Whole-Grain Pancakes and Courageous Teachers

.

The headline jumped at me from my Facebook feed.

Middle School teacher says he was suspended for making pancakes during PSSAs

My first reaction was, “Clickbait. There must be more to the story.” So I read it. And there was more to the story. By the time I got to the end of it, I said, “You have to be (expletive) kidding me.” I had to repress a very strong impulse to fire off a fusillade of emails to the many moronic adults involved in this, um… incident(?).

Here’s what happened: It was testing day. An eighth-grade social studies teacher in Pennsylvania named Kyle Byler decided to make whole-grain pancakes for his students so they could eat during the test. The assistant principal, a woman with the perfectly villainous surname of Grill, walked in, and, according to an article on Lancaster Online, “questioned why he was making breakfast for his students.”

(Because, how dare he…?)

Within 24 hours, Byler was pulled into a meeting with administrators. He left that meeting convinced he was going to be fired.

Byler is, of course, exactly the kind of teacher who always seems to pop up in stories like these. He’s effective, dedicated, selfless, and popular. Parents call him “the eighth-grade dad.” Students call him, “an awesome teacher.” He helps out with student council and coaches basketball. So it’s probably not surprising that 30 students spent two hours protesting outside the middle school when Byler wasn’t at work the following day and 100 people showed up at the next school board meeting.

Byler wasn’t sure what he did wrong. Neither is any other thinking person. But Nicole Reigelman, who has the thankless job of being the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania DOE, had an idea. While serving food is not actually a violation of any testing rule, tending to a griddle, according to Reigelman, “would have likely interfered with ‘actively monitoring’ the assessment.”

Let’s think about that. The state tells teachers that they have to “actively monitor” students during a test that teachers don’t want to give in the first place, that will be used to label their schools as failures, that will feed the bullshit narrative that American schools are failing, and that can result in a low evaluation and possibly even their own dismissal.

And the reason teachers have to “actively monitor” students is to ensure that the results are valid. Except that, regardless of how well students are actively monitored, the test results aren’t valid. They’re taken over the course of just a few days out of the whole year and there are no stakes for the students, which means there’s really no reason for students to even try on them.

So, really, teachers are supposed to actively monitor their students to ensure the appearance of validity, so that when the state — results now clutched firmly in its punitive fist — comes back and says, “You guys suck,” everyone can nod their heads and say, “Well, those teachers were really watching those kids. We know they didn’t cheat, so I guess they really do suck.” (And since 95% of students at Byler’s school come from low-income households, you can be pretty sure that’s exactly what the state will say.)

The reason the teacher is asked to ensure this veneer of validity for a test that is likely to be used to harm both teachers and students is because, even though the state claims these tests are so important that they have to pass rules to ensure students are actively monitored, they’re not quite important enough for the state to hire its own proctors to administer the exams. That would cost money, so they dump the job on teachers.

The ones who better not serve any damn whole-grain pancakes during their precious tests.

But if the surreal stupidity ended with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, that wouldn’t be so egregious. We expect Kafkaesque bureaucracies. Let’s talk about the assistant principal, Marian Grill.

One of Byler’s students is quoted in the article as saying, “The moment she walked in, everybody turned. She was the distraction. Not pancakes. Not Byler.”

Grill is an educator. Or at least, that’s what she’s supposed to be. And the ball was totally in her court in this situation. Not only did she drop that ball, she jammed a screwdriver through it. Here is what Grill should have done upon entering Byler’s room:

–Noticed students quietly working on their tests while eating whole-grain pancakes.
–Thought to herself, “What a dedicated teacher these students have. Not only is he trying to ensure they do their best on this important test by doing exactly what the research says schools should do (feed kids), he’s doing it out of his own pocket.”
–Smiled at Mr. Byler. Gave him a thumbs-up. Maybe asked for a pancake. Left the room.

I don’t know Marian Grill, but I think I know her type. She seems like the kind of administrator who watches you teach a flawless lesson, then criticizes you because the floor was messy or Joey was leaning in his chair. She’s the member of the Homeowner’s Association who has a problem with you flying an Easter flag. She’s the kind of person who, intoxicated by even the smallest amount of power, abuses the hell out of it. And I guarantee you that Marian Grill has no problem with pancakes. She has a problem with teachers doing things without clearing it with her first.

This should have ended with her, if only her ego had allowed it to.

Fortunately, petty tyrants like Marian Grill can be quickly exposed in today’s world. Just ten years ago, assistant principals like Grill could act with impunity. With an obvious imbalance of power and an awful economy, teachers wouldn’t take the risk of antagonizing their bosses. Times have changed, and social media is mistreated teachers’ strongest weapon. It can do what your feckless union can’t or won’t.

You don’t need strength in numbers.

You don’t need t-shirts.

You don’t need a vote.

All you need is a compelling story and to be in the right.

You see the influence of social media across the country, from the West Virginia and Oklahoma walk-outs, organized without union leadership by teachers who put out the call on Facebook and Twitter, to individual teachers like Kyle Byler, who, instead of keeping his mouth shut out of a fear of sabotaging his chances at finding another job after losing this one, had the courage to fight back by simply telling his story and letting the indignant masses do what indignant masses do in the digital age.

Byler kept his job, and the school district, as districts often do when caught with their pants around their ankles, claimed that no, no, no his job was never in any jeopardy at all.

You can believe the embarrassed school district officials who didn’t want this thing getting any bigger than it had, or you can believe the teacher.

Regardless, his district owes him more than his job. He should have never feared for that to start with. They owe him an apology because they’re the ones that lost sight of the purpose of education.  They owe him the money they withheld during his suspension. They might owe him a new assistant principal.

The lessons here are many.

First, state tests make people act like fools. It’s the unintended consequences of these tests that are always the problem. Well-meaning people lose focus on what really matters in their quest to tack a couple of percentage points onto last year’s scores.

Second, we need administrators to rise above misguided state priorities. Just because the state tells them to care about the test, doesn’t mean they have to. Just because the state wants third-graders “college and career-ready,” doesn’t mean educators have to buy into that standard. Policies aren’t made by people in schools. That’s why so many of them stink. But administrators and teachers are in schools. They are the experts. They know better. And sometimes, they need whole-grain pancakes more than they need to be actively monitored.

Third, we need more courageous teachers like Kyle Byler. As he and the teachers who walked-out across this country have proven, courageous teachers — those who stand up and speak out, who call attention to exploitation, unfairness, and plain old human stupidity — improve their own circumstances, but they also make things better for teachers everywhere.

So serve the whole-grain pancakes. Do what’s right for kids. And if someone tries to stop you, plaster their name all over the Internet. They deserve what they get.

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 read student reviews on Ratemyteacher.com. 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.

 

 

 

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.

What’s Wrong With “Doing What’s Best For Kids”

best for kids.

There’s a YouTube video called, “The Most Unsatisfying Video in the World ever made.” It lives up to its name. It shows people cutting tomatoes wrong, mixing M&Ms and Skittles, scraping utensils against the bottom of an empty bowl, and other cringe-worthy crimes against humanity. Each example in the video makes me reflexively recoil. It’s the visual equivalent of the many phrases in education that induce the same reaction:

“Teach with strict fidelity.”
“College and career ready.”
“Unpacking the standards.”
“Jigsaw this article.”
“Let’s put that idea in the parking lot.”

And also, “Doing What’s Best For Kids.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone — usually an administrator trying to make teachers feel guilty for self-advocating — say that we all just need to Do What’s Best For Kids. The phrase tends to show up during contentious contract negotiations with regularity. That’s no accident, because all too often it means, “Do what we want you to do, and if you question it, then you’re looking out for yourself instead of your students.”

Some teachers are guilty of using it, too. Questioned about why they made a certain choice, they will hide behind, “It’s What’s Best For Kids” without actually explaining why or how they know that to be true. It’s a way for anyone — teacher, parent, principal — to claim an ethically superior position and send the message that their actions, unlike yours, have selfless motives. They’re doing things for the right reasons, while you may be not.

It’s almost always nonsense.

The Problem

The problem with the phrase, “Doing What’s Best For Kids” is that it can be used to justify damn near anything.

“I’m spanking my kids to teach them right from wrong.”

“I allow my son to eat whatever he wants because I want him to learn he’s responsible for his own choices.”

“We’re taking away recess because students need more time on task.”

“I’m not vaccinating my child because I don’t want her to get autism.”

The phrase, then, is meaningless. But that doesn’t mean it’s powerless. It’s an ace up the sleeve, a flag planted firmly in the high ground, and it’s intended to be a conversation stopper. People on the phrase’s receiving end are supposed to look introspectively and question their motives. They’re supposed to think: I should sacrifice more.

How can anyone argue that educators shouldn’t do what’s best for kids?

Because it’s just not that simple. In addition to the fact that Doing What’s Best For Kids can be used to justify anything, there are three other problems.

Kids Are Different

This should go without saying, but since the phrase keeps getting used, someone ought to point out that kids are different. What’s best for one is often not what’s best for another. My daughter, always a reader, needed only to be given time and books to improve as a reader as she went through school. Other students — reluctant to read and lacking basic skills — needed much more direct instruction. Examples abound:

  • Recess is great for some kids, but it’s a source of anxiety and a daily reminder of their lack of friends for others.
  • Inquiry-based science is more authentic and engaging, but some students don’t learn the content they’re supposed to.
  • Group work teaches kids to collaborate, but it also means some students do much more work (and therefore learn more) than others.

Additionally, what’s best for an individual might not be best for large groups. Ryan is continually distracting the class and making it impossible to teach. It’s certainly not best for Ryan to be kicked out of the room, but it might be best for everyone not named Ryan. Spending one-on-one time with a student will benefit her, but what about the rest of the class?

Of course, a solution to this problem is to differentiate because giving kids what they need is what’s Best For Kids. But differentiation leads to a second problem:

Beliefs Are Different

Not everyone agrees about What’s Best For Kids. That’s why we have standards. Teachers, once mostly left alone, taught whatever they thought was important. I learned about dinosaurs every year from age six to age nine (lot of good it did me, too). I know a former teacher who took time out of every day to have her students sing her favorite college’s fight song. Some teachers still waste class time teaching the dead art of cursive writing. All of these teachers tell themselves they’re doing What’s Best For Kids.

Many educators have diametrically oppositional philosophies about what school should even be. Should it be a place of rigorous work with the aim of producing young people who know things and can demonstrate their knowledge on tests? Should it be a place of wonder and discovery, where failure is encouraged? Should it reflect society, or prepare students to shape a new, better world? Which philosophy is Best For Kids, and is that philosophy best for all kids?

Sometimes, determining what’s best is actually choosing between two benefits, in which case the determining factor is almost always something other than What’s Best for Kids. Field trips are great for kids. So is time on task in the classroom. But if you do one, you sacrifice the other. And since field trips cost money, guess which one administrators think is Best for Kids.

The Biggest Problem

But here’s my main objection to being reminded to Do What’s Best for Kids: It suggests sacrifice and that sacrifice, almost always, is supposed to come from one group of people: teachers.

Teachers, the people doing the hard work of actually educating kids, may have the only legitimate claim on the moral high ground, and yet they are often the ones accused of looking out for their own interests above those of their students. Politicians blame teachers’ unions for ignoring What’s Best For Kids, while turning a blind eye to a myriad of other problems. Administrators — people who have intentionally left the one place where they had the most direct influence on students — have the temerity to suggest to teachers — the people whose job is literally all about the kids and who have chosen to remain in that job despite stagnant pay, deteriorating working conditions, greater expectations, less autonomy, scapegoating, and being reminded to Do What’s Best For Kids — that they ought to sacrifice even more. And sanctimonious teachers wield the tired phrase to feel better about themselves, oblivious to the meaninglessness of their words but comfortable in their own moral superiority.

“Doing What’s Best For Kids” is a weapon. It’s the language of teacher-shaming. It’s manipulative. And when you hear it from an administrator, parent, policy-maker, or even a fellow teacher, prepare to be exploited. Because the insinuation behind this phrase is clear: Teaching is not your job; it’s your calling. And that calling requires you to sacrifice. It requires you to agree to whatever thing someone with more power believes is What’s Best for Kids. So sit down, shut up, sign the contract, and get back in your classroom. Go Do What’s Best For Kids. And if you can’t figure out what that is, don’t worry, someone will let you know.

———————

Related:

A More Effective Way for Teachers to Say No

The Myth of the Ideal Teacher

We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

 

Have you joined the Teacher Habits Club yet? If not, click here to subscribe and start receiving new content in your inbox.

 

We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

“We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

–The Who

I was talking with a teacher who has a new principal this year. Her new boss is going to turn things around. He’s going to fix what’s broken. It’s a familiar story.

When I started my teaching career, I went to six nights of training in Balanced Literacy. It was the Next Big Thing.

In my fourth year of teaching my district adopted a new math program that had been designed by some very impressive people in Chicago with PhD after their names. The program “spiraled,” and we were told this would raise those stubbornly middling math scores.

When large corporations started using SMART Goals, schools couldn’t wait to jump on board. If businesses were using them, they must be good!

Robert Marzano extolled the benefits of making your learning goals known to students, so it wasn’t long before schools started requiring “I Can” statements to be posted at the front of the room. This, we were told, was going to lead to greater student achievement.

Got behavior problems in your school? PBIS to the rescue!

Having a hard time differentiating? You need one-to-one devices!

Reading scores too low? This program sold by this huge publisher is bound to raise them!

Tired of achievement gaps and mediocre scores on international tests? Raise the bar! Tougher standards! Higher expectations! 100% proficiency goals! That will do the trick!

Once you’ve done this job for a few years, you start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. You’ve seen this script before, and you don’t particularly like the ending. Or the middle. Or that damn song that wakes you up each morning.

Don’t Believe the Hype

I have no problem with new programs. I recognize that change is inevitable and that schools should constantly strive to improve. As someone who writes his own books, I don’t resent the peddlers of new initiatives for repackaging some stale idea and trying to make a buck for themselves. Most teachers I know are willing to give new things a go. We know our schools and classrooms are far from perfect, and we’re constantly on the lookout for solutions.

But many administrators, in their desire to convince their staffs to buy in on the latest and greatest fads, go five steps too far. They promise too much, selling one magic bullet after another, as though teachers have a peculiar form of amnesia that wipes their memories clear of previous flops and lackluster results. Like the Super Bowl, the real thing hardly ever lives up to the hype.

We Don’t Believe in Miracles

Schools face complex issues. At best, problems can be mitigated. Success in most instances would be moderate, incremental improvement. But no one wants to hear that. So principals and other leaders zealously pitch their new ideas alongside the unspoken question made famous by Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles?”

No. No, we don’t. We don’t believe in your magic bullets. Because if magic bullets actually existed, we would have discovered them by now. We would already be using them.

The overselling of new initiatives isn’t just harmless zeal. We shouldn’t simply forgive those who promise the moon when there is no moon to be had. Failures shouldn’t be dismissed as the folly of an overeager instructional leader. Nor should the responsibility for such failures be left to fall on the shoulders of those who implemented them.  The damage is in the original lie, not the execution.

Every time some earnest and enthusiastic administrator tells his teachers that this new thing is going to be the cure-all we all so desperately want and it then inevitably fails to be such, that administrator loses credibility. Do it once and teachers might forgive him. Do it twice and staff begins to wonder. Do it three times and he better expect some serious skepticism and pushback. As George W. Bush famously said, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Nobody likes to feel gullible.

The Genesis of Cynicism

It is this baseless conviction in the potential of new things that acts as an incubation chamber for the cynicism veteran teachers are often accused of. It’s not that those teachers are negative and unwilling to try new ideas; it’s that they’ve been there and done that, and like The Who, they have decided that they won’t get fooled again. Their cynicism is hard-earned.

There’s a simple solution for principals looking to implement new programs. It isn’t sexy. Honesty rarely is. But the next time you want to try something you read about–the next time you want to hop on the latest bandwagon–don’t lie to your teachers. Don’t blow smoke up their hindquarters. Admit the truth: You don’t know if it will work. Concede that you cannot guarantee a solution to the problem. Acknowledge past promises and the uphill climb you face to gain your teachers’ trust. Make it clear that because what’s being done isn’t working, you’re going to try something else. Be up-front. Stop pretending you’ve loaded your gun with a magic bullet, when it looks the same as all the other ones teachers have seen slid into the chamber.

__________________

I left out about a 100 magic bullets. Share yours in the comments!

__________________

Other Stuff Worth Reading:

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Teach Like a Cat

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

__________________

Are you a member of the Teacher Habits Club yet? If not, subscribe here and starting getting new articles in your inbox.