District Committees and Teacher Input

Being a first year teacher who is interested in getting a sense of the big picture of what is going on in my district and education in general, I was eager to join a district committee. When I received an email about the formation of a teacher evaluation committee it sounded like a perfect one for me to join, as I spent a significant chunk of time learning about the theory and implementation of teacher evaluation in a teacher leadership course that I took during my Master’s year. I was eager to discuss these issues in a real-life setting and to debate the pros and cons of various approaches with my colleagues.

We’ve had two meetings now and I would describe them as strained, awkward, and somewhat tokenistic. The participants include school board members, our school superintendent, principals, and union and non-union teachers and there is huge variation in knowledge about teacher evaluation in general and in levels of enthusiasm about serving on the committee. There seems to be a “we need to get this done” mentality that is trumping the “we need to do this right — even if it takes longer” mindset.

During our first meeting we had our work laid out for us. Our job is to create a new system for teacher evaluation that will align with new requirements from the state Department of Education and serve as an update to our existing method. Unfortunately, a previous committee already did the work of reviewing our current method and making recommendations about what a new model should look like, so our group did not have the opportunity to delve into this important work by examining where we’ve been and how we’re currently doing things. We did a sort of gloss over the recommendations of the previous group but no one seemed to want to really delve into them — my sense that I need to be timid as a new teacher held me back, too.

At our last meeting I was really off-put because it felt like a tokenistic enterprise. Our mission at the meeting was to review different sets of standards for teaching practice and choose the one that we felt best met our needs. For one of the models, we had a live webchat with a representative of that model and spent over 50 minutes discussing it. A second model (equally regarded in education circles) was glossed over in under 30 minutes. It was disheartening to feel as though the decision has already been clearly laid out in front of us and will likely be the one that the committee winds up selecting. While this set of standards is fine, sense of the democratic nature of the group is rapidly eroding. I don’t think that this is the fault of the leader of the committee, but rather the narrow mandates that are passed down that definitely privilege some forms of standards over others and make choosing another option a laborious and difficult process.

I do think that we will get a greater degree of dialogue going when we have conversations around VAM and actual implementation plans, but the foreclosed nature of the early stages of the committee really left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Again, I feel like the degree of latitude and agency that we all have is limited — I’ve never run up against restrictive mandates in this way before.

I feel as though committees that bring multiple stakeholders together are an integral part of running a successful institution — whether it is a school or an entire district. However, it is problematic when these experiences are not authentically democratic and the representatives have just been brought together to nod their heads at something that has largely been predetermined for them.

Often, I think that teachers are uncomfortable in these types of settings because they don’t want to be controversial — many participants on the committee say different things on the sidelines than they do in our conversations. (This of course includes me.) I wonder what it is about how these committees are structured that produces these outcomes — perhaps it has to do with trust and faith that what is said will be taken seriously. Unfortunately, even when something is said, the mandates can be so limiting that it almost doesn’t matter, because nothing can be done about it.

It would also be very interesting to map out the discourse pattern of these meetings — it seems like every comment is really made to the superintendent instead of to the group, which is an odd dynamic in a committee where it is clear that everyone has one equal vote. I feel I can sense my superintendent trying to steer but not direct and I wonder what it is that still makes everyone look to her as the director when I feel she has tried to level the playing field at our meetings.

I’m not sure how to make committees function more effectively, but I do think that their cohesion and willingness to delve into controversy definitely impacts both the culture of schools and districts, but also outcomes for teachers and students alike. I wish that the scope of agency that districts were given was far greater than it is — oversight is important, but not when it usurps genuine innovation or conversation.

The Skin That We Speak

Today is my last day of school before vacation. This afternoon, my students are putting on their Dr. Seuss plays that they’ve been working on all this month, sharing their Dr. Seuss writing, and then we’ll have a culminating Dr. Seuss party. It should be a good way to wrap up the learning from our Dr. Seuss unit and a nice way to head into vacation.

Last week I read The Skin That We Speak, a collection of pieces on language use in the classroom edited by Lisa Delpit. As a literacy person, this book was fascinating and really got me thinking about how I can explicitly encourage language diversity — even in my largely homogenous classroom. Language is such a huge part of classroom life, but despite its huge role in the classroom, it is often unexamined and unscrutinized. Delpit and the other authors explain how essential language is to identity — language, Delpit says, is “the skin that we speak.” This book really resonated with me and my constant reflection this year on how “everything is curriculum.”

Besides being incredibly interesting, the book is also very well written and accessible. The chapters do not read like scholarly articles and I found myself relishing the time that I set aside to read this work and excitedly jotting things down in the margins. In short, I highly recommend that you check it out if you are a teacher who is even remotely interested in the role of language and identity in the classroom.

 

Leibster Award

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This week, I was surprised to be nominated by Norah Colvin for the Leibster Award, which is an effort to encourage and recognize emerging bloggers and to spur connections between bloggers. Thank you, Norah, for nominating me. Norah is a fellow educator who has a great blog that you can access here: http://norahcolvin.com/.

I will now turn to the questions that Norah has requested the bloggers that she nominated answer.

1. What do you value most in life?
What I value most in life are moments of possibility and opportunity, where the world seems open and the choices seem infinite. I also value the people that I know and the education that I have received.

2. What activities do you enjoy and why?
The activity that I most enjoy — and which I have always most enjoyed — is reading. I love how transformative literature can be and the opportunity that it allows me to consider viewpoints so different from my own. I also enjoy non-fiction, especially work related to education that tries to challenge the status quo.

I also really enjoy playing board games of any variety and cooking — particularly baking.

3. What is something you wish you had more time for?
I wish that I had more time to travel, to try new recipes, and to read more books. And also that I had more time to spend with my friends and family.

4. What is one change you would like to make in the world?
I would like to change our society so that equal educational opportunity could actually exist, so that everyone could have access to basic resources, and so that money and special interests wouldn’t dictate the media.

5. What is something you would like change about yourself?
I would like to be a tad more outgoing and a little less independent.

6. What “big” question do you often ponder?
Why our differences continue to lead to such polarization and why empathy can be so selective.

7. What surprises you most about your life — something good in your life that you hadn’t expected, dreamed of, or thought possible?
Being in a relationship with a partner with a worldview quite different from mine who challenges my views and assumptions and is incredibly kind, supportive, and loving. I did not know it was possible to find someone to whom you could literally say anything!

8. What sorts of things amuse you?
I am most amused by the comments that my second graders make in our classroom. I also enjoy when the ridiculousness of an idea is exposed by positing the same thinking in another situation. For example, when teachers being evaluated based solely on test scores is compared to dentists being penalized for the number of cavities they have to treat.

9. What is something you can’t do without?
I can’t do without a good book on my person at all times — I regret it horribly when I am somewhere and have nothing to read! I also could not do with pasta. I read an article that said that climate change could lead to a decrease in pasta production due to difficulties cultivating wheat and it sounded like a plot of a horror movie to me.

10. What do you like to collect?
I like to collect copies of student work that blows me away with its insight or hilarity (I have a “smile file” where I keep these items). I also like to collect quotes and articles and stories that suggest that gender roles are actually shifting and gender stereotyping is altering. And pasta recipes.

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At this point, I am supposed to nominate a couple bloggers whose blogs I enjoy reading to complete this same exercise. I am clearly in need of more suggestions about great blogs to read — unfortunately I often barely have time to update my own blog. I wish that I could find more time to read all the wisdom that other educators are sharing on their blogs!

But, I do have two blogs that I enjoy reading and think that others should check out!

  1. Tickle Me Pink (http://judymko.wordpress.com/)
    Judy blogs about teaching and life. She teaches second grade like I do, and she has recently started doing Genius Hour with her students! I really enjoy reading her reflections on her classroom — she has lots of great ideas.
  2. Texas Teaching Fanatic (http://texasteachingfanatic.com/)
    Kayla blogs about her 4th grade classroom. She has great suggestions for teaching writing and is clearly a passionate educator!

My ten questions will be the same ones that Norah asked me — I can’t come up with any ideas that are better than hers at the moment!

Hitting Reset in My Classroom

This week has been one of my most draining in the classroom thus far. My students have, over the past month or so, been regressing tremendously in terms of their behavior and conduct in the classroom. Things that I haven’t seen for months have been cropping up again. I am hopeful that it’s just the continued presence of this cold, cruel winter and a strong case of “cabin fever,” but this week I decided that I couldn’t wait until spring arrived and hopefully brought back the bubbliness of my students — I had to hit reset.

I framed my “reset” with a somewhat-fabricated challenge — that with respect and responsibility on the decline throughout our school, our principal was seeking a classroom that would step up as a model for the rest of the school. My students, as I expected, eagerly declared that our classroom was the ideal one to serve as this exemplar.

So, on Friday, we spent the day brainstorming a list of problems that we are having in our classroom, revising our classroom guidelines to make them more reflective of the issues that the students identified, and creating a new wall that shows our new ideas about how we should act in our classroom. The students seemed to enjoy the ownership that they had in this process, which I hope will carry over into increased desire to adhere to their peer-created expectations for our classroom.

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This week we will be continuing our work on transforming our classroom interactions by creating and signing “job requirements” for both students and teachers in our classroom, designing a class flag, determining what it means to be a “Curious Questioner,” and designing a campaign of posters and other items relating to respect to display throughout our school.

I believe that character and social skills are some of the most important things that students can, should, and must learn in school, so it is my hope that the class time that I am devoting to these activities will pay off.

Fellow educators, what do you do to combat mid-year regressions like the one my students are having?