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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Walk Out or Walk Up: Quit the Divisive Rhetoric and Celebrate the Students

As I’m sure you’re all aware, many students across the nation participated in a Walk Out on March 14th in order to protest government inaction regarding gun control. I’ve seen news coverage of the story across the U.S. I got the chills when I heard some of the student activists speak on the matter. Overall, I was impressed by the demeanor with which many students approached this highly controversial, yet extremely timely and important topic.

Then, I noticed another budding movement on Twitter. I first saw a picture on my feed advertising a “Walk Up.” I immediately became intrigued and conducted further research. This “Walk Up” focused on walking up to other students and being kind in an effort to create better/safer school environments. To me, this completely made sense. The way I see it, in all honesty, regardless of any protests held on a myriad of school-related issues/policies, there will always be students who are ostracized or cast out or alone in every school. Thus, I really gravitated toward this movement, as it seemed to focus more on an issue over which we in education actually have control: being kind and reintegrating students who may be lost or ostracized.

Unfortunately, in regards to both movements, a politically motivated, dichotomous dynamic has presented itself. It seems that adults have successfully oversimplified and debased both ideas/movements to either gun control related or mental health related. People have declared that Walking Out won’t help because it won’t address the heart of the problem: poor school environments and students feeling isolated. People have decried that Walking Up won’t help because it won’t address the heart of the problem: guns. The debate has raged on in the Twitterverse for over a week now.

Whether Walking Out or Walking Up, I think it’s important that as adults, we celebrate the students’ courage, leadership, determination, organization, social awareness, creativity, passion, fortitude, and unity (among other qualities). Granted, some adults are celebrating these efforts. But, I think it’s important to remember: rather than distracting from the students’ achievements by hijacking the foci of these movements, we should acknowledge that Walking Out or Walking Up requires strength and perseverance. I truly believe these students, whether they Walk Out or Walk Up, are striving to make changes in a world where, unfortunately, children have been dying in the one place where they should be the safest.

Also, I mean, does it really have to be so two-sided? Honestly, can’t schools/students engage in both a Walk Out AND a Walk Up? Obviously, the national Walk Out was held March 14th. The Walk Up sounds like an ongoing endeavor.

Let me know what you think!

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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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“My/Your Students” vs. “Our Students.” Harm Caused by a Competition Mindset

Competition… Good or bad in schools? I’m not talking about school athletics, band, or other extracurricular activities. I’m talking about schools competing against each other for better test scores or other standardized measures of success. The verdict may still be out. Some researchers have found positive gains from competition in schools (though the validity of said research is now being questioned). Other researchers suggest that any gains from those studies are so small, they may as well be insignificant. Many conservative education reformers declare that schools and educators operating in a free-market system encourage innovation. Let’s look at the charter school movement. Some charter schools are doing amazing things. Some charter schools do sound very innovative. However, the research is fairly clear… charter schools perform no better than public schools when educating the same students (comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges). Whatever you believe, in the end, one thing is usually certain… when gauged through the lens of standardized measures such as test scores, attendance percentages, or drop-out ratings, competition usually leads to problems in education.

Don’t get me wrong… I like competition. I’m not very competitive myself. But, I love watching (certain) competitive sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, and the UFC. What is more, I’m obsessed with the Olympics. The Olympics are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to competitive athletics. So, I don’t take issue with all competition. I’m not saying “all” competition is bad.

However, in my experience, when I’ve seen schools compete against each other for better test scores or better levels of student achievement, students and teachers suffer. Some immediately ask, “Why?” or “How can that be?” Because, as research has shown, competition leads to the privatization of professional practice. Competition, in this sense, hinders collaboration and the sharing of ideas among schools. Yes, Albert Shanker’s initial conception of charter schools and the sharing of ideas among all schools sounded promising. Under more ideal circumstances, that model may work. However, realistically speaking, competition has perverted his work.

When I hear about educators who embrace a competitive mindset so much so that it hinders collaboration, that always makes me wonder, “Aren’t we in this together?” “Aren’t these students ‘our’ students?” Rhetorically speaking, if the students in my building or classroom can benefit from something the students are doing in your building or classroom, but you erect barriers to the sharing of that knowledge, you’re hurting the children. What’s even more unfortunate, I see this as a disservice to children all in the name of professional, adult pride.

I read something from George Cuoros the other day. Along with some educators and cognitive neuroscientists, I question his work regarding the “innovator’s mindset” and his obsession with innovation. However, in this case, I thought he was right on the money. In one of his posts, he posed an interesting duality: Classroom Teacher vs. School Teacher. Cuoros states that, the “classroom teachers know their content amazingly well and are great with their current group of students. But, once they step outside of their classroom, the students they do not teach are ‘not their problem.’ ‘School teachers’ on the other hand, can do all of those things that classroom teachers do within their own classrooms and subject matter, but when they walk out of their room, every child in the school is their child.” In education, it would behoove us all to understand that these children are “our” children… The students at this school are not “their” children. The students at my school are not “my” children. They are all “our” children. We must constantly be thinking about what we can do to best serve all of “our” children. I’m going to take Cuoros’ duality a step further by arguing that competition enforces the classroom teacher mindset, rather than the school teacher mindset. Let’s remove competitive barriers and see ourselves as “school teachers.”

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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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The Journal of Small Wins

Woah… What a whirlwind of a week. It’s been pretty crazy. The first week after summer break is always considerably hectic for educators. Besides the general misperception that we’re simply getting our schools in order for the first day, we’re actually doing so much more.  We’re cleaning, planning, organizing, coordinating, moving, meeting, preparing, analyzing, managing, and a plethora of other verbs you can think of. Often times, we engage in these actions all in one day!

That being said, I’ve found it beneficial to physically document successes throughout the day. I call this my “Journal of Small Wins.” It helps remind me that I am having an impact. In fact, research suggests that this practice helps us stay motivated and productive. Of course, there are other things I’d like to be doing/accomplishing. For instance, I’d like to focus more on student and teacher learning. However, at this point, I feel inundated with managerial tasks and putting out fires. Yet, this journal really helps me visualize and recall my whirlwind days so that I can truly reflect on my impact (and areas of my leadership in need of improvement).

As an educator, how do you reflect on your professional practice in light of all of your other responsibilities? Do you have any techniques/strategies that help you analyze your impact?

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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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Rethinking/Rebranding “Back-to-School”

Last week, my wife and I were conversing about our “back-to-school” experiences as children. She reminisced about how she was so excited to go back to school. She elucidated her enthusiasm for meeting her new teacher and seeing her new classroom. She declared, “I couldn’t wait to meet my new teacher, see my new classroom, and see my new desk/seat!” She also recalled her excitement for back-to-school shopping. She would go back-to-school shopping with her entire family. She detailed her peculiar admiration for school supplies (special pencils, pretty-looking paper, extraordinary erasers, etc.) and how she loved these experiences and the back-to-school time of year.

For me, back-to-school was completely different. I was never excited about any of it. I wasn’t looking forward to meeting my new teacher. I was dreading my new seat in my new classroom. I loathed back-to-school shopping. In fact, I usually just handed my school supply list to my mom and she went to the store by herself and purchased everything. Interestingly, I have a feeling that my experience isn’t all that dissimilar compared to many kids, past and present.

I began to cogitate on the following: As educators, what can we do to ease the transition back into learning after summer break? I’m not talking about simply getting students excited about going back to school. I’m talking about getting students excited and prepared for re-engaging in cognitive activity. I’ve seen the back-to-school parades on youtube and twitter. I’ve seen entire school rallies with popular sports mascots encouraging students to “get back in the game”. I’ve seen schools begin the school year with field trips and field days in order to ease the transition. I’m sure those types of activities certainly have the potential to excite students about being present in school after the culmination of summer break. However, I see getting excited about simply being present back at school as different from getting students excited about re-engaging in learning.

I also thought about a typical response to my cogitation: Students should continue learning throughout the summer. Thus, if students continued learning all summer (by going to the library, experiencing museums, engaging in activities at day camps, etc.), re-engaging in learning once school started back up wouldn’t be such a shock to the system. I completely understand the validity in that notion. Yet, I try to think about the kids like me (and the kids worse off than me). It’s not that my parents didn’t help continue the learning journey throughout the summer. They did. I went to summer camps. My family and I traversed the plethora of museums throughout Illinois and beyond. At dinner time, we talked about all the fun stuff we did during the day. We engaged in continuous dialogue about world events. My parents encouraged me to read (though, don’t tell my mom, I rarely ever read anything over the summer). Put plainly, I simply did not care about re-engaging in learning, let alone being present back at school.

In addition, throughout my years in education, I’ve served students who did not engage in a single learning activity the entire summer. I assure you, this is not an isolated incident. Unfortunately, this happens everywhere, regardless of race/socioeconomic status/culture/etc.

Therefore, as educators (parents are educators, too), what do you do to get your students (or your children)/prepare your students (or your children) for re-engaging in learning? Have you seen a school/district successfully rethink/rebrand “back-to-school” to encourage the dive back into cognitive activity and not just garner excitement about being present back at school?

Any tips or tricks you’d like to share? Feel free to do so!

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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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Turns Out, Happiness is the Key (or, at Least One of Them)

Did you know the following benefits of happiness (Achor, HBR, 2012):

  • 56% greater sales
  • 3 times more creative
  • 31% more productive
  • 40% more likely to receive a promotion
  • 23% fewer fatigue symptoms
  • Up to 6 times more engaged
  • 39% more likely to live to age 94
  • People who are happy and positive are more productive, which results in a better ROI for companies and school districts.

I attended a 2-day Happiness Advantage workshop in Schaumburg this week.  At first, I was skeptical.  I mean,  I already knew happiness was important.  I knew being happy was a big part of success and creativity.  I knew that happiness helped fuel relationship building.  However, I didn’t know the aforementioned specific benefits of being happy.

Also, happiness is a mindset.  We must make a choice to be happy.  As obvious as that may seem, I never truly thought about happiness that way.  I thought that if I worked hard and became successful, I would be happy (almost automatically).  However, that thinking is backwards.  I must first choose to be happy, which will help my brain work better, and then potentially help me become more successful.  As the presenter mentioned, negative emotions narrow our focus towards fight-flight, whereas positive emotions broaden the amount of possibilities we process, thus, making us more creative, thoughtful, and open to new ideas (Fredrickson, 2004).

In addition, I learned that we have to be careful.  Apparently, it’s fairly simple to fall into the “darkness” or be negative (which shouldn’t be hard to believe.  Just turn on the news).  What is more, I also learned that there are specific habits that people engage in order to remain consistently happy.  During the training, I made a commitment to try at least one of these habits for 21 days.  I’m hoping this commitment will become a habit so that I can begin working on developing another one of the happiness habits.

To clarify, it’s not that I’m not a happy person.  I am happy.  There are many things that make me happy.  However, as the presenter also said (or asked), we’re not always happy at work.  He asked a poignant question: why do we always wait until retirement to be happy?  We should be focusing on ways to make work happy, so that happiness is part of our regular routine and so happiness is also shared with all the people with whom we come into contact.

I definitely plan to live by what I learned.  I was about to say, “implement what I learned.”  Yet, what we learned can’t really be implemented (in the most literal sense).  The Happiness Advantage focused on a paradigm shift/mind shift/seeing the world through different lenses (emotional lenses).  The presenter wasn’t selling a program or some type of scripted curriculum.  Being happy is within us all.  We must choose to be happy.

Let’s bring this post back to the classroom and apply it to my context as an educational leader.  I believe the rubber will truly meet the road when I’m faced with the plethora of issues that plague educational leaders (or, educators in general) on a daily basis: student misbehavior, problematic parent, having difficult conversations with teachers, etc.  When I’m faced with those challenges, I hope I can remember what I learned from the Happiness Advantage training.  I hope that I can remember my commitment to being happy, and spreading that happiness to others.

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