite the extra work he required. 

While in 4th grade,  the students were working on providing evidence for writing.  The assignment was for students to write about their dream vacation while providing support for their decision.   Randall struggled with basically all writing.  Further, coming from poverty is was unlikely he had ever visited any places located more than an hour from wherever his family was living at the time, and it was additionally unlikely that Randall had ever even been on traditional vacation.  Thus, the teacher was caught of guard when Randall announced during small group instruction that he wanted to go to Las Vegas for his dream vacation.

"Um, well ok.  But Randall, now you have to explain your reasons for wanting to go to Las Vegas for your readers.  Why did you pick Las Vegas?"

"Cuz I wanna go to a strip club!"

Careful what you ask for...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Down With The Sickness

I recently completed my doctoral work (a distraction largely responsible for ignoring my writing here).  My staff made a big deal about the accomplishment including an announcement that I was now "Dr. TalesInEducation."  Of course, elementary school aged children generally don't understand this, most confusing it with being a doctor of medicine. 

A particular sweet 4th grade boy named Bryan came up to me, said "Congratulations, Dr. TalesInEducation", and gave me a hug almost stumbling over the doctor part in his sentence.  He then looked up at me and said, "I don't understand why you're a doctor." 

I replied by explaining that I was a doctor of education, not a doctor who helps people who are sick.  After a slight pause, the Bryan looked back up at me and said, "But you could fix education if were sick, right?"

It was my turn for a pause.  "It is definitely sick Bryan.  And I'm not so sure I can cure it all...."

And away I flew like the down of a thistle, to my favorite watering hole.... Happy Friday, educators!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Last Tango In Grade School

The other day there was a mix up at the end of the day with one of our third grade students.  He was supposed to take the bus home but somehow wound up in the car line.  No big deal.

The challenge here though was that this kid's family was from the Ukraine and the only person who spoke any English in the family was the kid's mom.  The mom was an extremely attractive woman, with a great figure in all senses, and complimented such with a trendy wardrobe that generally included plenty of short skirts, high heels, and low cut tops.

It took us a while to track the mom down.  She was coming back from the airport and couldn't get to the school to pick her son up for about 30 minutes.  We assured her that he was fine and got the boy a snack while he waited.  I sent the secretaries home since we were having an Open House with ice cream served for kids that night and I knew they probably wanted to freshen up before coming back to work.

I was working in my office when the boy, Viktor, knocked and asked if he could throw his pretzel wrapper away.  He sort of lingered in my office, acting like he wanted to chat (poor guy was probably bored as hell) so I initiated things.

"So ya comin' to the open house and ice cream social tonight?"

"Ah.  No.  No we can't make it" he replied.

"Well, ya can't make everything, right?"

"Well it's my mom's birthday today" he shared.

"Oh wow!  So are you all going out for a nice dinner with mom?" I asked trying to apply the necessary enthusiasm surrounding birthdays that an eight year old would expect.

"No. My mom wanted to get a dance lesson for her birthday."

"Oh neat!  Are you going with her?" I asked.

"No. It's a tango lesson" he explained.

"Ah.  So probably just mom and dad for that one, right?" I said.

"No.  My mom broke up with my dad.  She told me it's a private tango lesson."

Don't wait up, kid.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Learning Is A Journey

The other day as my wife and I returned home, our neighbors walked across the street to chat.
"Hey, can you on your principal hat for a second?"  This is of course my favorite introductory question when I'm actually not on the clock.

She went on to explain that at her daughters school they're now 'doing this thing' where if you take a test and get a poor grade, you can re-take it and get a new score.  She didn't think this was a fair practice and was curious as to what I thought.  If you haven't guessed yet, her daughter is highly accelerated and easily scores well on tests and assignments without much remediation.

I explained to our neighbor that not only did I agree with this procedure, but that I held the same expectation in regards to testing/grading at my own building.  If you've had one of these debates, you can probably predict the sequence of the conversation.  "This isn't fair to kids who work hard the first time... not every kid deserves a trophy... this isn't how the 'real world' works... this isn't  teaching responsibility..." and then after dismissing all of these claims with logic, "Well,  I STILL don't like it!"

I wasn't upset by this exchange.  I'm used it as an advocate for practices which embrace learning as the target v. ranking/sorting children.  This was just another reminder of how much effort is necessary to properly educate parents on best practice.

This was an random conversation that took place in my driveway.  I've presented this same sort of thinking to passionate educated teachers in an organized pre-thought out manner and still had (many) people leave upset with what they were hearing.  Changing long held mindsets doesn't happen in a single outing.  People need time to reflect on what they've learned, privately explore their own biases, ask questions/clarification, see examples, and experiment on their own.  Immediately rejecting new thinking does NOT necessarily make the listeners dumb, ignorant, or stubborn (stubborn thinkers are valuable to have around...).

It's frustrating to give a strong, impassioned presentation to a group and watch the audience leave pissed off rather than cheering for you like the President at the State of the Union address.  That's just not how strong leadership usually works.  Changing outdated thinking is a constant obligation of school leadership.  The messages need to be heard regularly over time, and we should be realistic in our pace of change.  Some people will never change their thinking, and many who do will never acknowledge your guidance in the journey.  If you're waiting for that moment of "okay, YOU were right" you're missing the point.      

I'm confident my neighbor will understand eventually.  She's intelligent and just needs to see that other children learning and feeling good about themselves doesn't take anything away from her daughter or make her any less special in her giftnedness.  She'll eventually see how much less anxiety comes with that moment when her daughter scores poorly on a test, and can re-take it (this will of course happen eventually...).  Or maybe she won't.  But there would no chance of changing thinking if the leadership of the school district made decisions based off the initial reactions to new information.  The same is true when we work with our staffs or students.  Learning is a journey- not a moment.    

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Screw Data.

I'm really hoping that we're close to another pendulum swing in education.

The obsessive reliance on data in regards to decision making in schools and classrooms has exceeded it's value.  Just as teachers and principals have cried out that test scores aren't a measure of their effectiveness as educators- the same rule applies to learners as well.

What we're currently doing is the equivalent of looking at only a batters home run statistics to determine who the best baseball players are.  Learning is not, no matter how much we try, like money.  It can't be easily quantified, nor can it provide fast evidence of effectiveness or lack thereof.

I don't care what measure you're using.  None of them can account for the kid who walked away from drugs because of something a teacher said.  None of them can determine if a kid has stayed in school only because he feels safe with this teacher. None of them measure the blossoming of creativity, kindness, courage or collaboration (all 21st C. skills...) which teachers routinely foster.  And none of them can predict entirely if a child will or will not be successful in life.  However, most of the time, what they DO tell us, after loads of cost, time, and anxiety, is what any decent teacher already knew.  "He reads slowly?  Holy Shit!  I would have never known that despite teaching him for months!  I'm so glad we interupted several days of learning to lab test seven year olds!  Thank you AIMSweb!"

The data craze has numbed classrooms, and killed many spirits.  It's been great though for consultants and authors of educational books as we can now endlessly debate what 'rigor' or 'high standards' actually mean when determining cut scores and services for children.

Teachers should be encouraged to trust their instincts, embrace their passions while teaching.  I'm not in any way an advocate for drill & kill, endless memorization, or hours of homework.  Education has progressed and improved.  Data does have a place in our schools and classrooms.  However, 'data to inform decision making' should NOT effectively equate to "data to remove all use of the human brain.'  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

School Registration Blues

Our school district has recently adopted an online registration procedure.  It is super simple and totally convenient for all parties involved.  In past years we've dealt with the consistent problem of families being on vacations during the designated registration periods.  Being unable to add them to the count until they return from Disney has the potential to impact hiring/recall of teachers who are anxious begin preparing for school.  Online registration essentially solves this headache.  It saves secretaries tons of data entry, and it is also far more 'green' as we are making less copies and printing less documents.  Everyone wins right?

Perhaps.  But as I go through registration, which now consists of only unique cases (families without computer access, residency question marks, second language families who need translation, etc.) being 'in person,' something feels missing.  Ultimately, it's the same thing we've given up in nearly every area we've moved to Internet based- relationships.

I miss seeing all the children and their families come in after being separated for months.  The look of excitement on the children's faces reminds me of why I entered the profession.  I got to catch up with parents and hear their hopes and concerns for the new school year.  I got hear about little league games and swim meets.  We got to know and create an immediate personal connection with new families and students. But no longer.  It was a ritual coming back together for our school, and now it's gone.

I get it.  It's 2014.  Hell, we're probably way late to the game on this one.  We'd look disorganized and out of touch with time if we continued to force families to stand in a slow line to accomplish what they could do in minutes from the comfort of their home.  Many parents (sadly) have no interest in having a relationship with me or anyone else at the school.

Still, teaching children is about relationships before all other things.  As a profession, we need to constantly evaluate the decisions we make and how they impact our ability to form quality relationships.  When we lose something like in-person registration, one of the few times every parent has to come to the school, we need to brain storm alternatives to get that valuable in-person contact.  I'd love to hear what other schools are doing to preserve their relationships in the on-line era.