Monday, October 6, 2014

End of the Trail

Princeton in the fall is not where I expected to wind down. But it is the perfect place. This is where the final Teacher of the Year event is situated, among the changing leaves and brisk mornings. I sat outside my room and as acorns fell, I watched a busy squirrel burying them against the coming season. In the autumn of our Year of Recognition, the 2014 State Teachers of the Year spent a weekend together thinking about how we could maintain momentum through the winter while balancing our lives and families, and continue to make a difference for public education. 

As 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year, I've had many thrilling experiences and opportunities to advocate for teachers and students in Montana and across the nation. Some highlights included handing US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a handwritten letter outlining my concerns about public education; participating in a podcast for new teachers; delivering keynotes to fellow educators across the state about crucial topics; and speaking out in support of the Common Core standards via guest editorial and video production.

In fact, while the Year of Recognition for a Teacher of the Year is filled with spectacular moments such as meeting the President, the service aspect of this year has been most personally rewarding. One of the most empowering experiences of my life has been developing the voice and the opportunities to speak on behalf of educators and students. Doing this has led me to refine my beliefs, become versed in education policy, reach out to folks on the national level to initiate or continue conversations about important topics like testing and teacher evaluation, promote my belief in the intersection of the Common Core and Montana's Indian Education for All...well, there's just so much.

The Year of Recognition gave me a really good sense of possibilities. So, as I enter my Years of Service, I wish to state the following goals:

1. I will continue to advocate on behalf of Montana's teachers and students in ways which my experience and intuition guide me.

2. I will continue to be active in my Teacher of the Year networks and associations to enhance my ability to advocate for public education.

3. I will continue to push for teacher leadership models in our school structures.

4. I will continue to be vocal against nonsense testing, overtesting, testing without feedback, testing fads, and testing profiteering.

5. I will continue to teach at some level because I know that's how I can best serve my community.

Friends, I have reached the end of The Warrior Trail. I am so lucky that this trail ends here, in Montana, Big Sky Country. At the conclusion is a quiet place. Owls and barn spiders keep me company. I take late afternoon bike rides and enjoy my students again. My family laughs together as I sip coffee on a bluebird morning.

But anyone who knows me will agree I can't sit quietly for long; there is still too much to do. Public education remains the scapegoat for too many ills; educators' voices are too often unheard in important policy decisions. Thanks for accompanying me this far, and please join me on my new blog, Education Under the Big Sky, where I will write about my advocacy work for public education.

Until then, happy trails.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Treats in Dillon

I discovered a jewel this week in Dillon, Montana. I am late to the party, I know, but indulge me the opportunity to share a little of my experience. What a nice campus, with intimacy and goodwill between the students and instructors, and a welcoming atmosphere for a visiting speaker! I thoroughly enjoyed this short trip, set up by the incomparable Estee Aiken, professor in the Education Department.

On Thursday evening I was the inaugural speaker for their 2014 Education Department Speaker Series. I spoke about curricular integration and likened it to baking cookies. Quite a few students and community members turned out for the talk, which featured several videos made by and about my students at Arlee. At the end, I shared my mom's excellent chocolate chip cookies. Thanks, mom!

Friday morning brought 26 degrees and a visit to two classrooms: Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at 10 and Multicultural Education later on. In the first class I demonstrated how to use guided notes and structured discussion to explore a tough text, using James Banks' dimensions of multicultural education as a sample. 

In Multicultural Education, students explored the topic of Indian mascots and a discussion whose main points were identified by students; in groups, they discussed the various facets of the mascot issue and the nuances involved in making a claim about the topic. I showed them my own high school students' posters from last week's work so they could compare their thinking.

Just another day on the Warrior Trail.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

New Year, New Career

Teachers, do you remember the anxiety you felt before your student teaching experience? All the questions: what if I don't know what to do? What if the kids don't like me? What if I can't answer their questions? What if my cooperating teacher is difficult? What if I can't find parking? To me, student teaching felt like it had apocalypse potential, as though all the scenarios in those "what ifs" would be realized and the last four years of my life would have been wasted.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to give the opening address to the fall 2014 student teachers from the University of Montana. These student teachers are starting out in their new placements in the next week or two. I talked about anxiety and how even though they probably won't shake the nerves (if they have them at all - but I doubt it's just me!) there are things they can do actively to make student teaching successful. I offered some ideas in a David Letterman-style Top Ten List. Here they are, in telescoped version:

10. Pay attention to the kids nobody pays attention to.
9. Get to know everyone around you in addition to your cooperating teacher and students.
8. Remember that nobody expects you to know everything.
7. Remember that you are prepared to do this job.
6. Try to learn from your cooperating teacher even if you don't care for him/her or the teaching style.
5. Don't be afraid of the principal.
4. You are a community servant; reflect your community's values, and defer to parents' wishes as much as possible.
3. Act and dress like a professional.
2. Use every second of your classes.
1. Remember why you want to teach.

Whenever I talk to preservice teachers, I'm excited for them. I think of all the challenges and rewards they have ahead. I think of their brimming readiness to take on these challenges and to use what they've learned in their college experiences. I think of the ways more experienced teachers can help them become the teachers they want to be.

It's an honor to welcome these new faces to this best profession.

Friday, July 25, 2014

"I Don't Do School in the Summer," Said No Teacher Ever

Right in the middle of summer, the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers - Montana (ECET2) conference kicked off in Billings. Who on earth wants to spend time in the summer doing school stuff? About 100 teachers did! This conference, put on by 2010 Montana Teacher of the Year Anne Keith, played up the positive: finding solutions, being part of the conversations that lift us rather than drag us down.

Teachers dance to "I Gotta Feeling" after the dinner talks.

After Anne asked me to speak during the dinner at the Northern Hotel, I initially wrote a speech about this very topic: teacher self-advocacy. It was long and dry. It was perfect thematically but would have bored everyone to death. Instead I decided to go for emotion. I talked about the hardest thing that's happened while I was a teacher, and I followed up with some "spectacular teacher fails" that I've tried to turn into learning experiences.

My talk was followed by Montana's First Teacher, Lt. Governor Angela McLean. She spoke about the importance of teachers in individual students' lives, including herself as a student. It was very important to have her speak at this event as she is such an inspirational example for kids (and teachers) across Montana to reach for the stars.

Linda Hassinger has been teaching for FIFTY YEARS. Inspiration!

The next day was filled with conference sessions and talks by Superintendent Denise Juneau and Katherine Bassett, director of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Here's the Billings Gazette story on the conference.

Katherine Bassett (NNSTOY) and I had the chance to connect at ECET2

Teacher leadership is a popular theme right now, from the U.S. Department of Education to conferences in Billings. I love this. Giving teachers the ability to move laterally, to influence their colleagues in new ways, and to reenergize themselves for their own classrooms is a new and promising model in education.

I would like to reinvent parts of our education system, notably the ways structure can (but currently may not) inspire teachers to change, grow, and move themselves. I would like to see how we can come together over finding solutions instead of just identifying problems. I'd like to work with community members as partners in enhancing our children's success rather than putting out fires and giving excuses. Teachers, I'd like to see us advance our profession in this way.

And there you have the short version of my original speech.

Sculpture from Indian Memorial at Little Bighorn Battlefield

Friday, July 4, 2014

A National Forum and the Value of Teacher Voice

Teachers, do you ever wish a governor, legislator, lobbyist, or other policymaker would ask your opinion about a national education issue? What if a group invited you to a forum with these individuals where trends and policies were discussed and you had the opportunity to participate? That's exactly what the Education Commission of the States National Forum is about.

The State Teachers of the Year were invited to participate in the ECS forum and provide the teachers' voice in policy matters. There were panels on civic education, early childhood education, teacher evaluations, school accountability, dual enrollment...the list goes on. Anything that seems like a trending topic was covered (check your blog feed, EdWeek, and twitter for trending topics).

The slides below were part of a plenary session led by Brandon Busteed of Gallup, the polling organization. Interestingly but not surprisingly, there is poll research showing the effect of principals' interest in and support of their teachers. Research also shows that the trajectory of school success begins with effective leadership.
Civic education, something that is very important to me and my classroom, received a share of attention. Montana's own Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau served on a panel with Massachusetts State Senator Richard Moore and National Council for the Social Studies President Michelle Herczog. It was fascinating to hear about the NCSS C3 (College, Career, and Civic Life) framework for civic education.
Montana's governor, Steve Bullock, was also elected chair of ECS for the next two years during this forum. I look forward to following the Governor's guidance of ECS.

I was so busy during the forum that I forgot to put my feather somewhere for a picture, so I found a place to hang it in the airport.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Vergara, the NEA, and Maria Montessori

I traveled to Washington, DC, the day after the Vergara v. California teacher tenure verdict was handed down. It was in the shadow of this event which has been rippling across the education community that I arrived at the doorway of the National Education Association headquarters.

The purpose for the visit was to gather the Teacher Ambassadors together (I am one) and create trainings for our colleagues back home to implement the new Smarter Balanced assessment system. The Teacher Ambassadors are supported by a grant directed in partnership between the NEA and WestEd. I've been working on a training to support writing instruction that addresses Common Core standards and helps teachers understand the demands of the assessment, which is a decent reflection of what we want students to be able to do.

While I'm still not behind all the assessments and am certainly an advocate of reduction in the time spent testing students, I can vouch for the teachers involved in this meeting: we are dedicated professionals, coming to Washington during the end of our school years or beginning of our summers - both difficult times to leave - in order to do this work to support colleagues.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel with Montana legislator Amanda Curtis (D-Butte) and me. 

In fact it's a rare teacher who is not dedicated. Perhaps we aren't all dedicated to fund-raising, or to club leadership; perhaps some of us are less interested in coaching or in mentorship. We are not cookie-cutter teachers. And some teachers do need assistance from their colleagues and extra instructional leadership from their administrators to reach their potential. And yes, a few teachers should find new careers.

However, my sense of the Vergara verdict is that it underscores and perpetuates the narrative that goes something like this: bad teachers = low-performing students = grim future for America. Therefore, fire the bad teachers by stripping their rights = high-performing students = bright future for America. There are so many things wrong with this misdirected logic that I don't know where to begin.

But let me try. Here are some simple questions: 1) what happens when teachers lose their job protections? With little incentive already to become teachers, who then wants to step into that lion's mouth? 2) And will removing job protections actually create better teachers? 3) Is it reasonable for a district to expect teachers to overcome the circumstances of the children who come to their classrooms, and then to gauge the teachers' success on these children's test scores, and to release a teacher from duties if scores aren't satisfactory? This negative narrative is currently gripping our public school system and fueling political maneuvers to privatize schools, which will reduce equitable access to high quality education in the long run.

I returned from the NEA with some newfound respect for my fellow teachers who are committed to helping their colleagues improve, no matter what their state legislatures and courts are doing. 

I attended Montessori schools through 8th grade and I believe Maria Montessori's method pervades my beliefs about teaching and shapes much of what I do in my public high school classroom. Her portrait in the NEA building reminded me of the chasm between her philosophy and today's conversation around public education. What would she say about all this? 

Friday, June 13, 2014

White House Domestic Policy Council Listens

It's a mouthful, but yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with the Policy Assistant for Education from the White House Domestic Policy Council, Zealan Hoover. I'll just call him Zealan. Also present were Laurie Calvert, the Teacher Liaison from the Department of Education and Domestic Policy Council intern Lauren Burdette.

The meeting took place at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

To prepare for this meeting I gathered questions and requests from State Sup. of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, Education Policy advisor to Gov. Bullock Shannon O'Brien, and CSKT Tribal Education Director Penny Kipp. These fine Montana education folks expressed an interest in several topics: funding of Indian schools specific to impact aid, the work of the Interagency Working Group created in 2011 by Executive Order 13592, the potential use of Montana's Essential Understandings about Montana Indians by the Smithsonian related to the National Museum of American Indians to support teachers across the country, and a revamp of thinking on Pell grants used for dual enrollment students. There's more...but I'll quit the list-making.

View from our meeting room toward the White House.

Zealan said he appreciated my visit because his office doesn't get the chance to speak to many real teachers. This concerns me although I can understand why it is so: with teachers' schedules and demands it would be unrealistic to think that many can plan to visit with these folks. But who then is advising Zealan's office? My experience has shown me that many of the people behind education rhetoric and reform are not teachers. They have little understanding of the realities of classroom work and apply their own background knowledge, whether from business, politics, or farming, to schoolhouses. This doesn't work.

More teachers must become involved in leadership at their district and state levels; we need teachers' voices in the conversation about education. We need teachers to lead, and we need teachers to speak. We need teachers to be part of the solutions to the challenges we face.

And what are those challenges, Laurie wanted to know? What keeps you up at night, as a teacher? I'll let you ponder that and then decide how to raise your own voice to be part of the solution.

Laurie Calvert sports the feather. (I wonder what those guys are loading into the motorcade Suburbans, bottom right?)