If you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse

On homeostasis and entropy:

Homeostasis is a simple, yet powerful core concept of biology – that all living things strive for balance

The catch is that the mortal enemy of homeostasis is entropy – the principle that all things in the universe tend to disorder and that it requires energy to resist the inevitability of this disorder.

If I don’t work out every day, my physical fitness deteriorates. I have to put energy in every day to maintain (better yet, improve) my fitness level.

I want to be a better teacher. If I don’t direct energy every day into getting better, I’m getting worse.

A challenge to myself:

Teaching is incredibly complex and if we aren’t careful, we can get worse at it – and quickly. So I’m going to use this blog to help me do some work on my craft. I hope my readers will feel compelled to question, criticize and otherwise push my thinking.

To start down this road, I’m pulling together 3 core tenets of my classroom to place emphasis on. The first is inquiry. Since moving to a new school, I’ve been swimming upstream to try to get back to the headwaters of inquiry. The second is student engagement. More student connection to the content, more student thinking, more student doing. The third is assessment; both formative and summative (standards-based grading).

To summarize, 3 goal areas to improve my teaching practice:

  1. Inquiry (more and better)
  2. Increased student engagement
  3. More effective assessment

How will I improve?

Cal Newport has blogged repeatedly and brilliantly on the idea of deliberate practice. Daniel Willingham, in “Why Don’t Students Like School” wrote:

“… if you want to be a better teacher, you cannot be satisfied simply to gain experience as the years pass. You must also practice, and practice means (1) consciously trying to improve, (2) seeking feedback on your teaching, and (3) undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don’t directly contribute to your job.” (Willingham, 2010)

All roads lead to practice, it seems. So that’s where I’m going.

The Plan:

It isn’t complicated: Pick a focus strategy, protocol, method, whatever. Plan it. Do it. Reflect. Revise. Redeem. Repeat. Attack those 3 goals fervently, consistently and intentionally. The plan and reflect parts will happen here – for all to see. If I get really ambitious, I’ll post some video. That idea scares me, so that probably means I should do it!

Setting the bar low

setting the bar low

My new school district is voluntarily using the process outlined by Washington State’s Teacher & Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP). As of the 2013-14 school year, all districts in Washington will use the new evaluation process.

I’m already experiencing its negative effects…

At the beginning of the year, all teachers were required to create Professional Growth Plans (PGPs). We were required by our district to use improving student achievement as one of our two goal areas. The second area had to be aligned with the rest of our professional learning community.

There lies problem #1…

We were not allowed to choose our own goals in this process. On the flipside, we also weren’t even encouraged to select goals that were aligned to a personal deficit or weakness. Shouldn’t a true improvement process be either, a) personal, or b) based on improving actual weaknesses?

Problem #2 relates to the requirement to assess student growth with data…

Of course, I see nothing wrong with assessing student growth. That is part of the basic core of teaching. The real problem lies in the requirement for growth data. We were essentially encouraged to give a pre-assessment as a baseline (one which we know students will score low on, since they haven’t yet encountered the content) and then measure growth from there. 70% of our students must show measurable growth. This shouldn’t be hard to do since we are comparing to a baseline pre-test and they just have to show some growth. This is the first example of setting the bar low that I see in this process.

Of course, administrator observation of the teacher in action is a big part of the evaluation. The flipside of the TPEP is that principals are evaluated as well. I’m not sure exactly but I believe that principals are required to show measurable evidence of teacher improvement under their leadership… and this is where I just busted my shins on the low bar set for me…

Problem #3 is that the requirement for administrators to show measurable teacher growth causes them to set the bar low as well…

Every administrator I have taught under has been hesitant to rate teachers as exemplary during evalutions. More than one has told me flat-out that they don’t rate teachers too highly because they want to leave room to document “growth.” It’s much easier to show growth when you set a low bar in the first place.

Which brings me around to the observation that I received today. My administrator spent several minutes gushing to me about my content knowledge, pedagogical skill, rapport with students, professional leadership, etc. Then he handed me my very underwhelming evaluation. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t score me as “Unsatisfactory” in any areas. However, he also didn’t score me as “Distinguished” in any areas. For most areas I was scored “Proficient” with a few as “Basic.” Yet, he gave no explanation as to why some areas were only “Basic.”

Now, you must understand that I am a perfectionist and would be the first to score myself very harshly. Of course, this perfectionism also makes me obsess over my “score.” My real point here is that all of the descriptive feedback was glowingly positive and yet I had a few areas with a score of “Basic” and none with a score of “Distinguished.”

Of course, I think I know what is really going on here. My evaluator is also being evaluated. Part of his evaluation is based upon the improvement of the teachers reporting to him. Thus, if he sets the bar low, he can then score me higher at the end of the year and show clear “evidence” of improvement. This sounds just like what we were encouraged to do with our student achievement “data.”

Nonetheless, I’m left feeling that this whole process is yet another shell game that has replaced our – admittedly  less descriptive – evaluation process with one that masquerades as being more nuanced and specific but really just creates more hoops to jump through.

Color me underwhelmed…

Where to begin the story?

eat it one bite at a time

When I have time to plan a lesson in detail, I often put a lot of thought into the “story arc” that I am trying to present.

What am I going to at the outset to suck the audience (aka students) into the plot enough that they are willing to work through some slower “character development?”

I often use imagery, video or mysteries to do this with kids – and it has been highly successful.

Now, I’m considering another story that I want to tell.

I’m not sure where the hook is for this story, though.

The story?


The audience?

My science PLC at my new school.

From my experience thus far this year, my colleagues are so far away from teaching through facilitating inquiry that I’m not even sure they have even considered it. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem to be on the radar of our administrators either. Obviously, they are all familiar with the term inquiry – in the sense that it is part of our state science standards. My feeling, though, is that the general perception among the group is that inquiry means doing labs and writing lab reports.

This is a big, complicated story with many twists and turns.

I have worked my way through a lot of learning, thinking, experimentation, failure, reflection and revision over the past 7+ years. How do I bring my colleagues up to speed without burying them?

I have to remember to eat the elephant one bite at a time… but which bite should I take first?

Image used under CC license from the Flickr photostream of schmish

What makes for high quality teacher learning?

Professional development?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about teacher learning (aka professional development).


A few reasons:

  • I’m taking a class at UW Oshkosh this summer about professional development and doing research for this class
  • I was selected as one of ten Success at the Core Fellows and this organization is all about professional development (for teachers, teacher leaders, coaches, administrators, etc.)
  • I’ve experienced some good PD in my career and a lot of bad PD

So, the real question I’m wresting with right now is “what makes for high quality teacher learning?”

This question really has two  parts: what IS high quality teacher learning (what does it look, sound, feel like, etc.) and how can schools facilitate effective learning for teachers (what are the criteria, key aspects, logistics, etc.)?

A few core ideas that I keep circling back to about effective teacher learning are that it must be inquiry-based, differentiated, ongoing, supported, and job-embedded.

So, readers – if there are any of you left – what makes for high quality teacher learning?

Image used under CC license from http://cynicsgirl.blogspot.com

I teach in a “failing” school and you should too

“Welcome to White Swan, where you can teach whatever you want – even if it’s nothing at all.” ~ anonymous former colleague


“If you can teach here, you can teach anywhere” ~ anonymous colleague



I work in a very small rural school located in a high poverty area on an Indian Reservation. Funding is scarce and highly dependent on federal impact aid. Test scores are low and dropout rates are high. We are labeled by our state as a “failing” school.



This is not an easy place to teach, by any means.


And yet, I’ve come to realize how blessed I’ve been to teach at White Swan High School.


Yes, working in a school like mine comes with tremendous challenges; challenges that can become incredible opportunities:
  • I teach 3 different science classes (biology, chemistry, physics) and actually taught 4 preps my first year;
  • Attendance is poor and the dropout rate is high;
  • Many of our students come from squalid, toxic or neglectful home environments;
  • Our students’ scores on state standardized assessments are very low; and,
  • We have had 4 principals and 3 superintendents in my 6 years of teaching at White Swan.
Why should all teachers have the opportunity to work in a school like this one?


I understand the depth and importance of the educational reform debate on a visceral level. I have felt first-hand the impact of federal and state funding cuts to our schools as. I have been through 3 school improvement programs in 6 years. I’ve been down that road and back again! From this I have learned to roll with the punches and to get whatever I can from these programs while still advocating for what I so strongly believe in.


I have worked with students that are homeless, orphaned, in and out of treatment, severely handicapped, and those in the early stages of learning English. From this I have learned to treat students as individuals and to explore deep-seated causes of behavior before cracking the whip. This has taught me to differentiate instruction and discipline.


Our budget is limited and fluctuates wildly from year to year (or even within one school year). From this I have learned to be an experienced grant writer with many successful grant proposals under my belt. I have also learned to make do with what I have and to be creative in my planning.


My students do have other school options (private schools) but these come with a cost – one that many of our families are not willing or able to pay. From this I have learned just how very important public schools are to our nation and to our democracy. 


Many of my students would rather be anywhere but school. From this I have learned the incredible importance of building relationships with students. I have also learned how critical student engagement really is to learning.


Many of my students are jaded and downtrodden as learners. They have been repeatedly slapped in the face by a system that is failing them while simultaneously making them feel like they are stupid. From this I have learned that students need the opportunity to explore their interests and passions.


Many of my students feel completely powerless in their home lives. They have precious few resources and limited choices in their lives. Many are in survival mode every day once they leave school. From this I have learned that my students need and deserve to have a real voice in our classroom. I have learned to afford them genuine choices and control over as many aspects of our classroom as possible (bathroom and water breaks, for example).


My students have limited background knowledge. They haven’t traveled, they haven’t experienced a wide variety of things. My students haven’t been taught about the world around them throughout childhood. From this I have learned that I cannot assume anything when it comes to student background knowledge. I have learned that my experiences and personal connections have little meaning to students. I have learned that I must help to provide as much background knowledge as possible at the beginning of every project or unit of study.


Because our professional development has been, at best, underwhelming, I’ve had to seek out opportunities to learn and grow on my own. I’ve participated in a variety of grant-funded programs through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement). I obtained National Board Certification. I dove into Twitter, blogging, online professional development and more. I’ve read widely of books and magazines dedicated to education. I’ve started to work on my master’s. From this I have learned to chart the course of my own professional development and to continue to be a lifelong learner.


My students are predominately ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically different from myself. 90% of my students are racial minorities. 90% of them qualify for free and reduced lunches. From this I have learned to have high expectations of all students while treating them all with respect. I have also learned to use a wide variety of teaching styles and methods because lecture and drill do not work for my students.


If I were to have worked in a “high quality” school in a suburban area, I would not be half the teacher I am today. I have been forced to critically examine every single instructional decision and pedagogical move I make. I have had to grow, improve, diversify and evolve as a teacher in order to meet the unique challenges I have faced.


Every teacher should be so blessed to have the opportunity to teach in a school like mine. All of our schools and teachers would be better for it.


Photo used under CC license courtesy of Hans Gerwitz

How to be a better teacher today – a long look in the mirror

A new year!

mirror, mirror...

mirror, mirror...

Time for a fresh start. A clean slate. Back to the old drawing board!

2011 (is it just me or does that sound like science fiction?) – I watched Back to the Future series with my family over Winter Break. I love that the “future” in Back the the Future II is 2015. We’re almost there and I’m still waiting for my flying car!

Anyway, the start of a new year is as good a time as any to take a long look in the mirror and examine every aspect of your practice.  Some aspects of teaching that can benefit from a critical inspection:

  • Grading & assessment
  • Assignments & lessons
  • Pedagogy
  • Homework
  • Late work
  • Classroom management/ discipline
  • Standards & main topics

When you do this, set aside all of your assumptions; thumb your nose at the status quo. We’re all creatures of habit and it’s usually easier to keep doing what you’ve been doing than to reinvent the wheel.  And yet, that is sometimes EXACTLY what needs to happen.

Look at each practice one by one and ask yourself these questions:

  • What do I do?
  • Why do I do it this way?
  • How well is it working? (Ask your students too)
  • What are other ways it could be done?
  • What are barriers to change?
  • How can I learn more?
  • What criteria should help me decide?
  • What are my next steps?

I think you’ll unearth aspects of your teaching that exist only because they were the best solutions you had as a rookie (or even pre-service) teacher!.

That’s not a good thing…

image used under cc license from the flickr stream of lovestruck.


What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?

I have a confession to make.

I’m a learning junkie.

There – I said it!

Yesterday was the first day of my Winter Break. I’ve been mildly sick all of the last week of school and refusing to stay home because I didn’t want to call in sick right before break. I have a 4 week old newborn at home. I really need a break this year!

So what did I do yesterday?

  • Wrote a proposal for a Washington STEM Entrepenurial Award (partly done with one hand while holding a sleeping infant)
  • Wrote a proposal to lead a Professional Learning Community study of formative assessment, feedback and summative assessment with my colleagues in January
  • Read 2 chapters of Making Learning Whole (mostly while riding my exercise bike)
  • Caught up on reading a few of my favorite blogs by my fellow educators

Of course, I also had plenty of time to read to the kids, hold the baby, take a nap, and watch A Christmas Story with the whole family.  Don’t worry – my family is not getting neglected!

I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t learn enough. I can’t improve my practice as an educator fast enough. The longer I teach, the more urgency I teach with.

The desire to become the best teacher I can be drives my voracious appetite for learning. I have a really hard time understanding teachers who don’t engage in any self-directed professional learning. It’s actually become a real pet peeve of mine to hear teachers say things like, “I don’t have time to READ!” Then they launch into a long-winded conversation about whatever crappy T.V. show they watched the night before.

How do you have time to NOT read?

How can you NOT care to improve as an educator?

I’m going to enjoy the heck out of my vacation. I’m also going to come back from this break a better educator than I was before it.

What can you do today to make yourself a better teacher?