Saturday, May 18, 2013

Disappointment Comes for Us All

I had a humbling experience this year. After four consecutive years with writing pass rates at 98% and above, my students’ pass rates for the 2013 Writing EOC SOL were at a dismal 81%. No matter how much people tell me theirs were similar, or that the state in general saw a 10-20% drop, I still feel responsible. It does not matter to me that the test was changed and that variables were different and not what students have ever seen—what matters is that much of my instruction didn’t help them on their tests. They are required, by law, to pass these tests in order to graduate.

It’s not important to me that I don’t agree with this testing, or that I think it squelches creativity, shows an inherent lack of faith in teachers and wastes valuable instructional time and money. I have to meet the standard where it is…even if it’s the minimum of what I teach…or at least this has been my philosophy. 

I've been rocked to the core. I always felt I taught above and beyond the standardized tests. I’ve always hoped that my teaching went deeper and further than necessary to provide my students with a good, solid base in preparation for senior year and beyond. Now I don’t know.

So I have a few choices. I can sit here and feel like an ineffective teacher, berate myself and carry guilt, or I can move forward, use this as a tool to help better my teaching and figure out strategies that work. The problem is that teachers have to move through that first stage to get to the second.
Here are some things we can do to avoid this situation:

1.       Be honest with kids. A study of Chinese and American moms showed that American moms are less likely to be honest with their children when it comes to failure. When children fail, Chinese moms talk about practical strategies with their children and give them a review session. American moms, perhaps trying to boost their child’s confidence, ignore the problem. The result? American children become discouraged and Chinese children do better. (I'll find this video and post it soon.)

2.       Not everyone can be a winner. As I learned this year, a consistently high test score means that at some point you go to the bottom of the heap. You can’t always be number one, right? The same with students. Honest reflection on their work ethic means an honest conversation about learning. You coast, you don’t learn. I wish I’d had these conversations explicitly with my students this year, but like a good American, I didn’t want them to feel bad about themselves.

3.       Phoenix rising. Breaking the news to students who failed their assessment wasn’t easy, but I’m fortunate enough to have a very insightful co-teacher. She gave the explicit message that this test score does not reflect upon them as human beings, it does not reflect their self-worth and that what it means is at that time, on that day, for the skills assessed, the students did not have the skills needed to pass. We also explained to them that a low score simply means they need to keep chugging along, which is the hard part. They need to work and with work, they will do well.

4.       Praise hard work for those who work hard. One of my girls said to me, “Mrs. Stocker, I feel like my score is wrong.” I asked, “Why?” “Because it shouldn’t be that high.” This girl did an amazing job throughout the school year. She’s worked hard, has made sure to complete her assignments and somehow still thought she wasn’t good at English. Something is wrong. My response to her was, “This is the reward for your hard work throughout the year. Of course you did well on that test!” 

I wish my pass rate was up to where it was last year. Knowing that I’ve had 100% of my kids pass some years has given me a lot of confidence, but I can’t help but think it may have stymied my growth as an educator. 'Cause, ya know, that's what makes you reassess and grow.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Mindsets and How You Grow--yeah, YOU

Ever read Mindset by Carol S. Dweck? Life changing. Though I was reading it to inform me as an educator, which it did splendidly, I found myself applying it more to myself than to my students. I know that sounds terribly egocentric, but it is what it is. I have started thinking differently about parenting too and how to praise kids.

Dweck focuses on fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets. Those with growth mindsets allow themselves, well, to grow. They may feel failure or rejection acutely, but they will harness it and learn from it. Fixed mindset people will be defined by failure and rejection.

You also may be a growth minded person in one area, but not another. I'm totally not growth minded when it comes to drawing. I find it frustrating, though I wish I could do it better. I'm growth minded when it comes to music, sports and writing.

I'm not yet done with the book, but I'm getting there. It's great reading, but Dweck's style isn't as engaging as it could be, so if you're not really motivated to learn about this, you may find it a bit to slog through.  Still, I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Tying Welfare Payments to Student Performance in School

Reading this news article in which Tennessee legislators are tying welfare checks to student performance is deeply disturbing. Though Rep. Vance Dennis is right that teachers are concerned about parental involvement (or lack thereof) in their child’s education, SB132 is not the way to get parental involvement. This bill will functionally cut off many parents and students from the system, further eroding education in poverty stricken areas and individual children’s performance in education. We will see further development of mistrust against the state and the education system because legislators—in an effort to improve things—are taking the exact wrong steps due to a lack of fundamental understanding regarding poverty.

Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty has given me a lot of insight into this issue, though I am by no means and expert. Before reading, I often felt that the decisions poor people make (even those in my own family) often reflected poor choices. Those choices further eroded prospects for financial improvement. People are kept in a cycle of poverty because of these choices, yes, but they also have very few resources to see their way out of poverty.

Here are a few of the mindboggling and counterintuitive decisions poor people make:

1.       Frequent moves—often poor people owe money at their previous locations, so they have to move.
2.       Entertainment becomes most important—money gets filtered to entertainment; despite the fact that sometimes needs go unmet.
3.       Extra money is to be shared with others in your community—money is seen as communal because when you’re destitute, or close to it, you have to be willing to share a windfall. If you don’t, then others aren’t compelled to share with you when they get a windfall and it is through sheer force of community that you often survive.
4.       Discipline is not meant to fundamentally change behavior, but rather so that children can show remorse and ‘make up’ for the poor behavior.

Payne advocates for teaching the impoverished hidden rules that exist in the middle class. This would be explicit instruction to help move such people out of poverty and into the middle class. She does not pretend that everyone will be willing to do what is needed to move out of poverty. Certainly teaching families how to move out of poverty would be better use of public funds.

I cannot imagine how badly a child will feel when their parent’s check stops. I can’t imagine the family tension that would create, or how much more dysfunctional many of these families will become. This legislation shows the disconnect in understanding about poverty and issues that most affect the impoverished. Additionally, it strikes me as terribly ironic that people who probably never have experienced such a situation feel compelled and even entitled to try to legislate parenting in such a manner.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

First Gig

I've landed my first gig as a consultant--this one consulting about online education. It's exciting and scary all at the same time. I spent Spring Break making connections with other folks and working up articles for another website ( where I'll be publishing and making the connection that landed the consultancy. This is a positive move for me. I feel renewed and hopeful.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

My Teacher Makes Me Feel...

Recently, I came across a blog that discussed the negative bent when entering "My teacher makes me feel..." in the Google search bar. Teachers are apparently making their students feel uncomfortable, stupid or bad. Anxious, alone and angry also pop up. So naturally, I wonder what's up with the disconnect between teachers and students. Or is the disconnect between students and education in general?

Certainly there are teachers out there who should have left the profession long ago, but that is by no means the majority of teachers. Couple this with our brain's natural propensity for looking at the negative and we have a perfect storm of classic Freudian projection. So what's happening?

In my own experience with students, I find that often students do have a 'tape' in their heads that they are stupid and this message was in place long before the kids ever got to me. These kids often are the ones who are making low grades, have low skill sets and perform in the bottom 10th percentile. These kids need intervention.

Even among the more intelligent students, I often hear them say things like, "I can't believe I did that. I'm so stupid." I always challenge such aspersions. I always say, "No, you just weren't thinking and THAT'S different from being stupid." Every person on the planet has moments where they aren't thinking clearly.

What these kids need is to change the tape that's running in their heads. They don't need to keep telling themselves they are stupid, they need to tell themselves they need to work diligently. For those who need intervention, I have the conversation that learning is hard. It's not an easy thing. Do some people find it easy? Yes, but that's mostly because they also find it rather enjoyable.

This is no easy task, but it helps when teachers act as support systems and directly teach them about how human brains work and why they may be challenged as learners. I've had students realize their mistake in thinking and I've also had kids who learned to articulate what they did wrong (goofing off, racking up zeroes), how they could change it (staying after, getting tutoring help, doing homework) and what they can do differently.

I've also had students learn to communicate their goals. This helps enormously. If they can tell me their goals, then I can remind them of their goals on a regular basis. When I know a student wants to get into a certain college I can ask, "Is this the work of a UVA student?" when they turn in incomplete or sub-par work. It gets them thinking about what that work looks like and what they can do to get their work up to that level.

I had a student a few years back that failed Freshman English, not once, but twice. His third go around, we discussed what his goal(s) were. He wanted to graduate from high school. He had the tape that he wasn't smart, he was stupid. I challenged that tape repeatedly and when he fell into those thinking patterns, I asked, "How does this behavior or thought help you reach your goal?" He often said it didn't.

I nearly lost this student to the GED program, but upon initial testing, he didn't have the minimum skill set to even make it into the program. I kept the dialogue open though and before he and I knew it, he was working really, really hard to pass English class. He passed Freshman English that year and is slated to graduate.

The teacher's role is to act as an advocate for students--even when it feels you're advocating for a kid who won't advocate for him/herself. Then, and only then, do we even have a hope of changing those Google search  terms. I'm not optimistic enough to believe they'll suddenly become, "My teacher makes me feel AMAZING!!!" but I am optimistic enough to believe that my influence in my sphere can help influence my kids to become better learners. And maybe, just maybe, one day they'll love learning too.

Monday, March 18, 2013


I'm working on a presentation to pitch to a few conferences about effective interventions for secondary education. There are many things I do with my kids on an everyday basis as well as longer term. I'm interested in what others do? What do you feel really works? Are you willing to talk with me about it?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hostility Towards Teachers

One of the more disturbing trends I've been seeing in the news media and even on discussion boards is a general down turn in opinions about teachers. If you teach, I'm sure you've seen this yourself and it's often discouraging seeing our profession taking a few to the jaw due to the poor judgement or actions of a few.

In tooling about on the web to research for this post, I came across an article that says it so much better. "What teachers really want to tell parents" is an honest assessment of what often goes through our minds and Ron Clark puts into words what I've often felt and thought. I really want to have positive relationships with parents, but sometimes it's hard, really, really hard.

The article opens with a quote from an administrator who was leaving the profession (the article is 2 years old): "Look, if I get an offer to lead a school system of orphans, I will be all over it, but I just can't deal with parents anymore; they are killing us."

First a disclaimer: I'm a parent as well as an educator. I've been on both sides of the desk, so to speak, and I can tell you that teaching is no easy task. Parenting isn't either. I do not want to throw parents under the bus, but when I read this article, all those emotions about teaching and seeing the trend toward teacher-targeted hostility rose up. I felt myself cheering for the honesty that this article presented. Clark makes some great points and confirmed for me a myriad of suspicions, but here are two.

1. Clark says, "The truth is, a lot of times it's the bad teachers who give the easiest grades, because they know by giving good grades everyone will leave them alone. Parents will say, 'My child has a great teacher! He made all A's this year!' "

I hate to think there are ever 'bad' teachers, but of course with any profession, there will be people who don't pull their weight and it is quintessentially disheartening to those who work their buns off. But this quote speaks to me on a deeper level, because I am a teacher with really high standards and my kids feel like they're struggling through the year and sometimes, their grades are less than spectacular. I rarely see an A on my roster, but when I do, that A means that student has worked above and beyond his/her peers. It means something to get an A from me, because it represents a lot of work and perseverance. Because of this, I become plagued with doubt.  Am I too harsh? Are my students getting what they need?

Ultimately, this doubt serves as a place for me to reflect. It causes me to assess and reassess what I do on an ongoing basis. I think if you don't have doubt, then you may need to reevaluate what's going on in your classroom. Overconfidence can be detrimental to student success because you won't see where you need to change or adjust. The kids are the ones who pay.

So I got a boost when I read, "In all honesty, it's usually the best teachers who are giving the lowest grades, because they are raising expectations." I believe this in my heart of hearts, but I still have doubts! I know my standards are high--really high--but it's also a struggle for me to keep them high, when I see only 30% of my students turning in major projects and racking up zeroes. Yet, I still do it, despite the emotional toll on them, me and mom/dad.

2. "We walk on eggshells in a watered-down education system where teachers lack the courage to be honest and speak their minds. If they make a slight mistake, it can become a major disaster."

My first year of teaching, I remember being afraid to say anything. I've shifted as I've become comfortable in teaching and I've made honesty (not cruelty) my motto--always. So if a student does something that is offensive, I tell them. If they aren't working up to ability, I tell them. Students should not be told that they are awesome writers if they really aren't. I believe it is when we can have an honest and open dialogue with students and parents that we'll be able to have truly excellent education. 

Having teachers walking on eggshells is also counterproductive. Much of what we do in education is bolstering what is and is not socially acceptable behavior and building work ethic. If a student isn't working up to par, then s/he needs to know that. Mom and dad can't save their children from the world in which we live. We want to. I know as a mom, I really want to save my 10 and 12 year olds sometimes, but often I have to take my own emotion out of a situation and think about the lesson inherent in the moment. Parents and teachers need to ask themselves: what is the lesson here?

Make no mistake about it, it's no easy task being a parent or a teacher. I can understand both rolls clearly, but the movement of hostility toward teachers is one that needs to stop. We've all had personal run-ins with parents or students who have blamed us for something (rightly or wrongly as the case may be). What's worrisome is that this is becoming a wider spread phenomenon in the media and the rhetoric is getting pretty nasty. I'll be discussing that at a later time, however.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What a Teacher Needs

So much of what we hear about in education is about student needs. I've yet to meet a teacher who didn't consider student needs in education. I've met plenty of teachers who've set aside their own needs, however. I keep coming back to that image of putting your own oxygen mask on before trying to help someone else with theirs. As teachers, how can we best cope with student needs if we forget about our own?

If a teacher is stressed, irritated or otherwise out of sorts, it only makes sense that s/he cannot create the optimal environment for student learning. If we as a culture want to get real results, we'll offer meaningful help to teachers and we won't penalize them for being human and slipping up periodically.

Mentorships/Partnerships: One great way to give teachers support is through mentorship programs. Often mentors go about their way after a year or two, but a mentor program could be so much more. School systems could pair up teachers who work really well together to offer each other support, creative planning ideas and a compassionate ear. Granted much of this would be predicated upon people choosing each other and allowing people to change partnerships when needed, and until schools put something in place, it will be up to teachers to create these sorts of relationships for themselves.

This type of mentorship gets a bit messy. Humans are messy though. In order to get optimal results from a program such as this, you'd have to have comprehensive buy-in and you couldn't do it halfway. Schools systems would have to offer co-planning periods in which teachers could get together with each other for some productive time--be that winding down from a stressful situation or working ahead on plans. 

These relationships would be points of contact between teachers who would use the time productively. We may have to shift our view of productivity, however. Productivity isn’t always a flurry of activity, but well may be a time in which people get together to release pent up tension and frustration in a more productive manner than through continual professional frustration and burnout.

Sometimes, teachers need someone to tell them they aren’t crazy, or cranky or rude; but rather that their feelings about a given situation are valid and appropriate. They also need someone who can help steer them toward healthy management of stress, anxiety and frustration. Basically, teachers need teacher-friends who can help bring them back to center.

Coordinated Support: This would require a lead teacher or consultant whose job it would be to come into the classroom and really get to know the teachers in a single department. This consultant would gather data and interview faculty about each teacher's strengths and weaknesses and then implement a plan for improvement. This plan for improvement would utilize the strengths of the department in order to help every teacher with a personal area of struggle.

For example, if I'm really good at teaching grammar creatively and my kids wind up with a solid grammar foundation year after year, but Mr. Jones is struggling with grammar, the consultant would pair me in a partnership with Mr. Jones. Our goal would be to target Mr. Jones' specific needs in lesson planning and dissemination of ideas and concepts as they relate to grammar. Or maybe Mr. Jones' just never 'got' grammar and that would become the focus, because we can't teach what we don't know!

On the other hand, if I'm struggling with organization, our consultant may bring in Ms. Doe who is great at keeping herself--and her kids--organized. She would work collaborative with me, share ideas and point out potential pitfalls with my current structure or any new structure we come up with. She will be my go-to expert for help.

In this situation, regardless of who is receiving or giving the helps, teachers are working together in a coordinated manner. Whether through the mentorship or a partnership, teachers are acknowledged for their strengths (becoming a mentor or lead) and are helped out so that weaknesses don’t feel so…well, weakening.

This is what I'm looking to do with my consulting business: go in and work with teachers in a targeted manner to help teachers become the best they can be. I can coordinate these services and act as a mentor to teachers who need one to gain focus. After all, it is the focused teacher--the one with the oxygen mask--who can best serve student needs.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Sir Ken Robinson on Creativity

Shift: Strategies for Refreshing Your Craft

Lately, I’ve heard several teachers expressing that they feel a bit ‘stuck’ where they are. I’ve been thinking about ways I’ve used to ‘unstick’ myself when I’ve felt this way. I’ve also learned a lot from other teachers and how they recommit to their craft.

Oftentimes what we need is a shift in mentality. This is difficult for anyone. As teachers we sometimes get a little comfortable with what we’ve done and what we’re doing. If you are comfortable, bored or burned out, then you know it’s time to shift. Teachers need to challenge themselves as much as they challenge their students and this is one of the reasons why teaching is so difficult. Challenge is tiring, but it also can feed us in ways that bring us a second (or third) wind.

In order to be the best at what we do, we have to stay current to new trends, new ideas and new ways of thinking about our subject areas. This constant change is often exhausting, but it is also quite rewarding. We don’t just want to clock in, get a check and clock out. Many times we’re the ones pushing for improvement; we’re challenging ourselves as much as we challenge our students.

But along this path, it’s normal to hit a wall and simply do things because they’ve always been done that way. It's human nature! It’s also normal to feel exhausted because you’ve put your heart and soul into creatively teaching for several years, tweaking lesson plans and trying new, innovative teaching strategies. You're simply tired.

So, what do you do when you hit that wall?

1.     Challenge yourself. OK I know, you’re exhausted and you’re not quite sure if you have any more in the tank. I recommend challenging yourself because sometimes you have to fake it until you make it. Remember when you were new to teaching? You were constantly challenged and pushed--and back then it was exciting! You need to challenge yourself differently now that you’re an established professional. Right now, you have your style nailed down, you know how to organize your classroom for maximized efficiency, you’re crystal clear about your philosophy…you need to challenge yourself in other areas. Here are a few ideas: 

a.       Attend a conference and become a leading teacher disseminating what you’ve learned from the conference. Often school systems really appreciate that sort of information sharing and it helps justify your school spending money to send you to such events. Besides that you create some wonderful relationships with other people around your state or around the country. You connect with other teachers and hear about what they are doing in their classrooms and can borrow/lend ideas, share successes and failures, and think creatively. It’s amazing what happens when a room full of teachers get together! The conversations are absolutely fantastic, creative and dynamic.

b.      Read a challenging book. A good teacher friend of mine rocked my world when she had us read a book on grading in our Reflective Teaching group.  A Repair Kit for Grading by Ken O'Connor challenged me to rethink what I was doing with my grading practices and ultimately, I completely revamped my grading. Our group held book meetings and conducted ourselves in a book club format and that conversation with other teachers was at times quite uncomfortable, but there was not a teacher involved in those discussions who didn’t come out with a completely different view of what they were doing and why. They didn’t all agree with the author, but they did all tweak and change what they were doing and they all became better able to articulate rationales for what they were doing in their classes. It is another example of teachers coming together and having dynamic conversations about teaching. We would leave those meetings with something to think about and knowing that there were other folks supporting our push to be better instructors.

2.     Reassess. Why did you go into teaching? Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is it working? Sometimes we forget why we fell in love with teaching and reflection can help you reconnect with your profession. Reflection also can give us insights into ourselves and sometimes they even allow us a glimpse into solutions. In graduate school there was constant emphasis on reflection. The power of reflection cannot be understated.  It may well be that you don’t reap these benefits until some time has passed, but the benefits will come. Keep a reflective journal-especially when you feel confused, irritated, or have a huge success. Also, carve out some time to go back to those reflective pieces and review them with new eyes. It's amazing what we often overlook when we're going through intense emotion. What we couldn't see before gains clarity and leads to insight with some distance.

3.      Patience. Know that as you work toward change or inspiration it will take time. You shouldn’t expect change quickly. This makes sense, right? We tell our kids to be patient and practice their new skills and so you will have to be patient and practice yours. There very well may be times when you feel you’ve taken a few steps backward, but keep at it! Here are a few ideas for staying motivated:

a.       Have a partnership with another teacher. Find someone who has a similar teaching philosophy and teaching style or who is exceptionally open to helping and encouraging your philosophy and teaching style. This encouraging partnership can help keep you motivated. Better yet, have a group of teachers who need support and who are willing to give it.

b.      Set goals. Writing down goals will help you stay focused and make your goals more real. In addition creating a step-by-step approach very well may give you the encouragement you need. Tack it someplace obvious where you can see it on an ongoing basis and don’t forget to reward yourself along the way. What those rewards are is up to you. What will help you increase focus and create change?

4.     Lastly, avoid burnout. Though I’m asking you to push yourself, I want to emphasize that you should push yourself differently. This doesn’t mean doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It means avoiding burnout. You must create boundaries in order to do this. Rather than taking papers home and grading all weekend, take some time to go to the park with your kids, go out on a date with a good friend, have dinner with your spouse or otherwise create a relaxing moment. I have a close friend who is excellent at doing this: even when she’s stressed and anxious, she still goes salsa dancing, takes a yoga class, hikes or does something else she deeply enjoys. Doing something you enjoy allows you to recharge yourself so that you can push through another week. You are not a machine that can run for days on end, you’re a human and your fuel needs to be food and fun.

Ultimately, by pushing ourselves, we’re practicing what we teach. We want students to take academic risks, so we need to learn to take professional ones. We want students to practice new skill sets and not simply to become complacent in their learning, and we have to be willing to do the same.

I am acutely aware that this is no easy task and it will often make teachers feel uncomfortable, but the payoff in the end means you become more effective and better and what you do. That’s something everyone can sign up for!