Teachers Talk

I’ve often heard teachers remark of their principals, “It’s like they forgot what it’s like to be in the classroom.” School leaders who spent years as a teacher seem to lose their classroom perspective in short order as they adjust to their new administrative roles. Some seem to forget that teachers have no time. As in literally no extra minutes anywhere in their day to do anything extra.

Some develop amnesia about just how vital planning time is and they ask their teachers to give it up, even though just a few short years ago they protected that time with everything they had.

And still others eschew their previously held beliefs about what it takes for students to be successful when they feel pressure from their bosses to raise test scores. They become the no-excuses,slave-to-the-data tyrants they used to abhor.

One of the most baffling cases of principals (and other school leaders) forgetting their roots is when they assume teachers won’t talk to other teachers. There is no logic behind such an assumption, especially since these leaders can regularly witness teachers talking to each other before and after school, before and after every meeting, during most meetings (including when they should be listening), at professional development days (often during the presentations), and literally every other time teachers get together in any context.

Teachers love to talk to other teachers.

In fact, as a teacher married to a teacher who has a number of friends who are also teachers, I can tell you that if you put us in the same room, there is a 100% chance that we will talk about our jobs. This happens even when we don’t want it to. Teachers can make all the “no talking shop” rules they want. We just aren’t very good at following them.

Teachers talk, and this immutable fact is something all school leaders would do well to remember.

We talk about how you treat us.

We talk about the text message you sent us.

We talk about what’s happening in our buildings to teachers who work in other buildings.

We talk about how you handle student discipline.

We talk about new initiatives and how you rolled them out.

We talk about what went down during committee meetings.

We talk about how you dealt with that parent.

We talk about the message our grade level received and compare it to the message other teachers received.

We talk. We talk in person, on the phone, by text message, and through social media. Take those things away and we’d use smoke signals and carrier pigeons.

And because teachers talk, school leaders need to be careful about what they say and do. What principals say or do to one person is going to get around, and if they get it wrong, they could unintentionally initiate the rumor mill, lose control of the message, harm their reputation, endanger equity, and even contribute to the destruction of their building’s culture. Here’s why.

Teachers Hate An Information Vacuum

I was in a building leadership meeting last week where a new professional development opportunity was discussed. We were debating how and when to introduce this initiative to the whole staff. Leadership believed this was new information and they wanted the opportunity to frame the message and put as positive a spin on it as they could. They planned to roll out the plan in two weeks.

The problem was that it had already leaked. I’d heard about it from another teacher who had heard about it from a colleague who had caught wind of it from a small meeting the previous week. Teachers talk. And because they talk, leadership should share, as early as possible, any information they have that will directly impact teachers. When they don’t, they create an information vacuum. Teachers will not sit by and wait patiently for an explanation. Instead, they will assume that withheld information means there’s something to hide. They’ll presume bad intentions. One teacher will tell another something that starts with the words, “Well, I heard…” Now you have rumors, negative attitudes, and zero control over the message. It’s out of administration’s hands and the only thing left to do is damage control. Not the most promising way to kick off a new initiative.

Recognize that teachers are going to talk and get the information out as quickly as possible to as many people as possible. Practice aggressive transparency and you’ll gain the respect and trust of your teachers while preventing rumors.

Teachers Compare Administrators

In my previous district, I worked for a principal who was the good soldier. She did as she was told. She never indicated if a despised idea was her own or if she was merely the messenger. She took the bullets for bad policy decisions and poor implementation. If a supervisor told her to keep her lips sealed about something that was coming down the pike, she did exactly that.

Across town, the principal in the other elementary building was the exact opposite. She was a “players’ coach” and was far more worried about keeping her staff happy than she was about pleasing her bosses. She exercised her own judgment. If she thought teachers should know something, she told them, damn the consequences. If administration wanted her to make an issue out of teachers allowing kids an extra five minutes of recess, she’d tell her staff exactly where it was coming from.

As you can imagine, this put my principal in a difficult position because teachers talk. One building’s teachers regularly knew what was going on and what was coming, while the other building’s teachers were in the dark, at least until those teachers learned through the teacher-talk grapevine what their colleagues had been told by their more transparent principal.

The only thing my principal’s compliance did was lower her teachers’ opinions of her. Every teacher in that district wanted the principal who respected teachers enough to share information quickly and who ignored the old-fashioned belief that information could be controlled. Leaders shouldn’t put their principals in such a position, and principals who want the respect of their teachers should push for more transparency and the prompt dissemination of information.

Teachers Compare Buildings

We all seem to have a built-in sense of fairness; I see it in my third graders all the time. Even something like math manipulatives better be distributed close to equally if you don’t want to deal with complaints. Teachers aren’t much different than third graders in this regard. We want to be treated like our colleagues, even if those colleagues are on the other side of town. And since teachers talk, you can bet that every teacher will be keenly aware if they’re getting the raw end of the deal.

In this age of guaranteed and viable curriculums, where students in one building are expected to receive the same educational opportunities as students in other district buildings and test scores between the buildings are compared on fancy slideshow graphs, you don’t get it both ways. If leadership is expecting similar outputs, then teachers have a right to expect similar inputs. So if one building has four teaching assistants and another building has one, leadership should expect to hear about it. If one buildings’ students are allowed 30 minutes of recess and kids in another school only get 20, there are going to be complaints. If one building’s teachers are asked to do extra work relative to their colleagues across town, someone’s going to throw a fit.

Teachers talk, and leaders, knowing this, should treat teachers as equitably as possible. If they don’t, teachers will know.

Teachers Will Know What You Did To Joyce

How principals treat one teacher will become quickly known by every other teacher in the building. This presents an opportunity for principals to build their reputations. Treat teachers fairly and word will spread that you’re a just leader. Stand up to the teacher every other teacher sees as a bully and you’ll gain the respect of your staff. Defend one teacher against unfair treatment by a central office administrator and you’ll score points with every teacher.

But because teachers talk, this is a two-sided coin. Your teachers may recognize that you don’t see eye to eye with Joyce, but if word gets out that you’ve punished her over your personal differences, then every teacher will question whether you can be trusted. Break the confidence of what one teacher tells you and you’ll soon discover that no teacher will tell you anything. Act vindictively toward one teacher who privately questioned your decision, and you might as well have acted vindictively against your entire staff. Teachers talk, which means that anything a principal says or does to one teacher can spread to all of them.

The contents of every conversation a principal has with one teacher have the potential to be known by every other teacher.

Every action a principal takes with one teacher could be learned by every other teacher.

Treat one teacher differently based on educational philosophies, personal interests, age, or gender and your school culture will quickly crumble as word of your favoritism spreads.

Treat one teacher unjustly and every other teacher will wonder if they’ll be next.

Teachers talk, so principals should behave as if every staff member is observing each of their interactions. Because you can be sure they’ll be discussing them.

4 Tricks to Help Struggling Students

By Meghan Belnap

Whether you are a teacher, a parent, or a tutor, it is difficult to watch a student struggle to grasp the same concepts as other children. Each child learns differently depending on his or her personality. Reaching these kids means developing new tactics for learning. Here are four ways parents and educators can address learning complications. 

Use hands-on projects to supplement learning

Some children need to interact physically with new concepts. Taking time to work on a science project that teaches gravity, or using real-world objects during math lessons can help. History maps, graphs, videos, and other items can help these students connect the terminology in the brain. 

Provide a quiet space to learn where there are fewer distractions

Some children just need a quieter space to work. Providing a desk or table away from the main area can be helpful. The key is to make sure these students do not feel alienated from the rest of the class. Giving the child a time limit or allowing a few students to take part in the side activity may help. 

Suggest tutoring sessions for one-on-one activities

Many children need specific guidance to overcome learning problems. Regular visits with a tutor can give a child a platform to ask questions. Some children are shy in front of others, and a smaller group setting can help. Tutors can determine the type of learning personality for each child and develop a plan to give these children the best chance for success. High performance tutoring determines the child’s strengths and weaknesses allowing them to learn at their pace. 

Offer recap homework

Sometimes, all a child needs to grasp a difficult concept is a little reiteration. Giving homework that goes over the primary lessons for the day can help hard lessons stick. Children need regular exposure to the same lessons to help them learn them for life. For example, a difficult math concept like factoring can take more than one day or lesson to grasp. For many students, a week-long course is necessary to get all the fine points of this lesson down pat. Giving homework that covers the major concepts each day is important for memory retention. 

Helping your students do better in class takes a little extra work. The effort is usually well-rewarded with better grades, a more positive attitude, and improved performance in class. Teachers can also point out other ways to help students get involved in the class.

Then Nothing Has Worked in Education

A common refrain from critics of American public education is that we continue to spend more money on it while getting the same disappointing results. The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board, in an article titled, “America’s Schools Flunk,” wrote,

“The results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered to students around the country every two years, were published on Wednesday. There isn’t much to cheer. Only 35% of fourth graders rated proficient in reading, which is about the same as in 2009. Worse, students have backslid in reading over the last two years.”

The Cato Institute published this handy graph showing how profligate our spending has been relative to our students’ performance:

Legislators have used the data to argue that we should spend far less, since spending more hasn’t worked. In a 2015 Facebook post, Representative Dave Brat wrote,

“Our own government statistics show that over 30 years, federal spending on education has grown by 375%, but test scores have remained flat. That proves that just throwing more money at education is not the solution.”

Politifact examined Brat’s statement and found it mostly true, although he plays fast and loose with the numbers since spending was at an all-time high in 2010 because of the one-time injection of stimulus money (Cato used the same trick).

Still, there’s no denying that performance on the “nation’s report card” for 17-year-olds has been stagnant while spending has climbed.

There are, of course, a number of problems with using the NAEP as the sole measure of how well American kids learn, and those problems have been outlined by better writers than me. Also, a fair amount of research has emerged that shows more spending does in fact lead to more learning, especially for low-income students:

Still, the critics aren’t wrong when they say that more spending hasn’t led to improved performance on the NAEP.

It’s just not as damning of an argument as they think it is.

Because reformers’ criticism that students aren’t learning more despite increased spending betrays a rather gaping hole in their logic to which they seem inexplicably blind:

If the only way we’re measuring education outcomes is by standardized test scores like the NAEP, then nothing has worked in education.

That includes all of their ideas, which have dominated education policy for the last 20 years. 

Teachers have their own ideas about what would improve education. Most teachers I know believe that treating teachers like professionals, making sure classrooms are staffed with certified educators, and trusting educators to make policy decisions rather than uninformed legislators and think tank boobs would improve outcomes. Teachers think that we should address poverty through social policy instead of expecting education to solve it. We believe that more recess time, fewer tests, increased teacher autonomy, and yes, more spending for the neediest students, more mental health professionals in schools, and more investment in our public education system would lead to better test scores and life outcomes.

Also, we’d like fewer school shootings.

But most of those ideas haven’t been tried. They have, like most teachers’ ideas, been ignored if not ridiculed as excuse-making.

Instead, the reformers have had their way for about two decades, starting with the punitive No Child Left Behind Act, continuing with the federal bribery scheme Race to the Top, and persisting today with the legacy of accountability measures and the attack on public schools waged daily by our Secretary of Education.

The same people who want to spend less on education invariably favor an unoriginal list of reforms, most of which have been attempted.

The National Review is as good a representative as any, and in 2013 they believed that “Liquidating the teachers’ unions, enacting vouchers and other school-choice options, abandoning the exhausted excuses for poor performance, and — conversely — boosting expectations for all students (regardless of background or circumstances) would help solve this perennial challenge.”

They largely got their way.

27 states are now right-to-work and the Supreme Court handed the reformers a victory in Janus v. AFSCME. Membership in teachers’ unions has dropped, albeit modestly, a disappointing result for reformers who’ve won multiple legislative victories but who likely have no one to blame but themselves for motivating teachers to remain with their unions so they might more effectively fight against policies designed to destroy their power.

School choice has expanded over the last 20 years, as have voucher schemes.

As for “abandoning exhausted excuses for poor performance,” that’s the heart of the entire reform movement. We’ve ignored the root causes of poor performance and achievement gaps and instead placed all responsibility on the shoulders of our educators, threatening them with their jobs if scores don’t improve enough and using silly statistical models to rate them based on their students’ (or sometimes other teachers’ students) standardized test results.

If flatlining test scores are evidence that increased spending on education hasn’t worked, then those same test scores are evidence that reformers’ ideas are equally ineffective.

If more spending hasn’t worked, then more parent choice hasn’t worked.

If more spending hasn’t worked, then neither has weakening teachers’ job protections.

If more spending hasn’t led to higher test scores, then neither have common standards.

If more money hasn’t worked then:

Higher expectations for schools haven’t worked.

Shaming and punishing schools and teachers for student test scores hasn’t worked.

New teacher evaluation systems haven’t worked (as the Gates Foundation already admitted).

Longer school years haven’t worked.

More instructional time hasn’t worked.

An intense focus on tested subjects to the diminishment of the arts and electives hasn’t worked.

Personalized learning hasn’t worked.

More technology in classrooms hasn’t worked.

Filling teaching positions with long term substitutes and uncertified teachers hasn’t worked.

If critics are going to point to stagnating test scores as evidence that more spending on education is foolish, then they must admit that their own ideas, most of which have been given a chance to work, have been equally disappointing. Flat test scores might indicate that increased spending doesn’t lead to better results. But if they do, then they also indicate that everything else we’ve tried in education has been equally fruitless. Critics who point to test scores as a reason to spend less money should also see those test scores as a reason to abandon their most cherished reform ideas.

Balancing Between STEM and Social Studies

By Frankie Wallace

STEM subjects have been a buzzword in the educational world of late, and with good reason. The subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — are all classic boogeymen of the classroom. Challenging students and teachers alike, these four topics have often been seen as the more difficult parts of any curriculum.

Now, though, as the STEM phenomenon continues to catch fire, the subjects have once again assumed a position in the limelight, which is an undeniably wonderful thing. However, it’s important for educators to avoid a pendulum swing of attention that could ultimately leave other subjects neglected in the wake of the growing STEM momentum. 

If you teach multiple subjects to the same students, it’s absolutely essential that you strive to find a balanced approach that addresses each subject properly and leaves each student with a well-rounded education. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for ways to create an interdisciplinary curriculum that balances STEM topics with other classroom essentials like social sciences, art, and the humanities.

Use STEM Tech Across Multiple Subjects

The modern classroom is in a perpetual race to keep up with the times. From physically advanced items like smartboards to cloud-based educational solutions like Google Classroom, the modern educator has their hands full simply obtaining and implementing these kinds of items. 

There’s no doubt that adapting to the continuous change can be a lot of work. However, that doesn’t alter the fact that the constant technological turnover presents a golden opportunity to incorporate STEM concepts across multiple subjects at once. 

For instance, if you are able to purchase new educational tablets for your classroom, you’ve just introduced a new form of tech to your students. If they use that technology to download applications that help with subjects like art and English, you can simultaneously expose your students to multiple subjects in a hands-on environment.

Combine Art and STEM

Also known as STEAM, the combination of art and STEM subjects can provide a rich atmosphere to guide student dialogue, inquiry, and critical thinking. While STEM is often associated with complex things like robotics and 3D printers, adding an art element to the mix can often help teach the core concepts that are at work.

At its root, STEM isn’t about the fancy gadgets and gizmos. It’s about skills and ideas. Core engineering concepts can be taught with cardboard boxes and string. A handful of LEGOs can be an ideal way to incorporate math and science. 

When you dial back the complex elements and aim for the core concepts, it’s easy to see where the art can also come into play. Having students build a spaceship out of a lump of clay, for instance, can be a great way to both study how a spacecraft is built and work on sculpting at the same time, developing not only their brain but fine motor skills necessary for art creation.

Combine STEM and Real Life

STEM can often feel high-minded. Nebulous concepts like math algorithms and scientific theories can be difficult to grasp. However, if you combine STEM concepts with real-world examples, it can be an excellent way to bring the topics to life and make them more relatable.

For instance, teaching cybersecurity to younger students can open their eyes to the very real dangers that face technological development. It can also provide a grounded example of the barriers that must be overcome if they pursue a career in the tech field.

Another example could be following a humanitarian crisis as a class and incorporating STEM elements into your analysis. For instance, in response to the 2019 headline story of the Amazon forest burning, students could study the geographic areas that have been affected. They could also study the scientific repercussions of the damage on the environment and even use mathematics to calculate things like how large of an area was damaged in square miles, acres, square kilometers, etc.

Combine STEM and History

STEM and history may seem like strange bedfellows, but they can actually be incorporated into one another quite easily. Just a few suggestions include:

  • Using a tablet or other tech to create a timeline of historical events.
  • Use a camera and editing software to film a report — if you’re feeling especially ambitious, add in an extra artistic element by having them film themselves as they act out a historical scene.
  • Look up mathematical systems and methods in historical contexts such as how the Romans built the Colosseum or how to write numbers as an Egyptian.
  • Focus a portion of your historical studies on the history of different STEM subjects such as space exploration, the origin of the Pythagorean theorem, or how alchemy and astrology were once considered critical sciences.

Incorporating STEM with Other Subjects

The emergence of STEM into the educational spotlight has been a necessary step for modern education. As teachers scramble to incorporate these critical subjects into their existing lesson plans, though, they must remember to balance them out with traditional subjects like social studies and art. 

Intermingling the various subjects together can be an ideal way to cover them all in applicable, hands-on scenarios that engage students and provide an educational synergy that is difficult to achieve when each subject is taught individually.