Thursday, October 25, 2012

What Really Matters...You Really Matter!

Dear PEBC Colleagues,
As I read this article, I thought of our recent honest conversations when you have asked me “What more can we do?” or “What are we doing wrong?”  When we work so earnestly and so diligently but don’t gain the student achievement results we would expect and hoped for, it is natural for us to ask these questions.  It is easy for us to doubt ourselves.  It is understandable that we may even lose hope. 
I want you to know that your efforts are making a difference in your students’ lives right now.  To further our impact,  together, we are analyzing the cause data we need to put under our PD microscope – We are determining which of our adult actions are ministering best to our students’ specific strengths, needs, and passions and we are learning new instructional strategies to make mid-course adjustments when needed, too.  We are also tenaciously studying our students’ data to know them deeply and, thus, we are increasingly able to respond to our students’ growth and problem solve their tangles.   
Because none of us tall or small is ever done getting better, we are growing.  We are learning alongside of our students.  We are learning from our students as Ron Ritchhart teaches us in Intellectual Character.  We are learning with and from each other - I know that my teaching is richer and my thinking is bigger because of you!
To illustrate connections to your dedicated work and our ongoing professional studies, I wrote you a note following each of Thompson and Sharmberger’s message about “What Sets Strong Teachers Apart” (in bolded blue). You will see your very efforts echoed in this article.  And you will see the very goals of our collaborations championed in this piece, too.  I also embedded another article about trust to honor your giving spirits and generous partnership with me as community of colleague-learners. 
I am continuously inspired by you and honored to work with you this year.  I look forward to our upcoming collaborations.  As always, any time you want to talk, plan, or process your work together, I am here for you in between my site visits.  Just a phone call or e-mail away!
Warmest thanks and respect,

What Really Matters
Six Characteristics of Outstanding Teachers in Challenging Schools      

Gail L. Thompson and Cynthia Thrasher Shamberger (2012), ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 2
Countless homeless, foster, low-income, and abused students are enrolled in K–12 schools nationwide. When students with special needs, English language learners (ELLs), and students who've been suspended from school are added in, it's apparent that being a teacher isn't easy, especially now when teachers are expected to raise test scores at all costs. In fact, today teacher morale—particularly in high-needs schools—is at a 20-year low (MetLife, 2012). Nevertheless, it's still possible for teachers to work effectively with "challenging" students (Thompson, 2010). During my travels throughout the United States to conduct professional development workshops, I've been thrilled to meet outstanding teachers who've earned this reputation.

For example, in Mobile, Ala., I met Ms. Samuels, who teaches at a predominantly black, low-income elementary school. When introducing me to Ms. Samuels, the principal announced, "Ms. Samuels can teach a tree to read!" Later, during lunch at a restaurant, a parent rushed over and bragged that, thanks to Ms. Samuels, her son was now college-bound.

In Fayetteville, N.C., I was mesmerized watching Ms. McKoy teach a math lesson in a high-needs school. As she modeled on the whiteboard how to solve a math problem, her class of black 3rd graders listened intently. Then, when she asked them to solve additional problems independently on their mini-whiteboards, the children eagerly complied. I was especially impressed at how excited the six boys who were sitting in front of the class were as they waved their hands in the air, hoping to share their answers with their classmates.

Several months later, I was able to work directly with students in a low-income, predominantly black 6th grade school in North Carolina.  In addition to giving two motivational speeches on "How You Can Have a Great Future," I sponsored a related essay contest for which students could earn extra credit.

While measuring the essays against the rubric I'd created, I noticed that many contestants mentioned two teachers—Mrs. Gause, a language arts teacher, and Mr. Shiver, a math teacher—as reasons why they knew they'd have a great future. They cited several examples of how these teachers had helped them.

What Sets Strong Teachers Apart

Regardless of their backgrounds, these teachers and other great teachers in challenging schools whom I've read about—including Esme Codell (2009), Salome Thomas-El (2003), Erin Gruell (1999), and celebrated author and former teacher Frank McCourt (2006)—all have a lot in common.

1. They have the correct mind-set.

They believe their students can learn; have high expectations; are willing to give extra help; find ways to make schoolwork interesting, relevant, and comprehensible; and use diverse instructional strategies (Codell, 2009). They believe it's their job to provide students with high-quality instruction (Kafele, 2009).

They live with Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset as the lens for envisioning and guiding their work. You demonstrate this spirit every day! LB

2. They have good classroom-management skills.

At the beginning of the school year, they make their expectations clear. Instead of pushing students into the "prison pipeline," they enforce rules fairly, don't show favoritism, don't overreact to minor situations, and don't allow any student to prevent others from learning (Thompson, 2010). Ms. Samuels had such strong classroom-management skills that less effective teachers often sent their "problematic" students to her.

And we know from incredible teacher-authors such as Stevi Quate (PEBC colleague and author of Clockwatchers) and her writing partner John McDermott; Carol Wilcox (Denver Public Schools; Samantha Bennett (PEBC colleague and author of The Workshop Book) Ron Ferguson (Harvard); Ron Ritchhart (Harvard’s Project Zero); Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Tammy Heflebower (The Highly Engaged Classrooms); and Bonnie Campbell Hill and Carrie Ekey (The Next Step Guide to Enriching Classroom Environments), engaging students in authentic and relevant learning as you do with your Thinking Strategy instruction and Workshop Model structures promotes a community of learners – a key hallmark of good classroom management. LB

3. They create a classroom environment that is based on mutual respect and make their classrooms a safe learning community so that students can concentrate on schoolwork.

Ms. McKoy's students admired her so much that they wanted to behave in her classroom.  Both her principal and other teachers told me that she has a special gift for nurturing students, especially black boys. "I love all of my students," Ms. McKoy told me, "but there's just something special about the boys. I want to reach them to the same extent that the teacher who went out of her way to help me when I was a child did."

You have shared so many stories with me about your students.  What you know about them from your interactions with the kids in your classrooms and beyond your classrooms reflects your respect for students.  You continuously nurture relationships with your students.  You listen to your students in conferences.  In fact, you remodeled your classroom environments to make the fellowship of conferences, small group collaborations, and focus/crafting lessons rituals of your caring teaching. LB 
4. They strive to form positive relationships with their students by making it clear that they have students' best interests at heart.

Gruell (1999) and McCourt (2006) convinced students that developing good writing skills would benefit them. Codell (2009) began and ended each day with activities that showed students she cared about their overall welfare.

While diagnosing students’ needs and problem solving their struggles, you name student strengths first.  You focus your teaching on what will move students to their most urgent learning goals.  You engage students in reflection so that they can better understand – and remember – what they have learned and what they can now do.  LB

5. They use assessment data to improve their teaching.

For example, after doing a beginning-of the-school-year assessment, Codell (2009) realized that students lacked basic decoding skills, so she created phonics-based lessons. Because of her willingness to give students what they needed, her students' standardized test scores improved dramatically.

While I know you have earnest goals for deepening your efforts, you PLC/Data Team efforts are laser focused on student data so that you are pinpointing specific  

6. They are realistic.

They understand that even when they do their best, some students will misbehave; reject their efforts to form positive relationships; and complain of boredom and act apathetic, no matter how interesting, comprehensible, and relevant they try to make the curriculum. Nonetheless, effective teachers continue to focus on what they can do, instead of on what they can't control, and they keep doing their very best (Thompson, 2010).

I know we have talked about this often and you think about this often.  For me, a chief way that I have been able to stay in education for over 34 years now is to focus on 7:30 – 3:30.  In other words, I only have control over what happens when students are with me…but that is a lot!  As an elementary teacher, I had a full day for 180 days and as a secondary teacher I had at least one period everyday for 180 days to offer students unconditional love, a safe and inviting community of learners, and responsive instruction.  Some or even many of our students face hard and sometimes horrific challenges.  Some have been read to but many have not.  Some students have learned about numbers, the history of July 4th, how to make the color green, what causes plants to grow, and the give and take of dinner time conversations before and during the time they are with us.  Some students come into our schools with fewer such experiences.  Whatever the schema blessings and challenges are, we never give up on our students.  Yes, we are realistic.  But we don’t let realities get us down because we know our teaching impacts our students to grow beyond their current circumstances.  We set no ceilings on our students’ potential – and the same is true for us! LB

All Teachers Can Reach Challenging Students

In an ideal situation, all teachers—especially those in challenging schools—would have supportive school leaders who would offer mentoring services, ongoing professional development, and other types of support.

School principals, such as Alisha Coleman Kiner in Memphis, Tenn., who dramatically raised her school's graduation rate; Baruti Kafele in East Orange, N.J., who views himself as a surrogate father to students; Mary Hales of Fayetteville, N.C., who greets students and parents in the parking lot each morning; and Marva Carter of Mobile, Ala., who invests every penny she can into professional development for teachers, are leaders who attempt to groom teachers in challenging schools for greatness.

Everything we are able to do is because leadership had the vision to take this journey and because leadership passionately supports each step of our PEBC collaborations.  This support includes gaining leadership at our learning table.  What we value is reflected by what we give our time to and we are all so thankful to be able to share professional learning time so often with our leadership colleagues!  LB

Some of the excellent teachers I've met and read about had great leaders, but others didn't. Regardless of where they work or the type of principal they have, effective teachers remain true to their overall goal: to offer an outstanding education to all students whom they have the privilege of teaching (Benard, 2004; Thompson, 2010).


Benard, B. (2004). Resiliency: What we have learned. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

Codell, E. R. (2009). Educating Esme: Diary of a teacher's first year (expanded edition). New York, NY: Algonquin.

Gruell, E. (1999). The freedom writer's diary: How a teacher and 150 teens used writing to change themselves and the world

around them. New York, NY: Broadway.

Kafele, B. (2009). Motivating black males to achieve in school and in life. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

McCourt, F. (2006). Teacher man: A memoir. New York, NY: Scribner.

MetLife. (2012). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Teachers, parents, and the economy. New York, NY: Metropolitan

Life Insurance Company.

Thomas-El, S. (2003). I choose to stay: A black teacher refuses to desert the inner city. New York, NY: Kensington.

Thompson, G. (2010). The power of one: How you can help or harm African American students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gail L. Thompson is a Wells Fargo Endowed Professor of Education at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. Cynthia Thrasher Shamberger is an assistant professor of special education at Fayetteville State University.


P.S.  This month’s Educational Leadership (October, 2012) is dedicated to the theme “Students Who Challenge Us.”  I continuously find this journal chisels my thinking.  If you do not currently receive it, maybe we can look at gaining a subscription for your school.  J

Mary Lee Hahn ~ Choice Literacy

As soon as you trust yourself you will know how to live.    
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When the basket of meditation stones was passed to me at the writing retreat, I knew I would pick the black one. My favorite rock is obsidian, so I could almost feel the cool smoothness of the flat black stone before I picked it up and turned it over to see what word it held for me. I lurched in my seat when I saw the word. How could this rock know about the uncertainties and fears I try so hard to keep locked up inside me?
My meditation stone’s admonition?
The writing retreat is long past, but I am still carrying my rock. I have made it a point to be still and listen to it whenever I find myself slipping into a place of doubt or hesitation, when I question myself and wonder if I am “good enough.” Here’s what my trust rock has taught me so far:
10 Reminders to Trust Yourself as a Teacher in These Times of Change and Challenge
1. You are a reader.
You read widely, even though you’re not always aware of it. Make a list of all of the different kinds of reading you have done in the past week. You’ll be amazed. Your students will be, too, when you share your list with them. You know the reading process from the inside out, and some of the most powerful lessons you teach begin with, “Last night after I turned the TV off and I was reading for my half an hour before bed, I was noticing the way I . . .” You can have a successful reading conference just by sitting down beside a student and asking the kinds of questions you love to be asked when you are chatting with another reader: “What are you reading? Why did you choose that book? What is this book making you thinking about or wonder?”
2. You are a writer.
You have stared at a blank screen or a blank piece of paper, struggling to choose just the right words for the email to a parent, the paper for class, or the letter of complaint to the company. Every piece of writing does not earn royalties, but when your writing reaches the intended audience, it is published. And whether or not you actually share your writing with a critique group, you know the leap of faith it takes to ask someone for their opinion of your writing. These are things you ask students to do every day in writing workshop, but because you are a writer, you will do so with the encouragement and patience that come from living within the writing process yourself.
3. You are a learner.
You savor all the new experiences life brings you through travel, classes, reading, documentaries, and the challenges of adult life (“what’s the best roof I can buy on my budget, and which company do I want to hire to replace my roof?”). Every time you encounter an opportunity to learn, you are interested not just in the information, but also in the process you use to comprehend it and the effectiveness of the presentation of that information. Because you are a learner, you will create a classroom that accommodates all kinds of learning styles, and you’ll present information in rich and engaging ways.
4. You continue to push the boundaries of your comfort zone with technology.
You have quit trying to keep up with “everyone else” when it comes to technology. You are a learner, and as you are introduced to tools that will make your work easier (or possible), or that will allow you to create things that are useful or beautiful, you add that tool to your technology toolbox. You are keenly aware that sometimes it is better for your soul to spend an hour walking in nature noticing the clouds and the birds and the trees than it is to spend that hour online.
5. You nurture professional relationships with colleagues.
You know the students come and go in nine-month waves, but the lighthouses in your teaching life are your colleagues. Whether that is one person in your building, a group in your grade level or department, or a far-flung hodgepodge of teacher friends you know and keep up with through blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or other online communities, you know how important it is to have at least one person you can depend on to help you find your way in this complicated and challenging journey we call teaching.
6. You understand the importance of community in the classroom.
You have a keen sense that the work you do in your one classroom will impact the future of our entire nation and, possibly, the world. Even more than the skills and information that you teach, you know that the attitudes of collaboration, civility, patience, kindness, perseverance, flexibility, and acceptance (among many others) are what will serve your students well in whatever walk of life they choose. And because your students will be running the government and corporations of your future, as well as theirs, you know that your own future depends on the kind of citizen you release to the next grade level or the world.
7. You accept every birthday treat you are offered by a child.
You believe that every child is a unique and valuable part of your classroom community. You bring this belief to life when you accept every birthday treat (even if you just take one bite and “save it for later”), learn to pronounce and spell every name, value every religious holiday and tradition, and take the time to make personal one-on-one contact with every child every day.
8. You’ve seen what a difference a positive note or phone call home can make.
You never let yourself forget that each child in your classroom is someone’s baby. You develop a set of educational hopes and dreams for each child, but you always remember that on the other end of the bus ride, there is a family who also has a set of hopes and dreams for that child. Your connection to the child’s family through your positive notes and phone calls creates a web of caring and support for the child.
9. You are not afraid to make mistakes.
You are human. You have learned that it takes more energy than you possess to try to be, or appear to be, perfect. One of the best lessons you teach every year is not simply that you make mistakes, but that you pick yourself up and carry on after you make a mistake. You learn, apologize if necessary, repair any damage . . . and carry on.
10. You know that some of the most powerful lessons you teach will yield results that cannot be measured on any test.
You are at peace (most of the time) with the realization that teaching is at least as much an art as it is a science. Some years, no matter how well you teach, the results will not show in the test scores, but that does not mean that the results of your teaching do not reside within the hearts and minds of the students you taught. Every test is a snapshot of a child as a learner. In the same way that snapshots with cameras reveal bad hair, closed eyes, and accidentally unfortunate composition, testing snapshots will capture all kinds of momentary results along with the lasting results you are hoping for. And that’s okay, because you trust yourself.

*Choice Literacy is a lighthouse.  The brave and brilliant authors of Choice Literacy continuously grow my thinking and edify my understanding.  If you do not yet have a subscription, run – don’t walk – to get one! 


1 comment:

Liz said...

Hi Laura,
I just read this today at school about what great teachers do and shared it/discussed it with a few colleagues. As it says below where we should type in the swervy word to leave a comment on your blog, "Please prove you're not a robot!" Teachers have to prove this too and making important contacts with kids (sometimes their only positive contact in a day) matters SO much because after all, we're all people. Yes, test scores and achievement are important, but conversely, so is the "people" part of teaching and that cannot really be measured on a test. Teaching kids how to think and pick apart text is a lifelong skill that will serve modern people in all they do- but equally important are the lessons we model in showing that we are also learners in the classroom and in life. Keep doing the great work you are doing and sharing your thought-provoking work! I like reading your blog.