Teacher Leader…or Lack Thereof?

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“BE A LEADER!” We utter these words almost daily to our scholars. What exactly do we mean when we say this? Don’t we have specific expectations of what it means to be a scholar leader? These last couple of weeks have had me thinking. How can teachers exclaim these words and struggle being a leader themselves? Aren’t we supposed to “lead by example”? That’s what we tell our scholars, isn’t it? Is there gratification in not being a teacher leader? Are the standards of expectations we have set for ourselves the reason they are so low for our scholars? I have been engrossed with these wonderings all week.  

Let’s think about this. What exactly qualifies a teacher as a leader? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that standing at the front of the classroom is not a certifiable characteristic of leadership. There is much more to being a teacher leader than simply that. In my reflection, I began to think simplistically about the characteristics I’d expect to see in my scholar leaders in order to decipher how this might transfer to educators.

When I’m identifying leaders in my classroom community, yes, I look for the general character traits such as respect and responsibility. These are at the very foundation of what a leader should display. But, sometimes it seems that even these are too much to ask of some colleagues. I’m not certain why this blaring lack of professional responsibility is agitating me so much these days. Typically, we get into a slump and we climb our way out. This year has been disparagingly different….challenging, to say the least. I’ve had to stop and think about why I’m here to begin with. At the beginning of my teaching career, I was told that I would never amount to anything as an educator, but thankfully, my scholars communicated otherwise. It is because of not only my scholars, but the many experiences I’ve had along the way that assure me that leadership is much MORE than simply respect and responsibility.

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The obligations of teacher leaders have the potential to bear heavy weight. As schools continue to work towards improvement, teacher leaders stand at the helm, advocating for quality, equitable education for all young scholars. However, with systemic issues such as poverty, homelessness, drugs and violence at the forefront of many scholars minds, it becomes more and more difficult for teachers to encourage and motivate them to be effective learners and in turn, becomes equally challenging to be effective, efficacious educators. Teachers are becoming more and more overwhelmed working to support scholars as they struggle to deal with the realities of their own lives. The days seem to be getting longer and harder the closer we get to the end of the school year. Morale is low, complaints are high, students´ instruction is done just complacently enough to say simply that it was done. It is clear as I walk the halls that many of us are tired and some even burned out. Our scholars are feeling it too, expressing their frustration with outbursts and disrespectful behavior because they lack the skills to express it in any other way. Relationships between teachers and their scholars are suddenly falling apart. How we deal with this sudden decline in school climate can be the difference between how successfully we lead our scholars or not. I leave the building perplexed, wondering how the year has come to this.

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I would venture to say that being a teacher leader is indeed challenging. In my eyes, however, it is a welcomed challenge. We are in a position to be change agents in this field, but this requires commitment. Commitment to change and commitment to the charge. Teacher leaders are charged with the task of identifying the issues hindering the academic growth of scholars and whether the instruction they are receiving is effective or not. More than that, teacher leaders encourage and motivate not only scholars, but their colleagues to be the best instructional leaders they can be. Growing leaders, however, requires that teachers be open to learning new things, habits, concepts, and strategies. However, in that new learning, one must be willing to modify the old. I have been feeling as if this is wherein lies the thin line between one who simply teaches and one who teaches to lead. Quite honestly, itś the difference between whether you are teaching because itś your job and teaching because itś your passion.

Listen, ¨BE A LEADER!¨ This time, the exclamatory charge is for you…the educator. And while you reflect on that, I would like to pose the following question as well. ¨Why are you here?¨ This might be a loaded question, however, in developing teacher leaders, I believe it is a very important question when the lives of children are at stake. In reflecting on this question, think about not simply why you are teaching, but why you are teaching here…in the urban school. If you are teaching for the comfortable hours, weekends off, and the extended breaks, then teaching is probably your job. If you have reached your wits end and find yourself in a constant battle with your scholars or have given up trying, then teaching is probably not the place for you and you should think about moving on. If you are teaching in the urban school because you believe that success is achievable regardless of background, color, disability, behavior, or other barriers…that, my fellow colleagues, is your passion. If you will go above, beyond, and to the ends of the earth to build and grow relationships with your scholars…that too, is passion! Seriously, reflect on this question long and hard. Be honest with yourself. Why are you really here? The answer may be difficult to receive, but it requires your immediate response because how you answer will reveal whether you are a teacher leader, or lack thereof.

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Someone Notices

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Recently, I had a guest visit my room while I was out for a department meeting. There were actually two guests that day in my room for the morning; the guest teacher covering for me and the guest teacher for our Physical Education teacher. My plans included the regular morning routine; the morning message, attendance, lunch count, the Pledge and my Scholar Statement, and finally, our morning meeting. Because I was going to be out for an hour, this morning’s meeting would entail a scholar reflection. You see, the week before while I was out for a different meeting, another guest teacher was intrigued by the Scholar’s Statement and curious to hear what this meant to my scholars. So, she asked them. She shared her insight with me the next morning, stating, “ They didn’t have a clue!” I was stunned since we had spent about a week discussing the statement before reciting it. Little did I know, a week later, the Statement would get someone else’s attention.

Now back to this particular day. As I entered the gym to pick up my scholars from class, I am again stopped by this guest teacher. “Your Scholar Statement is right on!”, he shares. He goes on to say that he’s been to many schools over the last year and a half, but the growth and progress of this school is paramount! He compliments me, the rest of our staff, and our administrator, explaining that my Scholar Statement is evidence of the growth and shift in mindset he has witnessed since his last visit to the school.

What’s interesting about the Scholar Statement is that I wrote it one summer, about 3 years ago, while reflecting on the start of the new school year. I was concerned about my students mindset. Having heard so many times over the years how they feel they aren’t capable and will never be fit to make it to college, I had to figure out a way to influence a change in mindset. That day, while on the elliptical, the Scholar Statement was born.

It was then that I committed to always address them as scholars rather than “students” in an effort to ingrain in them the belief that they have the potential to succeed as much as any other 5th grader, regardless of their background or circumstances. The statements “I can’t!” and “I give up!” do not dwell in my classroom. Because, you see, these statements present themselves as cop outs; excuses for giving up. The Statement is our daily reminder that failure is not an option and acknowledges that although we all learn differently, we are all still very capable of learning and being successful.

I must be honest… I was completely flattered that someone had noticed my heart and passion for teaching my scholars,  all in the span of about 30 minutes. I didn’t write the Statement for accolades, after all; but rather as a means of instilling self worth and confidence in my scholars. That’s all.

Sure, it’s nice to receive compliments; to be recognized for the hard work that is put into each day. But, the reality is many times, when you expect to be noticed, you won’t be. Sometimes, what we do can be a thankless job! You get to the point where you simply expect nothing. So, when this visiting educator publicly acknowledged me and my work on his personal social media page, I was doubly flattered. It was incredibly humbling and touched me at my core!

There is a take away here. While the compliment that day brought me a moment of exhilaration, I knew I had to get my mind prepared to fall back into the usual frame of mind. Look,  let’s be honest. Compliments won’t always be verbalized. So, be confident in the educator you have trained to be. Believe in your ability to touch lives. Encourage yourself to do more and be more every single day, rather than waiting for that pat on the back for the amazing things you do. Know that although you may not always be acknowledged for the things you do…someone notices. When you’re the last one at school in the evening…someone notices. When you’re weekends include attending a scholar’s game, competition, or family event…someone notices. When you go the extra mile for that one struggling scholar…someone does notice. We do so much more than teach content and give assessments. More than we can probably keep up with ourselves. Just continue nurturing and molding your scholars into the strong, confident thinkers and problem solvers they are meant to be and remember… When you think no one notices, someone really does.

When Nobody Else Compliments You, Then Compliment Yourself

 

Victims of Circumstance

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I’m sitting in a leadership team meeting listening as team members engage in conversation regarding student data. District wide, we are monitoring student progress in two significant areas, reading and writing. The data shows growth within the district, however, our students continue to perform low comparative to the norm. The question is posed, “Why would some teachers implement a strategy and others not?” I took a moment to reflect. My summation, stereotype threats are real and it is with these threats that our students unknowingly fall victim to their current circumstances.

Stereotype threat refers to an individual being at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their group (Steele & Aronson,1995). We’ve encountered many stereotype threats in our day. Threats like, boys are stronger in math than girls, Asians are stronger in math than whites, blacks are better athletes than whites; all are examples of stereotypes that threaten the success of the individuals that identify with these particular groups. I couldn’t help but stop and think about this in the context of our current conversation.

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According to our district’s state report card, approximately 66% of the district is identified as minority, 49% are Hispanic students, 17% Black.  Of equal importance, 98% of the district is economically disadvantaged (2015-2016 Ohio Department of Education Report Card, retrieved November 24, 2016). Stereotype threats are looming throughout the local community. We hear some of them from parents during conferences and sadly even within the halls of the schools. In a district where language is a constant barrier and education lacking, at best, our students unconsciously inherit the limitations that have stunted the success of their parents. This is important to know because it speaks not only to the level of confidence our students come to us with, but also the level of efficacy we as teachers have to address these threats.

It’s a fact that our students are faced with challenges. Our perception of what it must be like to live in poverty is our students’ sad reality. But, are their circumstances truly indicative of their ability to be successful students? What is our role in ensuring that our students do not fall victim to their unwelcome circumstances?

As educators, it is my opinion that we first look at poverty differently. It is not a disability, it’s an obstacle. It’s a mindset that exists because the people in and around our students lives have yet to figure out how to change their circumstances or are unaware of the resources available to assist in changing them. Once we ourselves believe that our students circumstances are systemic rather than defining in nature, we need to be purposeful and intentional about working to change their mindset. Their mindset has been fixed on stereotype threats for much of their schooling already. I imagine it is difficult for them to think of anything different. Many of our students that are struggling readers come to us already years behind their peers. Place on top of that, being a non-English speaker. Some of our parents didn’t finish high school or get past the 8th grade for that matter. Think about the conversation happening in these homes. The fears and failures of the parents are now threats that hinder our students growth and progress. But it doesn’t have to.

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It is imperative that we raise our expectations. I understand that as educators, we don’t want to see our students fail. Their failures do become our own. However, we have to refrain from lowering expectations to meet our own needs. This is not about us. Our job is to provide all students with a quality education. That means we need to empower them. We need to continue raising our expectations and providing instruction that will challenge students thinking. We have to realize that when we show our students how much we believe in them, they will begin to not only believe in themselves, but, they will perform. So, raise the bar! As we begin to break down the threat barriers that are hindering our students, they will begin to reach for the bar where it has been set for them.

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Continuing to limit the growth of our students by succumbing to the belief that they cannot perform at the same rate or level as their peers is so damaging. And think about it, if we cannot ourselves break away from the stereotype threats, then who are the real victims of circumstance? We should know and do better.

References

American Psychological Association (2006). Stereotype threat widens achievement gap. Washington, D.C.: author

Ohio Department of Education (2016). Annual District Report Card, 2015-2016.

Reducing Stereotype Threats. Stereotype Threats. Retrieved from ReducingStereotypeThreats.org on November 24, 2016.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797-811.

Tyler, K. & Tyler, C. (2009). Stereotype Threat. Classroom Learning. Retrieved from Education.com, November 24, 2016.

Distractions

Time has flown by so quickly! I’ve been distracted in several aspects of my life in both positive and negative ways. I needed to take some time to reevaluate some things and gain clarity in others.

During my hiatus, I’d love to share that my business has grown and is now flourishing. Consequently, that is not the case. On the contrary, the business has taken a bit of a shift.  However, while I continue working to grow my business, I am still working to grow scholars to become critical mathematical thinkers and problem solvers.

I love working with my scholars! My babies! My passion and my purpose! And, quite obviously… one of the distractions hindering the growth of my business. See, it’s quite difficult to provide my scholars with the quality education they deserve if I am not fully attending to their needs. As long as I am required to be in the classroom, my scholars will receive all that I can give. I am reminded daily that these babies need me, whether by a colleague or past scholar, and as much as I would love to be doing what I feel is my next step in my professional growth, God speaks to me through them, reminding me that right now, they need me more. A distraction indeed, but a much welcomed one if I do day so myself.

Let me share another welcomed distraction I experienced during my time away. I had the incredible privilege of working with some of the most amazing, knowledgeable African-American Women educators and administrators, Ph.Ds, Ed.Ds, and Nationally Board Certified Teachers I’ve ever come into contact with. Together, along with the most amazing Project Director, we led the Delta Teacher Efficacy Campaign (DTEC). The opportunity to lead with these women, facilitating professional development for teachers around the country was such a humbling experience. I was able to share my knowledge on a different level with educators from different avenues of life and know that what I had to share was valuable and made a significant contribution to their practice. I also had the opportunity to learn more about myself as an educator leader and presenter, about teacher efficacy, and about what it looks like to step out on faith. I hope my DTEC family realizes how much they mean to me personally and professionally. Thank you for the distraction. Ubuntu.

Well, you know what they say….for every positive, there is a negative. Why is it that with all the positive experiences, the negative ones seem to linger the longest? I mean, I have received messages diminishing my professional worth. I’ve had my actions and words taken out of context in attempts to make me appear as if I’m instigating trouble. I have literally been looked at with scowls and grimaces for reasons I can’t begin to explain. Where is all of this coming from? Then I am reminded by so many people around me not to be distracted by those that may bring forth negativity and are working diligently to diminish the dreamer within. What’s more ironic is the fact that I know better! Having had the opportunity to share many of my life experiences with young people and adults on what it means to live within your GREATNESS, I’ve shared the debilitating effects that negativity can bring to one’s life. Negativity is all a part of the enemies plan (earthly and spiritually) to incite one’s demise. I am reminded to proceed with caution. The distraction that is negativity is always looming.

Here’s the takeaway from my realization of  negative and positive distractions. It is true…the good comes with the bad. The negative must coexist with the positive. This is a fact and there’s really no way around it or controlling it. What can be controlled is how one reacts to such instances. My experience has found that negativity feeds and nourishes a fixed mindset. You will seemingly begin to believe the innuendo that are presented with every negative word and action. You’ll find yourself wanting to give up on dreaming. When focused on positive people and things, you feed and grow your mind. You feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment and you will be pushed to challenge your own beliefs.

So,  here are your choices. You can choose to let negative distractions cloud your dreams or you can choose to allow the positive distractions make you stronger and lead you to bigger and better opportunities. But while you’re making your decision, be attentive to your current distractions.

No One Like Me

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I was born in 1972, shortly after the Civil Rights Movement ended. While schools, businesses, and neighborhoods had been desegregated for some years now, there remained residual resistance toward “justice and liberty for all”. I didn’t much understand this back in the late 70s and early 80s, but something has now stimulated these latent memories.

I don’t remember too much about my toddler years. I recall my father’s job moved us around somewhat frequently. Well, more so for my brother’s than for me.

My parents left Atlanta shortly after I was born. My mother maintains that I was the best thing that came out of her experience there! Well, I absolutely agree with that, of course! From there, we moved to Maryland. I can recall only a few things from my life there. One experience in particular was the time my mother cooked LIVE crabs for a family get together! “Oh no!”, I protested. “I don’t want no “craps”!”  I can remember how terrified I was by the sight of the crabs trying to escape the pot!! Ugh! I’m still a bit disturbed at the simple thought.

I was four years old when we moved to Minnesota. As I entered my formative years, my memories became more imprinted. I remember our home vividly. A three bedroom, two bathroom home. My brothers had to share a room while I had a room to myself. The front door led directly to the family room, with steps up to the kitchen, dining area, and living room. Here is where I have clear memories of the friends I made on my street, however, memories of my schooling experiences are few. In my quiet time, I often try to think back to see if I can draw out any memories. I’m never successful and I often stop to ask myself why this is the case.

While many of my friends and family have clear memories of their primary school years, mine are so very murky. I don’t recall my teacher’s names or those of my classmates. I remember I was very athletic and I did enjoy school, but what I remember most is that there was no one like me. I can see myself seated in the center of the room, surrounded by my white peers, whom I believe were as oblivious to the race issues around us as I was. Of course, I credit that to my parents who taught me to be kind and respectful to everyone, but to be aware of how others perceived me as well. What in the world does that even mean to a second or third grader who just wants to go to school to learn, then come home to go outside and play?! I hadn’t a clue.

After our six year stint in Minnesota, my father’s job moved us to Cleveland, Ohio where I still reside. It wasn’t until we moved here to Cleveland that I really realized there was no one like me in our old neighborhood or schools. As I reflected, I realized I was literally the only black child in my elementary school! My older brother was the only one in his junior high (until another young man came right before we moved) and our oldest brother was the only one from our neighborhood to attend the high school. He remembers some other black students being bussed in from a neighboring city, but he was the only one from our community. We all have at least one recollection of being called the “N” word during our time there and I later heard stories of a neighbor who thought it clever to dress up as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and leave a burnt cross in front of our home for Halloween. I suppose it’s safe to assume that some were not pleased to have us there and still did not believe in equality for all.

My parents did well shielding me as much as possible from the degradation they endured during their lifetime and, parenthetically, still existed after the Civil Rights Movement. However, I’ve now been exposed to a very diverse school here in Cleveland and I’m not quite sure how to respond. I want to make friends, but I find out quickly that I’m not “black” enough for them. “Why do you talk ‘white’?”, they’d ask. They’d taunt me with comments like, “You’re an Oreo!” and “You’re a white girl!” Well, what is this? Why are these kids being so mean to me! I’m just being me! I had no idea how to handle this at all!

imageI couldn’t help but think of my scholars in that moment. Remembering how ostracized and alone I felt going through elementary school, I wondered… In a school that is just about 80% minority (60% Hispanic, 10% black, and 9% multiracial),  are my students impacted by the fact that, other than me, there is no one like them? I should be clear that, yes, we do have paraprofessionals that speak Spanish and we have other staff that are minorities, but working in the classroom, right on the front line, responsible for making certain all standards are mastered…there is no one like them. I wonder if they feel understood? I wonder if they feel valued? I wonder if this impacts how they receive their education?

This is not the first time I’ve had these queries. In fact, I have them quite often when I walk into my classroom where 18 of my 19 students are minority and 13 of those are Hispanic. Now, I took Spanish in high school and passed, but I am by no means fluent in the language. But, oh, how I wish I were. Can you imagine the connections I’d be able to make with my scholars? Even though I know a little bit of Spanish, it’s certainly not enough to have a great impact on my instruction.

Not only am I unable to speak the language, I cannot relate to what it’s like to be living as a migrant, I’ve never been enticed to be in a gang, I wasn’t born into poverty, and I never wondered where my next meal was coming from. At first glance, I know they look at me and think, “She’s not like us. She won’t understand.” Little do they know, I recognize the feeling more than they, or anyone knows.

It is for these reasons that I’ve made it my business to try to protect my scholars from having the same experiences I’d had. I’ve made it a priority to fill their primary school experiences with positive memories that they will enjoy recalling as opposed to the converse of which I can attest to. So, I compensate for my lack of cultural knowledge and understanding in other areas so that my scholars do not have the perception that there is no one like them.

As with all scholars that enter my room, I take the time to get to know each one of them for who they are. I want to know their favorite subjects, the activities they like, their favorite foods, what makes them happy, and what makes them upset. I get to know them so well that I can generally tell when something is wrong, even when they try to hide it. Likewise, I share my interests, my likes and dislikes. I include them in parts of my life like my children’s birthday celebrations, when a family member is sick, or like the time I was in a car accident. I care about them all immensely and am very protective of their feelings because I get it. I’ve been (and still am) the only one.

As a result, my scholars open up to me about their family living here locally and their family in Mexico. I learn about the different foods from their culture, music, and what school is like for them in Mexico. They love to tell me stories and they do not withhold anything! We have great conversations about our different cultures and I am always genuinely intrigued to learn more. My scholars sense that and I know they appreciate that!

My scholars are more than just a number that identifies them. They have young, immature, yet creative and innovative minds that are thirsting for knowledge! Some are more thirsty than others, but I acknowledge that. I share the difficulties I had in school when I was a youngster, mostly in reading. They look at me with big, bright eyes in wonder. “But, you’re a teacher! You’re smart.” , they say. I explain that it didn’t come easily. You see, what came easily for others, has taken twice as much effort for me. I explained that when there are barriers that seem to get in your way, that’s when you have to work harder at getting past it and getting past it is possible. I assure them that they are smart too and is the reason I refer to them as “scholars”. I want them to hear that they are smart and to embrace it. It may not seem like I’m doing a lot, but I guarantee, through my experiences and my management, my scholars have made a connection and have a vision of hope and a belief of greatness.

I’ve made a commitment and as long as I am alive and able, my scholars will never feel alone in their challenges, nor alone in their sorrows, nor alone in their successes. None of my scholars will ever feel targeted, ostracized, or left out while in my classroom. They won’t see race, religion, or ethnicity as a barrier from the greatness that awaits them, but will know that it exists beyond the walls of our class.

Although I know first hand what it feels like to have no one like me, I also realized later in life that this was not an excuse not to try. I’ve learned that one cannot allow their circumstances to define who they are or to determine their destiny! This is the mantra I live by and that I share with my scholars. So when they leave the reins of my classroom, it is my hope that they do so believing in their greatness. I want them to look back on their primary school years knowing they were not alone because there was, after all, at least one in the school that was…just like them.

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A Priceless Gift

Well, I’m halfway through winter break. It’s days after Christmas and soon, the New Year will be rung in. I’ve been thinking a lot about myself as a teacher and the many scholars I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. Have you ever wondered if you have really made a difference? How often do your scholars tell you, “You’ve really touched my life. I get it now! Thank you!” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a scholar tell me this during the year they were on my roster. In fact, I may have received a few side eyes and under the breath name calling instead and well, that’s okay. I’ve always been passionate about all of them, regardless of how they may have received my presentation. Oh, yes. Of course I received cute little letters and nice pictures telling me how wonderful I was, but nothing that revealed a life changing epiphany for any of my scholars. Something amazing happened during this break which seems to be happening more and more frequently. I was with my family making some Christmas gift exchanges, when I heard my name, “Mrs. Daugherty! Mrs. Daugherty!” I turned around to find a handsome young man walking up to me. I tried to distinguish his face, but man… our scholars change so dramatically as they mature, it becomes difficult to distinguish their matured look. He forgave my puzzled expression and politely greeted me with his name, “It’s me. Justin.” (Justin is a pseudonym provided for confidentiality purposes). My eyes grew big and my heart filled with such joy! I’d taught Justin in the fourth grade. He shared that he is now a senior at an out of state prep school, but he’d recognized me walking through the store. We talked for a moment and my heart inflated with so much pride in that moment listening to all he has accomplished. He was always a bright young man and I knew he was destined for greatness, even in the fourth grade. I must admit, I wouldn’t have recognized him if he hadn’t said anything to me first. I’ve taught hundreds of young people, in three different systems. Names and faces tend to run together for me after so many years. But young Justin, I remembered. He’s excelling just as I knew he would 8 years ago if he remained focused. He is a scholar athlete being looked at by local colleges for entry next year. Another one that made it and was compelled enough to share his successes with me. Needless to say, after we went our separate ways, I couldn’t stop smiling! Later in the evening, I began to think to myself “Who the heck was MY fourth grade teacher?” For the life of me, I cannot remember! In fact, there are only a handful of teachers that I do remember. I remember them because they either said something that made me think or they did something that caught my full attention! These teachers helped mold my life. They helped me think about whom I was and who I wanted to become. They had fully invested in me and my future. Here’s my point. As educators, we work hard, day in and day out, to make a difference in the lives of children. We make plans, we grade papers, and we work long, hard hours, for little to no pay or respect for any of it. We demonstrate, encourage, motivate, and mediate. We watch over and protect, wipe tears and reassure. We realize that some have never received a caring touch or a kind word before we entered their lives. We do all of this because most of us are in this for the outcome, not the income, knowing that more often than not, our scholars will leave us never disclosing the impact we’ve made on their lives. It dawned on me in that very moment that I was one of the teachers Justin remembered. I had said something or done something to make him remember me. It is, in my opinion, the highest praise a teacher can possibly receive. To be acknowledged by a young person you’ve taught and to hear of the wonderful things that are happening in their lives is very fulfilling. To hear that they made it, against all odds and despite their circumstances because I said it was possible all those years ago is the most priceless gift this teacher, or any teacher, could receive.

The saying goes, to whom much is given, much is required. Our purpose is to help our scholars see beyond their current circumstances. We are tasked with leading them away from poor choices and the path of destruction towards better choices that lead them to the path of their desired destiny. I’m here to tell you that this is not an easy task by any means and yes, we will, unfortunately, lose a few along the way, but not for lack of trying. We simply need to remember that there are many more “Justin’s” in our classrooms than not, waiting and wanting to learn how they too can make it. They may or may not tell you that you have had an effect on their lives. Well, at least not at that moment and really, that is okay. But, when that day comes, when you’re walking along in the store, and you hear your name being called by that one scholar you reached years before, you too will receive the same gift that Justin afforded me just the other day. And that gift, I assure you, is… priceless.

What ARE the Odds?

http://insightbyseymour.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/2635-101413-gs2635.jpgFor the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the upcoming PARCC. I’m speaking of the Next Generation Assessment known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. If you thought the Ohio Achievement Assessment was bad, then wait until you see THIS! I suggest, if you haven’t yet taken a look at this new online assessment, you should…and soon!

Over the last 5 years, educators across the nation have witnessed the development and implementation of the Common Core standards. In writing this piece, I found it important to research the who, when, and how the standards were developed before expressing my opinion about the PARCC. In a February 2014 article, Allie Bidwell of US News reported,

Although they only recently captured national attention, the Common Core standards – which lay out what students should know and be able to do by each grade – have been in the works since at least 2008. It all started with former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was the 2006-07 chair of the National Governors Association and now leads the University of California system.

During her stint as governor, Napolitano desired to develop an initiative focused on strengthening the country’s competitive position in the global economy. As students’ performance in math and the sciences have become comparatively lower than their global peers, the goal of this new initiative was “to give governors the tools they need[ed] to improve math and science education, better align post-secondary education systems with state economies, and develop regional innovation strategies” (retrieved from http://www.nga.org on December 4,2014).  Therein, a task force of governors, CEOs, and university presidents was created. Think about that for just a moment. Does that elicit any emotions for you as it did for me?

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I remember hearing that the Common Core was essentially birthed from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 in that the standards were developed to hone in on the skills students needed to know and be able to do by the end of each grade level.  The standards were thick with specific skills all students were to master only, with NCLB, this varied from state to state as state leaders played more of a role in the development of their own standards. Unfortunately, the level of expectation varied significantly as well from state to state. States, like Massachusetts, were known for holding very high academic standards, while other states, like Tennessee, did not (Bidwell, US News, 2014), making it more difficult to comparatively determine whether scholars were making adequate growth compared to their global counterparts.

The Common Core differs in that the numbers of standards have been decreased for each grade level and the depth of each of those standards increased. That’s my subtle way of saying that the standards push our scholars harder to learn skills they are fundamentally and developmentally not yet prepared to learn, whether they are ready or not! Don’t get me wrong, I do see this as an incomprehensible issue. It’s clearly a problem, and yet I was not at all surprised to find that the challenge of developing equitable academic standards has been in existence since the desegregation of public schools in the 1960s. Students of minority ethnicity, lower socioeconomic status, born in poverty from parents struggling to keep a roof over their children’s heads and food on the table, and some of them with nothing more than a middle school education was prevalent then and still exists today. Oh yes! You see, what I’ve just described for you was my current classroom and any educator teaching in an urban school district can relate to that very description.

Our scholars have been chasing their peers to close an achievement gap that was created to keep minorities out of public education and distanced far behind their white peers for years! And now, here we are with the Common Core standards, an initiative started to strengthen our competitive position in the global economy when neither our scholars, nor their families, are adequately equipped with the resources or skills to compete in the local economy!

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Let me be clear, I can appreciate the idea behind the Common Core. I get it. We want to develop critical thinkers, leaders, social changers! But then you add the PARCC to the equation. Oh my goodness! Consider this, the majority of my fifth grade scholars are reading at a fourth grade or below grade level right now. I even have a few reading at a second grade level! SECOND GRADE!! That’s their fluency and comprehension level. Did you catch that? The majority of my class is still behind 1-3 grade levels in reading. They struggle to develop a 5 sentence paragraph with a clear topic sentence and strong conclusion. They’ve been working to develop these skills since the second grade. When they are challenged to push themselves to a higher expectation, they shut down with frustration. Oh, I’m not finished yet. My scholars barely know their basic multiplication facts, even though they’ve been exposed to them two grades prior. Many still struggle with regrouping in subtraction and will argue to the end that 0-4 = 4 even when provided proof that it is impossible!

Finally, after losing our technology teachers about four years ago, teachers were tasked to teach not only keyboarding skills, but also researching skills in a computer lab which we were scheduled to use once, maybe twice a week for 30-45 minutes, if we were lucky. There were several times I’d taken my class in to complete assignments and it’d taken the first 20 minutes alone just to get through all the glitches we’d face trying to simply get logged in! Amazing! Well, the computer lab no longer exists after 6 years of existence. The district has begun transitioning to the use of chrome books. I share a cart with a coworker. Yes, share! We make it work. Our scholars are most knowledgeable about how to search for information because that interests them. However, they still lack in the area of research, note taking, and essay typing. It continues to be a struggle for them since it requires more thinking and effort. Not a very good place to be with PARCC right around the corner, wouldn’t you think?

Our scholars, while they’ve shown growth in reading and math, are continuing to chase the leaders of the achievement gap every single day they enter our urban school. This is based on data from the Ohio Achievement Assessment, a two and a half hour, paper-pencil, written assessment. The new PARCC will assess my scholars electronically and will take multiple days. They will be given multiple reading samples at a time with two part answers where one answer will depend on scholars’ knowledge of and response to the other. On this assessment, scholars performance levels will be scored in the areas of text complexity, range of accuracy, and quality of evidence. There are multiple choice questions, matching, and two part extended responses that will need to be typed, providing explicit evidence from the text provided. The questions are much more challenging since they are multi-step questions and very different from what they’ve been used to. Scholars must use, not only the text provided, but also answers from previous questions to construct their responses. Seriously, if you haven’t seen the sample PARCC, you should take some time to peruse the website. Here’s the link:

PARCC Practice Tests

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If I sound a bit anxious about this Next Generation Assessment, it’s because I am, along with many of my urban school educator friends. It feels a lot like my scholars are being set up to fail! Do you understand that the growth my scholars have made, any growth at all, will absolutely go unnoticed after taking this test! And YES…I take it personally! If they are not functionally or developmentally prepared to meet the Common Core standards then how could they possibly be prepared to take this Next Generation Assessment? Well, I don’t know either, but it kind of sounds like yet another way to keep our minority scholars at the bottom end of the achievement gap. All I know is that we need to get our scholars ready for this PARCC with the limited resources we are provided and hope that just one of them beats the odds, gets across that gap, and comes out on top! With everything we’ve been given, what do you think those odds are?

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