Why Teachers Should Help Less

When Helping Isn’t Helping

There is an epidemic in our schools. Teachers are helping too much. Like most epidemics, it probably started small. A teacher somewhere in Kansas didn’t want Jimmy to cry anymore because he couldn’t solve a math problem, so she came to his rescue. She did the problem for him. Oh, I’m sure she told herself she was “teaching,” but we all know the truth. We’ve been there. Frustrated with a child’s struggles, worried that he won’t learn what’s in the standards before he leaves us, and fearing what might happen to his self-esteem when he realizes he can’t do it, we help. We reteach. We give hints. We take the pencil right out of his hand and show him exactly what steps to follow. We do the damn thing for him.

 

For what I can only guess were misguided but honorable intentions, the helping spread. It’s everywhere now. In elementary classrooms from kindergarten to fifth grade. I suspect it’s spread farther than that, maybe even all the way to college lecture halls.

 

We’ve justified our actions along the way. We’re teachers, so we teach. If a kid doesn’t understand something, we figure it’s our fault, so we act to rectify the problem. We teach it again. Besides, what are we supposed to do, sit our desk checking papers while Julia scribbles away futilely or gives up in frustration?

 

Yes.

 
That’s exactly what we should be doing far more often. We should check papers, respond to emails, plan next week’s social studies lesson, or just sit and reflect on how things are going. We should get out of our students’ way and see what they can actually do on their own. We should stop coming to their rescue. This disease is highly contagious, and we need to self-quarantine.

My daughter started playing softball last year. Like most people trying something new, she wasn’t very good. In her first game, she stepped to the plate, sort of swung the bat three times, and struck out. That’s how the game is played. Three strikes, you’re out. Don’t care how old you are or if you’ve got Coke-bottle glasses and a bad case of vertigo. Three strikes, you’re out. Now go sit down. Them’s the rules.

 

Everybody watched her fail. Her teammates, her dad in the dugout, her mom, grandma, and grandpa in the stands. How humiliating. And yet, she didn’t crumple into a ball in the corner of the dugout and cry. When it was her turn to bat again, she strolled up to the plate, a little less confident than before.

 

And she struck out again.

 

My daughter didn’t make contact with the ball until the third game of the season, and that was a little nubber that squirted six feet into foul territory. She finally got a hit in the fifth game. When she did, she ran to second base on a throwing error, and once planted safely on the bag, threw both fists into the air, the universal gesture for victory. You should have seen the smile on her face. It almost matched my own.

 

It’s that smile, that sense of accomplishment, that ineffable pride (although if it was effable, it would probably sound something like, “Fuck, yes!”), that we rob students of when we swoop in to help.

 

We’ve Created a Monster

If softball leagues treated players as delicately as schools do their students, there’d be a rule about not striking out. After three strikes, they’d bring out a tee, or maybe the coach would go up there, take the bat out of the kid’s hands, and hit it for them. We’d tell ourselves we were protecting their fragile psyches, when in reality we’d be sending a clear message: You can’t do it, so I’ll do it for you.

 

This is where learned helplessness comes from. And while many teachers complain about it, most of us have had a hand in its making. It’s everywhere in schools today. Well-meaning teachers, responding to external pressures, their own guilt, and an excessively literal interpretation of the verb “teach,” have caused the epidemic. I’m as guilty as the rest of you.

 

Teachers have this notion that to teach means we must always be doing something. If students are in the room, we have to interact with them. We gotta teach! But sometimes, the best way to teach is to sit down and shut up. The drama teacher leaves the stage, and it’s on the students to perform. The piano teacher lets her pupil sink or swim in front of everyone at the recital. The basketball coach rolls out the ball, stands on the sidelines, and simply observes.

 Let Them Fail First

Reformers have managed to get teachers to believe that a student’s failure is the teacher’s failure. We take it personally. So we want to eradicate it. But failure is part of learning. In fact, it’s the critical part. Sometimes, the best teaching is to let students flail, even fail. Because there’s more learning to be found in failure than there is in success. Thank goodness the rules prevented my daughter’s coach from interceding in her struggles. All she could do was encourage from the dugout. That’s what teachers should do, too.

 

“You can do it,” we tell them. And then we see if they can. But if they can’t, we let them fail. And only after they’ve failed, maybe a few times, do we reteach. We go back to the practice field the next day and throw them fifty more pitches. We correct their technique, we model, and they practice, practice, practice. Then we remove ourselves again and see what they have learned. No helping allowed.

 

Kids can handle failure.

 

 

We teachers need to let them.

 

20 Free Ways to Recognize Teachers

Teachers Should Be Recognized

We shouldn’t only appreciate teachers because they have hard jobs that require personal sacrifice in terms of time, energy, money, and sanity. We should also recognize them because doing so will make them better teachers.

Recognition and praise are two critical components for creating positive emotions in organizations. Gallup surveyed more than four million employees worldwide on this topic. Their analysis found that individuals who received regular recognition and praise:

  • increased their productivity
  • increased engagement with colleagues
  • were more likely to stay with their organization
  • received higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers.

A Lot of Teachers Aren’t Recognized

The majority of us don’t give or receive anywhere near the amount of recognition we should. Only 17 percent of employees who participated in a Bersin & Associates study indicated that their organizations’ cultures strongly supported recognition. As a result, we’re less productive, and in many cases, completely disengaged at work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number one reason people leave their jobs is because they “do not feel appreciated.”

According to a recent OGO survey, 82 percent of employed Americans don’t feel that their supervisors recognize them enough for their contributions. Sometimes, it’s the result of laziness or thoughtless leadership. But I think for schools, a lack of funding is partly to blame. Some principals, knowing there’s no money in the budget, give up on recognition altogether, not realizing that many teachers would appreciate things that don’t cost a dime. 

Maybe they need some ideas.

20 Ways to Recognize Teachers for Free

 

  1. Handwritten Thank You Cards—In today’s digital world, everyone appreciates the time and thought behind handwritten notes. One survey found that 76% of people save these kinds of cards.
  2. PA Announcement—“A big thank you to Mr. Murphy and Mrs. Peterson for staying after the concert last night and helping to put away chairs.” Not only would such an announcement make the teachers feel good, but it would show students what the school values.
  3. Public Praise—Schools communicate with parents and the community in all sorts of ways. Districts could recognize teachers by praising them in newsletters, on school Facebook pages, or in automated calls that go out every Sunday night.
  4. Solicit Former Students—A few years ago I received three letters from former students. For a writing project, they were to write to people that had influenced them. It didn’t matter to me that they were satisfying the requirements of an assignment, because their words were heartfelt. Schools could easily set up a program whereby former students, once a year, write a letter, email, or just fill out a simple card thanking a former teacher.
  5. Showcase—Most schools have showcases, often filled with student work, dusty trophies, or some school-wide project. Why not select one showcase that highlights the good work a teacher did the previous week? A photo of the teacher could be included with a brief write-up of her good deed.
  6. Decorate Their Door—One way to let the whole school know that a teacher has done something deserving of recognition is to have a small team of parents or other teachers decorate their door.  Shooting stars, bright colors, fireworks, a big THANK YOU sign, and (for a nominal cost) some candy bars could be affixed to the door. Students would ask what the hubbub was all about, which would give adults the opportunity to praise the teacher.
  7. Wish Lists—My daughter’s school does something pretty cool. At parent-teacher conference time, each teacher fills out tear-away slips of paper on which they request personal and classroom items. Parents, who often want to show appreciation for teachers but aren’t sure what to buy, now know exactly what the teacher wants. They tear off the slips of paper, and over the week, send the items in with their children. I’ve bought my daughter’s former teachers chocolates, Coke, and Expo markers. I did not buy the motorcycle this year’s teacher jokingly included in his wish list.
  8. Free Entry—Why not allow deserving teachers into this spring’s high school play for free? Heck, give them two tickets so they can bring their spouse. Same goes for athletic events. My district has an Aquatic Center and a performing arts center. Teachers who embody the values of the district and who regularly go the extra mile could be awarded with season passes to these types of venues.
  9. Jeans Day—I really look forward to Friday for many reasons, and wearing jeans is one of them. Principals could recognize teachers by letting them wear jeans on whatever day they choose.
  10. Clean and Organize—As the year goes on, the books in my classroom library find their way into all kinds of strange baskets. Somehow, Louis Sachar’s Holes ends up next to a Wimpy Kid book in the basket labeled “Junie B. Jones.” My cabinet ends up similarly disorganized, with staples, Post-It notes, and scissors all sharing the same tub. Also, and this isn’t a knock on the custodians, but the surfaces of my students’ desks could use a thorough scrubbing. One way to recognize teachers would be for a team of parent volunteers to come in before or after school for 45 minutes and spruce things up a bit.
  11. A Break From That Kid (You Know the One)—Truth: I usually have at least one student who, by May, is on my last nerve. He’s the kid who never misses a day. I would greatly appreciate a break from That Kid. To thank a teacher for extra work, another teacher could take That Kid for an hour. Or he could walk around with the principal for three hours. Or…I don’t care, just get him out of the room for awhile.
  12. Food–You can’t go wrong with food. Staff breakfasts, lunches, snacks, candy- it doesn’t matter. Teachers love food. It doesn’t have to cost anything either. This year, our local theater donated a trash bag full of popcorn. Most schools have students whose parents own or manage a local restaurant. They are often happy to donate food. They just have to be asked.
  13. Car Wash—Early in my teaching career, a group of parents set up a car wash in the school parking lot. They collected all the teachers’ keys first thing in the morning, and then took care of everything from there. Every teacher drove home with a shiny clean car at the end of the day.
  14. Chair Massage—Teachers are stressed and they have disposable incomes. Some insurance plans even cover massages. All of which is to say that if you’re a local masseuse, you’d be an idiot to not donate a day to give teachers a free chair massage during their planning periods. Even if you only converted two of them to paying customers, the goodwill alone would likely lead to more clients.
  15. Staff Meeting Exemption—Teachers universally hate staff meetings. (And those who don’t are afraid to admit it, so I’m safe with my blanket assumption.) We all have better, more pressing things to do. Principals could reward deserving teachers with a Get-Out-Of-Staff-Meeting-Free card. There’s nothing better than getting to skip something unpleasant that everyone else is required to attend.
  16. Duty-Free Day—Teachers hate duty about as much as staff meetings. Appreciative principals could relieve teachers from recess, bus, lunch or whatever other duties they perform for a day (or week).
  17. One Free Hour—At the busiest times of the year, like right before progress reports are due, principals could provide whole grade levels with a free hour to work. By taking students and showing a movie in the gym, or supervising an extra long recess, or giving students time to play games in the computer lab, principals could show teachers that they understand the pressures they’re under and give teachers what they want most of all–found time.
  18. An Hour Lunch—What’s commonplace almost everywhere in America is a luxury no teacher ever experiences at school–an hour lunch. Mine is 35 minutes. Some teachers don’t even receive a duty-free lunch; they supervise students while they eat. Principals can cover a teacher’s responsibilities so that the teacher can actually leave the building, go to a restaurant, and enjoy an unhurried sit-down meal. You know, like a real professional.
  19. Leave an Hour Early—There’s something wickedly delicious about leaving work early. I have few fonder childhood memories than when we were sent home early from school because of snow. On the few occasions I’ve been granted permission to leave work early for a meeting or a personal need, I almost couldn’t contain my giddiness as I rushed to my car. Principals who really want to show appreciation can cover or arrange for the last hour of a teacher’s responsibility to be covered so that the teacher can experience the joy of leaving work before anyone else. (I saw one teacher refer to these as “GOOSE” coupons, which stands for Get Out Of School Early. I like it.)
  20. Kind Words—Sometimes, the simplest way of recognizing someone’s efforts is all that’s needed. Most teachers don’t need much. Genuine thanks is a good place to start. And a good place to end this list.

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*Parts of the above are excerpted from my book Happy Teacher, now available on Amazon.

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Teach Like a Cat

 cat
A couple summers ago I read Dave Burgess’s book, Teach Like a Pirate. If you’re not familiar, Burgess focuses on the presentation aspect of teaching. He advocates dressing up, incorporating movement, bringing a ton of energy, and lots of other strategies to enliven your lessons. You can watch an example here. It’s an inspiring read, and when you’re done you want to ramp up the energy level of your instruction.
That feeling lasts about a week.
Then reality returns, and you realize you just can’t do that for every lesson, not even most of them, because it’s mentally and physically exhausting. Because I want teachers to have long careers impacting many, many lives, I disagree with Burgess’s approach, even as I admit that he’s right. Being a showman will lead to more engaged students. But it will also wear out most teachers really quickly.
So instead of teaching like a pirate, I propose you teach like a cat.
I have a cat. Her name is Gizmo. She has a lot of qualities that teachers who want long and fulfilling careers should make their own.

 

How To Teach Like a Cat

Be More Chill

Gizmo spends 90% of her time just chilling out. She’s almost always calm and in control. While the rest of us are running around getting dinner ready before softball practice, Gizmo is lying on the couch watching us with seeming bemusement.
Teachers should also spend most of their day in a state of calm. I detail why in this post, but to summarize, calm teachers tend to have calmer classes. Calm leads to more focused work. Calm people make better decisions during stressful moments. When you’re calm most of the time, your moments of enthusiasm will have more impact. And, most importantly of all, by remaining calm, you conserve your energy so you don’t burn out.

Bursts of Energy and Fun

While Gizmo is almost always calm, she has moments of energy and playfulness. She chases after a balled up Hershey’s Kisses wrapper, batting it across the hardwood floor. She swipes at me as I walk by, inviting me to play with her. She boxes with me, patting her paw against my palm over and over.
To keep things interesting, teachers should present fun and energetic lessons on occasion. They should provide highly engaging activities for their students where possible. While most of the day will be calm and focused work, bursts of energy and fun make learning memorable and school a fun place to be. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to make every day a Vegas show, but do look for opportunities to liven things up.

Ask For What You Want

Sometimes my wife gets home late and it’s left to me to feed Gizmo. I usually forget. But Gizmo won’t allow me to forget for long. Every time I get up, she runs to her food bowl. She rubs against my leg to get my attention. She meows. Gizmo wants three things in life: the attention of my wife, to be left alone by the rest of the family, and food. She makes these desires known in no uncertain terms.
She asks for what she wants.
So many teachers are afraid to self-advocate. They beat around the bush, engage in passive-aggressiveness, and avoid any potential conflict. Instead of asking their principal to stop micromanaging them, they avoid the principal as much as possible. Rather than asking for money to purchase classroom materials, they assume the answer will be no and never ask. Instead of asking for a day off to attend a conference that will improve their teaching, they just assume the district won’t pay for it or won’t want to hire a sub. Teach like a cat. Ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is someone says no. (Or, you get fired for being pushy and annoying.)

Stop Feeling Guilty

Sometimes, Gizmo horks up a furball right in the center of the living room. One time, she did it into the opening of one of my daughter’s hats. Another time, she deposited one just outside my bedroom door so that I stepped in it. As far as I can tell, she’s never felt bad about it. Not once. I’ve watched her do it. She spits one up and walks away, as if it’s a perfectly natural thing to do.
Which of course, it is.
It’s also natural for teachers to want to take a break. I know teachers who come to work sick because of the guilt they feel over leaving their students with a sub. On some Friday afternoons, it’s totally normal to want to put in a movie because you’re beat and your students are done listening to you anyway. It’s natural to not want to check a pile of papers on Sunday night. Teachers need to be like my cat and stop feeling guilty for doing what our bodies and brains are telling us to do.

Ignore the Critics

Gizmo could not care less about what we think of her. She’s totally dismissive. Rude about it, even. Sometimes I’ll walk into the closet and she’ll come shooting out of her weird hiding place. I’ll damn near fall down trying to avoid stepping on her. I shout at her. “Gizmo, get out of the way!” She doesn’t give a lick. She just yawns and relocates to the couch or meows at me to feed her again. If we leave the piano keys uncovered at night, Gizmo will prance across them, playing a lively, discordant tune that wakes up the whole house. We’ve learned there’s no point in scolding her. She just doesn’t care.
Many teachers care entirely too much about what others say or think about them. Be your own critic. Ignore the rest. Stop allowing others to make you feel bad about yourself. Be like my cat: do your thing, and screw what people think about it. You won’t please them all anyway. (I do recommend that you be less obvious about it than my cat.)

Sleep More

Like all cats, Gizmo loves to sleep. I’m pretty sure it’s her favorite thing to do. Teachers, like many Americans, don’t get enough sleep. It’s recommended that you get 7 to 9 hours a night. But the CDC estimates that one in three Americans don’t get that much. You can’t be your best if you’re not well-rested. Teachers, even those who stay calm most of the day, must be on. They must be mentally engaged and observant. You can’t teach well if you’re tired all the time.
So don’t teach like a pirate. Pirates are scary. Teach like a cat instead.

Why We Shouldn’t Admire Workaholics

On the last school day of each year, my district recognizes retiring teachers at an ice cream social type of event. The entire faculty attends. The principals of the retiring teachers stand up and tell some bad jokes, then they say some nice things about the teachers. You know.
One year, one of the principals started her speech by talking about how dedicated Judy was. “Anyone who knows Judy knows that she’s the first one here and the last one to leave every day, even after all these years,” she said. We were supposed to be impressed. I wasn’t.
There are two types of workaholics, and neither of them deserve our admiration.

 

The Addict

The first type of workaholic is the kind of person who has great passion for and is highly skilled at his job. He gets up in the morning and can’t wait to get started. He works all hours of the night because it’s a thrill. He gets a buzz off it. Rather than burning him out, the work invigorates him. It’s in his blood. When we think of people like this, we often can’t help but think of them in any way other than their association with their life’s passion. Think of Steve Jobs and you think Apple. Think of Mark Zuckerberg and you think Facebook. They’re the embodiment of that whole, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” thing.
There’s nothing to admire about someone who spends an ungodly amount of time doing the very thing that gives him a lot of pleasure.

 

We don’t admire other people for doing what they love to do. Nobody is going to write a book about me because I spend hours watching football and eating potato chips. There will be no biopics made about some fat 35-year-old who spends six straight days playing video games. I had an uncle who loved to drink beer. Not only would he have done it for free, he gladly paid others for the privilege. There’s a name we give to people who can’t stop doing things they love to the detriment of other areas of their lives. The word is addicts. We don’t tend to admire them. How is being addicted to one’s work fundamentally different from being addicted to heroin, pornography, or gambling? Why should anyone admire a workaholic who does nothing but dedicate untold hours to something he really really gets off on?

 

To answer my own question: The only difference between workaholics and addicts is that society values the workaholics’ addiction more than the addicts’. It shouldn’t.

 

The Misguided

The second kind of workaholic is sadder than the first. These are people who do not love their jobs, but they kill themselves at them anyway. They sacrifice the best years of their lives, missing out on their kids’ childhoods, straining relationships with those who love them, and making themselves miserable for the sake of pride, a misguided sense of dedication, guilt, or the almighty dollar. Picture the Wolf of Wall Street guy.

 

There is nothing to admire about someone whose appetite for approval and recognition destroys so many aspects of the rest of their lives. Workaholics like these wouldn’t exist if society did not reward them with the very thing they so desperately want, its admiration.

 

Workaholic Teachers

Here’s why it matters for teachers. There are those who genuinely love teaching. They are passionate and skilled. For them, teaching is not really work. The long days don’t burn them out. They get physically tired, but not mentally or spiritually drained. They’re in “flow” when teaching. These teachers are rare. Many of them are excellent. But we should stop holding them up as a standard all teachers should aspire to. You can’t instill passion where it doesn’t exist, and if the only people we’re willing to put at the head of classrooms are those who live and breathe all things teaching, then class sizes are about to skyrocket. The world needs a lot of teachers. The U.S. alone has 3.1 million of them.

 

The rest of the workaholic teachers–those who either lack passion or skill– won’t make it much longer. They are exhausted. Many are on the verge of burning out. They’re under the false impression that to be any good, they must put in long hours. They’ve lost any semblance of a work-life balance. They’re giving up so much because they feel external pressure to do so. They’re leaving the profession, sharing their stories, and those stories are keeping young people from even entertaining a career in education.

 

We’ve done that to them. When we as a society admire workaholics, we send the message to teachers that they must break their backs to be valued. It’s a dangerous message, and we are now reaping what we have sown. 

The Willful Ignorance of Education Research

You may have seen something on the news about the March for Science held this past Saturday. Demonstrators across the country gathered to draw attention to and criticize lawmakers for ignoring scientific research when making policy. As an educator in America, I wonder what took them so long.

Education Researchers Are Like Teeth

There may be no more thankless job than education researcher. They’re kind of like my ten-year-old daughter’s teeth. She knows her teeth exist and that they do some important stuff, but she really doesn’t pay much attention to them unless someone (her mom) forces her to.

To be an education researcher is to work for years in obscurity, conducting studies, publishing papers, going to conferences, writing books,  and lecturing (I guess. I don’t know what the hell they actually do). If you happen to uncover something consequential, something that could tip the American education system on its head and lead to real, sustained improvement in student outcomes, you get the pleasure of seeing your work completely disregarded.

Can’t Read? Screw You and Your Future!

We have a rich history of pissing all over the work of these dedicated academics.  Why, just a few months ago, my state, Michigan, passed a Third Grade Reading Law that requires the retention of third graders who are more than one year behind in reading as measured by the state test (which doesn’t report a grade level equivalent, so who knows how that’s going to work). Legislators did this despite the fact that hundreds of studies have found no academic benefit to retaining students, and a handful indicate that retention leads to higher drop-out rates.

You’re Tired? Screw Your Stupid Adolescent Sleep Cycle

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends delaying start times for middle and high school students. From this article:

Studies show that adolescents who don’t get enough sleep often suffer physical and mental health problems, an increased risk of automobile accidents, and a decline in academic performance. But getting enough sleep each night can be hard for teens whose natural sleep cycles make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. – and who face a first-period class at 7:30 a.m. or earlier the next day.

Only 15% of American high schools start at 8:30 a.m. or later. The median middle school start time is 8:00 a.m. Meanwhile, my third graders, who don’t need the extra sleep, start at nine o’clock every morning. Research suggests that flipping this around would help a lot of kids. But it’s the way we’ve always done things and basketball practice and busing and parents won’t like it, and blah, blah, so screw helping kids and screw the research.

Move! Move, I Say!

If you haven’t heard of John Hattie, you will. School districts really like this guy because, like Bob Marzano, he does “meta-analysis,” which, as far as I can tell, is throwing a bunch of research studies other people did into a pile and performing some fancy math Jiu-Jitsu that spits out a number that’s supposed to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Whatever. Anyway, Hattie ranks about 1,000 different factors that contribute or don’t to academic achievement. At the very bottom of his list is depression, with an effect size of negative .42, which is really terrible, not unlike depression itself. Right above that is mobility at negative .34. Mobility means moving around, changing schools.  You know, the same thing reformers want kids to be able to do through expanded school choice schemes.

Stop Moving! Sit! Sit!

Want kids to learn more stuff? Make them sit in classrooms more, right? And what better way to capture more classroom time than to take away kids’ recess? With greater consequences attached to state assessments, many schools eliminated or curtailed recess time for students, especially following the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. Shockingly (he said sarcastically), research does not support such a move.

Research shows that recess in the primary years contributes to physical fitness, improves students’ classroom behavior and focus, facilitates social development and competence, and leads to more learning and achievement.

[Is Your School Cutting Recess? Fight back with research! This book will help.]

 In Computers We Trust

Here’s a blunt headline: Researchers: Don’t expand virtual schools as isTurns out sitting kids in front of a computer and telling them to learn stuff doesn’t work so well. But that won’t stop policymakers from expanding virtual schools. They’re cheap, after all. Reformers like cheap. I mean, they really like cheap. Damn the researchers and their blunt headlines.

The Train Keeps Rolling

Oh, those poor education researchers, toiling away to prove their little theories, only to have them roundly ignored in the places where they matter most.

And yet somehow, despite policymakers’ and school leaders’ willful ignorance, the train keeps rolling. Students learn. They go off to college. They get jobs. The American economy grows. The stock market rises. 401(k)s go up in value. People retire. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, what’s to worry about?

I’m pretty sure my daughter wonders the same thing every time her mom tells her to brush her teeth. Her teeth are fine. They’re white. They’re straight. They don’t hurt. They chew stuff. She eats. She gets bigger. So what if she ignores her teeth?

I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve only scratched the surface. What are other examples of policymakers and school districts ignoring research? Sound off in the comments or on Facebook.