My Day Observing and Interviewing Young Teachers

 

I had the pleasure yesterday of serving on my school’s interview team for a third grade position. Five candidates, four of whom just finished their student teaching and one of whom has five years of teaching experience, competed for the job. They each taught a 15-minute lesson and answered questions for a half-hour. Here are five thoughts:

Our kids are in good hands

I’ve been on interview committees a few times before and I am always impressed by the quality of the candidates. While the data says that our “best and brightest” are going into other fields, I’m forced to take issue with their criteria. These are high-quality people who are signing up for a difficult job because they want to make a difference and help kids. With teacher strikes, social media, a Secretary of Education who’s hostile to public schools, and teacher resignation letters regularly going viral, no one goes into education today ignorant of the challenges. These people are signing up anyway. The banks can have the valedictorians; I’ll take the idealists.

It’s a limited sample size, but the young people who are becoming teachers today seem better trained than those with whom I competed almost 20 years ago. Frankly, just-out-of-college me would not compare favorably to the current just-out-college teachers-to-be, with their higher-than-mine GPAs, overseas teaching experiences, and volunteer hours at tutoring centers and summer camps. Most incorporate classroom practices that took me years to figure out and can speak intelligently about education topics I only know about because I’m in the thick of it day in and day out.  They even know most of the damn acronyms.

Expectations Are Everything

After watching five lessons, one thing above all others stood out as making the greatest difference between a smooth lesson and one in which both students and teacher struggled a bit: Expectations at the earliest possible moment.

Of the five teachers we observed, three stood apart. They were the same three that introduced themselves and then quickly laid out expectations for student behavior. All three made it crystal clear how students were to respond to questions and all three established an attention signal right up front. Two of them had practiced their attention signals before the interview team even entered the room. The other two taught fine lessons but had to go back later and set expectations after students started blurting and giving silly responses to open-ended questions. Which brings me to…

Avoid Open-Ended Questions

One candidate started her lesson with an open-ended question, which made me cringe. She then continued to ask more open-ended questions. Things were fine at first, and open-ended questions do encourage more involvement. Students were certainly engaged.

But you probably know what happened. It wasn’t long before students were gustily blurting out answers, and it wasn’t long after that before those with the greatest need for attention were blurting out answers solely intended to make their classmates laugh.

Asking open-ended questions and allowing students to blurt out can improve student engagement, but for most teachers and most classrooms, it’s too hard to maintain the kind of climate where learning will take place. Most teachers would be smart to stick with other involvement strategies, such and turn-and-talk, the use of whiteboards, or a digital response system and ask for hands to be raised the rest of the time.

Education Research Is Not Getting Through

I asked each candidate about best practices in ELA and Math instruction. You would think in the age of data and Marzano and Hattie’s effect sizes, that prospective teachers would be able to knock such a question out of the park. You would be wrong. With very few exceptions, each candidate addressed the question as though the phrase “best practices” meant “things you do in the classroom that you/your students like.” Not one candidate used the word research or effect size in their answers (and providing timely feedback is a no-brainer, man!) and not one supported their answer by claiming they did their own research and found that their best practice was in fact a best practice because they had data to support it.

If those just coming out of college aren’t aware of what “best practice” means and if they don’t know what the current research suggests works, then we have a long way to go.

I don’t blame the candidates. This is something their colleges of education should be teaching. As impressed as I was with the candidates’ use of learning targets, engagement strategies, and formative assessments, I was underwhelmed by their apparent lack of knowledge when it came to effective teaching practices. If colleges of education aren’t teaching those, then what are they teaching?

It shouldn’t be up to individual teachers to research best practices. That information should be shared with teachers in college and then throughout their careers. We still do a poor job of informing our teachers about the practices that are most likely to lead to higher student achievement. We need to do better here.

Specificity wins 

After sitting through five interviews, the one piece of advice I would give prospective teachers is to be as specific as possible when answering questions. This is one area where the teacher with five years of experience had a clear upper hand. Having her own classroom for five years meant she had used the standards to plan lessons for five years. She had used different curriculums and universal screeners. It meant she’d solved more problems than the recently graduated candidates had ever faced. Her answers were better because she was able to talk about specifics while the others could only talk in generalities and hypotheticals.

That wasn’t entirely their fault. There’s no replacement for on-the-job experience, especially when it comes to teaching, where there is no substitute for the real thing and the realities of the job can’t be replicated in a college environment. But that doesn’t mean the recently graduated can’t be more specific in their answers.

When asked about classroom management, don’t just talk about the importance of building relationships. We all know that; you get no points for saying it. Talk instead about a student you had during student teaching with whom you made a connection that led to an improved effort. If asked about the important components of a math program, don’t just recite what your mentor teacher did; talk about what you will do in your own classroom and connect it to your own experiences and research on what works. Vague generalities and edubabbly cliches become background noise that interview committees have heard too many times before. If you want to grab your interviewers’ attention, say things other people haven’t already said. The easiest way to do that is to get specific about what you’ve done or would do.

 

The Benefits and Necessity of Interdisciplinary Education

By Dennis Wesley

Why is interdisciplinary training important? Is it all relevant, let alone necessary, in the context of contemporary education, which is dominated by engineering, the applied sciences, and other disciplines typically associated with good job prospects? Moreover, if one deems it a necessity, what disciplines should one include to make education truly interdisciplinary? These are just some questions advocates of interdisciplinarity encounter rather routinely from both parents and educators. On the other hand, some parents even consider interdisciplinary training a tedious, altogether avoidable complication.

While it is clear that interdisciplinary training includes an introduction to the humanities, it must also be conceded that the sheer breadth of the humanities makes it difficult for educators to zero in on the best, most relevant disciplines. At the same time, the popularity of the humanities has been decreasing rather steadily. See, for instance, Benjamin Schmidt’s August 2018 article on the alarming decline in the number of humanities majors in the US since the 2008 financial crisis. Well-planned interdisciplinary programs, therefore, are also highly likely to inject new life into the humanities.

Addressing Technological Developments from the Interdisciplinary Perspective

As some have argued, the very salience of engineering and the applied sciences, coupled with the technological developments these fields have enabled, has necessitated interdisciplinary training. For instance, as innovations continue to flood the automation and artificial intelligence industry—and indeed other industries—ethics is becoming an especially pertinent field. Should we welcome technologies that are likely to endanger human labor? How might this affect employment/unemployment rates? Should such a situation indeed arise, what are human beings likely to do with their newfound “free time”? Are we even capable of leading satisfying lives without employment as we know it today? Ethics, as a discipline, encourages learners to grapple with these questions, which are undeniably important in the context of automation-related discussions.

In fact, it can be argued that ethics is indispensable in the context of assessing the impacts—be they cultural, political, or even physical—of any technological development. Other prominent humanities disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, and even sociology encourage learners to consider how cultural differences might factor in people’s perception of groundbreaking technological developments. In essence, these disciplines urge us to avoid simplistic explanations, encouraging us instead to look at how people make and seek meaning. That is, a community may reject a particular technology not because it (the community) is backward, but because the applications of the technology in question might bring them more cons than pros. In other words, culture is an important factor in most matters, and it determines how people perceive changes, including what are billed as groundbreaking technological innovations. Ultimately, in this particular context, humanities disciplines will enable us to recognize that the effect of technology on human life is not uniform. This is especially important to understand since more and more people are actively involved in designing technologies that address complex, real-life situations. Therefore, engineers and designers must also understand the importance of cultural relativism and the capacity for moral reasoning; interdisciplinary training is one of the best ways to ensure this.

Other Factors that Necessitate Interdisciplinary Training

According to this study, an interdisciplinary approach has been found to have the following benefits: it enables learners to recognize bias, think critically, and address ambiguity better. More importantly, an interdisciplinary approach, as the report shows, also allows learners to “acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns.” At the same time, we must recognize that these are not guarantees; interdisciplinary education is certainly not the ultimate answer to all educational problems. However, when practiced earnestly, it is significantly better than one-dimensional education. Indeed, well-planned programs drive home not just the relevance but also the necessity of examining any given problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives. In short, interdisciplinary education urges us to acknowledge the complexity of the human condition. Moreover, an interdisciplinary perspective is necessary also because the world, our object of inquiry, is not merely black and white. Being especially complex, human affairs defy simplistic explanations. Interdisciplinary education, therefore, allows us to better address contradictions and ambiguities.

Interdisciplinarity: Real-World Applications

While ethics, sociology, and anthropology are distinct disciplines, they nonetheless share very similar concerns. Moreover, nothing human is off-topic for a student of ethics, and the ubiquity of the internet has opened up new areas of critical ethical inquiry. For instance, as this article on the difficulties faced by Facebook content moderators shows, determining and assessing moral or ethical standards is especially difficult in the context of social media.

Notably, it is not just the process of identifying offensive or inflammatory content that’s dubious. To protect the safety of moderators, contracts are shrouded in secrecy and involve rigid non-disclosure clauses. Moreover, as the above article shows, the moderation business—a fairly recent development—requires critical attention, as moderators tend to be exploited and exposed to inhumane working conditions. Employers typically state that the need for secrecy inevitably complicates the moderation business and that things will improve with time. Interdisciplinary education, therefore, can enable students to critically evaluate and alleviate this situation.

Needless to say, the industry could benefit from ethical and sociological insights. Interdisciplinary education is highly necessary and relevant today.

The Teacher in the Classroom

I rewrote Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” for teachers because I find it inspiring and increasingly relevant as teachers come under continual assault from those courageous enough to do the job.

Male version:

 

Female version:

Fostering Parent-Teacher Relationships

A guest post by Frankie Wallace

 

From notes, calls, and personal meetings to full-blown parent-teacher conferences, there are many different ways that parents can get involved in the education process. While this can often be for the better, it can also cause quite a bit of friction at times.

That’s why it’s crucial that educators are aware of the dynamics of the relationship between teachers and parents and understand how they can affect classrooms. Learning how to foster these relationships can take potential causes of stress and conflict and turn them into productive tools that can help everyone involved, especially the students themselves.

Getting Onto the Same Page

It’s no secret that parents and teachers don’t always agree. But the issue doesn’t always revolve around incompatible differences nor diametrically opposed opinions — even if they can often feel that way when we’re talking with our student’s parents. If you can step back and look at the bigger picture, it becomes a lot easier to stop pointing fingers and begin to understand where each party is coming from.

Different Methods

Chances are you’ve been in that uncomfortable situation where your teaching methods clash with the opposite party. This can be on a broader scale, such as a teaching style based around serenity versus one of passionate intensity, or it can be on a smaller scale, such as the specific way you approach a subject or the amount of homework you expect students to be assigned. Either way, it’s perfectly normal that disagreements will arise from time to time over how students should be taught everything from tying their shoes to algebraic equations.

The Same Goals

While differences are a normal part of the parent-teacher dynamic, an oft-overlooked piece of the puzzle revolves around the goals of everyone involved. Often a heated discussion over methods can completely obfuscate the fact that everyone genuinely wants the same results. This consistency of goals should always be looked for, as it can prove a common point from which to ground the conversation.

Communication Is Key

While finding common ground to work from is a critical factor in healthy parent-teacher relationships, doing so doesn’t necessarily resolve the issue of meeting the goals that are agreed upon. That’s where communication comes into the picture. The benefits of proactive and comfortable lines of communication between parents and teachers cannot be overstated. Research has directly linked positive communication (along with the relationships that it fosters) between parents and teachers to better prosocial behavior as well as academic success in students.

Of course, being aware of the benefits of good communication doesn’t automatically make one skilled at the craft — and it is indeed a craft. Teachers can benefit tremendously from taking the time to study the different forms that communication can take. For example, even within the business world, a communications degree can be specialized for various roles, like communication pioneers and communication coaches.

Not only is it helpful to understand various forms of communication, it can also be immensely beneficial to know how to address conflict resolution. In the same way that a foreign diplomat needs to understand things like active listening, mediation, leadership, and relationship building skills, a teacher should be equipped to recognize a conflict with a parent and address it with the same ability and understanding.

Meeting Parents Halfway

Of course, the need for communication is two-sided, with parents needing to show a willingness to participate in the conversation as well. While parents must find their own ways to approach their children’s’ educators, there are some things that teachers can do to initiate a more positive relationship. Teachers often feel that we’re being pulled in a million directions, and it can be easy to allow the stresses of the job to creep into our communications with our students’ parents.

As teachers, it can be helpful to show respect to the parents by creating a structure for them to regularly communicate with us (even if it doesn’t mean you’ll drop everything to talk with them the second they send you a message). Simply provide a way to email, call, or text. Also, remember to treat parents as teammates rather than obstacles that won’t go away.

Lightening the Load

Finally, it can be helpful to keep in mind that a healthy relationship between parents and teachers, while time-consuming in the moment, can often end up lightening your load down the road. Good communication can help you understand your students better, help your students thrive, and allow you to focus on teaching more than anything else in your classroom. At the end of the day, the relationship is worth the time and effort.

So, the next time you’re feeling stressed out about a parent butting into your classroom — even if they vehemently disagree with the methodology that you’re using — remember that anger and frustration are simply symptoms of a deeper issue. Try to prioritize that all-important parent-teacher relationship and make an honest effort to communicate with one another. Put yourself in the other’s shoes, try to see things from their perspective, and work together to find an acceptable solution that fosters that classroom-family dynamic and keeps what is ultimately best for the student at the forefront.

Know Your Options: Writing Surfaces in the Classroom

Image: PolyVision

A Guest Article by Angela Petteys

Sometimes, the best way to teach or to learn is by picking up a pen (or a marker or a piece of chalk) and physically writing something down. As important as computers have become in education, a good writing surface is still is one of the most valuable tools a teacher can have. But if it’s time for you to get a new writing surface for your classroom, it’s important to remember that not all writing surfaces are created equally. There are several different options out there and each one has its own benefits and drawbacks.

Melamine Whiteboards

If you’re looking for an inexpensive whiteboard option, melamine whiteboards are one of the most affordable options on the market. Melamine whiteboards basically consist of a plastic laminate mounted to a board. Not only are they affordable, they’re very lightweight and easy to install. However, melamine surfaces are porous, meaning they’re prone to ghosting and staining because ink from markers can seep through the surface.

Melamine whiteboards also aren’t very durable and to get the most out of a melamine board, they need to be cleaned very frequently. Between the low durability and the porous nature of melamine, they’re not an ideal option for a board that gets a lot of use, such as the main whiteboard in a classroom. However, if you need whiteboards for other purposes in your classroom that wouldn’t be used as frequently and would be easy to replace as needed, melamine whiteboards might fit the bill.

Porcelain Whiteboards

Since whiteboards in classrooms get so much use, durability is a key factor to look for. Not only do you need one that won’t get stained easily, you need one that will stand up to years of heavy use. Although they’re not one of the less expensive whiteboard options, the durability and low-maintenance nature of porcelain whiteboards have made them one of the most popular types of whiteboard options, particularly for classroom use.

When written on, the surface of porcelain whiteboards allows markers to create crisp, defined lines that are easy to read. If you want to be able to display pictures or papers alongside the things you write on your board, porcelain boards are a great option to consider. Since porcelain whiteboards consist of an enamel surface applied to a metal backing, magnets can easily be used with a porcelain whiteboard to hang those extra materials up. Other types of writing surfaces might not necessarily be magnetic. Some glassboards are available in magnetic styles, but not all of them.

Glassboards

Glassboards have become a very popular type of writing surface in recent years. As the name suggests, they’re made of tempered glass and many people like them because they feel like they have a more modern look than traditional whiteboards. They’re also very durable and have a nonporous surface, so they’re easy to clean and aren’t prone to ghosting or staining. They’re not the most budget-friendly type of writing surface available, but their high durability means they’ll last for a long time, even in high-use environments like classrooms.

As you look for a writing surface to use in a classroom, it’s important that students are able to easily read what’s written on it. When glassboards are written on, the writing typically has a softer appearance than writing on a porcelain board. Glassboards are also more reflective than porcelain whiteboards, so things like overhead lighting and light from windows can produce glare and make a glassboard difficult to read. This also means glassboards aren’t an ideal solution if you’re looking for a surface you can use a projector on or if you like to take pictures of your notes for future use.

Whiteboard Paint

When you’re on a tight budget, finding a DIY solution can be a great way to help you get what you need in a way you can afford. In the case of writing surfaces, whiteboard paint can be used to turn entire walls into a big instructional tool or to turn other surfaces, such as tabletops, into whiteboards for students to work with at a lower cost than buying a ready-made whiteboard. As an added bonus, many students find the novelty of being able to write directly on a wall, or any other surface you’re typically not supposed to write on, to be really engaging.

One of the biggest downsides to whiteboard paint is that it can be difficult to apply correctly. For best results, whiteboard paint needs to be applied to a smooth, dust-free surface, so getting a surface ready can take some prep work. Getting whiteboard paint ready to apply can also take some effort to make sure it’s mixed correctly and that there aren’t any air bubbles left in the paint, otherwise you might have a hard time getting even coverage. Once your paint is mixed, you also need to be ready to work quickly since many whiteboard paints will become too thick to work with after about 40 minutes to an hour.

Since whiteboard paint has a porous surface and is less glossy than some other types of whiteboard options, surfaces painted in whiteboard paint can be more difficult to erase and are prone to ghosting and staining. As far as durability goes, whiteboard paint tends to become worn with frequent cleaning.

Chalkboards

Even in the digital age, chalkboards haven’t completely become a thing of the past. While they’re less common than they used to be, they’re still being used in many classrooms around the world for a variety of reasons. Chalkboards and chalk are both less expensive than whiteboards and markers, making them an accessible option. In some countries, chalkboards are still a popular choice because the written language involves many intricate characters and many educators feel like writing in chalk better helps students to build strong penmanship skills.

Regardless of why you might consider adding a chalkboard to your classroom, it’s worth noting that the quality of chalk has improved over the years. With dustless chalk on the market, you can use a chalkboard in your classroom without worrying about it affecting the health of your students.

Each type of writing surface has its place in the world, but knowing the benefits each one has to offer will go a long way in helping you find an option that helps you better meet the needs of your students so they can make the most of their time in the classroom.