Education is a noble profession

Earlier, I was scrolling through my twitter feed, and I saw someone tweeted a link to something about how teaching is a noble profession.  I didn’t even click on the link and kept right on scrolling, but something about that title gave me pause, if only for a brief moment.  You see, I have recently left the classroom for an administrative position.  There has been a shift in our administrative team, and I have moved up in the ranks at least for the rest of this year.  So far, I am very happy in this position, and I was lucky enough to have a rather adept student teacher who could take over my class load.  What struck me is that I agree teaching is a noble profession, but I’d go further and say that all aspects of education-not just teaching-are noble.

Google defines noble as “moral” and “righteous.”  That seems a bit pretentious, but as I think about all the educators I know-teachers, administrators, para-educators, etc. it seems fitting.  When I really think about it, I am impressed that so many people are willing to commit themselves to the development of children and young adults knowing that the fruits of our labor will not be seen for a very long time if at all.  Educators of all stripes wake up early and work unending hours all in the name of creating a better future for our students.  As an administrator I no longer responsible for planning lessons or grading papers or creating assessments; instead I work largely with the most disenfranchised students in the school all in hope of allowing education to happen for others and to help get these students on the right track.  My job has shifted significantly; my stressors have shifted significantly; my drive and purpose have stayed the same.

There is little else I could imagine myself doing on a daily basis other than educating, and I think this is true of so many of my colleagues.  There is something deeply impressive about the level of dedication and passion of educators around the world.


“Everyone got it?”

One of the wonderful things about having a student teacher (and there are many wonderful things I’ve noticed so far) is that observing her allows me an opportunity to reflect on my own teaching practices.  One thing that struck me is how often we as teachers say to our students something along the lines of “everyone got it?” after explaining something and moving on.  I know I do this all the time.  This seems like a reasonable question to ask, but it certainly doesn’t elicit an actual response and only allows us to move on.  It does not give us information about who actually gets it and who doesn’t.

Think about it.  When we ask that question, does anyone every actually raise his hand and ask for clarification? pretty rarely.  And when a student does admit to not “getting it,” what is our response?  Usually it is nothing more than a quick re-explanation.  I know I am guilty of this.  Do we really expect teenagers to stop an entire class and admit that they don’t get something?  That seems unlikely based on what we all know about teenage psychology.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should stop asking questions like this.  It indicates a clear transition to students and does allow at least some opportunity for students to ask clarifying questions.  I think that it is important in any lesson to provide moments for students to ask for clarification and this is an easy way to build that into the conversation.  That being said, we need to be careful to ensure that we are asking targeted questions to check student understanding as well.  I know this something I plan on working on for the future.

Eat your Broccoli! It’s good for you!

“I actually learned something from this.  I mean at first I thought it was just busy work, but I think I actually got something out of this.”-Junior student of mine

I bored my students these last couple of days.  I assigned them some reading on the types of writing and the nuts and bolts of good thesis statements, introductions, conclusions, among other things, and then I gave them associated book exercises to go along with the reading.  As someone who is a total nerd, even I found much of this reading less than thrilling.

But here’s the thing: the reading and associated exercises also presented to students some very important facets and nuances to the writing process.  Some of it was simple review; some of it was a simply more focused look on what they’ve learned in years past; and some of it was a new perspective on the writing process.  In short all of it is important and sets the stage for much of what is to come.

One of my students in the class told me what I wrote to start this.  I’m glad he got something out of this; they all should.  Many will, but won’t realize it, and that’s ok.  The point is that what might seem like busy work to many might actually be very valuable whether students realize it or not.  These sort of assignments are what I call “broccoli assignments.”  This is a term that I have been using for years, but I’m not so sure I came up with it myself.  I think I stole it from a book or speaker (Rick Wormeli, perhaps?) somewhere along the way.  Broccoli assignments are assignments that students don’t want to do, but I give them to you any way because they are good for you.  Sometimes the justification for the assignment is because it’s good for you and I told you so.

I think every subject has its own types of broccoli assignments.  Maybe it’s multiplication tables in the rudimentary math years or drilling vocab terms in science or Foreign Language.  Very few people actually like doing these, but at the end of the day, it’s beneficial for students in the long run.  Not every day in every class can be rainbows and unicorns.  Sometimes it’s just broccoli and that’s ok.

Some thoughts on group work

I’ve noticed recently that there has been a bigger emphasis on student group work in classrooms and schools.  Obviously good teachers have made group work part of their pedagogical bag of tricks for years, but suddenly it seems that every where I turn some new educational leader or speaker is touting the need for students to work in group and collaborate.  After all, project based learning (as opposed to just summative projects) requires collaboration.  What I find often happens with educational initiatives, though, is that they good intentions go awry, and I think the current emphasis on group work is missing the point.  As is often the case, group work is being pushed on us as the answer instead of thoughtful reflecting on when group work would be appropriate.

I say this as someone who has made group work a rather regular part of his classroom.  My juniors have been working in groups the last 2 days and my seniors were working in groups today.  The reason they were in groups though is because I wanted them to have thoughtful conversations about the activities at hand.  In other words, it wasn’t grouping for the sake of grouping nor was it grouping simply so I could say there is collaboration.  Instead, the depth of their answers could be enhanced by discussing, in the case of my seniors, the textual evidence in Beowulf, and, in the case of my juniors, their evaluation of various writings.  In each case I weighed the option of asking them to do it individually against them working with others.  This was not a quick decision.

I say this only because I think teachers and leaders need to be thoughtful about when and how they group students.  I have heard many teachers and school leaders suggest grouping and when I ask why, their answer is usually something about “collaboration.”  The real question here, though, is; are they really collaborating (ie grappling with a complex task/question that necessitates multiple perspectives) and does that collaboration provide a deeper, more thorough answer.  I would contend that often times it does not; rather the group dynamic simply allows for quicker answers–not necessarily deeper or better answers.

The other caveat that I always keep in mind about grouping is that group work allows some students to coast.  We’ve all seen groups in which one or two people dominate the group and the rest simply jot down their answers.  That is not collaboration.  I have actually over the years limited my group work for this reason and instituted more partner work as it’s harder to hide in a partnership.

Group work is great and can be meaningful.  I just urge all educators to be thoughtful about it and not to institute group work simply for the sake of using groups.

The Dog and Pony show

I’ve got my classroom observation coming up soon.  We only do them every three years for veteran teachers, so it’s been awhile for me.  I serve on the evaluation committee and have long been interested in teacher evaluation because it is a process fraught with errors and has potential to really harm a school’s culture and its teachers.  That being said, something that comes up all the time in regards to observations is the so-called “dog and pony show.”  There is such concern among school leaders that their evaluations are marred by these dog and pony shows rather than seeing the real thing.

Here’s the thing about these dog and pony shows.  If an observer watches a teacher put on a show and perform some excellent teaching, why is that a problem?  Doesn’t that indicate that the teacher can fulfill the expectations of the observer/leadership team?  If the school is pushing for student centered learning, and the produces a student centered lesson, bravo!  What that really means is that the teachers is capable of doing what is asked.

Of course the argument is that they aren’t doing this all the time.  To which I say, shouldn’t we ask why?  If teachers aren’t dong it all the time, doesn’t that indicate that they teacher does not feel that it is the right thing to do all the time for whatever reason?  Sounds to me like that is a leadership issue.  Instead of trying to subvert the observation system and “catch” teachers teaching improperly, leaders should be working on convincing teachers to do this all the time.  Fear of being caught is not going to make this happen.

If in your observations you are seeing a lot of “dog and pony shows,” maybe you should reconsider how you are selling your product.

Educational Jargon and our students

Something I hear fairly often this year is kids saying things like: “hey, how’d you do on the formative in math?”  Or, “Wait, the summative in Chem is today?” or other such things throwing around educational jargon.  Now, I’m not a huge fan of most jargon to begin with, but there is something about students using it that makes me feel uneasy.

You might say that it is a good thing that kids use these terms because it suggests that students understand the purpose of their assignments.  Perhaps if we tell kids that there is a summative assessment coming up, they will know to take it seriously and understand that this assessment concludes the unit.  Yes, students should understand why we are giving assessments, and we have a responsibility to our students to explain our rationale in most scenarios (I do believe there are some scenarios where this is not the case).  But I do not use jargon with my students to explain this.  I often say to my students something like “tomorrow’s quiz (a term they are all familiar with) will help me to see where you are in this unit”  That express the purpose clearly without clouding the issue.

You see, my problem with the jargon is that it does not clarify much for our students and, quite frankly we are not all using the terms correctly.  The fact that we attempt to classify all types of assignments as either formative or summative in our grade book is really quite silly.  We say that quizzes are formative so instead of saying quiz we tell our students it’s “a formative.”  Except, in talking with teachers in all different departments, that quiz is not used formatively.  No  assessment is formative or summative in its nature.  It is what the teacher does with the information that makes the assessment formative or summative.  What may be formative in one class is summative in another (whether it was meant to be or not).

The result of this is that students have a faulty definition of these terms which change from one class period to the next.  I’ve asked my students what they think those terms mean.  “formatives” are shorter and count for less.  “Summatives” are longer and count for more.  That’s what I was told universally when I asked my class.  If we think that by using these terms were are clarifying things to our students, we are wrong.

Are we giving good feedback?

I think the title presents a clear question.  I’ve been reading a lot of student writing and drafting lately and providing feedback.  Feedback is one of the elements on our evaluation rubric.  We expect feedback from our school leaders regarding our teaching performance.  Feedback is one of those terms we throw around so much that I’m not so sure we are all using the same definition.

One of my favorite places to turn for educational readings is Grant Wiggins’ blog, and one of my favorite posts of his regards feedback:

in this article he begins by asking which of these 4 examples is actual feedback:

  1. “Nice job on the project, Sheshona!”

2. “Next time, Sam, you’ll want to make your thesis clearer to the reader”

3. “The lesson would be more effective, Shana, if your visuals were more polished and supportive of the teaching.”

4. “You taught about ants, Stefan? I LOVE ants!”

And then promptly points out that none of the 4 is feedback.  This has always stood out to me because I think we often believe we are providing feedback when in reality we are not.  Feedback should indicate to a student where he stands in relation to a goal.  While praise and advice are both worthwhile things in their own right, neither of them is true feedback.  I worry that we are so hung up on providing feedback that we don’t actually focus on whether or not we are providing good feedback.  I would bet in most schools, leaders would view advice as feedback, so teachers provide lots of advice.

The moments that always stand out to me regarding feedback are from my public speaking classes.  In Public Speaking students are required to deliver a sales pitch.  shortly thereafter, I always ask the class who was actually convinced to purchase a product based on the sales pitch.  That is the clearest feedback these students can get regarding the effectiveness of their speech.  If the intended goal is to sell something and people are buying it or not buying, you have all sorts of useful information to determine how well you did.  This is much stronger feedback than anything I could write or say about the speech after the fact.

Feedback is, perhaps surprisingly, a tricky piece of the educational lexicon.  Perhaps it is worth analyzing our own feedback to determine if we are giving good feedback or not.