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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Does Over-Assessing Students Perpetuate the “Is This for a Grade?” Mentality?

DISCLAIMER: I am in NO WAY saying assessment is bad. I don’t mean to place value judgment on any type of assessment with this blog post.

I don’t think it’s any secret. We assess students a lot in schools these days. In addition to the daily formative assessments that teachers utilize in their classrooms, students still take summative assessments/exams, interim assessments (MAP, Discovery Ed., etc.), and state-standardized tests (I may even be missing some).

Of course, I don’t think anyone would argue that certain types of assessments are very important. I posit that the majority of teacher-created assessments designed to assess a student’s level/progress with the intention of providing feedback immediately (or closely) following the assessment are far better than state standardized tests (of course) and a good portion of the interim assessments currently available. Obviously, this brings up the debate about the quality of teacher-designed assessments and how teachers actually use the data generated from the assessments they administer. I don’t really want to debate that. For the sake of this blog post, let’s just assume that teachers administer quality formative assessments and know how to truly utilize the assessment data to provide relevant and timely feedback.

While researching the validity and effectiveness of grades and homework, many researchers state that grades themselves turn students into “number/letter/grade monsters” or condition them to severely over-embrace the “is this for a grade?” mentality. Students often simply pursue a grade, rather than pursue learning for learning’s sake. In fact, researchers have found that grades diminish intrinsic motivation to learn anything. Obviously, this type of mentality, perpetuated by grading habits and traditions, is counterintuitive to actual learning. In addition to grades, I wonder if over-assessing students also contributes to that “is this for a grade?” mentality?

I’ve been cogitating about how all the assessments may add to the perpetuation of “is this for a grade?” mindset. I’d venture to say that the teacher-created assessments that informally gauge a student’s progress (or lack thereof) and that are often seamlessly embedded into classroom instruction do less to perpetuate the “is this for a grade?” mentality than interim assessments or yearly state-standardized tests. If the teacher-created formative assessments are seamlessly embedded into classroom instruction, I bet students don’t even think about a grade (some students may not even know they’re being assessed). However, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students ask “is this for a grade?” when taking interim assessments or state-standardized tests.

So, when formative assessment becomes such a part of the classroom environment that students don’t even know it’s occurring, grades become less of a focus. Suppose we were to do away with interim assessments and state-standardized tests. Suppose we only focus on teacher-created formative assessments and the resulting feedback. Suppose we got rid of grades and replaced them with a standards-based grading system (many districts are moving in that direction as we speak). It’s strange to think about an education system that would look like that. But, I’d venture to say that this type of system would probably eliminate the “is this for a grade?” mentality and possibly increase intrinsic motivation to learn for learning’s sake.

I’m sure there’s research on this. If you know of a study, please share it! I’d love to read it!

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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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Teacher Appreciation: Embedding Regular Teacher Appreciation into Your School Culture

It’s that time of the year!  Teacher Appreciation Day/Week!  Yes!!!!!!!!

Teachers do amazing things.  It’s always surprising to me when people are shocked to hear about the many hats/roles teachers wear/perform.  It probably shouldn’t be surprising.  Most of my friends and family are not educators.  Why would I expect them to know any different?  However, I think it’s important to raise awareness regarding this issue.  Teachers don’t just teach anymore (I doubt “just teaching” was ever their sole responsibility).  In addition to teaching, teachers I know often act as a nurse, a social worker, a role model, a mentor, an advice giver, a guidance counselor, a therapist, an actor/actress maintaining high levels of classroom engagement, a volunteer, a fundraiser, a community liaison, a shoulder to cry on, a family man/woman, etc.  I’m not saying that educators have backgrounds in all these areas.  Nevertheless, situations within our schools (or society at large) often require us to take on these responsibilities.

I am striving to build a culture where it’s always an appropriate time to appreciate a teacher.  Appreciating teachers doesn’t have to be scheduled or relegated to a certain time in the year (in fact, it probably shouldn’t be).  As an administrator, I make an effort to show my appreciation for my teachers and teachers in general on a regular basis.  Moving forward, I’d definitely like to get better at this.  Sometimes, my days are so busy that I don’t always get to show my appreciation.  I plan to reprioritize my days in order to better accomplish this endeavor.  Teachers deserve it.

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Calling All School Administrators: Collaborate! Deprivatize Your Practice! Share The Learning!

Dr. Brad Gustafson said, “If school leaders are not modeling effective collaboration, can we really expect teachers to facilitate it for students?” (2017, p. 50). Gustafson went on to say, “School leaders must model collaboration if it is to become part of a school’s culture” (2017, p. 53).

I wholeheartedly agree. I first focus on these questions as they specifically pertain to administrators and teachers (before thinking about the trickle-down effect with students). Can we really expect teachers to facilitate or engage in collaboration among THEMSELVES if we as administrators aren’t modeling it OURSELVES? I can’t help but notice some reluctance or trepidation regarding collaboration in my meetings with fellow administrators. Clearly, effective collaboration takes time, effort, commitment, and support. Therefore, apprehension concerning collaboration is most certainly understandable. Yet, purposeful reluctance or defiance regarding collaboration will only serve to harm teachers, students, and school culture.

In order for us to improve as educators (and improve schools and the field of education itself), collaboration is key. We must become comfortable with collaboration. We must become committed to collaboration. One of the most effective ways to begin this process is through dialogue with other educators. It is essential to deprivatize our practice and share our learning (and failures) with others (I completely understand that this may be difficult when systematic issues in some districts discourage failure and risk-taking, thus hindering trust, the deprivatization of professional practice, and effective collaboration). However, if as an administrator (or educator in general), you don’t personally accept the reality that collaboration is key for improving schools, you will hinder your school’s efforts towards improvement.

In my district, we’ve implemented Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) which, when done well, requires high levels of collaboration, risk-taking, and deprivatization of professional practice. We’ve had lots of bumps in the road. It has not been smooth sailing to say the least. However, we are committed to the process and the reality that, without collaborating, our schools will not improve. I can’t speak for the other administrators in my district. But, I can say that I will stay the course, as I’ve seen wonderful results regarding collaboration in our PLCs. It must be noted, PLCs are not the only avenue through which educators can collaborate. Educators from across the world have collaborated through face-to-face methods and have broken down barriers by collaborating through asynchronous means using social media. Thousands of educators have embraced technology to help build their Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). Embracing technology’s ability to tear down barriers to collaboration is a wonderful example of effective, technology-based collaboration. Teachers and administrators are constantly learning and developing (for free!) by reaching out to their PLNs.

Also, collaboration doesn’t always have to start with the school leader. I’ve read about teachers starting their own collaborative efforts (through traditional methods or by using social media) and the wonderful effects these efforts have had on the entire building. However, it is important to understand that if the school leader does not personally embrace collaboration, this will drastically harm the school’s collaborative culture and its improvement potential.

During my next administrator meeting, I will challenge/encourage my fellow colleagues to not only deprivatize their practice and share the learning, but also collaborate with school leaders inside and outside our district. I will encourage the utilization of traditional and more modern methods (such as collaboration using social media) to help our schools improve. These types of collaboration, when effectively modeled by the school leader, can lead to positive changes for teachers, and eventually have a positive impact on students.

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Teacher Quality and Practice Comes First

At yesterday’s district institute, we had a wonderful presenter who initiated the conversation regarding grading practices and homework. He brought the data to help support his claims. He cited relevant research that showed that homework, especially in the primary grades, often results in an effect size of zero when it comes to student learning. Yet, one of the aspects about his presentation that made it so compelling was his connection to our children and our students. We may have heard the message before, but he was particularly effective in communicating “If it’s not good enough for your own kids, why would you consider it good enough for the students you teach?” I’ve traveled to neighboring districts to see similar presentations from different presenters on grading practices and homework policies. The presentations lacked that compelling piece.

I completely see the validity in the presenter’s claims regarding homework and grading. It’s hard to argue with the majority of the evidence he presented. However, I’m not quite sure that teaching/instructing/informing teachers about proper grading practices is a step towards district improvement (or the most effective step towards improvement). For example, with homework, if a teacher looks at an assignment and determines that it’s good/quality, but in reality, the assignment is not very good and serves no purpose for student learning, I’m thinking there’s a deeper issue at hand. With this scenario, we may have an issue of teacher quality. In this instance, I do not believe that teaching/instructing/informing teachers about proper grading practices or what good homework should look like (if homework is given at all) is the first step in the process of improving the quality of that teacher. Yes, having this knowledge regarding grading practices and homework is essential. But, like I said, there may be an underlying issue that can’t be completely addressed by learning more about homework and grading.

Point being, improving teacher quality (especially from an instructional standpoint) before focusing on grading and homework policies is essential. We may be putting the cart before the horse by considering homework and grading policies before considering teacher quality.

Later, I was fortunate enough to participate in a round table discussion with the presenter. He agreed that addressing teacher practices and teacher quality before grading practices and homework policies was essential. He then clarified (which I had difficulty articulating for some reason) that with good teaching practices and improved teacher quality, grading practices and homework policies could lead to school improvement.

Overall, the presentation was fantastic. I’m simply concerned about any execution of his suggestions before improving teacher quality (and administrator quality for that matter).

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Learning During the Teacher Evaluation Process

I’ve been in a copious amount of interviews throughout my time as an educator. Fortunately, I’ve been on both sides of the interview table, as part of the hiring committee and as a potential employee. In almost every interview, someone asks some kind of question concerning teacher evaluation (as they should. It’s an important part of the job). In regards to questions about teacher evaluation, I believe that administrators can and should learn during the process. In addition to some members of my hiring committees, some of the people interviewing me seem put off by that comment/belief. They seem fairly traditional in the sense that the teacher evaluation process is a learning experience (ideally) only for teachers and that the administrator evaluation process is a learning experience (ideally) for the administrators. I don’t agree with that.

Like Randi Weingarten says, teacher evaluation can and should build the capacity of our teachers. I go a step further. I believe that it can and should also build the capacity of our administrators. I’ve been asked, “What types of skills can an administrator possibly gain during the teacher evaluation process?” My answer regarding skills that administrators can build/develop during the teacher evaluation process is usually something like the following (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Empathy
    • Some administrators forget; we were once teachers (at least the majority of us). The teacher evaluation process is extremely stressful. The transition to the Danielson Framework was complex and was not easy for all teachers. We must empathize with our teachers as we all continue to grapple with the evaluation framework and the fact that teacher evaluation is extremely strenuous.
  • Inclusion
    • We must focus on conducting evaluations that include the teacher as opposed to being “done” to the teacher.
  • Communication skills
    • Conducting teacher evaluations requires navigating precarious terrain. Obviously, some teachers are more open to evaluation than others. Clearly, some teachers see evaluation as an accountability measure that administrators use to dismiss teachers. Good administrators don’t view it that way. Regardless, as administrators, we must communicate effectively with teachers during the evaluation process that helps put them at ease. For me, having a stressful and, possibly, even an animus evaluation process is one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Collegial communication could help assuage teacher concerns and establish teacher evaluation as a process for continued learning.
  • Organizational and prioritization skills
    • Teacher evaluations are a lengthy process. In addition, many schools have large amounts of teachers who need to be evaluated. As administrators, we must be seriously organized while coordinating all of our teacher evaluations (among the plethora of other responsibilities).
  • Professionalism
    • Horror stories abound regarding teacher evaluation. I just heard a story from a teacher who said that her principal set up two formal evaluations in ONE week. Not to mention, the administrator then canceled one of the formal evaluations and didn’t show up for the other. Come on… Seriously?
  • Instructional knowledge
    • With the intention of developing the quality of our teachers, it should be presumed that evaluation conversations (held throughout the evaluation process), focus on practices that help positively impact student achievement. That being said, collegially conversing about student learning would ideally help develop a collaborative understanding regarding the practices that best improve student learning and achievement.
  • Informal, anecdotal needs assessment
    • Yes, administrators (especially new administrators at new buildings) should administer a needs assessment at the beginning of the school year to determine the school community’s needs. However, properly conducting the teacher evaluation process helps administrators “keep the pulse” of teacher needs as well.

Overall, as educators, we must always be aware of opportunities for learning and growth.