Ten Non-Standard Ideas About Going Back to School

EdWeek

I had a colleague, a third-grade teacher, who spent most of August sorting books into leveled baskets, going steady with the laminating machine, and running up colorful curtains for the door to her classroom. Her husband, a secondary social studies teacher, would mark the beginning of the school year by wandering around the house, trying to find his thermos. This was immensely irritating to her, of course. But it’s hard to say who was the better teacher.

I had 30 first days of school as a teacher. Here’s my—very non-standard—advice for teachers, on gearing up for the new year.

1. Don’t work too hard at unimportant things, like fancy bulletin boards. The most important thing you can do before school starts is think about the curriculum and the kids you’re teaching. You’re not likely to achieve a high-functioning, intellectually cooking Day One, anyway. You’re aiming for Day Four or maybe Day Eleven, once you have a sense of who’s sitting in the desks (or on the floor), and how to get them to work together.

This is not a half-baked “make it up as you go along” theory of instruction, by the way. I know that curriculum has never been less open to creativity –and Important Metrics are looming. You’ve got a big job to do. But–as the salesman says, in The Music Man–you gotta know the territory.

2. Walk around the building and say hello to all of your colleagues. Even if the interaction lasts 30 seconds, and you’re not particularly fond of the teacher / aide / principal / secretary / custodian in question. There is nothing more effective than a school building where adults get along, respect each other and have the same goals. I am always amazed when teachers bitterly complain about the kids bickering in their classrooms, then proceed to ignore or castigate their fellow staff members. Build a few relationships. Welcome newbies. Thank the custodians for the shiny floors.

3. When it comes to advance planning, keep your options open. Don’t write detailed lesson plans for a semester. Plan for a week, maybe, just to ensure you have enough rabbits to pull out of your stovepipe and keep the kiddies busy. Set overarching goals, for sure. But it’s folly to think you have the flow of instruction and learning for the next six weeks under your control.  The watchword: learn as you go.


See also: Teacher Leadership vs. Teacher Professionalism


4. Corollary: For now, plan grandly, not precisely. Think about the things students need to know for the next decade, not the next standardized test or unit quiz. Not even the end-of-course or college admissions exams. Focus on things they need to master and understand before adulthood. Very soon, you will be dealing with the ordinary grind: daily lesson plans–plus assemblies, field trips, plays, the school newspaper, the spelling bee, the science fair, yada yada.But those are the trees. Think about the forest. What do you want your students to take away, forever, from your teaching? Which big ideas? What critical skills? It’s easy to forget the grand picture, once the year gets rolling. Take the time to do it now. Dream.

5. Make your classroom a pleasant place for you, too. In addition to being a place where students learn, it’s the place where you work, both with and without kids. (And, yes, I spent a year on a cart, so I know this recommendation may seem specious.) Most of us teach in a place that, stripped to its essentials, feels institutional, to some degree–if not downright unsightly.  Find a way to have comfortable seating, task lighting, pictures or tchotchkes that make you smile. It doesn’t have to be pretty and color-coordinated–many wonderful classrooms have that “kids’ playroom/teenage basement” aura. Still, forget those admonitions about too much personalizing–a classroom should feel like home.  One of my former students just posted this marvelous, home-made, vocabulary wall that her students can absorb all year long. (Thumbs up, Lin!)13876315_10155397374664815_7012842715327292597_n.jpg

6. Don’t make Day One “rules” day. Your classroom procedures are very important, a hinge for functioning productively, establishing the relationships and trust necessary for individual engagement and group discussions. Introduce these strategies and systems on days when it’s likely your students will remember them and get a chance to practice them. This is especially important for secondary teachers, whose students will likely experience a mind-numbing, forgettable parade of Teacher Rules on Day One.

7. Instead, give students a taste of disciplinary knowledge on the first day of school. Teachsomething, using your most engaging instructional techniques–perhaps a game, a round-robin, a quick-response exercise with no wrong answers. Bonus points for something involving physical movement. Beware of empty ice-breakers or team-building exercises–your goal is to have students going out the door saying “I think this class is going to be fun, and I already learned something.”

8. Keep your expectations about the first few days modest. You will probably be nervous (and have bad dreams), even if you’ve been teaching for 30 years–I always did. The students will be keyed up, too–it takes a couple days for them to settle in and behave as they usually do. Wait for your teacher buzz to kick in–that happy moment when you see engagement, maybe even laughter, and you know you’re on the right track. It takes a while, but when it happens, it’s like the first flower in the spring garden.

9. It’s the first day of school for parents and families, too. They’re at home, wanting to know that their kids are OK, that this year will be a good one for little Tyler. One idea for immediate parent engagement that I used for many years (thanks to Middleweb): asking parents to tell you about their child, in a million words or less. Very simple, and very powerful.

10. Tie your classroom to the world. There’s been a lot of on-line chatter about the presidential election, and its impact on kids. Even if you teach kindergarten–or chemistry–you can’t avoid the same kinds of chatter in your classroom. Use the daily news as backdrop for modeling civil interactions and substantive debate on the content you teach.  Read picture books on immigration. Take your AP Stats class to FiveThirtyEight.com and assign your physical education students to watch Simone Biles. What are YOU currently watching, reading or discussing? Share. Help your students analyze issues or find role models.

Because that’s your job.

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Extending the Silence

Edutopia

Giving students several seconds to think after asking a question—and up to two minutes for some questions—improves their learning.

Kids raising hands in an elementary school class.

©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

How long do you think teachers pause, on average, after asking a question?

Several studies from the 1970s on have looked into the effect that the amount of time teachers pause after asking a question has on learners. In visiting many classrooms in the United States and other parts of the world, I’ve found that, with few exceptions, these studies are still accurate. For example, according to work done by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972 and Robert J. Stahl in 1994, pausing for three or more seconds showed a noticeable positive impact on learning. Yet the average length that teachers pause was found to be 0.9 seconds.

Wow.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in many classrooms, and there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.

In differentiating instruction, process and learning preference are the keys. Process is how learners make sense of ideas, compose their thinking, and prepare a thoughtful answer. Learning preference, in the case of questions posed to the whole class, refers to how some students prefer to silently process the content, keeping their own counsel (Internal Thinkers), while others prefer to talk or express their thinking with an audience as a sounding board (External Thinkers).

The External Thinkers, those go-to students who can be counted on to talk within the first three seconds, may be shaping their ideas as they talk—they haven’t had sufficient time to fully process but speak out anyway. Meanwhile, the Internal Thinkers have also had insufficient time to process, but don’t feel comfortable responding.

One solution is for teachers to pause for five to 15 seconds before calling on students. The silence for some may feel unbearably long. Yet consider that the fastest male and female 100-meter sprinters in the world run at or under 10 seconds. The world record is under 10 seconds, which goes by quickly. Why not offer a similar amount of time for students to consider their responses to questions that require deep thinking?

STRATEGIES FOR PROVIDING STUDENTS WITH TIME TO THINK

Provide wait time: Give students five to 15 seconds to formulate a response to a question for which they should know the answer. Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed. Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.

I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds. If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.

Give think time: Give students 20 seconds to two minutes to make sense of questions that require analysis to synthesize concepts into a different construct or frame. You can aid this by encouraging journaling, silent reflection, or partner discussions. Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students. Quick responses probably mean that the question did not stretch the learners’ understanding. After the allotted time, any student can be called on to share their response.

Teach reflection: Coach students on the value and practice of reflection. Educators and students may appear to be uncomfortable with silence, hence the typical one-second pause time. Silence may be equated with nothing happening.

In reality, when students are provided with structured ways to practice thinking and specific directions about what to accomplish within the silent time, they can become more productive during reflection. Think From the Middle is a collection of approaches for students to hone their thinking processes during reflection and collaborative communication.

Teach students how to manage a conversation: It’s a beautiful thing to witness students running thoughtful conversations around topics that combine curriculum and real-world connections. Establish a culture for students to engage in such conversations, and they’ll soon be doing most of the heavy lifting during the lesson.

One powerful example I’ve witnessed in Michigan and Texas uses a guide for student-led conversation prompts called Talk Moves. This list of conversation stems provides students with communication tools for participating in and sustaining discussions. I’ve witnessed their use in science classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, and they’re equally useful in all subject area courses.

Students choose the starter stem that best supports the topic to be discussed. Teachers use the Talk Moves to coach and guide students to different levels of complex thinking by directing them toward different sections of conversation prompts. The intent is for students to own the conversation, which empowers their ability to process concepts for understanding.

PLACING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER OF LEARNING

We want students to become independent learners who can navigate challenging material and situations. Students learn at different paces, which seems less about intelligence and more about the time barriers put in the path of learning. There may be a place for timed responses and answering questions under the pressure of a clock, yet there are no standards that say that students should master concepts in less than one second.

Most people need adequate time to process their thoughts if they are expected to contribute to a conversation. Life is not a 30-minute game show with rapid-fire questions that require low-level answers, plus commercial breaks. Even if it were, one would need time to develop and master the processing skills to compete.

What Students Remember Most About Teachers

Edutopia

Teacher and student smiling at each other

©Shuttertstock.com/Monkey Business Images
Dear Young Teacher Down the Hall,I saw you as you rushed past me in the lunch room. Urgent. In a hurry to catch a bite before the final bell would ring calling all the students back inside. I noticed that your eyes showed tension. There were faint creases in your forehead. And I asked you how your day was going and you sighed.

“Oh, fine,” you replied.

But I knew it was anything but fine. I noticed that the stress was getting to you. I could tell that the pressure was rising. And I looked at you and made an intentional decision to stop you right then and there. To ask you how things were really going. Was it that I saw in you a glimpse of myself that made me take the moment?

You told me how busy you were, how much there was to do. How little time there was to get it all done. I listened. And then I told you this:

I told you to remember that at the end of the day, it’s not about the lesson plan. It’s not about the fancy stuff we teachers make — the crafts we do, the stories we read, the papers we laminate. No, that’s not really it. That’s not what matters most.

And as I looked at you, wearing all that worry and under all that strain, I said it’s about being there for your kids. Because at the end of the day, most students won’t remember what amazing lesson plans you’ve created. They won’t remember how organized your bulletin boards are. How straight and neat are the desk rows.

No, they’ll not remember that amazing decor you’ve designed.

But they will remember you.

Your kindness. Your empathy. Your care and concern. They’ll remember that you took the time to listen. That you stopped to ask them how they were. How they really were. They’ll remember the personal stories you tell about your life: your home, your pets, your kids. They’ll remember your laugh. They’ll remember that you sat and talked with them while they ate their lunch.

Two children sitting together

Because at the end of the day, what really matters is YOU. What matters to those kids that sit before you in those little chairs, legs pressed up tight under tables oft too small — what matters to them is you.You are that difference in their lives.

And when I looked at you then with tears in your eyes, emotions rising to the surface, and I told you gently to stop trying so hard — I also reminded you that your own expectations were partly where the stress stemmed. For we who truly care are often far harder on ourselves than our students are willing to be. Because we who truly care are often our own worst enemy. We mentally beat ourselves up for trivial failures. We tell ourselves we’re not enough. We compare ourselves to others. We work ourselves to the bone in the hopes of achieving the perfect lesson plan. The most dynamic activities. The most engaging lecture. The brightest, fanciest furnishings.

Because we want our students to think we’re the very best at what we do and we believe that this status of excellence is achieved merely by doing. But we forget — and often. Excellence is more readily attained by being.

Being available.
Being kind.
Being compassionate.
Being transparent.
Being real.
Being thoughtful.
Being ourselves.

And of all the students I know who have lauded teachers with the laurels of the highest acclaim, those students have said of those teachers that they cared.

You see, kids can see through to the truth of the matter. And while the flashy stuff can entertain them for a while, it’s the steady constance of empathy that keeps them connected to us. It’s the relationships we build with them. It’s the time we invest. It’s all the little ways we stop and show concern. It’s the love we share with them: of learning. Of life. And most importantly, of people.

And while we continually strive for excellence in our profession as these days of fiscal restraint and heavy top-down demands keep coming at us — relentless and quick. We need to stay the course. For ourselves and for our students. Because it’s the human touch that really matters.

It’s you, their teacher, that really matters.

So go back to your class and really take a look. See past the behaviors, the issues and the concerns, pressing as they might be. Look beyond the stack of papers on your desk, the line of emails in your queue. Look further than the classrooms of seasoned teachers down the hall. Look. And you will see that it’s there- right inside you. The ability to make an impact. The chance of a lifetime to make a difference in a child’s life. And you can do this now.

Right where you are, just as you are.

Because all you are right now is all you ever need to be for them today. And who you are tomorrow will depend muchon who and what you decide to be today.

It’s in you. I know it is.

Fondly,

That Other Teacher Down the Hall

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

The Importance of Wait Time

Extending the Silence

Edutopia

Giving students several seconds to think after asking a question—and up to two minutes for some questions—improves their learning.

 

©Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

How long do you think teachers pause, on average, after asking a question?

Several studies from the 1970s on have looked into the effect that the amount of time teachers pause after asking a question has on learners. In visiting many classrooms in the United States and other parts of the world, I’ve found that, with few exceptions, these studies are still accurate. For example, according to work done by Mary Budd Rowe in 1972 and Robert J. Stahl in 1994, pausing for three or more seconds showed a noticeable positive impact on learning. Yet the average length that teachers pause was found to be 0.9 seconds.

Wow.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in many classrooms, and there is a real need to increase the time granted to students to process what they know and to make sense of what they do not understand.

In differentiating instruction, process and learning preference are the keys. Process is how learners make sense of ideas, compose their thinking, and prepare a thoughtful answer. Learning preference, in the case of questions posed to the whole class, refers to how some students prefer to silently process the content, keeping their own counsel (Internal Thinkers), while others prefer to talk or express their thinking with an audience as a sounding board (External Thinkers).

The External Thinkers, those go-to students who can be counted on to talk within the first three seconds, may be shaping their ideas as they talk—they haven’t had sufficient time to fully process but speak out anyway. Meanwhile, the Internal Thinkers have also had insufficient time to process, but don’t feel comfortable responding.

One solution is for teachers to pause for five to 15 seconds before calling on students. The silence for some may feel unbearably long. Yet consider that the fastest male and female 100-meter sprinters in the world run at or under 10 seconds. The world record is under 10 seconds, which goes by quickly. Why not offer a similar amount of time for students to consider their responses to questions that require deep thinking?

STRATEGIES FOR PROVIDING STUDENTS WITH TIME TO THINK

Provide wait time: Give students five to 15 seconds to formulate a response to a question for which they should know the answer. Not every learner processes thinking at the same speed. Quality should be measured in the content of the answer, not the speediness.

I count in my head to 15. Most times, I get responses by 10 to 12 seconds. If you don’t get responses within 15 seconds, you can call on students, instead of asking for volunteers.

Give think time: Give students 20 seconds to two minutes to make sense of questions that require analysis to synthesize concepts into a different construct or frame. You can aid this by encouraging journaling, silent reflection, or partner discussions. Giving such chunks of time honors the work being asked of students. Quick responses probably mean that the question did not stretch the learners’ understanding. After the allotted time, any student can be called on to share their response.

Teach reflection: Coach students on the value and practice of reflection. Educators and students may appear to be uncomfortable with silence, hence the typical one-second pause time. Silence may be equated with nothing happening.

In reality, when students are provided with structured ways to practice thinking and specific directions about what to accomplish within the silent time, they can become more productive during reflection. Think From the Middle is a collection of approaches for students to hone their thinking processes during reflection and collaborative communication.

Teach students how to manage a conversation: It’s a beautiful thing to witness students running thoughtful conversations around topics that combine curriculum and real-world connections. Establish a culture for students to engage in such conversations, and they’ll soon be doing most of the heavy lifting during the lesson.

One powerful example I’ve witnessed in Michigan and Texas uses a guide for student-led conversation prompts called Talk Moves. This list of conversation stems provides students with communication tools for participating in and sustaining discussions. I’ve witnessed their use in science classes using the Next Generation Science Standards, and they’re equally useful in all subject area courses.

Students choose the starter stem that best supports the topic to be discussed. Teachers use the Talk Moves to coach and guide students to different levels of complex thinking by directing them toward different sections of conversation prompts. The intent is for students to own the conversation, which empowers their ability to process concepts for understanding.

PLACING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER OF LEARNING

We want students to become independent learners who can navigate challenging material and situations. Students learn at different paces, which seems less about intelligence and more about the time barriers put in the path of learning. There may be a place for timed responses and answering questions under the pressure of a clock, yet there are no standards that say that students should master concepts in less than one second.

Most people need adequate time to process their thoughts if they are expected to contribute to a conversation. Life is not a 30-minute game show with rapid-fire questions that require low-level answers, plus commercial breaks. Even if it were, one would need time to develop and master the processing skills to compete.

Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It

Edutopia

Our brains are wired to forget, but there are research-backed strategies you can use to make your teaching stick.

Teachers have long known that rote memorization can lead to a superficial grasp of material that is quickly forgotten. But new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget—highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.

In a recent article published in the journal Neuron, neurobiologists Blake Richards and Paul Frankland challenge the predominant view of memory, which holds that forgetting is a process of loss—the gradual washing away of critical information despite our best efforts to retain it. According to Richards and Frankland, the goal of memory is not just to store information accurately but to “optimize decision-making” in chaotic, quickly changing environments. In this model of cognition, forgetting is an evolutionary strategy, a purposeful process that runs in the background of memory, evaluating and discarding information that doesn’t promote the survival of the species.

“From this perspective, forgetting is not necessarily a failure of memory,” explain Richards and Frankland in the study. “Rather, it may represent an investment in a more optimal mnemonic strategy.”

The Forgetting Curve

We often think of memories as books in a library, filed away and accessed when needed. But they’re actually more like spiderwebs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons. When we learn something new—when a teacher delivers a fresh lesson to a student, for example—the material is encoded across these neural networks, converting the experience into a memory.

Forgetting is almost immediately the nemesis of memory, as psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in the 1880s. Ebbinghaus pioneered landmark research in the field of retention and learning, observing what he called the forgetting curve, a measure of how much we forget over time. In his experiments, he discovered that without any reinforcement or connections to prior knowledge, information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.

Screen Shot 2017-10-11 at 10.09.58 PM

So what can be done to preserve the hard work of teaching? After all, evolutionary imperatives—which prune our memories of extraneous information—don’t always neatly align with the requirements of curriculum or the demands of the Information Age. Learning the times tables doesn’t avail when running from lions, in other words, but in the modern world that knowledge has more than proved its mettle.

The Persistence of Memory

The same neural circuitry appears to be involved in forgetting and remembering. If that is properly understood, students and teachers can adopt strategies to reduce memory leaks and reinforce learning.

MIT neuroscientists, led by Richard Cho, explain the mechanisms for synaptic strengthening in a 2015 article, also published in Neuron. When neurons are frequently fired, synaptic connections are strengthened; the opposite is true for neurons that are rarely fired. Known as synaptic plasticity, this explains why some memories persist while others fade away. Repeatedly accessing a stored but fading memory—like a rule of geometry or a crucial historical fact—rekindles the neural network that contains the memory and encodes it more deeply.

Researchers have also learned that not all new memories are created equal. For example, here are two sets of letters to remember:

  1. NPFXOSK
  2. ORANGES

For readers of English, the second set of letters is more memorable—the more connections neurons have to other neurons, the stronger the memory. The seven letters in NPFXOSK appear random and disjointed, while ORANGES benefits from its existing, deeply encoded linguistic context. The word oranges also invokes sensory memory, from the image of an orange to its smell, and perhaps even conjures other memories of oranges in your kitchen or growing on a tree. You remember by layering new memories on the crumbling foundations of older ones.

5 Teacher Strategies

When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.

Which explains why the following learning strategies, all tied to research conducted within the past five years, are so effective:

  1. Peer-to-peer explanations: When students explain what they’ve learned to peers, fading memories are reactivated, strengthened, and consolidated. This strategy not only increases retention but also encourages active learning(Sekeres et al., 2016).
  2. The spacing effect: Instead of covering a topic and then moving on, revisit key ideas throughout the school year. Research shows that students perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. For example, teachers can quickly incorporate a brief review of what was covered several weeks earlier into ongoing lessons, or use homework to re-expose students to previous concepts (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kang, 2016).
  3. Frequent practice tests: Akin to regularly reviewing material, giving frequent practice tests can boost long-term retention and, as a bonus, help protect against stress, which often impairs memory performance. Practice tests can be low stakes and ungraded, such as a quick pop quiz at the start of a lesson or a trivia quiz on Kahoot, a popular online game-based learning platform. Breaking down one large high-stakes test into smaller tests over several months is an effective approach (Adesope, Trevisan, & Sundararajan, 2017; Butler, 2010; Karpicke, 2016).
  4. Interleave concepts: Instead of grouping similar problems together, mix them up. Solving problems involves identifying the correct strategy to use and then executing the strategy. When similar problems are grouped together, students don’t have to think about what strategies to use—they automatically apply the same solution over and over. Interleaving forces students to think on their feet, and encodes learning more deeply (Rohrer, 2012; Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, 2015).
  5. Combine text with images: It’s often easier to remember information that’s been presented in different ways, especially if visual aids can help organize information. For example, pairing a list of countries occupied by German forces during World War II with a map of German military expansion can reinforce that lesson. It’s easier to remember what’s been read and seen, instead of either one alone (Carney & Levin, 2002; Bui & McDaniel, 2015).

So even though forgetting starts as soon as learning happens—as Ebbinghaus’s experiments demonstrate—research shows that there are simple and effective strategies to help make learning stick.

6 Traits of Life-Changing Teachers

Edutopia

We asked our community what makes teachers unforgettable. Here’s what they said.

 

Michael Foley, my high school Shakespeare teacher, was a known tyrant. As underclassmen, my friends and I would walk past his closed door, peer in the narrow vertical window, and see him gesticulating wildly at some hapless senior, blood vessels popping in his forehead.

We were genuinely terrified.

I would eventually discover that Foley wasn’t up there tearing into a student. He was channeling Othello, consumed with jealousy and demonstrating how pettiness can destroy even the most powerful of leaders. Foley did this with all of Shakespeare’s works, pulling out the most impactful bits and pouring his heart into them: impish Puck, Juliet at death’s door, and the gravedigger, woefully regarding Yorick’s skull.

For me, at least, terror became inspiration. I’ve never forgotten him.

In education there’s a lot of talk about standards, curriculum, and assessment—but when we ask adults what they remember about their education, decades after they’ve left school, the answers are always about their best teachers. So what is it about great educators, like the theatrical Michael Foley, that leaves such an indelible impression? If the memory of curriculum and pedagogy fades with time, or fails to register at all, why do some teachers occupy our mental landscape years later? We started getting curious: What are the standout qualities that make some teachers life changers?

To answer this question, we asked our Facebook community directly. Over 700 responses poured in from teachers, parents, and students. When we analyzed the responses, some clear patterns began to emerge, across all age ranges and geography—even subjects.

Life-Changing Teachers Help Their Students Feel Safe

The research is unequivocal: People can’t learn if they’re anxious, frightened, or in trauma. Safety is part of the education starter kit. Unsurprisingly, many of our readers recalled that the best teachers establish a culture of safety and support in their classrooms, whether it’s physical, emotional, or intellectual.

Kristina Gorsuch Modaff describes her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Hilier, as having “a calming presence. She made me feel safe. She made me feel confident.” And when a student’s home life is less certain, school can be a welcome oasis: Jacqueline McDowell fondly remembers that her sixth-grade teacher “was constant and stable—she saw the whole me and was steady when other things in my life were not.”

And there were numerous stories of children with learning disabilities who found a haven and encouragement with a supportive teacher. Amy Rottmann’s high school creative writing teacher, Mrs. Harris, “made the quiet girl in the back with dyslexia realize she had a voice through poetry.”

ray-inset-teacherappreciation

Life-Changing Teachers Possess a Contagious Passion

A passion for education is in the blood of the best teachers—the word passion showed up 45 times in our audience responses—and the best teachers pass it on to students.

Math teacher Dave Bock’s passion for his material was “contagious,” recalled Jennifer Reese. “He delivered engaging lessons that piqued our curiosities, and gave us time to puzzle through solutions in our own ways.” Far away from math class, Lisa Maree Wiles thanked David Sidwell, her music teacher who gave his students “a love for music, a respect for our craft, and the passion to always be the best we could be!” And at least one teacher’s passion was ahead of its time: Jessica Chiado Becirovic remembers her senior year English teacher, Anne Godin, who “staunchly advocated for introducing her classes to multicultural literature before it was seen by many as important and valuable. She was a pioneer with a rebellious spirit.”

Life-Changing Teachers Model Patience

Learning can be slow and messy. Classrooms are filled with students—sometimes more than 30 at a time—who arrive each day with different emotional needs, and learn at wildly different speeds. Remarkably, life-changing teachers find a way to stay calm amid the chaos and play the long game, giving their students the time and support they need to learn.

Judy Barrera remembers Bernie Griff, her third-grade teacher. “He… went to the high school to get me books to read, and was the most patient teacher I have ever had. He gave me so much while I probably gave him a headache!” Some teachers don’t just model patience, but teach it as a life skill: “As a student I was always in a rush to see results and I made lots of mistakes,” said James R. Lamb. “Mr. Ingram taught me to slow down and keep my thinking ahead of the work.”

And long before learning from mistakes was supported by research, high school algebra teacher Susan Gilkey calmly taught her students that it was “OK to make mistakes, learn from them, and try again. She never made kids feel bad about it,” recalls Karen Spencer, a former student. “I hope I make her proud now that I carry on that same thinking with my middle school math students.”

Life-Changing Teachers Know When to Be Tough

If life-changing teachers are patient, they also know when to change gears and get tough. They’re the teachers who challenge us to be better students and better humans—and then up the ante and demand that of us.

For Claire Bush, that someone was Mr. Zimmermann, her 12th-grade English teacher. “I’d finish my work and then goof off. He was the only one who actually called me on my crap and challenged me. Being challenged actually helped me reach my potential. Now I’m an English teacher. I wish I had the chance to thank him.”

Tough teachers don’t just hold students to high standards in the classroom—some kick their students out of the nest. Heather Miles remembers teacher Allan Edwards, who expanded her horizons and always “gave his English students rigorous content and pushed us to see beyond the small town in which we lived. He believed that we could always do more, and taught us to never settle.” And Barbara Minkler praises French teacher Mr. Smith: “He respected us, yet challenged us to reach our potentials. He stretched us with French existential literature. We had to give speeches, put on plays, and individually meet pronunciation and writing goals. He laughed with us, got mad and frustrated with us, and celebrated with us.”

Life-Changing Teachers Believe in Their Students (and Help Them Believe in Themselves)

The power of a teacher’s simple, unequivocal belief in a student was mentioned almost 70 times by respondents. Most of us have had some sort of self-doubt, but many students are crippled by it. Life-changing teachers have the gift of seeing potential in kids when others don’t, and then have the perseverance to help the children find it within themselves.

High school biology teacher Mr. Kyriakos was the one who helped Rachel Poff find her strengths: “He taught me that I was smart. I just needed to believe in myself. He died while I was his student and I cried like he was family. He changed my life.”

Laura Reilly Spencer’s teacher Libby Sciandra Cowan not only helped build her confidence as a student, but inspires her teaching practice to this day. “She believed that I could do great things, and I came to believe that, too. I hope I am half the teacher to my students that she was to me.”

Supportive advocates aren’t always teachers. Counselors and coaches can play this pivotal role as well. Nick Tutolo’s former coach, Jeff Ewing, continues to inspire him nearly 20 years later. “He valued teamwork, hard work, and pride. For a kid who was struggling to figure out where I fit, this went a long way.”

Life-Changing Teachers Love Their Students

Respondents used the word love a whopping 187 times (and that’s not counting an additional 157 heart emojis). Showing love for students—through small but meaningful gestures of kindness—is far and away the most impactful thing life-changing teachers do.

When Michelle Moyle was sick in bed, her fourth-grade teacher, Liz Thomas, arrived at her house with a stack of books to cheer her up—a gesture Michelle remembers some 38 years later. (If home visits are too hard, a positive phone call can do the trick.)

Kayla McNeil’s second-grade teacher, Kathy Nygren, showed her feelings for her students through her playful spirit. “She really loved all us kids. You could tell in the way she taught us, making learning fun by dressing up as a dinosaur or pilgrim. You never knew what was in her bag of tricks.”

Students can also feel a teacher’s love in something as simple as pronouncing their name correctly. Jena’ Lowry’s family moved all the time; she remembers how teachers used to constantly mispronounce her name. She was dreading it yet again on the first day of her 11th-grade English class, but her new teacher, Mrs. Holman, pronounced her name perfectly. “I was speechless,” Jena’ recalls. “She addressed us as if we each meant something to her. She captured our hearts, therefore she had our minds.”

Taking a step back, it appears that the most direct and longest-lasting way to reach a child—to really make a difference in his or her life—is through so-called noncognitive dimensions like passion, patience, rigor, and kindness. And when students are lucky enough to find a life-changing teacher, the benefits last a lifetime. In many cases, those students take up the vocation themselves: 145 of the people who responded to our question had become teachers, passing the gift of education forward to the next generation.

As the Fool in Twelfth Night says, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” Thanks to all who are bringing the light.

THE DIVERSITY DIVIDE

National Association of Elementary School Principals

Recent studies show lack of racial diversity among educators in America.
By Robert Bittner
Principal, January/February 2017

Several recent studies have explored the issue of racial diversity in American education. “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce” (2016), developed by the U.S. Department of Education, uses cold numerical data to underscore the fact that, despite some very modest gains, today’s education workforce is nowhere near as diverse as today’s students. The report cites a handful of programs across the country that are working to correct that deficiency. Yet, like most studies, the focus is on reporting current conditions, with questions of why and what can be done left unanswered.

A study by The Education Trust, “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” (2016), by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, puts a human face on the data, at least where black educators are concerned. (A separate report on Hispanic teachers is forthcoming.) While acknowledging that “building a diverse teacher workforce is complex,” the authors’ interviews with black teachers across the country emphasize the need to do just that and to help point the way to solutions.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 51 percent of all elementary and secondary public school students were white, 16 percent were black, and 24 percent were Hispanic. Among teachers, 82 percent were white, 7 percent were black, and 8 percent were Hispanic. As for principals, 80 percent were white, 10 percent were black, and 7 percent were Hispanic.

The “Racial Diversity” Study Summarizes The Key Findings In Three Main Points:

  1. Racially speaking, elementary- and secondary-school educators in the United States are relatively homogenous and not as racially diverse as their students or the population in general.
  2. Diversity decreases at multiple points across the teacher pipeline through which teachers progress in postsecondary education, teacher preparation programs, and retention. (See infographic on page 17.)
  3. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and alternative routes to teacher certification—including online institutions—tend to enroll a more racially diverse population of teacher candidates than other colleges and universities. For example, the study notes that 16 percent of all black teacher candidates attend an HBCU; however, that number represents a mere 2 percent of all of those preparing to teach.

There are signs of very modest improvement. For example, the survey points out that, although a large racial imbalance between educators and students remains, educator diversity has increased over time. In the 1987-1988 school year, 13 percent of public school teachers were teachers of color compared with 18 percent in 2011-2012, a 5 percent increase over more than 20 years. (During the same period, the proportion of black teachers actually decreased slightly.)

In 2011-2012, the percentages of new black and Hispanic principals were higher than the percentages of experienced black and Hispanic principals, suggesting growth here as well. But, again, gains were modest: 11 percent of black principals were new versus 8 percent with prior experience; similarly, 8 percent of Hispanic principals were new versus 5 percent with prior experience.

Student Perception

Of course, students of any race and background can be taught well by teachers of any race and background. But “The Importance of Minority Teachers,” a study by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, published in the October 2016 issue of Educational Researcher, suggests that teachers of color may have an edge in the classroom—at least in urban schools, the focus of the study. “There is consistent evidence that students have more favorable perceptions of minority teachers than white teachers,” the authors write. “[Hispanic] teachers are more positively perceived by students … Students perceive black teachers more than their white peers to hold students to high academic standards and support their efforts, to help them organize content, and to explain clearly ideas and concepts and provide useful feedback.”

Although Hispanic students didn’t have particularly favorable perceptions of Hispanic teachers, black and Asian students had particularly positive perceptions of black teachers. In addition, “students in the ‘Other’ racial category also report that black teachers are particularly caring.” These perceptions are critical: “Students’ perceptions of teachers are associated with motivation and achievement,” the study notes.

Cherng and Halpin touch briefly on why teachers of color may make such a positive impression in the classroom. They found, among other conclusions, that Hispanic and black teachers simply are “more multi-culturally aware than their white peers,” significant because “higher levels of multicultural awareness are linked to better classroom environments.” As a result, these teachers are uniquely equipped to “help empower youth of all racial/ethnic identities.”

Such findings echo those of Griffin and Tackie, authors of the “Through Our Eyes” report. “Teachers of color bring benefits to classrooms beyond content knowledge and pedagogy,” they report. “As role models, parental figures, and advocates, they can build relationships with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools. And they are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white colleagues, teachers, and students. Acting as ‘warm demanders,’ they more frequently hold high expectations for all students and use connections with students to establish structured classroom discipline. Furthermore, they are more likely to teach in high-need schools that predominantly serve students of color and low-income students.”

Added Pressures

Whether they are driven by personal concern for students and community or a perceived need to go the extra mile simply to prove themselves (as both educators and role models), black teachers, in particular, are likely to experience workday pressures beyond those faced by their white colleagues. In fact, “Through Our Eyes” focus group respondents acknowledged a sense of overarching obligation toward their students that extends far beyond academics, leading them to act as “parent, hairdresser, chauffeur, advocate, counselor, and cheerleader.” And because they are more likely to teach in high-need environments, those added pressures take an even greater toll. Neither the “Racial Diversity” nor the “Through Our Eyes” study pinpoints direct causes for teachers’ decisions to leave the profession. But the fact that black teachers leave at a higher rate than white teachers suggests that there is a personal price to pay for striving to be an educator, role model, spokesperson, disciplinarian, mentor, and parent all rolled into one.

Teacher Diversity Diminishes At Each Point.

Postsecondary Enrollment

All states require a bachelor’s degree as the first step toward teacher certification. Yet even at this early point the demographics have shifted: the racial composition of college graduates is already less diverse than it is among public high school graduates. In 2012, for example, 62 percent of all bachelor’s degree students were white, whereas only 57 percent of those graduating from high school were white.

Enrollment in Education Programs

In 2012, 73 percent of students majoring in education at colleges and universities were white. The study acknowledges that this is not the only path for potential teachers. Teacher preparation programs—which may or may not be provided in association with an established college or university—deliver state-approved curricula that give enrollees an initial teaching credential. Even in teacher preparation programs associated with a college or university, the study found that enrollees were less diverse than the larger student body.

Postsecondary Completion

The “Racial Diversity” study notes that bachelor’s degree completion is lower for black and Hispanic students than it is for white students. For students beginning college in 2008-2009, 42 percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students had completed a bachelor’s degree after six years, compared with 73 percent of white students. Graduates have become more diverse over time, but it is happening very slowly. In 2000, 77 percent were white, 11 percent were black, 8 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were other. By 2012, 73 percent were white, 12 percent were black, and 11 percent were Hispanic.

Entering the Workforce

Among those beginning postsecondary study in 2007-2008, 82 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients certified to teach K-12 by 2012 were white, 4 percent were black, and 9 percent were Hispanic. Citing a 2011 study, “Racial Diversity” suggests that the low numbers of black and Hispanic certifications may reflect licensure exam performance; teachers of color, on average, score lower on licensure tests and pass at lower rates than white colleagues. Nonetheless, the authors note, “the racial composition of new teachers entering the teaching profession is more diverse than the racial composition of all teachers,” hinting that, once teachers of color embark upon a teaching career, retention becomes the greatest challenge.

Teacher Retention

Teacher retention data follows a familiar pattern: there are more white teachers in the same position from one school year to the next than teachers of color. There are many reasons why this is the case, with “Through Our Eyes” data suggesting teacher burnout, lack of administrative support and understanding, unrealistic expectations (from administrators, colleagues, even students), and more. In addition, “Racial Diversity” notes that most black and Hispanic teachers work in urban schools, which tend to be high-stress, high-turnover environments.

The reasons go beyond high-need students. The lack of diversity among teachers and administrators increases the likelihood that teachers of color work alongside white colleagues and bosses. At best, this situation can enrich the work environment for everyone. According to  “Through Our Eyes,” however, “best” is not the typical black teacher’s experience.

“[Black teachers] face racial discrimination and stereotyping that leave them feeling alienated and restricted from participating in the school community, impacting their ability to be effective and ultimately their desire to remain in the profession,” the report says. “Despite their feelings of alienation, they take on extra responsibilities and are often assigned additional duties because of their unique strengths, leaving them burdened and taxed. These same abilities and attributes can often leave black teachers stuck in such rigid positions as the school disciplinarian. These unyielding categorizations often limit their opportunities, advancement, and abilities to hone their craft.”

The report concludes, “The issues that stifle the development and empowerment of black teachers are so deep-seated that it will take honest and critical examinations of school cultures and systemic processes in order for school and district leaders to develop the trust, support, and collegial working environments needed to recruit and retain teachers of color.”

No Easy Fix

Neither study is intended to be prescriptive or to recommend practical steps to move past “deep-seated” issues. “Racial Diversity,” though, highlights three diversity program success stories from across the country. Developed independently, these programs take similar approaches, fostering future educators from within the community.

  1. In Boston Public Schools (BPS), 37 percent of teachers are nonwhite, with black teachers representing 25 percent of new hires in 2015-2016. The district’s commitment to improving diversity is bolstered by the BPS “High School to Teacher” program, which identifies city high-school students with teaching potential, provides mentors and college prep courses, pays half of students’ college tuition, and, if they are successful, funnels them into teaching jobs. Eighty-seven percent of program participants are black or Hispanic or both.
  2. The Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) Initiative, sponsored by Clemson University in South Carolina, is expanding the pool of teachers in the state with local initiatives, drawing from among the state’s underserved and at-risk communities. The program provides tuition assistance, a support system, and help with job placement.
  3. The Teach Tomorrow in Oakland program in Oakland, California, also recruits from the community. It seeks out Oakland Unified School District alumni, community members, middle- and high-school students, paraprofessionals, out-of-industry professionals, and student teachers. It then provides educational and financial support, including training, tutoring, interning opportunities, and classroom resources.

ACCESS THE SOURCES

“The Importance of Minority Teachers: Student Perceptions of Minority Versus White Teachers” by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, Educational Researcher 45, no. 7 (2016)

“The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce,” U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service (2016)

“Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, The Education Trust (2016)

These efforts are creating change, but they remain the exception. According to the “Racial Diversity” study, “All stakeholders must do more to support teachers of color throughout the teacher pipeline. From getting more students of color into postsecondary education, to ensuring teachers of color are placed and supported in their roles in the classroom, improving each step in the process can help capitalize on the diversity of our nation.”

There is no one, decisive moment when the demographics of the classroom suddenly break down and a diverse student body is no longer reflected by a relatively homogenous group of teachers. The fact is, the “Racial Diversity” study finds, “diversity diminishes at each point along the way to becoming a certified teacher.”

Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist.