Does Your District Really Care About Student Achievement?

If you asked any employee of nearly any school district whether their focus was on student achievement, I’m confident most would say that it was. That is, after all, kind of the point. Why else would we spend countless hours planning lessons and checking papers? Why form committees to investigate curricular options and then spend thousands on new programs if we didn’t think they would improve student performance? Why would district leaders spend limited funds on professional development and other teacher training? Why stress over standardized tests scores to the point that we all but bribe students to try their best, and why spend hours analyzing the results of those tests if we didn’t care about what those tests said about how we were serving the educational needs of kids?

It certainly seems like everyone involved in a school system is trying his or her best to improve student achievement. And yet I remain unconvinced. Consider this:

Does your district do anything to identify and attract the best teachers from your area to come work for it?

I ask because we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the largest in-school influence on student performance is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. I’ve been told this so many times during my teaching career that I’ve lost count. It’s not the principal, or class sizes, or the condition of the building, or the curriculum, or student access to technology.

It’s the teacher.

Which means that schools that are serious about improving student achievement ought to do everything within their ability to find, hire, and retain the best teachers they can afford.

Most don’t.

Here’s how most districts go about hiring a new teacher:

First, they wait until they have an opening. In poor districts, this often happens because fed up teachers head for greener pastures. In more affluent districts, openings usually occur after a retirement.

Once there’s an opening, the school district posts the job. They then sit back and wait to see who sends them résumés. They go through the résumés and try to guess who might be a good teacher. They interview some applicants, pick the one they want, and usually offer to start them somewhere near the bottom of the district salary schedule. Then they sit back and hope they chose wisely.

But if school districts really cared about student achievement, their hiring process would look nothing like what is described above. Districts that really cared about student achievement would:

Be constantly scouting teachers in surrounding school districts in an attempt to identify the best ones at each level. They would know, just like NFL or Major League Baseball general managers know, who the top five kindergarten teachers were. They would know the best chemistry teachers. They’d make phone calls to people in their professional networks. They’d interview students who transferred into their districts about the educational experiences those students had with different teachers in their previous districts. They might even get their hands on teachers’ year-end ratings, which are a matter of public record. They’d keep files on teachers they would love to put in front of their students, and they’d check in with them periodically, perhaps inquiring about how happy they are at their current place of employment and whether they might be persuaded to leave it.

When these achievement-driven districts had an opening, administrators wouldn’t sit around and wait for applicants. They would immediately reach out to the top teachers on their scouting reports. They’d find out what it would take to get those teachers to leave their positions to come work for them. They’d offer to pay them more than they were currently making, instead of insulting them by offering to start them at the bottom of the pay scale.

Once they hired these all-stars, they’d do what they could to keep them around. Great teachers might be more expensive, but districts would get more bang for their buck than they would spending that money on textbooks, PD, or fancy new tablets and SmartBoards. The research on that is crystal clear.

So why don’t districts operate this way? Because there’s a greater incentive for district leaders to save money than there is to improve educational outcomes. (And maybe because there’s an unspoken agreement among superintendents to not poach each other’s best teachers.)

Regardless of the reasons, it’s clear that if your school district doesn’t know who the best teachers are in the area, then they have no intention of hiring those teachers. And if they aren’t willing to pay effective teachers what they’re worth, then they’re not really serious about improving student performance, no matter how much they may protest to the contrary.

 

 

 

How to Get Your Principal to Stop Requiring Lesson Plans

In my last article, I wrote about the importance of teachers objecting to unreasonable requests at the earliest possible moment. Today, I’ll discuss one such objectionable practice that no competent teacher should put up with: required lesson plans.

There is almost no reason for principals to ask their teachers to submit lesson plans on any kind of regular basis. There are a slew of reasons why they shouldn’t.

Lesson Plans Don’t Tell Principals Anything Useful

Yesterday I planned to work out. I didn’t. Last year, I planned to publish six books. I published three. Most mornings, I plan to be patient with my students, but then Jimmy does what Jimmy does every day and those plans are quickly forgotten. Just 8% of New Year’s resolutions are kept. 41% of tasks on people’s to-do lists are never completed. Plans are regularly ignored or discarded as life happens. Plans don’t tell you anything except people’s intentions (and that’s if they’re being honest about them). Collecting teachers’ lesson plans doesn’t tell a principal anything about what actually happens in teachers’ rooms. If principals want to know if their teachers are doing their jobs, they should skip the plans and watch them teach.

Required Lesson Plans Waste Teachers’ Time

Every teacher I know has lesson plans. Very few teachers I know have detailed lesson plans like the kind they were required to write in college. There’s a good reason. In college, teachers are learning how to plan lessons. They don’t know much, so instructors read their plans and provided feedback so that teachers will consider things they maybe hadn’t.

Employed teachers are professionals, and the plans they write are for them. As such, they will vary just as much as teachers do. What works for one will not work for others. And there’s no way a principal can evaluate a teacher’s lesson plans without also watching the teacher teach. Required lesson plans are often concoctions. Dutiful teachers record learning goals and include things they never include on the plans they make for themselves.

As such, they’re a giant waste of time, and that is a huge deal. Any principal who doesn’t understand and respect how pressed for time teachers already are doesn’t understand teaching. Period. When principals require busywork they’re essentially telling teachers that they don’t get it or that they do, but don’t care. The one thing every teacher wants more of, even more so than money, is time. Principals should do everything they can to solve that problem. Requiring lesson plans makes it worse.

Detailed, Written Lesson Plans Don’t Make Sense Anymore

One interesting thing about teaching is that while governments and school districts have become more prescriptive they have simultaneously held onto practices that are no longer relevant. Detailed lesson plans are one such revenant. If you work for a district that doesn’t trust you to plan your own lessons and instead requires you to follow a scripted program with fidelity, then why in the world would you have to write down your lesson plans? They’re already written in the teachers’ guide that you’ve been told to blindly follow. If principals want required lesson plans, then a reasonable question is why. Why should teachers need to rewrite plans that they’ve been handed and told to use?

Required Lesson Plans Destroy Staff Morale

Principals who require lesson plans are micromanaging their staffs and sending the message that they don’t trust their teachers to do their jobs. They’re checking up on their teachers (and in a time-wasting, ineffective way), and if teachers have given no reason for such a lack of trust, then such a practice destroys staff morale.

Here’s an idea for schools: Hire the best teachers you can find. Let them do their jobs. If it looks like they’re doing that, then stay out of their way and let them keep doing it. Since they waste teachers’ time and don’t provide useful information, it’s hard to argue that required lesson plans are about anything other than control. They’re a reminder that while you may think you have autonomy in your classroom, somebody is watching. That’s horribly demotivating.

There is only one situation when a principal should require submitted lesson plans and that is in the case of a teacher who is struggling. In an effort to identify causes of the struggles, a principal should ask to see the teacher’s lesson plans to see if poor planning might be a factor. It may be that the planning is poor, or it may be that the plans are fine, but that the teacher doesn’t execute them, or that classroom management problems interfere with their execution. Whatever the ultimate reasons, principals should never require lesson plans of teachers who aren’t struggling and they shouldn’t require them if they aren’t willing to follow-up with an observation and then provide feedback on the plans and their execution.

So if you want to get your principal to stop requiring lesson plans, do the following:

First, talk to her about all of the above. Sometimes, bosses don’t realize how their decisions affect their staffs. Give her the benefit of the doubt, but explain the damaging effects this requirement has on teachers. Respectfully lay out your case, and ask her to explain why she requires lesson plans. Hopefully, that’s enough for her to reconsider. But if it’s not, then it’s time to fight fire with fire:

  1. Write your lesson plans.
  2. At the end of each submission, attach the following: I appreciate your willingness to look over my plans to help me be more effective. Can we please meet at your earliest convenience to discuss my plans? I look forward to hearing your detailed feedback on them. Because why should you be the only one inconvenienced?
  3. Submit the lesson plans.
  4. Wait.

If you don’t receive any feedback or a response to your meeting request (which of course you don’t actually want), stop submitting lesson plans. No feedback means one of two things: Your principal isn’t collecting your lesson plans to help you get better or he’s not reading them at all.

What will you do if he requires the plans anyway, even after listening to your objections and after ignoring your requests for feedback?

Remind him that he has bosses to answer to and that he has a staff he has to work with and rely on. And if you really want to twist the knife, let your principal’s supervisor know that you repeatedly requested meetings so you could improve your lesson planning, but he didn’t respond.

This is not a minor issue. It’s worth upsetting a few apple carts over. Principals who require lesson plans but don’t read them or even provide feedback on them do not respect teachers. Period. Principals who don’t stand up to district leaders on this issue can’t be trusted to stand up for their staff on any other issue. Push back. Demand that required lesson plans actually get read, responded to, and followed up on with observations. Anything less than that is exploitative and you shouldn’t let it pass. Because the exploitation and the arbitrary busywork won’t stop there. Give in on this and you’re volunteering for more unreasonable mandates.

Why Teachers Should Object

There’s a good chance that if you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you’ve been asked to do something that you knew to be educational malpractice. Either through your experience with kids or because of research you read, you knew that a decision was a bad one. How you responded to such a decision probably has a lot to do with how you feel about your current place of employment. If you’re resentful and unmotivated, there’s a good chance you went along with it. And there’s a better chance it wasn’t the only time.

When you agree to something you know to be bad for your students (or for yourself), you run into three problems:

First, you set a precedent. Agree once and you’ll likely agree again. People are remarkably consistent in their behavior. Once you see yourself as someone who “goes along to get along” or “flies under the radar,” then you’ll be unlikely to depart from that self-image and start objecting later, making it more likely that you’ll agree to increasingly noxious policies and practices in the future.

Second, you will start to lose your motivation. Follow enough bad orders and you’ll begin to wonder why you’re busting your hump for blithering idiots who don’t even read educational research. Why should you work hard when they’re obviously not working in the best interests of students? If the district is led by morons like yours, why should you strive for excellence?

Third, you’ll resent your boss, her bosses, the school board, and maybe even the community. You’ll think:

The feckless school board hired these administrators and then won’t do anything to stop them from making awful decisions. The voters, who happen to be the parents of the kids in my classroom, elected the hapless school board members and they won’t even show up to the meetings to ask what’s going on in the schools.

You’ll resent them all and end up miserable, having violated your core beliefs and sacrificed the idealism of your youth on the altar of servility, all under the mistaken belief that it’s more professional to hold your tongue.

If something makes you resentful, there are only two possibilities: you’re a whiner or you’re being pushed around. Either what you’re being asked to do is reasonable and you’re the problem, or you must act.

So assuming you’re not just a crybaby and you’re actually being told to do things that are bad for kids (or for yourself), what do you do?

You object, and you do so early. When you’re told to do something that you know is wrong, you should object at the earliest possible moment. Here’s why:

1. You might actually win.

Most people avoid conflict and back down when confronted. People are generally not courageous and will back off when challenged, especially if you present your side calmly and with facts. Win, and you won’t have to put up with the awful decision until someone better (you hope) comes along and reverses the policy (probably by asking, “Why the hell were you doing this?”).

2. By objecting, you will start to see yourself as someone who is willing to object.

Objecting will make it more likely that you’ll do so again. It will also put your bosses on notice that you will not be a teacher who agrees just because it’s easier.

3. The cost of not objecting is too high.

 

Yes, there is risk. You might be inviting retribution, especially if you’re dealing with one of the petty tyrants who inhabit too many district offices and has grown accustomed to having their orders obsequiously followed.

So you may be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But it’s better to stand tall with your shoulders back and do the right thing and risk being asked to leave then it is to choke down your core beliefs and spend the next however-many-years doing things you hate for people you don’t respect, all while wallowing in self-loathing for not having the intestinal fortitude to say something when it might have made a difference.

Stand up and say, “No, I’m not doing it.” You’re not doing it because it’s a bad idea. You’re not doing it because if you do, you’ll be more likely to do more of it. You’re not doing it because you’ll be constantly annoyed and eventually lose the motivation to do your job well. You’re not doing it because you’ll end up resentful, which is a terrible way to live.

And if your objections don’t stop the lunacy, then it’s time to leave.

And you should always be willing to leave. Because if you can’t get out, then you can never say no. And if you can’t say no, then you cannot bargain. And if you cannot bargain, then you’ll do whatever you’re told to do every single time, no matter how egregious the request. That is a dangerous place to be.

Just ask the teachers in Atlanta who were sent to jail for following orders to cheat on state tests. Do you think they ever objected? Or do you think they agreed and agreed and agreed as the policies and practices got more odious, all while telling themselves that they were being good team players. Fat lot of good that did them.

Stand up for yourself and your students. Set clear boundaries, grow a spine, bare your teeth. When people realize you’re not a pushover, that makes you powerful. Showing someone that you’re willing to inflict pain makes it less likely you’ll ever need to. Stop worrying so much about being liked. Object, and object early. Your future self will thank you for it.

 

Note: The above was inspired by (okay, stolen from) this video by professor Jordan B. Peterson, which you should watch. It’s not specifically for teachers, but it should be.

Hard Work vs. Smart Work – A Debate

The following is a guest post by Anish Passi, Director at Neostencil, an ed-tech startup funded by the Times Group. He previously founded Testcafe – also in the ed-tech space. He has extensive experience in the education industry, with past exposure to investment banking, technology, real estate, and retail consulting.

Hard work and smart work go hand in hand. There is no denying that people need to work hard to create a foundation for great achievements. However, if students work smart, they can do the same amount of work faster and efficiently. Teachers need to understand the thin line between making students work relentlessly hard and enabling them to learn smart work.

There is a preconceived notion among students that to succeed one must put in effort and work hard for it. Some people also think that one should give up everything else and focus all their energies on the final goal. While this is somewhat true, they can do the same amount of work in a shorter time by simply working smarter.

Merging Hard Work & Smart Work Together

To help students succeed in life, teachers should push students to practice both hard work and smart work simultaneously.  It is essential to work hard first because only then will students understand the depth of exactly what they are doing and then devise a smarter plan accordingly. The unfortunate truth is that in this fast-paced world, people want to switch to smart work but don’t put in any effort first. This could lead to a downfall. Like during preparation for competitive exams such as the UPSC, CAT, GMAT etc. people put in very little time to get the concepts right and jump to problem solving. Instead, they should focus more on concepts which would be hard work at the start but will make the process a lot simpler and easier.

Students must understand the project thoroughly, plan, and build a process around it. When they do this, they’ve framed all the possibilities, and only then can they undertake an easier way of completing the task. With teacher’s input, working smart won’t be much of an issue, and students will be able to work efficiently using fewer resources and time. The trick is to combine hard work and smart work.

Example: Every talented artist trains and gets mentored to perfect their skills. They spend years practicing without taking any breaks or shortcuts to make themselves the best. Once they reach the peak of success, they tend to make fewer errors and are more experienced. This results in better time management and less use of energy and effort. They have now become smart, but they started by working hard. This rule applies to every sphere of life.

Differences Between the Two

Let’s take a look at some of the differences between working hard vs working smart.

Meaning

Hard work means putting in a lot of time and effort doing a certain amount of work. Whereas, smart work means spending less amount of time performing the same amount of work.

Aim

Hard work aims at the quantity and may become monotonous and boring after a certain period. Smart work aims at achieving goals with quality.

Process of Working

Working hard involves a lot of tedious work which is carried out traditionally. But, if people work smartly, they can achieve more output by working in an unconventional and modern way which could include attending webinars, classes, and coaching.

Conceptualization

Hard work utilizes the traditional format of working, and there aren’t many changes involved. On the other hand, smart work involves using old ideas and transforming them to yield better results.

End Goal

People who work hard sometimes feel that they weren’t able to achieve their set goal. Smart workers attain their goals faster through proper time management.

A simple way to turn hard work into smart work is by understanding the aftermath of the process. If students keep on working continuously without any reliable results, then they should consider working smartly. Rather than focusing all the attention on just the work, think about all the alternatives that can be undertaken to do the same amount of work in less time. Set deadlines and goals that they should achieve in a set timeframe and prioritize the important tasks first. This way you will not waste a lot of time on unimportant things.

Contrary to this, some people believe that there is no replacement for hard work. Working smart is a shortcut that doesn’t work at all stages of life. Still, smart work has no doubt worked for many. If one can achieve the same quantity of work at the same time, that is not exactly a shortcut; it is just a better alternative.

Conclusion

If you can incorporate working hard and smart together, you will achieve great heights and lead yourself to a better life. One who works hard and smart will in due course of time procure all the benefits and rake in the golden opportunity to probably not work at all.

5 Ways to Encourage Shy Students to Participate in the Classroom

We all have had that quiet kid in the class who keeps silent during group discussions, the one who has done his homework but never gives answers out loud. Whether they are afraid of getting things wrong or speaking up before their peers, shy students withdraw into themselves and it seems impossible to get them involved no matter how hard you try.

While overactive students are considered the most challenging ones, quiet kids are often more difficult. They don’t mess around in class, but it is harder to encourage them to participate and express themselves.

Here are five tips for getting your quiet students to come out of their shells and share their voices with the class.

1. Create small discussion groups

Shy students may be more comfortable speaking up in smaller groups than before the whole classroom. Creating groups with less outgoing students and suggesting activities that require interaction will help quiet students get out of their comfort zone and communicate with one another.

There are different group activities you can suggest to help the students overcome their shyness. Run an “about myself” activity during which they speak about their likes and dislikes, or play a game of emotion charades where they have to act out various feelings.

2. Change the traditional way of asking questions

Asking questions is the most common method of assessing learning and encouraging student engagement, but it’s not always effective. Active students usually monopolize classroom discussions, while the more introverted ones feel uncomfortable raising their hands and answering questions.

A great way to get shy students involved in Q&As is to use real-time polling tools, such as Swift Polling, to challenge your students on what they’ve learned during the lesson. You can create questions with multiple answers and give students some time to text to vote for the right answer. The ability to submit answers anonymously will reduce the fear of making mistakes and students will likely be more active, while you’ll get the chance to gauge their understanding of the subject material.

You can also use real-time polling tools to receive anonymous feedback about the lesson and learn what activities your students like most.

3. Allow students to move around

Different students have different learning styles. Some are auditory or visual learners, while others perceive information better through a physical experience – touching, feeling or doing.

You may discover that students who are usually quiet during lectures or demonstrations are better engaged in physical activities. For example, you can organize gallery walks.

In this activity, students add to their knowledge through active discussions and cooperative learning. The class is divided into several groups. The teacher hangs or stages several open-ended questions around the classroom or outdoors, as in an art gallery, and each group is given time to discuss the questions and add their thoughts with markers or sticky notes. Having contributed to the solution of all questions, the groups return to the first question they faced and see comments left by other groups. Meanwhile, the teacher keeps interacting with students and observing the level of their activity.

For quiet students, the movement and less formal atmosphere can make expressing what’s on their mind easier.

4. Recognize and reward active contribution

Make sure to encourage shy students at every little step they take. Comment on their work and praise their attempts to interact in the classroom. Make sure to give them an important job in the classroom so that they feel they are contributing. When possible, display their work where other students can see it and make them feel proud of their accomplishments. These will help them develop confidence and make further steps toward overcoming their fears.

5. Build a trustful relationship with shy students

Introverted students tend to hide in the end rows to avoid being in the spotlight. Make sure to place them in the front of the classroom to be closer to them and interact with them more easily. Seat them next to the students who are most likely to befriend them and try to organize social interactions.

While you have to keep continuous contact with all the students, allocate some extra time to communicate with shy students one-on-one and build rapport with them. Even a few conversations with introverted students can help to create a stronger connection and give them that little nudge to reach out.

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The above article was submitted by Swift Polling and contains affiliate links.