Archive for the ‘Teachers’ Category

Underdogs

June 1, 2009

I was given the honor of speaking to the most recent graduates from St. Vrain's Adult Education school on May 22.  Here is the text of my remarks.

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It is a great privilege for me to be here with you tonight to witness this milestone in your life – to witness your accomplishment of reaching graduation.

I want to thank Mary Willoughby for inviting me to be here tonight.  I want to say congratulations, too, to all of the families who are here.  I know from personal experience that very few of us achieve a milestone like this on our own.  Teachers and family provide us with immeasurable support.

My wife and I supported each other as we completed our educations.  First, she worked while I finished school and then we traded roles.  I worked while she finished school. 

So, I would like to say thank you to the staff at Adult Ed and to the parents, spouses, significant others and friends who are here.

I want to talk for a very few minutes about a subject that is not often mentioned at graduation ceremonies.  I want to speak on the subject of Underdogs – people and groups who find a way to be successful even when the odds are against them.

Some, perhaps many of us on this stage have felt like an underdog at one time or another in our lives.  I know that I have had that feeling.

I never felt more like an underdog than when I graduated from high school and went off to college.

I grew up in a small town.  There were barely 1500 people in my town.  I had 40 in my graduating class from high school.  About the same size as your class.

When I went to college, there were more people living in my dormitory than lived in my entire town.  I went to my first class – a required class for freshman in a giant lecture hall.  There may have been more students in that one lecture hall than there were students in grades K – 12 where I had come from.

I didn’t know if I could do this.  I didn’t know if I could survive at a big University.

I became even more intimidated when I heard my college classmates talk about all the math and science classes they had taken in high school.

When I was a senior in high school, my science teacher took a new job the 2nd week of school.  My school wasn’t able to recruit a new teacher.  That was the end of science for me.

I wasn’t sure how I would be able to keep up in college.  I went to sleep feeling homesick most nights my first semester.

But, I had learned something growing up in my small town that would help get through college and succeed I had learned to work hard.  I’ve had jobs since I was 10 years old.  That was a gift my parents gave me.  It was a gift my wife’s parents gave her.  They made us work.

I learned that hard work can make up for a lot.  And the best thing is, we get to decide how hard we want to work.

I read a magazine article recently by a person named Malcolm Gladwell.  The whole article was about How Do Underdogs Win?  How does David beat Goliath?

Gladwell says that there are three reasons that Underdogs are successful.

1.       They work harder than most people are willing to work.

2.       They are willing to do things other people won’t do.  Successful underdogs don’t care if people say “you’re not cool.”

3.       Successful underdogs keep getting up on their feet when they get knocked down.  They don’t give up.

I want to tell you about the janitor at my high school.  Mr. Bray.

Mr. Bray had a big family.  He had five or six or seven children.  I don’t remember exactly how many.  Mr. Bray had a dream.  He wanted his family to have a house where every one of his kids could have their own bedroom.  Throw in a family room and a dining room – that’s a big house.

It’s hard to find a house like that on a janitor’s salary in a small town.  But, that was Mr. Bray’s dream.  He wasn’t going to be stopped by lack of money.

From the time I was about five or six, we would see Mr. Bray at different places around town – after school, on weekends and all through the summer.  Mr. Bray would tear down abandon buildings in town.  He would work out an arrangement with the property owner.  He would tear down their old building if he could keep the wood and bricks and pipes.

I remember people around town talking about Mr. Bray.  They would say things like, “I can’t believe he spends so much time tearing down buildings.”

I’m ashamed to say we kids weren’t so kind.  We said the things kids say before we know better. “There’s Mr. Bray tearing down another building.  What a dork.”

Mr. Bray didn’t care what people in town said about him.  He had a dream.  He was going to make it come true.

Mr. Bray carried himself with pride and dignity everywhere he went.  When he completed a demolition job.  The lot left behind was spic and span.  Mr. Bray did things right.

And, by the time I was a freshman in high school… Mr. Bray had built one of the biggest houses in town.

That’s what successful underdogs do.  They work hard.  They do things others won’t do.  They don’t worry whether or not people think they are cool.

I want to tell you one more story.  It’s from a book I’m reading with my daughter.  It’s called Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor.  It is a true story about Juan and Lupe Villasenor – two immigrants who were driven from their homes in Mexico by a revolution almost 100 years ago.  They built a successful life in the United States.  (Their son is a well known author – he wrote the book.)

Juan and Lupe did not have easy lives.  Their families were knocked down many, many times.  But, they kept getting back on their feet.

There is a scene in the book that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Juan and his family are camped outside of Ciudad Juarez.  They are hoping to cross the border into the United States.

They have nothing.  They have to pick corn out of manure to keep themselves from starving to death.  One night, after a terrible sandstorm, one of Juan’s sisters goes blind.  The family is discouraged.  They want to give up.

Juan’s mother, Dona Margarita, calls her family together.  This is a women whose lost several children; her daughter is blind; her grandchildren are crying with hunger; they have to sleep on the ground through dust storms.

With all these hardships, this is what Dona Margarita said to her family, “We must open our hearts so that we can see the possibilities in our predicament.  If we do not look for the possibilities, we have nothing.”

I can’t imagine the hardships the Villasenor family endured.  It is humbling to hear the words spoken by Dona Margarita; to hear someone who has endured so much declare We Must Find the Possibilities in our Predicament.

But, that is what successful underdogs do.  They work hard.  They do things other people say aren’t cool.  They keep getting back up on their feet when they are knocked down and they look for life’s possibilities.

That is how Dreams Come True.

You all have taken a less traditional path to graduation than people who will graduate tomorrow from traditional high schools.  Some people might consider you underdogs.

Here’s what I would say.  You already have an advantage in life that others don’t.  You know how to overcome adversity.  There’s no softness on this stage.  I’m sure of that.

You know how to work hard.  You know how to keep going when others say you aren’t cool.  And, you know how to pick yourself up when you get knocked down.

You can accomplish your dreams if you keep doing what you’ve done to reach this place tonight.

Congratulations.

Thank you again for giving me the privilege of witnessing what you’ve accomplished.

United States Behind Other Nations in Teacher Professional Development

February 11, 2009

Below is an excerpt from the executive summary of a report done by the National Staff Development Council. 

 Copies of the report are available online at www.nsdc.org/stateproflearning.cfm. The report summarizes a more in-depth research report, the complete version of which can be found at www.nsdc.org/stateproflearning.cfm and at http://www.srnleads.org

Following are some examples of approaches to professional learning that provide lessons for states and the federal government.

•      In South Korea – much like Japan and Singapore – only about 35 percent of teachers’ working time is spent teaching pupils. Teachers work in a shared office space during out-of-class time, since the students stay in a fixed classroom while the teachers rotate to teach them different subjects. The shared office space facilitates sharing of instructional resources and ideas among teachers, which is especially helpful for new teachers.

 

Teachers in many of these countries engage in intensive lesson study in which they develop and fine-tune lessons together and evaluate their results.

• In Finland, teachers meet one afternoon each week to jointly plan and develop curriculum, and schools in the same municipality are encouraged to work together to share materials.

• More than 85 percent of schools in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland provide time for professional development in teachers’ work day or week, according to OECD.

In Singapore, the government pays for 100 hours of professional development each year for all teachers in addition to the 20 hours a week they have to work with other teachers and visit each others’ classrooms to study teaching. With the help of the National Institute of Education, teachers engage in collective action research projects to evaluate and improve their teaching strategies.

England has instituted a national training program in best-practice literacy methods, using videotapes of teaching, training materials, and coaches who are available to work in schools. This effort coincided with a subsequent rise in the percentage of students meeting the target literacy standards from 63 percent to 75 percent in just three years.

• Since 2000, Australia has been sponsoring the Quality Teacher Programme, which provide funding for curriculum and professional development materials used in a trainer of trainers model to update and improve teachers’ skills and understandings in priority areas and enhance the status of teaching in both government and non-government schools.

The experiences of these countries, the report says, “underscore the importance of on-the-job learning with colleagues as well as sustained learning from experts in content and pedagogy. The diversity of approaches indicates that schools can shape professional learning to best fit their circumstances and teacher and student learning needs.”

 

Investment to Action

November 13, 2008

The investment the community made in public schools on November 4 is leading to immediate action.  Specifically, action is being taken to reduce unreasonably large classes; restore lost courses; move forward on focus schools; implement pre-AP programs at Longs Peak and Erie Middle Schools, and begin the process of implementing capital improvement projects.

We will see the effects of these actions when school begins again in January.

For more details, here is the Times-Call article.  And, the source documents distributed at last nights school board meeting are here.  Download sb_class_size_reductions.pdf

Conversation Themes – Teachers

May 2, 2008

Yesterday, I posted themes from conversations with parents.  Today, I am posting themes from my conversations with teachers.

I would encourage readers to comment.  Which of these themes resonate with you most?  Which of these themes do not resonate?  Why?  What would you add to the list?

If you are a teacher who took part in these conversations, is there something I missed or got wrong?

The overarching question I posed was: As a school district, how might we move closer toward our potential?Top of Form

Over arching theme:

Teachers are proud of what they are able to accomplish given the resources they have to work with.  They are concerned about the present as well as the future.

Most commonly mentioned issues:

Class Size (instruction time).  Teachers are extremely concerned on the impact of larger class sizes.  They list a number of ways in which larger class sizes will negatively impact their abilities to serve students.  Bottom line:  Teachers suggest that it is structurally not possible to close the achievement gap or stretch the high performers.  In effect, teachers say they are forced to choose between students.

High school teachers indicate that the total number of students they have in their combined sections makes it extremely difficult to have meaningful relationships with their students.

Also, teachers say they are, in essence, being asked to do more work in the same amount of time.

Technology.  Technology is an important issue to middle and high school teachers (it was not mentioned as often by elementary school teachers).  As one high school teacher said, “We are desperate for technology.”  There also are concerns about how difficult it is to utilize existing technology.

High school teachers, in particular, are able to enumerate many ways they would use smart board technology.  However, as Math teachers said at the last board meeting, laptops and projectors are the first priority.

Student Remediation.  Teachers express concern about the number of students who arrive unprepared for their grade level.  This concern is expressed at all grade levels.  It is most pronounced at the middle and high school levels.

Student Support.  Teachers are concerned about cutbacks in and/or the limited number of positions such as literacy teachers and counselors.    Teachers say that when students are not able to receive individualized attention when they need it the classroom environment is further compromised.

Equity.  Teachers at the higher income schools indicate that their work is far easier than at lower income schools.  “It changes everything,” said one middle school teacher.  Teachers at all buildings indicated concern about equity issues.  The equity issues they described focused primarily on teaching tools (e.g. technology, extra books, etc.)

Compensation.  Many teachers made it clear that they are looking at other school districts in the area.  The gap between St. Vrain’s base pay and that of nearby school districts is getting large enough that many teachers are willing to consider a change – though that’s not necessarily their first choice.

Prep Time.  Teachers indicate that they don’t have adequate time to meet in teams (especially vertical teams) and use assessment data to guide instruction.  Given this, some teacher question the merits of the number of assessments students are required to take.  If there’s not time to use the date, the teachers don’t gain any value added.  Other teachers see the assessments as highly valuable but say they need more time to make effective use of this data.  Teachers say, consistently, that they would like more PLC time to focus on horizontal and vertical team meetings to, as one teacher said, “Figure out how to make the curriculum we’re using work for my students in my classroom.”

Teachers would like the community to be more aware that other school districts provide far more prep time to teachers than does St. Vrain.

Vision?  Teachers in four of the five schools said they are unclear on the district’s long term vision.  They indicate that they are seldom part of conversations about the direction of the school district.  At the building level, many teachers recognize that principals are consumed with daily operations and have little time for big picture thinking.  At the district level, they indicate that they are hungry for more communications.

Schools I visited after the Public Policy presentations found the meetings to be extremely helpful.  People said those types of conversations are important to have on an ongoing basis.

Communications.  Teachers want to make sure people in leadership positions are doing the work that’s needed to convey the school district’s message and needs to the community.  They are concerned the stories about the good work in schools are not getting out.  They recognize that there is an important role for them to play in helping to communicate with the community. 

Discover Colorado

April 27, 2008

Discover Colorado: It’s People, Places, and Times is a text book written by Mathew Downey and Ty Bliss.  Ty is a teacher at Prairie Ridge Elementary School.  I am reading the book with my children.   The book is designed to do two things:  Help students learn about Colorado and improve their literacy skills.  This integrated approach to literacy and social studies is essential in our modern education system.

Larger Class Sizes

April 21, 2008

I’ve had hundreds of hours of conversation with parents and teachers regarding education and schools.  One theme is consistent.  Parents and teachers want smaller class sizes.  We’re headed the opposite direction here in St. Vrain.  It’s a matter of economics not good pedagogy. 

We can debate at length about whether or not class size has an impact on student achievement.  If we take the time to look, we can find a study that reinforces our point of view – no matter what that point of view might be.  Here is a good summary of a range of studies.

Whether or not one can prove that class size impacts performances on tests, it does change the learning experience for students and the teaching experience for teachers – both for the worse.  Here are a few examples of the impact of larger class sizes based on my conversations with teachers over the past few weeks:

          Less differentiated instruction.  As numbers of students go up a teachers abilities to assess, discern and design tailored instruction goes down

          Easier for kids to hide.  Middle and high school students, teachers say, become increasingly proficient at hiding their weaknesses.  In larger classes, it takes longer for teachers to find the students that are making a concerted effort to hide.

          Less and less timely feedback.  As the number of students increase the time that a teacher has to provide feedback is diminished.  A teacher must grade more work in the same amount of time.  This is of particular important on written work.  I know from experience that rigorous feedback is essential to the process of becoming a better writer.  Feedback keeps students motivated, too.  In large classes, that’s less likely to happen.

          Diminished relationships.  Education gurus tend to agree that strong student-teacher (student-adult) relationships are an essential element of a quality learning experience.  There is research that suggests as human beings, we’re able to manage about 150 relationships at any given time.  We have high school teachers who are likely to have 180 students each semester.  As my personal development blog suggests, I would have a hard time remembering that many names.  How can teachers and students have a quality relationship if the teachers can’t even remember all their students’ names?

          Less rigorous parent-teacher partnerships.  A quality parent-teacher relationship takes time.  Often these relationships turn on the ability of teachers to prepare quality information about each student for parents.  As class sizes go up, the time to provide parents with quality information

I can go on but, test scores aside, I think you get the picture.

Budget Cuts

April 21, 2008

Most readers of this blog know that the big news in St. Vrain over the past month is that we have planned budget cuts for the 2008-2009 school year.  The most significant cut is a reduction of 85 teaching positions.  Many, but not all, of these positions will be eliminated through retirements and resignations.  Some teachers will have to look for new jobs in other school districts.  I sat with some of these teachers last week.  It is not a fun to visit with people whose job you had a hand in eliminating.  The teachers were highly professional.

I have been asked by many people why we are making these cuts.  The reasons are straightforward.

Fiscal responsibility.  We have excellent financial systems in place and we understand that if we maintain the status quo (including holding teacher and staff compensation constant) we will face budget deficits by next year.  We receive additional funds each year in the amount of inflation plus one percent.  These increases will continue through 2010 (that is the time that Amendment 23 expires).  This year the inflation rate used by the state is 2.2 percent.  Thus, we’ll receive a 3.2% increase in funding.

At the same time, many expenses are increasing faster than inflation plus one percent.  For instance, health care, energy costs and mandatory contributions to the state retirement fund all are increasing at a rate far greater than inflation plus one percent.  That means something must give.  In a people driven business (83% of the budget is salaries and benefits; many other budget items are mandated by the state), reducing personnel is often one of the only options available.  In previous years, significant staff cuts have been made to non-classroom positions.  For instance, we barely keep up with maintenance.

Increasing teacher pay. St. Vrain compensates teachers and administrators far less than neighboring school districts.  As such, we are less and less competitive in our marketplace.  We are more and more vulnerable to teachers choosing to leave our school district.  I would argue that we are most vulnerable to losing teachers with about 10 years of experience with a master’s degree.  These teachers can earn up to 15% more per year by going to districts just 30 to 40 minutes away.  We’re falling behind nearby competitors in regard to base pay, too.

We can debate whether or not teachers earn too little or too much.  But, if you don’t pay a competitive wage, over time, you won’t attract and retain good teachers.  That’s simple economics.

Read Across America Day

March 3, 2008

Monday, March 3 is Read Across America Day sponsored by the National Education Association.

The day is held in conjunction with Dr. Seuss‘ birthday.  He would have been 104, yesterday, on March 2.  Like many families my family are fans of Dr. Seuss.  He has helped our children learn to read.

I read to a class of second graders (including my son) today to celebrate.  I chose one of my favorite stories, The Sneetches, a tale of the foolish costs of division within communities and learning lessons the hard way.  I had a blast.

I hope you have time to read with your children, grandchildren or children of friends today – or sometime soon.

Romeo & Juliet in WWI

February 19, 2008

I had a fun morning at Silver Creek High School earlier this month.  I sat in on an integrated English-History course taught by Jamie Neufeld and Justelle Grandsaert.  I want to thank Ms. Neufeld for inviting me to attend.

The morning I attended, students were acting out scenes from Romeo & Juliet set in WWI Belgium and France.  Ms. Neufeld and Ms. Grandsaert have put a great deal of thought into this course and assignment.  The criteria by which they evaluate students requires students to demonstrate they understand historical details of the period and the meaning of Shakespeare’s text.

What I observed is an example of what’s going well in our schools as well as challenges we face.

The students were terrific.  It was clear they spent time with the assigned material.  I noticed little things, too – the nuanced details in one of the stage performances; working in teams; the attentiveness and respect for one another’s performances; the courtesy of students who stopped by to tell me thanks for coming, and the normal high school tactic of angling for just a bit more time from student’s who may have been nervous about their readiness to perform.

Some of the students chose to video record their performances.  Some of these productions were complete with titles, credits and other production features.  The skills required to do this type of video production has nothing to do with English or History per se but are highly relevant.

In my consulting practice, client expectations for multi-media reports are growing.  A simple text report is no longer sufficient.  I am having to try to develop new skills (a challenge for someone who learned to type on a manual typewriter).  I am glad to see our students developing these skills at an early age.  This is the type of learning experience I hear parents say they crave for their children.

This also brings into focus one of our challenges.  It is my understanding that students used their own technology to make their video productions.  If a student comes from a family lacking a certain threshold of resources, they are excluded from such opportunities.

The teachers of the class are terrific, too.  A good deal of thought and planning go into a course of this type.  Beyond the content, I was impressed by the teachers’ rapport with the students.  I found the group of students to be highly respectful with a normal does of squirrelyness.  I was an instigator of orneriness when I was a student.  Now, I’m wound a little too tight and this normal energy sometimes gets on my nerves (how did that happen?).  Not Ms. Neufeld or Ms. Grandsaert.  They went with the flow without compromising on expectations.  I’m glad they are working in our classrooms.

In my conversation with Ms. Neufeld, she indicated that the integrated course led by two teachers opens up a multitude of possibilities that aren’t conceivable when working alone.

This observation points to another challenge we face – class size.  To maximize the benefits of a learning experience such as I observed requires the opportunity for detailed feedback – from teacher to student and students to students.  Individual and group discussion would be beneficial, too.

I did not count the students in this class.  I have since learned that it is more than 40.  If a teacher spends 5 to 10 minutes per student developing feedback (which isn’t much), that’s at least five hours of time for one assignment in one class.  As class sizes increase, the math is not complicated to conclude that detailed feedback becomes a challenge.

Perhaps class sizes don’t move the needle on standardized tests.  The size of a group does change the learning experience.

We have a choice as a community.  Will we provide our young people and our teachers with the bare minimum or will be provide the tools and the time to allow for rigor, creativity and fun so that we can stoke students’ passion for learning?

We have good teachers and students with great potential.  They are waiting to see what we decide.

One World Youth Project

December 19, 2007

Marnie Steele, a Trail Ridge Middle School science teacher, is one of those teachers are likely to remember even when they’re older.  Marnie is enthusiastic, fun and passionate about her subject.  She goes out of her way and puts in extra hours to create learning opportunities for her students.  Her husban Jamie helps.

One program she has brought to Trail Ridge is the One World Youth Project.  It provides opportunities for students to do hands on environmental work and interact with students from other parts of the world.

I appreciate Marnie’s enthusiasm and dedication.