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.


Education/Teaching: This Profession Isn’t Just a Paycheck, It’s a Purpose.

I had a rather nontraditional start to my career as an educator.  I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in Mass Communication with an emphasis in Broadcasting.  After graduation, I got a job in a public relations/marketing/advertising agency downtown.  I was so excited to start my post-college life.  I saw myself living downtown and making a living in the business world.  I felt confident that I had a job and that I would soon be making enough money to leave the nest and start my own life.

However, it now occurs to me, I never really thought about my purpose.  I do have to give myself a little credit.  I was only 22.  Finding a purpose in life takes some people their entire lives.  At the age of 22, purpose wasn’t something I was thinking about.  In fact, I hadn’t really thought about my purpose at any point in my life.

Anyways, I started my job interning as an account manager for this PR agency.  The hustle and bustle of the commute and the first day felt exciting.  I was “adulting” and it was kind of cool!  Fast forward about three weeks…  After some time making the commute in the rat race and working in the agency, I began losing interest.  It didn’t feel fun anymore.  I started dreading going to work.  There was nothing invigorating about sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls all day (of course, not all PR agencies are like this.  However, this was my experience).

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was missing something extremely important.  I was not fulfilling my purpose.  I had no conviction.  I had no passion.  I felt like an easily replaceable cog, just spinning and spinning as the days went by.  I had daydream nightmares of myself getting old still doing the same thing, day in and day out, staring at a computer screen, writing emails, and making cold calls.

The day came for my internship to end, and I was not offered a full-time position in the agency.  This may sound strange, but I felt a small (very small) sense of failure because I was not hired on full-time, but I also felt an extreme sense of relief.  After that internship, I was fairly certain that I wanted nothing to do with the business world, or at least a company that made me feel irrelevant and easily replaceable.  Some may say I didn’t give the business world enough time and should have stuck it out because not all businesses or agencies are like the one in which I worked.  I know that.  Yet, I’m extremely thankful I didn’t stick around.

My mom was a principal around the time that my internship ended.  She told me that I should look into substitute teaching to make some money while I was job searching.  I did.  AND I LOVED IT!  Who loves substitute teaching?  Subbing is notoriously difficult.  Students don’t always treat subs well.  The pay isn’t that good.  I had no insurance/benefits.  I didn’t know much about education at the time so I occasionally felt unprepared.  But, I began to notice something.  I noticed something about myself as I began interacting with students and the school/district community.  I was happy.  I felt a connection with education and with all my students and their families.  I began to feel a sense of purpose.  Because of the connections I was making with students and the school community, I felt like I was making an impact.  My students, (which weren’t really mine at the time because I was only subbing, but still), really helped cultivate this purpose in me.  I began to feel a strong sense of conviction.  I needed to become a teacher in order to help positively change the lives of my students!  So, that’s what I did.

I’m writing this post because I’m currently interviewing candidates for multiple teaching positions in my building for the 2017-2018 school year.  There are hundreds of books on interviewing.  These books delineate types of questions to ask potential candidates.  They highlight nonverbal cues to look for while interviewing candidates.  However, none of the books touch on purpose, or at least they don’t go into depth about it.  One of the things I’m looking for in candidates (among the plethora of other criteria I look for in good teaching candidates) is PURPOSE.  I wish I could define this better (so then I could write that book, lol).  Sometimes, I even wish that purpose was more quantifiable.  I’ve hired teachers in the past who were/are very passionate, and I think this is an aspect of purpose.  Yet, I don’t think it’s the same thing.  It’s hard to describe.  But, as a leader making hiring decisions, sometimes, you just know when someone has/knows his or her purpose.  It comes through in all of their answers and their questions.  It comes through as they describe their day-to-day responsibilities interacting with children.  It becomes apparent when candidates talk about the time they spend with their school communities.  At the end of the day, I’m looking to hire teaching candidates who view this job as their purpose, not just a paycheck.


What Do We Have Control Over As Educators?

This post is a partial continuation of my most recent post, Considering School Improvement in Underserved/Disadvantaged Areas.

I’ve had the conversation regarding school improvement (especially as it relates to underserved/disadvantaged districts) with so many educators. In fact, after my most recent post, I’ve had multiple educators in my district approach me and thank me for sharing the post and express interest in learning more. Again, I posit that there are aspects of education we can control (or have a better chance of controlling), and think it’s essential that we A) take a look at ourselves and determine if we are honestly doing the “right work” by focusing on the things we CAN control while B) simultaneously acknowledging the copious amount of outside-of-school factors that impact student learning, but not letting those factors define our solutions or plague our thinking/efforts.

This list includes a plethora of aspects in education over which we have NO/VERY MINIMAL CONTROL (not an exhaustive list):

  • Poverty and its various effects
  • Dysfunctional family home lives
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • School segregation/school district redlining/other discriminatory policies
  • Blighted/unsafe school communities and neighborhoods
  • Paucity of school funding
  • For some districts, decrepit schools and facilities
  • Formal schooling is not mandated in Illinois until first grade (6-7 years old)

These are some of the aspects in education I think we CAN CONTROL (or have the most control over) in order to help improve schools in underserved/disadvantaged areas. What am I missing? (feel free to comment!):

  • Teacher quality
  • Administrator quality
  • The support we provide our teachers and administrators
  • The type/quality of the professional development offered
  • Safe/comfortable environment for teachers/administrators to act autonomously/take risks/innovate
  • Level of collaboration between teachers and administrators
  • Building relationships/rapport/respect with the entire school community
  • Instructional practices
  • The hiring process
  • Interventions/servicing students who are experiencing difficulty
  • Curriculum
  • Student engagement
  • Culture building/developing/rebuilding
  • School branding
  • Exercising fiscal responsibility with the funds schools do receive
  • Prioritization of duties/responsibilities

Again, please Comment/Like/Share!  I’d love to know your thoughts!

Considering School Improvement in Underserved/Disadvantaged Areas

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Actually, this has probably been a thought of mine (at times, it may have lingered in the back of my head as opposed to taking center stage), since I first started my career in education. I work (and have worked since the start of my career) in a severely disadvantaged school district. Over 80% of our students come from low-income homes. We have a 40% student mobility rate. It doesn’t help that our standardized test scores according to PARCC are not very good (which, in my opinion, is highly indicative of socioeconomic status. You can take a map of the south suburbs of Illinois, throw a dart at it, and you will more than likely hit an area that’s underperforming while serving a severely disadvantaged population). What’s even more unfortunate, there is an undeserved negative connotation associated with my district and a plethora of unfavorable perceptions regarding my current school district (and a lot of districts that serve similar populations).

This unfortunate scenario is reinforced by social scripts, which are “a series of behaviors, actions, and consequences that are expected in a particular situation or environment”( In my district’s case, the social script is defined by environmental factors such as poverty, dysfunctional student home lives, high percentages of EL students, high percentages of students with special needs, etc. Districts like mine (there are many) are often expected to fail (sometimes, this expectation is even held by those whom the district employs) because of the out-of-school factors impacting our students and their learning (among other things). But, I’m trying to find a way to flip that script. We focus a lot on what we CANNOT control in education. Let’s start focusing on what we CAN control.

Elena Aguilar (2013), author of The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, describes the Coach’s Optical Refractor as an essential tool which encourages coaches to view issues/problems/situations from six different lenses. If you’d like to learn more about the Refractor, I highly recommend her book. I want to focus on the first lens, Inquiry, and how it relates to my thoughts regarding school improvement in disadvantaged areas. She states, “The way we define the problem dictates how we define the solution” (p. 50). Defining/describing improvement efforts concerning our disadvantaged schools are almost always plagued with assertions and descriptions regarding the effects of pervasive poverty, the dysfunctional family home lives of our students, the lack of resources to properly help our students learn and live productive lives, etc. I understand that those issues impact our reality. There’s no way around that. We can’t deny this reality, and we must be cognizant of how it shapes our own perceptions, beliefs, and actions.

However, I can’t help but wonder if we’re focusing on those aspects of the problem so much so that the solution (if there is one) is often (only) defined in these ways as well. I’ve heard the, “If only we had more resources,” “If only our students’ parents cared more,” “If only we had more parental involvement,” “If only the neighborhoods where are students come from were safer,” “If only our kids came to school on grade level (a good portion of our students do not come to school on grade level),” etc.

In my opinion, we may need to reframe the problem so that it doesn’t focus so much on issues outside of our control. By reframing the problem, we may also need to adjust our professional practice mirrors onto ourselves to determine what exactly we CAN do in order to positively enact change and improve learning and/or achievement for our students. Can we safely reframe the problem so that we take into consideration all the contributing factors to a student’s success, but also focus mainly on what we, as educators, can do to help ensure learning? I think so. I think it will require honest, courageous, uncomfortable conversations. But, I think it’s possible (and worth it). I also think that this type of change won’t occur until we get honest with ourselves and begin focusing on what we CAN change, as opposed to focusing on those issues over which we have no control.


Human Cognition and Implications for the Constructivist Classroom

In light of Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), I thought I would write about the brain!

With the development and increased usage of the FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), I find myself reading more and more findings regarding human cognition and neuroscience. It has also become a major interest of mine. That being said, while analyzing study findings, I find myself in a state of excitement, discovery, and uncertainty. The more I learn about human cognition, the more I question current best practices, educational trends, teaching strategies and approaches, etc.

In the context of direct instructional guidance as it relates to human cognition, learning is defined as a change in long-term memory. Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006) posit:

The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not or cannot specify what has been changed in long-term memory, or that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in or retrieved from long-term memory, is likely to be ineffective. (p. 77)

Based on my readings and knowledge regarding human cognition (which is admittedly limited), I find that these cognitive researchers often sound very definitive when talking about learning. However, for me, questions continually abound regarding their claims or evidence. For instance, can Kirschner et al. safely conclude that absolutely no learning has occurred if nothing has changed in long-term memory? Again, for me, that sounds very definitive.

Kirschner et al. further posit that controlled experiments almost always demonstrate that when students are dealing with novel information, they should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it (sounds somewhat like lots of hand-holding). If they are not, students may experience an excessive cognitive load that is detrimental to learning.

As an avid and vocal proponent of project-based learning, I always get a little nervous while reading and analyzing cognitive studies that decry constructivism or constructivist teaching approaches. I’m not denying the results of these cognition studies or the plethora of literature reviews concerning human cognition that suggest that direct instructional approaches are more effective and more efficient.

However, with well-designed and well-planned project-based learning, students are provided with a real-world problem and (often) a pathway or guidelines to follow in order to solve the problem (therefore, possibly alleviating the “problem-solving search” that has been shown to deplete working memory). Well-designed PBL is highly structured and organized by skilled teachers. Students are guided through the journey as they endeavor to meet project deadlines, secure resources for their projects, practice and prepare for presentations in front of authentic audiences, and receive and reflect on critical feedback. When done well, and when students are truly engaged in these endeavors, though it may not be considered a “direct instructional approach” or “direct instructional guidance,” PBL can have profound learning impacts on students, right? I’ve seen it happen. Or, is what I’ve seen simply increased levels of engagement and excitement regarding learning activities? Is what I’ve seen simply students engaging in meaningless activities that look good, but will not transfer to long-term memory alterations? Cognitive studies often rock educational foundations. As such, these are turbulent times for me as I grapple with this information.

Human Cognition and the Case for Early Childhood Education.

Also, as we become more informed about human cognition, I can’t help but think about its implications for early childhood education. Based on what I’ve read and what researchers have found, a substantial amount of information stored in long-term memory is essential for continued and future successful learning. If this is the case, I don’t see why early-childhood education is not mandated (I’m sure most people will resort to the argument that there’s not enough funding for it). I live/work in Illinois. Students don’t have to go to school until they’re 6-7 years old (first grade). In underserved communities, it’s highly likely that if students are not attending school during those foundational years, they are not building experiences necessary to form and fill long-term memory. By the time some students come to us at 5 or 6 or 7 year olds, they may have missed a copious amount of opportunities to build their long-term memory.


What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to follow/share/leave a comment!