Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Power of School Culture for New Teachers

Throughout the month of August, shiny brand new teachers have been preparing their classrooms, reviewing curriculum, planning welcome activities, and tossing and turning the night before that big day. (OK, let's be honest, veteran teachers are doing these things too. But first year teachers' hearts are beating a little faster.) Everyone wants these newbies to be successful: the administrators and colleagues who were on their hiring committees, the students who enter their classrooms, the parents of those young learners, and all of us who want them to breathe new life into our education system.

Where We Are

Sadly, recent research shows that new teacher retention is poor. Nashville, Tennessee loses half of its new teachers within 3 to 5 years. Even worse, in Oakland, California schools 70% of new teachers leave within 5 years.

The top recommendation for retaining these teachers is to build meaningful and sustainable mentorships. Most schools and districts have mentor programs in place the formalize the feedback and support loop between new and veteran teachers. These programs can be effective, but perhaps the greatest indicator for their success is how the mentors feel about their profession and their school.

The Data on New Teacher Burnout

A new study shows that the climate of a school and burnout level of veteran teachers in school is perhaps the greatest factor in predicting the longevity of early career teachers (ECTs). The Infectious Disease Advisor reports:

Jihyun Kim, from Michigan State University in East Lansing, and colleagues examined factors associated with burnout levels of 171 ECTs in 10 school districts in Michigan and Indiana. The authors assessed the impact of burnout levels of ECTs' mentors and close colleagues in a social network influence model. 
The researchers found that ECTs' burnout levels correlated significantly with the social network exposure term, indicating that ECTs' with mentors and colleagues with higher burnout levels were more likely to be burned out at a second time point.

Those of us who are veteran educators should pause here. We make up the in-person social network of early career teachers. The words we use to describe our profession, our body language and facial expressions in the hallways and copy rooms, and the tone of our farewells on Friday afternoons have a deep impact on the newest colleagues in our schools. We teachers and administrators have the power to shape school culture, and therefore shape the chances of success of our new colleagues.



Who We Are

The teachers and administrators who work together to serve students in a school are all leaders. Students look to them as learning leaders. Parents look to them as academic leaders. And, of course, early career teachers look to them as leaders of the profession. In Learning Transformed, a new book from ASCD by authors Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger call upon education leaders, whether they work at the classroom, school, or district level, to be LBAs. Here's the rub:

LBT = leader by title
Murray and Sheninger write, "LBTs often exhibit... defining characteristics such as egos, power trips, ... ruling by fear, and insecurity when their ideas are challenged in the open."

LBA = leader by action
According to the authors, LBAs are those who have "taken action to initiate meaningful change in their classrooms or schools. These leaders don't just talk the talk; they also walk the walk."

Murray and Sheninger go on to write:
In our opinion, the best leaders have one thing in common: they do, as opposed to just talk. Leadership is about action, not position of chatter. Some of the best leaders we have seen during our years in education have never held any sort of administrative title. (p. 34)

The remainder of the book is a treasure trove of research strategies to practice the mindset needed to be a leader for positive progress in education. The authors go on to address many opportunities that can help new and veteran educators alike: creating intentional learning experiences, designing learning spaces, providing personalized professional learning, and collaborating with colleagues and community members. As we embark on this school year, think about who you are as an educator. It important to plan for impact we have on our students, but also the impact we have on the other learners in our school: our newest teacher colleagues. Learning Transformed is a key resource toward this honorable goal.

As the school year begins and you welcome new educators into your school, remember that what you do and the disposition with which you do is a form of leadership and can have a long term impact on their success. Even if the school year has been rolling for a few weeks, take time to reflect on how much energy you had during those early days. Is it sustainable? How can you build on it instead of letting it wane?

Your contribution to school culture will shape the experience of your new colleagues. Help transform learning and teaching for them by being a force for good each day. When teachers feel supported and empowered, so do their students. At the end of the day, we are all there because of the students.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Generations Will Not Be Destroyed by Smartphones


This article from the Atlantic appeared multiple times in my Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter feeds last week. The author is a professor of psychology and experienced researcher with a focus on generational differences. Her title claims that smartphones are destroying the post-Millennial generation. This paragraph is perhaps the clincher:
"Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy."
My concern is that the author, although certainly qualified to utilize the mental health data given her background and experience, is connecting her conclusions to the phones themselves. Her focus is misplaced. She should be more focused on people's behaviors when using their phones, not the phones themselves.

A couple of days later, a response to the Atlantic article appeared on JSTOR Daily. The author is also a published researcher and she encourages readers to shift the focus of their blame away from phones. She claims GenXers, the parents of those post-Millennials, are really the generation facing destruction. Her overall message is captured here:
"...you know what smartphones and social media are really great at? Tuning out your children.
I know, we all really enjoy reading articles about how it’s those evil smartphones that are destroying our children’s brains and souls. It lets us justify locking their devices up with parental monitoring tools, or cutting off their mobile plan when they fail to make the grade.
Fellow parents, it’s time for us to consider another possible explanation for why our kids are increasingly disengaged. It’s because we’ve disengaged ourselves; we’re too busy looking down at our screens to look up at our kids."
At least this author is focusing on behaviors. She is calling out parents to be models of healthy technology use before pointing fingers at their children. I do agree with that concept, but I'm still concerned about the blame game.

What do educators think?

When educators read articles like these two is it easy for us to think, "If my students are hooked on their phones, it isn't my fault. The data shows that the phones themselves are the problem." Or, if we are more likely to believe the second article, educators might think, "If my students are hooked on their phones, it isn't my fault. Their parents are the real problem." The purpose of this post is to reject those two mindsets emphatically and remind educators of what they already know:

Placing blame does not solve problems. Taking action does. 

And, what's more, simply banning students from accessing smartphones and social media at school is not going to work. Actually, according to a new study from the University of Pheonix and Harris Polls, educators' social media use is clearly trending up.
  • 41% of teachers use social media at school, up from 32 percent in 2016.
  • 28% of teachers don't use social media in the classroom, but would like to.
This data seems to show that more educators are recognizing at least the potential value of social media use as part of their work in education. My hope is that we also recognize that our learners will not develop healthy social and technological habits with their devices unless we intentionally teach them. Just as we work hard to teach our students skills like keeping notes organized, managing their time, and how to write a lab report, we need to teach them how to leverage social media to help them learn and share in positive and productive ways. The children we serve will not learn these skills unless we recognize our duty to model them and teach them.

How will educators step up?

  1. It starts with cultural norms – not disciplinary rules – that all community-members agree to be held to. Yes, even adults. At St. John's Prep we have developed these and are rolling them out intentionally this year. Our infographic was even designed by a student and is posted in every classroom all over campus. 
  2. Bring parents into the conversation. Share the data on parent screen use with them and ask them to hold themselves accountable as well. Provide them with practical tips and resources, like these we curated for the parents in our community at St. John's Prep. Offer consistent opportunities for them to come together and talk about successes and struggles as they raise, and you educate, their children in this brave new world.
  3. Take tech risks with your students! When they are excited about a new tool or a new way to share their learning using their smartphones, embrace those ideas. Be sure to help them learn about privacy and security when trying a new app or program, but as long as it is safe students should be able to get creative even using tools you are not familiar with.
We will not get caught up in the blame game.
We will not succumb to a fatalist attitude that we are already on an inevitable destructive path. 
We will not make the mistake of oversimplifying the solution and imposing unrealistic bans.
I'm confident that educators will step up, be the voice of reason, and get to work making the meaningful changes that we need so that all generations develop healthy proactive habits.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Home School Communication: It's Not About Progress Reports


Each afternoon during the last school year, my daughter's 2nd grade teacher sent a few cell phone photos and a 2-3 sentence explanation of what they showed. It probably took her no more than 5 minutes to snap the shots of her students, type up the words, and hit send. About once per week I would dash off a few sentences in response thanking her for the photos or letting her know what my daughter had said about school that day. These seemingly mundane quick interactions helped me build an everyday relationship with my child's teacher. The benefits of building that relationship went far beyond a teacher fulfilling her contractual obligations to communicate student progress. There are 5 specific scenarios that come to mind in which her quick photos and messages created a lasting benefit for my daughter and for my husband and I as her parents:

  1. It made it easier and more natural for me too reach out to her one night early in the year when my daughter left her homework at school. Together we were able to come up with an alternative assignment that my daughter enjoyed and also helped her practice the skills she was working on.
  2. That everyday relationship made me think to ask her about her favorite online educational games so that I could direct my daughter's at home screen time toward positive activities.
  3. At one point in the school year, a new class seating assignment created a little social conflict for my daughter. I helped her brainstorm potential solutions. She went to school the next morning ready to advocate for herself, but I also know I could send her teacher a brief email to keep an eye out as my daughter navigated this tough situation.
  4. When we ran into her and her family in town, we were able to talk effortlessly about the exciting things my daughter was learning and doing in school. These conversations didn't turn into awkward impromptu parent-teacher conferences. They were more like pleasant small talk.
  5. Speaking of those parent-teacher conferences, I actually had a tough time scheduling one this year due to our busy schedules. Because of all of our communications throughout the year, though, I could just up the phone or email my daughter's teacher anytime I had a question. No need for a special conference to touch base.
I hope my daughter's 3rd grade teacher takes a few moments each day to use the devices at her fingertips to help build a relationship, too. It is likely that throughout her elementary education experience I will get that kind of communication. But will it continue in the upper grades?

It isn't about nightly homework checks

There is a common practice to hold back on daily updates to parents as learners mature. Usually, the philosophy behind this shift is that as children get older they should take more responsibility for their own learning. But I'm not talk about daily communications that include each night's homework assignments or regularly scheduled progress reports. Rather, as a parent I want to know what my daughters have tried, learned, read, and discussed each day. That way, when they get home we can share and discuss in a way that is more meaningful than, "How was school today?"

Adolescents and teens can be help accountable for their school work without sacrificing teacher-parent communication. The more parents know about their child's day, the more likely they are to be positive proactive forces in their child's education. Every teacher needs as many parent allies as possible, and every parent wants their child to have a healthy and strong relationship with her teacher.

How educators can make it happen

This year, I'm happy to be a part of the #Pledge100 campaign to reach every parent during the 2017-2018 school year. Much of this post has been about my experience as a parent, but as an educator I also saw great benefits when I stayed in constant communication with my students' parents. As a middle school teacher, I kept up a class website where parents could find the class calendar and all materials. Additionally, I sent home personal emails to 3-4 students' families each afternoon letting them know about how their recent experiences, successes, and struggles in my classroom.


These emails took me no more than 15 minutes to write each afternoon. The benefits were two-fold:
  1. Parents knew that I thought about their child as a unique individual who deserved an education that fit him best.
  2. My end-of-day daily reflections helped me think more carefully about how I spoke to and served every student every day. I believe I grew into a better teacher because of this practice.
As a high school teacher, I kept up a similar class website, but also sent home weekly detailed emails with links to examples of student work. These links featured student videos, podcasts, and even ebooks authored by entire classes. Parents enjoyed the celebration of their teenager's learning and I found that the rapid-fire 5-minute parent-teacher conferences we held once a year were much more relaxed.


Start this summer

We even got a message late last week - in the dog days of summer - from my daughter's teacher reminding her former 2nd graders to read. I was so impressed. I showed it to my daughter and she said, "I can't wait to go back to school so I can visit Ms. W and Ms. R. They will be so happy to see me and I can tell them about summer camp!"

If you haven't communicated with your former students yet this summer, don't underestimate how powerful and positive it can be for them to hear from you. The fact that you thought of them during your vacation time will mean to world to them.

And, of course, reach out to your incoming students as soon as possible. Hold off on homework policies and class expectations. Share a little about what you love about being a teacher and how you used some of your summer to get ready for them. Reassure them that you are excited to meet them and get to know them. Perhaps you could even encourage them to write back to you.