Happy Teacher

I’m nearly finished with the first draft of my second book, Happy Teacher.  I should have some cover options to show off in the next couple of days. If you’d like to provide feedback on them, check back here probably early next week.

The book is about applying the growing body of research on happiness to the classroom so that teachers experience more joy at work. The books below were the best I read on the topic and provided much of the source material. They were all fantastic reads and you’ll quickly see how much of the science can be applied to teaching.

Happy Teacher should be available in Kindle and print form in late April.

Clicking on the image will take you to the Amazon link for the book.

A great overview of many surprising findings in happiness research. Gilbert is easy to read and often funny.

 Full of energy, fast-paced, and packed with great information without getting bogged down with too much science.

 The self-proclaimed first book to explain the science behind happiness. The author is cited in nearly every other happiness book I read and in many online articles.

 If you’ve ever wondered why you’re so tired after teaching or why you reach for the worst foods after a long day and you want to know what to do about it, this is the book to read.

 The author cites some of his own interesting work on happiness as well as many other studies. He also includes links to videos of interviews with experts on happiness. His Mental Chatter exercise led to fascinating insights about the surprising things people think about.

 The second book by the well-respected Lyubomirsky. This one looks at the misconceptions people have about what will make them happy.

 Less science and more fun, Rubin puts the research and conventional wisdom about happiness to the test as she spends one year on her happiness project. A funny, easy read.

 No new ground is broken here, but Smith references many interesting studies that led to further research and insights.

 Not marketed as a book about happiness, being an essentialist is essential for teachers. I especially pulled a lot from the chapter on saying no. If you’re stretched too thin and feel like there’s too much to do and not enough time to do it, read this book.

Written by the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman revisits and updates the ideas he first introduced in his seminal work, Authentic Happiness.
 A book every school leader needs to read, The Levity Effect is a business book about how having more fun at work leads to happier and more productive employees. The most successful businesses in the world are those where the employees are happiest. If your school is drab and you want to liven it up, get this book in people’s hands.

American Teachers Should Work Less

work less

A Facebook friend of mine (and former Superintendent) posted an infographic yesterday that compared the number of hours worked by an American teacher to the number of hours worked by other professionals. Here it is:

I took some issue with the 53 hours listed for teachers and said that the difference between those hours and the 40 listed for other professionals is that teachers aren’t required to work 53 hours. In fact, we’re required to work fewer hours than almost every other full-time employee.

Lunch is not typically counted in the 40 hours for other professionals, so we should subtract it for teachers. My teaching day goes from 9:00 to 4:00 with a half-hour lunch, so that means I’m required to work 6.5 hours per day. Multiply that by five for 32.5 hours a week. So the infographic above suggests that teachers work an extra 20.5 hours a week, or about four per day, which seems high. But okay, throw in weekends and maybe.

The response to my suggestion, as I’m sure you can guess because some of you are mentally shouting a similar response at me right now, was that those extra hours may not be required, but teachers have to work them to do the job the “right” way.

And that’s the problem.

If the only way a teacher can effectively do his or her job is to work an extra, unpaid 20 hours every week, then there is something seriously wrong with the system. 

And the only way to fix such a system is for teachers, lots and  lots of them, to stop working so many extra hours.

Of course, making that suggestion sets one up to be criticized as lazy, cynical, lacking dedication, not being in it for the kids, et cetera et cetera.

Which is a huge problem. 

American teachers spend more time in the classroom than any other nation’s teachers.  So don’t tell me it’s necessary; other countries manage to educate their kids. All that time spent teaching means we have to do the other parts of our job at some other time.

Society’s expectations — including those of fellow teachers — that we should be expected to donate an extra 10-20 hours per week or risk being labeled lazy or ineffective, perpetuates the problem. It puts zero pressure on government to reform things. And it matters because unrealistic work expectations lead to burnout. We have good teachers exiting the profession at alarming rates and we have great students never even considering the job in the first place.

Teaching has the highest burnout rate of any public service job in America.  There are many reasons for it: loss of autonomy, bureaucratic nonsense, student misbehavior, bad bosses. But undoubtedly the stress of the job due to absurd workloads and the expectation that teachers give freely of their time is a huge factor.  Many who quit simply say they were always exhausted.

Now you might be one of those teachers for whom the job is your passion. You bring high energy to your classroom every day. You attend every training you can. You look forward to professional development sessions. You spend your free time designing engaging units and interacting with other teachers on social media. You read professional journals. You coach, volunteer, and always go the extra mile for your students and their families.

Good for you. I mean that sincerely. The country is lucky to have teachers like you.

But the data is clear: you are the exception.

And you don’t design a system based on exceptions.

When you do, the thing falls apart, which is what is happening in schools across our country right now.

The belief that teachers have “answered a calling,” as if we were somehow spoken to from some God of Teachers, is damaging. It’s this idea that we’re selfless martyrs who only exist to serve our students that has led to society’s unrealistic expectations for how we should do our jobs.

I attended a retirement luncheon a few years ago where a number of the district’s teachers were honored for their years of service. The entire district’s teaching staff was invited to the event and a principal said a few words for each of the retirees.

One teacher’s principal spoke in laudatory terms about how the teacher’s car was always the first one in the parking lot in the morning and the last one to leave at night. She admired the woman’s dedication.

I thought it was the saddest thing. I vowed then and there that no one would ever say the same thing about me. I have a life to live outside of work. A family. Hobbies. Friends to hang out with. As the famous saying goes, no one on their deathbed ever said they’d wished they’d worked more.

That principal’s message, that old industrial-era American reverence for slavish devotion to one’s job, is a damaging one, especially to young teachers. Here is the ideal, it says. This is what you should strive for. Here is what we want from you: Nothing less than large portions of your best years.

I guess if I owned a business, I’d want 20 free hours every week from my employees, too. And it would be even better if I could somehow establish that expectation as part of my company’s culture. And better still if that culture could spread across the entire industry.

Why, if workers felt like the only way they could be any good at their jobs was to donate 20 hours of work every week, and if their colleagues criticized them when they didn’t,  I could ask them to work late, or come in early, or work on special projects, or…hell, I could ask them to do damn near anything and not have to pay them for all that extra work.

What a deal.

______________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next Play — Forgive Your Students

forgive students

I’ve been knee deep in college basketball viewing even though my bracket looks like the remnants of … well, I was going to compare it to some horrific disaster, but there’s pretty much no way to do that without offending large segments of the population.  Anyway,  it’s not good.

As I watched the fast-paced action, I couldn’t help but find parallels between the game and teaching. Both require constant decision-making. There are moments of thrilling triumph followed quickly by disappointing failure on both the court and in the classroom.  In-game adjustments are necessary and have to be made without a lot of time to consider the very best strategy. Choosing one tactic means not choosing a host of others. Like a coach, a teacher can be a master technician and an inspiring motivator and still lose if the players don’t execute. And some days, you just can’t make a shot no matter how hard you’re trying.

While the games played across my TV this weekend, I worked on three chapters in my latest book, Happy Teacher. One of the chapters is titled, “Forgive,” and it’s about–you guessed it–forgiving students who mess up.

Most student screw-ups are similar to unforced errors on the basketball court. Players travel. Students blurt out. Players commit stupid fouls. Students say stupid things.  Players run the wrong play because they weren’t listening to the coach. Students do the wrong thing because they weren’t listening to the teacher. Players don’t perform with enough focus or energy. Students don’t perform with enough focus or energy.

Coaches can often be seen shouting at their offending players and they might sit them on the bench for awhile to drive their point home. Similarly, frustrated teachers might scold a student for her transgressions and give the kid a warning or send her to time-out. But eventually, both coach and teacher must move on. They must forgive, because there’s a lot more game left.

One of my favorite phrases for reminding myself to forgive and move on is “next play.” Former Duke basketball player and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas wrote about “next play” in his book Toughness.

Bilas played for legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, who knows that tough teams win. Tough players have the ability to focus on the play at hand and not the one that just happened. We’ve all seen basketball players thump their own chest and fail to get back on defense, just as we’ve seen players sulk after a mistake and lose focus for the next couple of plays. In a game as fast moving as basketball, you can’t have players that aren’t focused on the moment. “Next play” was a mantra on Coach K’s teams.

“Next play” is a reminder to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s an attitude check. It fights against complacency. It cuts away the drama associated with failure. It’s a fresh start.

And it’s just as valuable a philosophy in the classroom as it is on the hardwood.

Teach your ass off, just like the coaches in this year’s tournament. Have high expectations for your students. Hold them accountable when they mess up. Sit them on the bench for a spell so they can refocus if you need to.

Then tell yourself, “Next play,” and forget about what just happened. It’s over. There’s nothing that can be done about it now. Forgive your students. Get them back in the game, because the clock is ticking and there’s a lot on the line.

 

 

 

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find


Bad teachers need to be fired. You hear it all the time. It’s part of most education reformers’ guiding philosophy. Most people would have a very hard time justifying any opposition to it. Sometimes, in order to appease actual teachers and soften the harsh message, the phrase “after being given an opportunity to improve” is added after the word “teachers,” but the sentiment is the same: Our education system would be so much better if only we could fire the crappy teachers.

What strikes me most is what happens after someone says it. Never is the logical follow-up question asked:

Just what exactly is a bad teacher?

Teachers are unique. I’m not just saying that because I am one. Unlike many jobs, there is no one metric that can be used to assess a teacher’s performance. If you’re a salesperson and you don’t sell stuff, you’re a bad salesperson. If you’re a lawyer who can’t get clients, you won’t be a lawyer for long. If you’re a preacher whose sermons cause parishioners to switch churches, you probably went into the wrong line of work. If you make widgets and nobody buys them, you’re going to go out of business. If you’re a chef that makes food nobody wants to eat, you’re not a good chef.

Reformers want to equate teaching to other jobs because it makes their agenda easier to accomplish. So they have to come up with a metric and the one they’ve settled on is:

 If you’re a teacher and your students don’t learn, then you’re a bad teacher.

The need to have a single metric creates some other problems that garner a lot of attention. You have to be able to say how much learning is the right amount. Then you have to have a way to figure out if students learned that much. Right now the US uses standardized test results to provide the numbers that are necessary to justify the labeling of teachers (and schools) as bad. Putting aside for a moment all of the problems inherent in rendering a verdict based on the results of a single test, the method has other obvious flaws, all of which stem from the initial error of viewing teachers the same as other professionals.

Let me know which of the following four teachers is bad. Which ones would you fire?

Ms. Jackson is young, smart, and energetic. Just out of college, she wants to make a difference. Although she could probably get a job in the suburban district where she grew up, she wants a greater challenge. She gets hired at a poor district where many of the parents didn’t graduate high school, much less college. A lot of them work two jobs, which means they aren’t home with their kids much. Many of her students read well below grade level. A lot of them don’t want to be there. She sends home books for students to read but they don’t read them. Additionally, she spends much of her day dealing with behavior problems and feels like she can’t teach. When she contacts the parents about these problems, they sympathize; they have the same behavior problems with their kids at home. At the end of the year she gives the state test, and despite her best efforts, many of her students perform poorly.

Mrs. Davis is old and set in her ways. She doesn’t like to try anything new. She’s got her way of doing things and it’s worked pretty well, thank you. She teaches in an affluent district where many of the parents are professionals. They volunteer in the classroom. They send in extra supplies. They follow through with homework and assigned reading. Mrs. Davis doesn’t worry too much about her students. Most of them already read well when they get to her and she figures that as long as she doesn’t screw them up they’re going to be okay. She’s right. Despite ignoring best practices and an over-reliance on worksheets, her students regularly pass the state test. They will again this year.

Mrs. Jones is one tough cookie. She’s the teacher kids don’t want. You can’t get away with anything in her class. There is no fun allowed. It’s work, work, work. And if you don’t work you can forget about recess. Mrs. Jones regularly calls parents when students don’t turn in assignments or if they slip up in class. The parents don’t like her much either. She’s opinionated, blunt, and often confrontational. A lot of parents skip out on parent-teacher conferences. This is fine with Mrs. Jones. She doesn’t need them anyway; her kids are going to learn come hell or high water. And learn they do. Every year, Mrs. Jones’s students outperform the other classes in the school. Her students are too scared to not do well, but they don’t enjoy school much. They’re frequently stressed. Many of them pretend to be sick. Some cry in the morning. Shelby in the back of the room is so worried about getting in trouble she goes through most days with a stomachache.

Miss Violet isn’t too bright. She doesn’t know the curriculum very well and isn’t real effective at teaching what she does know. She doesn’t have great control of her classroom. What Miss Violet really likes–no, loves–is the kids. She spent her high school years babysitting every chance she could and there’s really no better way she can spend a day than with a group of students. She loves talking to them about their lives. She asks about their weekends. She tears up when she finds out about the challenges some of them face at home. She greets them all with a smile every morning and is always nice. Her students adore her and they can’t wait to come to school. In fact, if you ask them their favorite place in the whole world, a lot of them would tell you Miss Violet’s classroom. At the end of the year, Miss Violet’s students don’t do very well on the state test, but they love school and the idea of coming back next year is exciting to them.

Which teachers are bad?

Which teacher would you want for your kid?

Would your friends agree, or do their kids have different needs which would be better met by one of the other teachers above?

Which teacher would a school district value the most? What about the state?

Should students get a say? After all, aren’t they the “clients?”

If the answer isn’t the same for every one of those questions, then can we truly identify any of the above teachers as bad?

The problem is that the single metric of student achievement doesn’t come close to measuring all of the things we want in good teachers. Yes, we want effective educators. But we also want professionalism and kindness and energy and creativity.  We want collegiality and good communication skills. Some want teachers to lead, others want them to follow. Ultimately, each of us wants what’s best for our kid and what’s best for my kid isn’t necessarily what’s best for your kid. We have different values and those values are often not the same as the state’s.

So here’s a crazy idea: Before we start labeling teachers as “good” or “bad” maybe someone should actually watch them work. Maybe we should measure the impacts they have on things other than test scores. Maybe we should stop trying to measure things that are immeasurable. And maybe we should recognize that teachers are unique, which is a good thing, because so are our parents and students.

In Defense of Independent Reading

In the entire history of stupid school tricks, there may be none dumber than the practice of banning independent reading from classrooms. Not only does the research not support such a drastic measure, but administrators who take such action should have their brains scanned to see if common sense has somehow slipped out their ears.

While there is vigorous debate about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, no one claims that practice isn’t vitally important. You can’t become proficient at playing the piano, cooking gourmet meals, shooting a basketball, cross-stitch, writing novels, or carpentry by watching others do it, listening to them talk about how they do it, and completing worksheets about it. You actually have to do those things. Why would the skill of reading be any different?

Reasons for Independent Reading

Two goals of independent reading in the classroom that teachers regularly cite are to promote positive attitudes about reading and to provide students the opportunity to practice reading to achieve proficiency (Allington, 1977, 2009, Gambrell, 2009).

To these reasons I would add a third, more logistical reason: teachers have students read independently because many districts require progress monitoring and intervention time with identified students. While the teacher’s attention is with the at-risk learner(s), the other students must be engaged in an independent activity that is both beneficial and requires no teacher assistance or monitoring so that she may concentrate her efforts on the at-risk learner(s). Many teachers feel that independent reading is a more effective use of students’ time than other independent activities. In this belief they are supported by reading researcher Richard Allington, who says that time spent reading contributes to reading achievement in ways that simply doing worksheets or other activities does not (Allington, 2002; Foorman et al., 2006).

Does Independent Reading Increase Achievement?

Much of the criticism about independent reading is because of a report by the National Reading Panel. It states:

With regard to the efficacy of having students engage in independent silent reading with minimal guidance or feedback, the Panel was unable to find a positive relationship between programs and instruction that encourage large amounts of independent reading and improvements in reading achievement, including fluency. In other words, even though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not sufficient research evidence obtained from studies of high methodological quality to support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much students read or that such programs result in improved reading skills. Given the extensive use of these techniques, it is important that such research be conducted.

Unfortunately, this statement is often misinterpreted. The above is not a finding that independent reading is ineffective, but rather that there have not been enough quality research studies to make any conclusion about its effectiveness.

The Panel clarified (my emphasis):

It should be made clear that these findings do not negate the positive influence that independent silent reading may have on reading fluency, nor do the findings negate the possibility that wide independent reading significantly influences vocabulary development and reading comprehension. Rather, there are simply not sufficient data from well-designed studies capable of testing questions of causation to substantiate causal claims. The available data do suggest that independent silent reading is not an effective practice when used as the only type of reading instruction to develop fluency and other reading skills, particularly with students who have not yet developed critical alphabetic and word reading skills. In sum, methodologically rigorous research designed to assess the specific influences that independent silent reading practices have on reading fluency and other reading skills and the motivation to read has not yet been conducted.

Stepping up to that challenge, Wu and Samuels (2004) investigated the optimal amount of independent reading time per day. In their study, some third and fifth grade classes had students read independently for 40 minutes per day. In the comparison classes, students had a combination of 15 minutes per day of independent reading and 25 minutes of the teacher reading aloud to the students. In both sets of classes, this reading activity was in addition to core reading instruction. In general, poor readers had superior literacy outcomes in the 15 minutes per day of independent reading condition, and skilled readers performed better in the 40 minutes per day condition. This held true across all reading skills measured, “including reading rate and accuracy, comprehension, and word recognition.

A meta-analysis of 49 studies found a positive relationship between the volume of student reading and reading achievement (Allington, 2009, citing Lewis & Samuels, n.d.). Lewis and Samuels also reported on a more focused meta-analysis of studies that provided causal evidence that students who have in-school independent reading time, in addition to regular reading instruction, do significantly better on measures of reading achievement than peers who have not had reading time (an effect size of d = 0.42). (Allington, 2009, p. 32, citing Lewis & Samuels, n.d.) Allington notes that this effect size for in-school independent reading time was similar to the effect size for systematic phonics (d = 0.44) found by the National Reading Panel.

Based on another meta-analysis of 29 studies on sustained silent reading (SSR), Manning et al. (2010) came to the conclusion that “SSR is a valuable intervention that makes a worthwhile difference in developing students’ vocabulary and reading comprehension” (Gambrell et al., 2011, p. 148, citing Manning et al., 2010).

Achievement Isn’t Everything

While it’s important that students increase their reading skills, it may be more important that they develop a love of reading. Our job as a teacher is not simply to prepare students to pass state reading tests, but to inspire students to become lifelong readers so they can thrive as adults. Research shows that lifelong readers are more intelligent, more culturally aware, show more empathy, are better communicators, and are less stressed.

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have studied the amount of time students choose to read. In a series of studies involving hundreds of students, Morrow and Weinstein (1986) found that very few preschool and primary grade children chose to look at books during free-choice time at school. Greaney (1980) found that fifth-grade students spent only 5.4 percent of their out-of-school free time engaged in reading, and 23 percent of them chose not to read at all. Anderson, Fielding, and Wilson (1988) found that students spend less than 2 percent of their free time reading. Furthermore, as students get older, the amount of reading they do decreases. Clearly, schools are failing to create lifelong readers. We must do better.

The science is clear on how to increase students’ motivation to read. Gambrell states that “Motivation to read and reading achievement are higher when the classroom environment is rich in reading materials and includes books from an array of genres and text types, magazines, the Internet, resource materials, and real-life documents.”

Research also suggests that students’ motivation to read strengthens when they have opportunities to socially interact with others about reading. Gambrell et al. (2011) cite evidence that social interaction among students “promotes achievement, higher-level cognition, and intrinsic desire to read” (pp. 153-154, citing Almasi, 1995; Ames, 1984; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Guthrie et al., 1995; Manning & Manning, 1984; see also McRae & Guthrie, 2009).

Other factors that increase student motivation include choice in reading material, relevance of the reading material, and sustained periods to engage in reading.

If districts are still unconvinced of the importance of in-class independent reading, they should know that the practice is specifically endorsed in the Publisher’s Criteria for the Common Core State Standards. These criteria “concentrate on the most significant elements of the Common Core State Standards and lay out their implications for aligning materials with the standards.” Two of the standard’s lead authors, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, write in section I.1.E:

Additional materials aim to increase regular independent reading of texts that appeal to students’ interests while developing both their knowledge base and joy in reading. These materials should ensure that all students have daily opportunities to read texts of their choice on their own during and outside of the school day. Students need access to a wide range of materials on a variety of topics and genres both in their classrooms and in their school libraries to ensure that they have opportunities to independently read broadly and widely to build their knowledge, experience, and joy in reading. Materials will need to include texts at students’ own reading level as well as texts with complexity levels that will challenge and motivate students. Texts should also vary in length and density, requiring students to slow down or read more quickly depending on their purpose for reading. In alignment with the standards and to acknowledge the range of students’ interests, these materials should include informational texts and literary nonfiction as well as literature. A variety of formats can also engage a wider range of students, such as high-quality newspaper and magazine articles as well as information-rich websites.

The question, then, that districts should ask is not whether classroom teachers should set aside time for students to engage in reading self-selected reading material, but in how the practice can be implemented most effectively.

Experts on independent reading agree that effective independent reading experience requires that texts be matched to students’ reading abilities so they can experience success (Allington, 2009; Gambrell, 2011; Gaskins, 2008; Hiebert & Martin, 2009).

Teachers should also provide a balance of “explicit teacher-directed instruction . . . [,] teacher-directed reading practice, teacher-assigned self-directed reading practice, and . . . [free voluntary reading]” (Allington, 2009, p. 48).

Classroom libraries should be large, varied, and contain books of many different reading levels and complexities. To achieve this, Allington recommends eliminating spending on workbooks and test prep materials, as there is no research to support their use.

More skilled readers need to be provided with large amounts of time, while those with weaker skills need less time and more instruction (Wu and Samuels, 2004).

Students should be provided with opportunities to interact socially around their reading (Almasi, 1995; Ames, 1984; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Guthrie et al., 1995; Manning & Manning, 1984; see also McRae & Guthrie, 2009).

And teachers should instruct students on text selection, scaffold student understanding of different types of text, and confer with students about their reading (Reutzel, Fawson, & Smith, 2008)

It is my hope that school districts recognize the importance of providing students with independent reading time in the classroom and support its teachers in doing so by providing relevant research and professional development on how best to implement the practice. Schools should follow both the research and common sense to do what’s best for students to develop both their reading skills and a lifelong love of the written word.

 

For more information, check out the following excellent books:

What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction

No More Independent Reading Without Support

What Really Matters for Struggling Readers