Feeling the Teacher Shortage

As we’re gearing up for another school year, I can’t help but notice the copious amount of open teaching positions. I’m currently trying to fill a special education position. I had  3 people apply for the position (only two actually held the required certification). I’ve recently spoken with other principal/superintendent friends of mine who serve economically disadvantaged areas. All I can say is… wow. They are being hit hard by this shortage (that’s usually how it is. The disadvantaged areas get hit hardest). One principal friend of mine still has 5 or 6 openings and has received minimal interest. An assistant superintendent friend of mine in a disadvantaged area stated that this shortage has plagued her entire district. It’s widespread. School starts in a week or two! This is getting real!

Teacher shortages aren’t new. However, what’s most startling about this issue is that the number of shortages keeps increasing. States that weren’t experiencing shortages are now experiencing shortages and the majority of states/districts that were already experiencing shortages are now experiencing even worse shortages. Essentially, it comes down to this: it’s getting worse and it will continue to get worse before it gets better. Why? Well, let’s take a brief look.

It appears that years of ragging on the teaching profession, rising dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the profession, fear over unjust pension reform, the constant pummel of school initiatives and uninformed reforms, the punitive accountability movement (mostly related to constant standardized testing and questionable teacher evaluation methods such as Value-Added Measures), and increased work loads are really starting to leave their mark. There are entire books and dissertations written on almost every single one of the aforementioned issues (see almost anything written by Diane Ravitch between the years 2000 and 2018 for more information on these issues that have spurred an increasing teacher shortage).

If you were to analyze education history, you’d see an interesting trend. For instance, take project-based learning (PBL). PBL has been around since the 1600s in Italy when architecture students wanted more meaning and relevance in their learning. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, John Dewey brought PBL and experiential learning into focus. And now, in the 21st century, PBL is a major focus for many “innovative” schools. Though a seemingly unrelated topic, I mention PBL to demonstrate the cyclical nature of things in education. To combat the teacher shortage, I see politicians enacting some type of band-aid legislation that will help in the short term. For a time, we’ll see fluctuations in the nationwide teacher shortage. For a time, we’ll see more students entering college to become teachers. For a time, we’ll have copious amounts of candidates applying for our open positions. But, in the long run, band-aid legislation won’t help.

On both a micro and macro scale, how do we effectively combat the teacher shortage?

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This School Year, Prioritize Teacher Clarity to Maximize Student Learning

I heard an awesome quote today… “Clarity is the antidote to anxiety.” I can truly attest to the accuracy of this quote. We all want clarity in our lives. Guess what? Students really want clarity as well, especially in school and in class.

In regards to John Hattie’s influences and effect sizes, you can’t focus on any other influences or effects without first addressing teacher clarity. You can’t have effective teacher feedback with students without first addressing teacher clarity. You won’t have solid RtI practices for students without first addressing teacher clarity. Teaching practices such as direct instruction and reciprocal teaching will not be successful for students without first addressing teacher clarity.

Feedback has an effect size of .7. RtI has an effect size of 1.29. Reciprocal teaching has an effect size of .74. Direct instruction has an effect size of .60. Those are all solid effect sizes. However, remember… you must first prioritize teacher clarity (effect size of .8) in order to reap the benefits of any of those teacher practices. Clarity is paramount.

One way to focus on enhancing teacher clarity is through the clear and consistent utilization of Learning Intentions and Success Criteria. Learning Intentions are general statements about what we intend our students to learn. Success Criteria let us know if the desired learning (learning intentions) have been successfully or unsuccessfully achieved. Success Criteria help students understand what their work should include.

Sounds easy enough. And, many think, “I’m already doing this with my ‘learning objectives’/’learning targets’ and ‘I Can’ statements.” I don’t deny this. However, it’s the refinement that’s important. It’s the consistency that’s important. It’s more than simply posting these targets, objectives, or intentions.

In my own practice as an administrator, I’m also going to work to provide clarity from my standpoint as well. This will certainly help teachers, students, parents, and community members.

How do you work to improve and increase teacher clarity?

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School Safety: In Active Shooter Situations, What Do We As Educators Have The Most Control Over?

I’m sure you’ve seen/heard the vociferous debate raging throughout the nation regarding school safety. One side seems to embrace a focus on enhanced gun control and regulations while the other seems to emphasize a focus on better mental health care. The debate is quite controversial, contentious, in depth, and currently divided.

Over the weekend, I was dialoguing with a friend concerning the horrific events in Florida. While listening, I couldn’t help but think, “Sure, this side/that side makes sense. Both sides have valid opinions. Yet, how quickly can any of these types of changes truly be actualized?” During the conversation, I found myself focusing on a bigger, (and in my opinion) more important question… In active shooter situations, what do we as educators have the most control over?

The field of education has been notoriously slow in accepting and implementing new change initiatives (example – the U.S. Department of Labor has decried the current and future shortage of trained STEM workers entering the field. Yet, the field of education hasn’t been successful in addressing this issue because of rampant budget cuts and an accountability movement that forces narrowing of the curriculum). I’m not saying we can’t be the change agents this country needs. Students are gathering and organizing all over the country. But, I just read today that, much to their dismay, students in the Florida capital witnessed legislators vote down gun control legislation while simultaneously choosing to highlight the negative health effects of pornography. These kinds of legislative changes, whether they focus on gun control or mental health support, require extensive amounts of time and excessive levels of consensus and support that may take too long. Because this is an emergency and lives are literally at risk, I think we must focus on what we can do NOW as schools/principals/teachers/students/community members/etc.

Thus, through my research, I’ve found the ALICE Training Institute, which focuses on “options-based” responses for individuals facing violent situations like an active shooter crisis in a school. Traditionally, local law enforcement agencies have advised that schools utilize “lockdown” procedures that instruct teachers and students to do a number of things in an active shooter “lockdown,” such as move to the corner of the classroom, lock the door, huddle in a classroom closet or bathroom, stay away from the windows, STAY PUT, etc. In contrast, the ALICE Institute focuses on empowering individuals to participate in their own survival in the critical time between the start of a violent event and the arrival of law enforcement. I found that many districts are moving in this direction. I know of school districts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan making these kinds of changes to their school safety policies. In fact, according to ALICE, if a school district still employs a “Lockdown” response to active shooter situations, the district is at odds with the U.S. Department of Education.

Again, I’m not advocating one side over the other (gun control vs. mental health). I’m saying that we in the field of education should focus on the things over which we have the most control. I want to focus on all that we can do NOW, as opposed to waiting for legislators to make a decision. We should look at adjusting current school safety policies in order to maximize safety and survival for all. Based on my current understanding (which is admittedly limited), an options-based approach that empowers individuals to participate in their own survival sounds more logical and potentially beneficial (in addition to being more in line with what the U.S. Department of Education wants) as opposed to a “lockdown” approach.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with me!

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Illinois Getting Rid of PARCC Tests… Can We Broaden the Curriculum and Focus on Performance-Based Assessments Now?

Illinois may be getting rid of PARCC (other states already have). For some, this is no surprise. Secondary educators lambasted PARCC testing and the tests were eventually removed from the high school setting. Others saw PARCC as another cyclical education reform that just so happened to bring about new types of assessments (“computer-based,” oh my!). PARCC replaced state-standardized tests like ISAT, which replaced IGAP and on down the road since the doom and gloom proclamations in 1983’s A Nation at Risk.

Obviously, in our test-based accountability system, PARCC will be replaced with something else. We’ve heard that the new tests may be shorter, allowing for teachers/administrators/districts to receive the results in an expeditious manner. What is more, it’s possible that the new tests will be adaptive in that test will adjust the difficulty of the questions based on student responses (similar to NWEA’s MAP assessments).

However, it’s my view that these changes aren’t enough. Sure, shorter tests will be good for teachers and students. Teachers and parents have decried that students are over assessed for years. Sure, more expeditious feedback is good. That’s always been one of the major drawbacks of these state-standardized tests. Sure, adaptive tests that adjust according to student responses could be a good thing, if this helps us better identify student deficiencies.

Yet, I’m not sure any of these adjustments will address a pressing issue facing all schools, but especially schools serving disadvantaged communities: narrowing of the curriculum. If these tests are tied to any federal funding (like what happened with Obama’s Race to the Top initiative), there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. If these test are used to evaluate, rate, and/or compare schools and districts, there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. If districts prioritize these tests and the data generated by them, there will continue to be narrowing of the curriculum. Point being, it’s a different means to the same end. We may have new tests on the horizon. But, the accountability movement/reform in education is still alive and well. When state-standardized test scores are used to evaluate schools/districts/teachers, narrowing of the curriculum will continue to occur.

What is more, as past research has shown, these state-standardized tests only assess low-level thinking skills, numb teacher and student creativity, and prepare students to take tests rather than to think critically and solve real-world problems. With more standardized tests, even though they’ve been shortened and allow teachers to receive feedback in a timely manner, I’m guessing we’ll still have tests that assess low-level thinking skills, decrease creativity, and don’t accurately show all that a student really knows.

I’ve always been an advocate of performance-based assessments, which challenge students to use higher-order thinking in order to create a product or complete a process. The essential components of performance-based assessments help to ensure complexity and higher-order thinking: relevant, real-world oriented, open-ended, time-bound, products presented to an authentic audience, embedded formative assessment and feedback.

Performance-based assessments are not new. In fact, they’ve been around in some form or another since the days of John Dewey. However, when accountability reforms increased the pressure facing today’s schools, we moved away from performance-based measures of learning to standardized measures. This pressure also forced the narrowing of the curriculum. Thus, I (and many others) appeal to our legislators and education policy makers to truly consider what’s best for our students, for our teachers, and for our schools. When moving forward with new state-standardized testing, we must consider all that we’ve learned from the pressures associated with these tests.

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Reflecting on the School Year So Far: My Idea Log

I’ve been writing songs since I was approximately 8 or 9 years old. At that time, I would carry a notebook with me in my guitar case or in my pocket, and if I felt inspired, I would write lyrics or compositional notes (chord progressions/charts/etc.) inside that notebook. I brought that notebook with me to school, to band practice, to basketball games, to family parties… In short, I brought it with me everywhere!

When I got into high school, I got my first cell phone. Instead of using the notebook, I began texting myself lyrics. I would pull up a blank text message, input my own cell phone number, type any lyrics I was drafting at the time, and hit send. This served as an ongoing record or database of lyrics for me. When phones become more advanced, I started using note-taking applications to document lyrics and I would use the phone’s audio/visual technology to record the actual music while I played my guitar or hummed/whistled the melody. As a doctoral student endeavoring through my dissertation, I continued to use cell phone applications such as the Google Drive/Docs and Evernote to document or audio record ideas for exploration or inclusion in my drafts.

Now, in my profession as an educator, I’ve regressed back to using the traditional notebook. I’ve done so for a few reasons. Writing notes using pen and paper (the research I’ve read deals with students using pen and paper to take notes vs. using a computer to take notes during classroom instruction) allows the note taker to retain information better. In addition, I use a highlighter to highlight notes (or aspects of certain notes) that I’ve implemented/accomplished, which allows me to better visualize progress I’ve made over a certain period of time. I call this notebook my “Idea Log.”

Over break, I always take some time to peruse my Idea Log and reflect on the highlighted portions. These highlighted portions help me visualize the things I’ve tried/changed/implemented/achieved/etc. The following is a brief list of ideas I’ve tried or implemented this school year so far (quoted verbatim from my Idea Log):

  • “Utilize a Contact Journal to keep note of who I’ve spoken with and which classrooms I’ve seen. Take notes in the journal and follow through when someone needs support with something.
  • “Make positive phone calls home to the parents of my teachers. Try starting or ending the week with this strategy.”
  • “Create a ‘What Are You Learning Today? A Visit from Dr. E.’ shared document. Share the Google Form/Office 365 One Note with staff members so they can edit the document in real time and share the wonderful things happening in their classrooms that they would like me to see/observe.”
  • “Use Animoto to make monthly videos of the happenings in the school and share through social media channels.”
  • “Find an interesting and timely ‘Article of the Week’ and share through email. Encourage staff to share their own and continue through our journey of professional learning.”

Looking through the Idea Log, I am also reminded of a few other ideas I’d like to try this coming semester.

How do you record your ideas? What have you done or accomplished this year and how do you keep track of your progress?

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The Best Professional Development Providers are the Educators You Already Employ

I know there’s debate concerning the distinction between “professional development” and “professional learning.” Many believe that “professional development” is outdated and that districts (on a macro scale) and educators (on a micro scale) must consider and employ “professional learning.” For the sake of brevity, I won’t get into the clarification between the two concepts in this post (I plan to discuss the distinction in a later post). But, I’m going to use the phrase “professional development” throughout this post to help make my point.

In regards to districts providing professional development for their teachers, it is essential to remember that the best professional development providers are the educators currently employed by the district/school. The educators on staff who are in the trenches and charged with the tasks of implementing new curricula/designing and rolling out innovative behavioral management plans/actualizing cutting edge learning strategies/etc. are the experts. They know more about all of that than the grand majority of “consultants” or “PD providers” from any of those large education corporations/text books companies/etc. They’re the ones in the classrooms making this stuff work with their students! They have the best firsthand knowledge regarding the good, bad, and the ugly of every district initiative!

Educational leaders must work to identify the teachers (or other staff members) who have successfully implemented the district initiatives and build up their capacity so they can share their knowledge with others. Seeking out the expertise of educators currently on staff and offering them the opportunity to share their knowledge with others is empowering. Offering these opportunities to educators already on staff is encouraging and helps foster leadership qualities.

Now, I’m not saying that the teachers on staff with this expertise are the best PD providers or presenters. And, to be clear, some staff members wouldn’t want this added responsibility or feel comfortable presenting in front of their peers. I get that. But, if we’re concerned with offering the best professional development for our teachers, we owe it to them to at least try and get the best professionals to provide that development.

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Similar to Feedback, Professional Development Given Isn’t Always Professional Development Received

A few weeks ago, I heard a profound quote at my District Institute Day. Regarding Hattie’s Visible Learning, the presenter stated, “Feedback given isn’t always feedback received.” I find this quote completely applicable to a plethora of areas. I reference this quote to help establish the context of this post.

That being said, I always strive to provide my teachers with pragmatic, relevant, and timely professional learning opportunities. This year, I’m looking forward to providing more personalized professional learning options. However, I must keep in mind, like feedback, just because the professional development/professional learning opportunities are given/provided, that doesn’t always mean they are clear or received. Think about the feedback messages we receive on a daily basis. Though we receive them (constantly), that doesn’t mean we process them. I relate it to the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing and listening are not the same things. Just because I may hear you doesn’t mean I am listening to you.

In order to make professional learning opportunities more applicable and practical for my teachers and help to ensure clarity and message acceptance while facilitating learning, I always consider multiple tenants of Adult Learning Theory: adult learners must be actively involved/included in the learning, adult learners must be afforded the opportunity to make choices relevant to the learning objectives, adult learners must be encouraged to connect past knowledge and experience with new learning, adult learners must understand the relevance of the learning through real-life applicability, learning outcomes and objectives must be clearly identified for adult learners, and learning must be highly practical for adult learners.

It’s also essential to consider major aspects of Change Theory. It’s important to emphasize that “shotgun” PD sessions or single sessions where content is only referenced once are not satisfactory. Aspects of providing professional learning, such as developing the learning experience, delivering the learning experience, implementation, roll-out, progress monitoring, analysis, feedback and renewal require time. It’s important to acknowledge that the aftermath of providing professional learning is a journey. At that point, it may require further PD sessions on that topic, future conversations to help clarify misunderstandings, encouraging mentoring and modeling, allowing for observation cycles, etc. Point being… take it slow. We’re all in this journey together. We all need support as we endeavor through these journeys together.

How do you help ensure learning/clarity/message acceptance while providing professional learning opportunities?

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Grading: Learning What Not To Do From My Own Experiences

I learned a lot about grading during the 2016-2017 school year. I read a few books. I attended a few workshops/presentations. I got to meet and speak with (at length) prominent grading gurus in the field. However, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I needed to read the books/papers/journal articles/blog posts, attend the presentations, or engage in dialogue with the gurus to see a fundamental flaw in many of our grading practices (though, all of this most certainly helped raise my awareness concerning the issue). All I truly had to do was reflect on my personal experiences with grading, both as a student and as a teacher.

As a young student, I received extra credit points for bringing in school supplies. I received deductions for late work (which, if we think about it logically, these point deductions don’t reflect a lack of academic ability, but a failure to observe the punctuality standards set by the teacher). My grades were penalized for my excessive talking (probably not hard to believe, but I LOVE talking). Clearly, these grading practices focused more on behavioral assimilation rather than actual learning. Just as unfortunate (I hate to admit it), I also engaged in some of these practices as a teacher. Not a shining moment in my career as an educator. However, I have to give myself some credit. I’m happy that at least I can admit these faults. At least I’m willing to reflect on my mistakes and strive for improvement. That’s not the case with some educators, especially in the realm of post secondary education (at least from my experience).

My worst experience with grading came in graduate school in my School Finance class. The monetary incentive (paying my own school tuition) probably contributed to my disdain for this class, the professor (let’s call him “Professor John”), his grading practices, and the outcome. Professor John mentioned many times (verbally) that if we (his students) positively completed his evaluation at the culmination of the class, he would “help us out with our final grade.” Alfie Kohn would probably refer to this behavior as “bribing.” Often times, teachers/professors engage in bribes in order to achieve compliance (some researchers go as far as saying that all grades are bribes). As luck would have it, I was on vacation while the course evaluation opened, and did not submit my evaluation for the class. As I received no less than an A+ on every assignment throughout the eight-week class, I wasn’t worried and was fairly certain that I would receive no less than an A for my final grade. When I received my grade for the class, I was shocked. I “earned” a B+ in the class (my obsession with grades is probably a good indicator that I experienced flawed grading practices). I couldn’t believe it.

I tried to communicate my concern with Professor John. Conveniently, he was also on vacation. I don’t like jumping the chain of command, but I brought my concern to the department chair’s attention. He was rigid and contemptuous. The department chair stated these types of cases were always resolved in favor of their professors and that their professors were beyond reproach. I was disgusted. I kept thinking, while upholding Professor John’s decision about my grade, it was quite obvious that the university was not only invalidating my concern, but also perpetuating bad grading practices (considering they knew that it was going on and did nothing about it). I doubt they’ve done anything to improve.

Though this was five years ago now, this experience was an extremely valuable lesson for me. We all must be willing to reflect on our mistakes and take steps towards improvement. While reflecting on my grading experiences as a student and as an educator, I have a better contextual standing on which to pivot. I will not perpetuate poor grading practices (or other flawed educational practices). None of us are beyond reproach.

Just an update… What’s equally frightening is that Professor John is a high-ranking elementary school administrator in the south suburbs, and is still actively employed as a professor by the university. Truly unfortunate…

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Dear Representative Jeanne Ives: We Need to Talk

I apologize for the delay in blog posts. It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’ve been busy this summer! However, I could not ignore an opportunity to write a post focused on Jeanne Ives and her deleterious comments regarding teachers, unions, and the teacher pension system in Illinois.

Her comments have circulated social media for few weeks now (Facebook Link; Youtube Link). I find the following quote most troubling: “I’ll get out my checkbook and I’ll send a property tax bill to my county to pay for bloated administrative salaries in public schools… in public schools where on average, in the state of Illinois, less than half of the students are ready for college… Just over 1/3 are even reading or doing math at grade level… Maybe I should send them more money…”

Undoubtedly, she’s passionate. You can hear it in her voice. I appreciate that. Yet, imagine if she were more passionate about clarity. Before I begin to poke holes in the validity of her claim, I’ll first share the following troubling statistic/fact (allowing me to situate my response): Schools with less than 10% of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds score as well as or better than the highest achieving nations (Finland, Shanghai, etc.) in the world. In fact, if one were to analyze a data set showing level of achievement and percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, one would see an inverse correlation between the two. Therefore, as the percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds increases, the level of achievement decreases. In no way am I saying that poor students cannot achieve. Quite the opposite, in fact, considering I dedicate my life to showing that they can. I’m simply sharing this information to highlight the importance of not conflating separate issues in education. Are there overpaid administrators in education? Possibly. Yet, it’s important to understand that one issue does not exist as a result of the other. Put plainly, student academic underachievement is not a result of (possible) bloated administrative salaries. When considering student academic achievement (or lack thereof), there are far too many concurrent variables at play (poverty, student/family mobility, etc.) to make a claim that one of those variables is significantly more profound than all the others. One may see her conflation (as I do) as a complete misinterpretation of issues facing educators today. Thus, it would behoove her (and the many politicians like her) to leave education to those who have the knowledge and ability to bring about the necessary changes.

Recently, Jeanne also blasted a teacher on twitter, claiming that “support of unions = chaos in schools.” As you can see in the picture accompanying this post, I responded with a comment to get her thinking and to encourage her to explain to me how unions contribute to chaos in schools, considering that chaos is prevalent in a considerable amount of non-unionized, failing charter schools (I’m still waiting for her to get back to me…). In addition, I always think it’s wise to consider how successful districts or world nations deal with prevalent education issues. For example, Finland works closely with its teacher union in order to best serve its students. Granted, as an administrator, I’ve had many difficult conversations with teachers’ unions and union representatives. However, like Finland, I believe that in order to raise achievement for all students, it’s considerably more propitious to work with unions as opposed to lumping them all together into one picture/broad stroke and developing evil machinations to bring about union demise. Jeanne’s comments really brought me back. Teacher/union blasting was so 2014. I think Diane Ravtich should send her signed copies of her most recent work.

She also made comments about the “state’s pension problem.” This will be short and sweet. If I’m not mistaken, politicians have voted to borrow against teacher pensions for decades. These politicians have never paid back the loan. I’m no financial expert. However, it’s rare in life to get a loan and never have to pay it back (sarcasm). The pension system was never designed to serve as an interest free loan for politicians to use as they see fit.

Of course, it’s truly unfortunate when people who have widespread access to such a large array of people don’t think before they spread misinformation. At the same time, her comments truly demonstrate her lack of understanding. Not that politicians need to be experts in all fields. However, a working knowledge regarding some of the basics would certainly help.

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Courageous Actions and Conversations: The Most Effective Leaders Are Willing To Do/Say The Things That Others Are Scared To Do/Say

Good/effective leadership is most certainly not always easy. In fact, it can be downright difficult/stressful/heartbreaking/deflating/etc. However, for the sake of helping all the people we serve in our educational organizations (whether it be students, parents, or teachers), we must fully engage in the difficult aspects of being a leader (of which there are many). But, for now, I’m focusing on honest and courageous actions and conversations.

I’m focusing on this aspect of leadership because having difficult conversations with students, parents, or teachers is well within our control (and it’s one of our primary responsibilities) when considering how effective schools function. Whether your difficult conversations highlight necessary cultural shifts in the school or pinpoint areas of poor student achievement, these conversations should be and must be had (how a leader goes about having these conversations is another blog post entirely). However, the leader must be willing and courageous enough to have these conversations. The conversations will be tough, uncomfortable, tense, etc. I recently participated in a PLC workshop a few weeks back. The presenter said something that still resonates with me and I hope will continue to resonate with me throughout my career: “Schools weren’t built for our employment. Schools were built for student learning.” At the end of the day, we’re here to do what’s best for students.

As Todd Whitaker said, “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate” (obviously, this quote is completely applicable to all leaders throughout a school district, top to bottom). As leaders, if we tolerate bad behavior, low expectations, student mistreatment, disrespect, unprofessionalism (just to name a few), what kind of implicit message does that send the rest of our staff? As leaders, our actions (or inactions) are just as important (and scrutinized) as our words. School culture takes a hit whenever we refuse to address or act on pressing issues facing our students, parents, or teachers. It’s never easy. It’s never fun. However, it’s necessary.

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