Thursday, June 15, 2017

Michigan Students are Depending on Educators to Lead

Teachers & Administrators need to Join Forces and Act Decisively to Tackle Systemic Challenges in our Schools

Educators are uniquely positioned to lead. We impact more lives than anyone outside of students’ homes, and in communities all over Michigan we have immense social capital.

That capital doesn’t do much good, however, if we fail to cash it in by advocating for fundamental changes within our profession. Teachers, school leaders and boards of education throughout Michigan must turn their social capital into political capital and fundamentally change our approach to teaching and learning.

The Michigan Department of Education (MDE), led by Superintendent Brian Whiston, has set out on an ambitious goal to make Michigan a Top Ten state for education within ten years. Considering that Michigan ranked 41st in fourth-grade reading in 2015 and 22% of of our students failed to graduate on time, it will take bold action to solve our challenges. In a state where more than 70% of eighth-graders aren't proficient in math, Michigan educators have an awesome opportunity to change the future of our state by demanding drastic changes to the way we approach education. (Detroit Free Press - June 22, 2106)

For our students to realize their potential, educators spanning the ranks of the profession need to responsibly address the problems that have been holding us back for the past two decades. We need to devote our collective energy to improving our education system and spend less time assigning blame. The way we do K-12 education in this state needs an overhaul, and recognizing the current landscape requires honesty about our failures. We need to stop paying lip service to collaboration, long-range planning and the value of teamwork. We can start by dedicating our resources to four areas where we struggle most.

Consistent Collaboration 

The finest school districts in Michigan have mastered collaboration among staff, students and the community. Unfortunately, these educational hubs of innovative collaboration are the exception not the norm. In some of our poorest schools collaboration occurs out of desperation to make up for a lack of resources, but that’s not enough. Teachers want to plan and work in effective teams, and unfortunately we lack content-driven, expert-led collaboration with peers. (Education Resource Strategies, April 2017).

It is rare for school administrators to have both the resources and expertise to work alongside teachers collaboratively. Teachers would embrace collaborative planning time, peer accountability and teacher observations with constructive feedback yet we find ourselves mired in school business driven by a compliance mindset.  

Our energy is devoted to meeting requirements for teacher evaluations designed to score us so we can be ranked and sorted rather than helping us improve instructional delivery. There is little time to work with other professionals on the craft of teaching or to develop unit plans for learning that transcend a traditional classroom setting. In Michigan schools, there is a premium placed on things like obtaining, “State Continuing Education Clock Hours” or attending required professional development sessions that do not involve clear goals. Far too often teachers struggle to connect mandated professional development  to student learning.

Every profession has its share of compliance issues, but from their inception schools were not designed with change and collaboration in mind. In tight financial times, there does not seem to be much interest in investing in leadership training and collaborative strategies that will improve the culture of learning. Schools are brimming with talented professionals whose ideas live in isolation. Veteran teachers lose interest working in small confined spaces and beginning teachers struggle to get their footing when there is little in place to unify teachers. As school systems try to catch up with a changing economy, dedicated professionals are handcuffed by old thinking.

Clear Targets

Most veteran teachers will admit they feel the education policies coming down from Lansing are the result of political battles that have little to do with student outcomes. School leaders react to the legislation accordingly and priorities shift without much explanation. Teachers, administrators and school boards are on the same team, yet we struggle to pull together and advocate for sensible legislation.

Teachers, administrators and school boards are on the same team, yet we struggle to pull together and advocate for sensible legislation.

There are more than 100 games that can be 
played on a standard pool table. Wouldn't 
you want to know which game you are 
playing before starting the game? 
At the building level, ideas that actually hold important meaning become “buzzword victims” every school year. Our acronyms have a nine-month shelf life and become fodder for staff lounge laughter. One year it was HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills), then Differentiated Learning, and finally RTI (Response to Intervention) the next year. Necessary concepts and stated goals are fleeting because we fail to examine how these concepts might fit within a bigger framework. Simply put, that bigger framework just does not exist in many Michigan school districts.

It is difficult to find meaning in ideas that stand alone. Integrating our “buzzwords” into relevant practice is not a realistic target. We lack the ability in education to measure meaningful progress in relation to our new buzzwords and, quite frankly, I am not sure we’re all that interested. Educators lack confidence in a law-making process that usually does not include a seat at the table for teachers. A clear vision for education is hampered by all the uncertainty in Lansing.

Ironically, for the last couple of years Learning Targets have been a popular point of emphasis in our instructional delivery across the state - just another moving target to fit in with our other buzz words and a confusing teacher evaluation process. I am, however, encouraged by the MDE Top Ten in Ten campaign because there are clear targets. Now we must find the political will to support the MDE plan in order to achieve the ambitious goals outlined.

Short-term Thinking

Educators have grown so used to survival mode that our default setting is often indifference when it comes to long-range goals. Think about it: Education is the subject of incredible public scrutiny and divisive political battles. Educators are operating in an environment where pay freezes, health care and pension uncertainty, and public criticism are the norm. Having little sense of control takes a toll.

At the local level, many school buildings operate with a weekly or day-by-day survival goal. Even in high performing schools, when plans from the top roll down to teachers they often die on the vine. Great ideas can struggle to gain traction if they require long-term planning or too much risk. Teachers passively fill up their inboxes with a new “something” confident it will drift away soon enough. It pains me to admit this, but it’s the truth.

It goes something like this: An educator, sitting in a staff meeting, nods in agreement about mapping out a new mission statement for the school about developing reflective, caring and principled learners for a global society. Meanwhile the copy machines are down, two students were added to your crowded classroom and you’re wondering if the rumors about another round of layoffs are true.  

So, we function, because that is what we have learned to do best. Some school leaders are more supportive than others, but uncertainty has stunted the educational leadership capacity in Michigan. For many reasons, educators are deeply concerned about the future of our profession. Building leaders cannot adapt to new accountability measures and best teaching practices within a system burdened by decades of institutional norms. We are tired, and sometimes we’re infected with a short-term mindset presented too often as cynicism.

Educators must stamp out cynicism so we can make the kind of progress our students deserve. A short-term mindset  is one of the most difficult challenges facing our profession, because it has been developed as a coping mechanism - a survival tool of sorts. The problem is that short-term thinking robs teachers and students of creativity, innovation and the ability to build trust. School leaders and teachers who fail to collaborate on long-range goals eventually suck the life out of learning for everyone involved.  

A short-term mindset is one of the most difficult challenges facing our profession, because it has been developed as a coping mechanism - a survival tool of sorts.

Mentorship and Feedback 

The absence of mentorship and feedback is the unfortunate result of the three previous failures. Teachers in Michigan are adapting to a teacher evaluation process that is designed to provide continuous feedback, but instead sorts and ranks teachers. In addition, many schools did away with mentorship programs after the economy tanked in the mid-2000’s. As a result of both of these developments, outdated instructional methods persist and evidence-based teaching practices lag.

This energy conservation report is the extent of feed-
back a teacher might receive in some Michigan schools.
Feedback aimed at supporting best teaching practices has a ripple effect. As I struggled through my first year of teaching, the assistant principal took the time to mentor me and help me develop meaningful units of instruction. We had a teacher induction program to support new hires, so our successes were shared. These experiences led to meaningful conversations and contributed to better classroom instruction. Fast forward more than a decade and I have witnessed the responsibilities of the assistant principal role double and support for teachers cut in half.  

Some Michigan school districts invest in instructional coaching and promote feedback among staff and students. We need to step up our game in Michigan when it comes to promoting, funding and adopting best practices state-wide.

Students are left behind when we fail to realize the impact school leaders and master teachers can have as mentors. Most administrators were classroom teachers and most would prefer to devote their energy to mentorship. Teachers thrive in school cultures where collaboration, risk-taking and new ideas are celebrated. Continuous feedback is the lynchpin for improving instruction. We know leadership quality and teacher performance drive student learning, and it is our responsibility to urge our schools to do more on both fronts.

We know leadership quality and teacher performance drive student learning, and it is our responsibility to urge our schools to do more on both fronts.

The worst part may be that no one is paying much attention to the cost of our indifference as school employees. Improving our teacher evaluation system is a great opportunity for educators to collaborate, and that opportunity demands we set aside old labor disputes and animosity. Inaction hurts morale and hinders student learning.

Teachers are rarely invited to evaluate school leaders and provide feedback regarding employee engagement. One of the best ways to ensure we are engaging students is to make sure the staff is professionally engaged and eager to learn. We should be working together, but we can’t do that if we allow frustration about outside factors to stall progress.  

Cowering in fear before these obstacles is cheating our children and diminishes our profession. Michigan communities need teachers and school administrators to consolidate our political will and deliver on our commitment to Michigan students. Michigan needs bold leaders, energized teachers and a unified voice advocating for students. Unless that happens, the MDE Top Ten in Ten plan will serve as the evidence of our collective failure and inaction in the face of adversity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR of CIVICS ENGAGED: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and high school journalism teacher since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. Gregory is an America Achieves Lead Fellow and he has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning. You can follow him on Twitter @CivicsEngaged.

DISCLAIMER: This blog includes ideas and topics serving as a composite of issues from various sources. The issues raised in this blog are not specifically or solely motivated by the policies within the author's own school district.

No comments:

Post a Comment