Dear Principal: Read My Blog, Please

Note: This post is part of Scott McLeod’s annual Digital Leadership Day (#leadershipday14) that he celebrates on the anniversary of this blog.  To learn more, visit his blog Dangerously Irrelevant.

woman and man hands with smartphone and tablet pcSometimes being a classroom teacher who blogs feels a bit like being a rebel.  I’m not normally known for my rebellious behavior, but when I write openly about the problems that I see in education I sometimes feel like I’m shaking my first at the same people that control my long-term employment.  Of course, I try to be careful to draw a clear line between the problems and the people, but I have to admit to occasionally clicking the Publish button with some trepidation.

While I would love for my colleagues and my (amazing) principal to read what I craft and share in this space, I get nervous about mixing my “day job” and my blogging work.  I don’t want others to be offended, but I also fear the image of being arrogant and judgmental about the profession.  That conflict motivates some to use pseudonyms when they blog, which I can certainly understand even I don’t choose to hide my own identity.

When I consider this apprehension about inviting the professionals in my building to read Scripted Spontaneity, I feel a little guilty.  I mean, after all, I’ve been known to preach about the importance of students publishing online (blogging, podcasting, etc.) as both a motivational force and a critical one.  How hypocritical am I to shy away from that same criticism?  If I think that writing for the web is a powerful experience for 14-year-olds, why don’t I feel the same way about 38-year-olds?

And that is when it occurs to me that my thinking and my writing need the feedback that comes from being read and judged by those I see every day.  My work online would be so much better if I knew that my principal read what I choose to write about here.  Motivated by either a fear of embarrassment or a desire to impress (maybe both?), I know that my blogging would benefit from the pushback that I could get from those who actually see me teach.

Perhaps the most powerful feedback could come from my principal.  She is an experienced and wise educator who inspires those around her to do better for their students.  I respect her and admire her greatly.  I can only imagine the conversations that we could have around the issues that I write about on Scripted Spontaneity.

Moreover, I think that reading my blog would benefit her.  Staying in touch with the needs and concerns of classroom teachers is important to her, but it must be difficult to do.  What if teachers (or groups of teachers, PLTs, departments) blogged about what they care about?  Wouldn’t both teachers and administrations gain value from a public interaction around the issues that matter?

For that matter, why shouldn’t my writing here be a part of my state-mandated Professional Development Plan?  As many have said before (and I mentioned previously), the criticism that I receive about my blogging has affected my teaching in countless ways.  I have no doubt that maintaining this blog has developed me more as a professional educator than 90% of the PD that has been force-fed to me and my colleagues.

It’s clear to me that administrators who read the blogs of their teachers are better informed and more aware of the needs/dreams/ideas/challenges of those whom they supervise.  And it would not surprise me if a rise in the number of principals who read teachers blogs led to an increase in the number of teachers willing to join the edublogosphere.  And that’s just plain good for education.

So, why don’t more principals read their teachers’ blogs?  Why don’t more principals blog?

“Students do the thinking. We know how to read, write, speak, and think about science, and we also know that our students won’t gain these skills if we do the work for them. We give our students the support they need to develop science literacy, analyze data, integrate mathematical and computational thinking, develop models and design solutions. We know students cannot comprehend scientific practices in depth without directly experiencing those practices for themselves; therefore, we check the ratio of teacher work to student work in each and every lesson and ensure that our students get many opportunities to be critical thinkers, readers, writers, and speakers.”

From Sara Bokhari’s description of the “vision statement” that her team at TNTP has set forth for science teaching.

Top 10 Reasons that Year-round Schools are Great for Teachers

CalendarI’ve spent ten of my twelve years of classroom teaching in year-round schools.  I will make no secret of how much I enjoy the schedule and the lifestyle, but I recognize that they are not for everyone.  That said, however, many of the teachers who express doubt to me about whether they would like to teach year-round don’t really understand what they are all about.  Here is my best attempt to educate about, and evangelize for, year-round elementary and middle school.

Note: I’m discussing here multi-track year-round schools, which (obviously) come with a long list of challenges.  The goal of this list is simply to point out the advantages, many of which are not obvious.

1. It’s much harder to reach your energy limit.   In year-round schools, students and teachers work for nine week “track in” periods separated by 3 week “track out” breaks.  I never knew how unrelenting the fatigue of teaching could be until I left year-round for a traditional calendar school.  Why would anyone prefer one gigantic break in the summer instead of four smaller ones spread throughout the year?

2. It’s also harder to get bored.  Someone will argue with me about this–I’m sure–but I get bored when I’m off for months at a time.  Three weeks is some kind of magical period of time during which I relax, recharge, and rethink without missing the classroom or getting that feeling that I need to keep busy.

3. The students stay in “learning mode” continuously.  I took this for granted before I switched to a traditional calendar, but students never get far enough away from school days to switch into the “standby mode” that they have at the end of a summer break.  With a little review, you can get right back to exploring new content with them.

4. The cycle of professional development is built in.  Every teacher has had that moment when she wished that she could hit the reset button on a unit or course of study.  We’ve all wanted to start over again at some point to improve something or try something new.  That opportunity presents itself throughout the year in year-round schools because a track out break is a great time to read a book, attend a workshop, or complete an online class, and then put those ideas to work right away.

5. You don’t use as many sick days.  How many times have you taken a sick day as you felt a cold start to come on?  How many times was the real culprit exhaustion from months without a break?  I managed to bank a ridiculous number of sick days during my first seven years as a teacher.  Of course, then I had kids of my own and I burned through them pretty quickly.

6. You can vacation when the beaches/parks/mountains/etc. are not packed with other travelers.  This is one of those no-brainers, right?  I’ve been fortunate enough to take my family to Disney World in early December and the North Carolina mountains in April.  I sit by my neighborhood pool after Labor Day enjoying the peace and quiet.  Now that’s what I call relaxing.

7. It’s harder to be a hoarder.  In most multi-track year-round schools, teachers pack up from their classrooms before taking their break.  The returning teacher moves into that space so that a school only needs classrooms for 3 tracks (75% of the teachers).  All of that packing and unpacking forced me to limit my collection of teaching materials to just the ones I needed the most.  I took pictures of student work instead of saving it.  I use digital documents instead of a filing cabinet full of paper.

8. Collaboration becomes less about doing the same thing at the same time.  And more about doing what’s best for your students.  Professional learning teams composed of same-grade-level, same-subject teachers are forced to deal with the fact that each track is on a staggered version of the same schedule.  We focus on what we have in common, and how we can help one another, not on standardizing our lessons into lock-step harmony.

9. There is no time to obsess over the past.  Too many teachers get hung up on the mistakes they’ve made or the stumbles of their students.  The pace of year-round school is constant, which forces us to have one foot in the present and the other in the future.  When something goes wrong, we look immediately to what needs to happen next time.

10. It always feels simultaneously like the first week of school and the last week of school.  With one track always settling in after returning from a break, and another gearing up to take their break, the school climate rises and falls on a three week schedule that makes it feel like your breaks are always around the corner.

Year-round teachers, what did I miss? Traditional calendar teachers, what did I get wrong?

It turns out that the most important way for parents to raise successful children is buy bookcases. Or at least this is what readers could conclude if they absorbed just the finding summarized in this Gizmodo article, and not the fourth paragraph caveat that books in the home are likely a proxy for other facets of good parenting—like income, emphasis on education, and parental educational attainment.”

From The Atlantic’s recent guide to reading educational data without jumping to conclusions.  Hat tip to Tim Stahmer who wrote about this post on his blog recently.

Back in the trenches?

1149px-Soldiers_in_trenchWe hear that phrase all the time, don’t we?  Those who work outside classrooms like to announce that they remember what it’s like “in the trenches”.  Classroom teachers criticize policy makers, reformers, and others who act without knowing what it means to be in those same trenches.  To those who perceive themselves as warriors fighting the good fight every day, this kind of language elicits a sense of pride, mutual respect, and self-sacrifice.  But is this really the metaphor that we want?

Here’s a little historical refresher: trench warfare was some of the most horrific fighting of any period of world history.  And that had less to do with the advent of chemical weapons during World War I as it did with the unsanitary conditions that helped Spanish Influenza kill more American soldiers than combat.  It was a gruesome sort of military action that mainly consisted of stalemates that dragged on for months, as each side lobbed artillery at the other and shot anyone who climbed out of those claustrophobic earthen tunnels of misery.

The impasse was punctuated by surges of troops emerging from the trenches in an attempt to advance, usually with the loss of more than 90% of their brave doughboys.  Progress on this front of The Great War, located mostly in France, was nearly nonexistent.  The war was neither won nor lost in the trenches, but rather through air superiority and advances in tank design.  That lesson is often lost on those who think of trench fighting as noble: it rarely results in change.

In truth, education needs so much more than stalemates and status quo.  We need new strategies and new tools.  We need innovation and experimentation.  Above all, we need teachers who see their role as not simply holding the line but advancing it.

I consider all this as I return to the middle school science classroom this week (after a 9-month hiatus) and receive encouragement from those who are glad to have me back in the trenches.  I take this praise with trepidation, however, because I know that it is far too easy to become “entrenched” in the ways of today and lose sight of the need for momentum.  I am well aware that it takes small squads of courageous educators to jump over the barbed wire and cross no man’s land in order for us get to where we need to be.

Are you “in the trenches” or deeply “entrenched”?  Do you see a difference?

photo credit:  Wikimedia Commons

“No, no!  The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”

-Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass

This week has brought such exciting adventures and fodder for many future blog posts.  More to come soon…