Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Professional development is an important part of the teaching profession. It seems like every year we have something new to learn. There’s always a new teaching strategy out there that can improve teacher performance and student achievement. Some subjects – especially those related to geography, science and technology – have new course content every year. And most teachers attend professional development workshops about new teacher evaluation systems, new textbook series, and new educational standards. Whew! That’s a lot of “new.” For teachers, being a student is a big part of the job.
Most school districts require teachers to keep track of their professional development experiences. In some states, it’s part of the certificate renewal process; other states require professional development for contract renewal. Whether professional development is required annually or every few years, most of us face a day of reckoning: the point tally. We make a list of the professional development workshops we’ve attended throughout the year, count the points, and see how we measure-up against the requirement. It’s a lot like opening that first winter power bill – you’re hoping you’ve got enough points banked to cover it. But if you don’t, you’ll have to scramble pretty quickly.
And realistically, that what happens. We search the school bulletin board and the district web-site for an all-day workshop. We scour the Internet for upcoming webinars. We stop by the local community college to check the course listings. All too often, these last-minute efforts are only marginally relevant. When the cut-off date approaches, we’re not too picky. Points and deadlines. Deadlines and points. Reach the goal, and the clock starts again.
The purpose of this post is not to criticize the excellent professional development offered by school districts, online providers, and conference committees. I’m certainly thankful that teachers have these opportunities. And I’m not criticizing the over-worked teacher who just can’t find the time to attend workshops, college classes, or conferences. And I’m not calling for an end to professional development requirements for teachers. After 33 years of teaching, I’m still learning how to be a better teacher. But, I admit that I probably wouldn’t attend as many workshops as I do if they weren’t required for contract renewal.
So what am I saying? Simply, that we need to broaden the definition of professional development to include self-directed activities. Teachers should be able to earn professional development points for personal and collegial activities.
Intrigued by that thought? Read on.
Content-area Knowledge Enhancement
Teachers should receive professional development points for learning about the subjects that they teach. What if a history teacher visits a historic site with her family? Isn’t that professional development? I can see that teacher learning information, taking photographs and gathering materials that will make it back to the classroom. How about a middle school English teacher attending a lecture by a visiting YA author? Or a science teacher visiting the Kennedy Space Center? All of these initiatives would certainly develop the teacher professionally.
But learning more about the content that we teach doesn’t have to involve trips to museums. Sometimes we just need some time to explore the material that’s already at our fingertips. Wouldn’t it be great if the math teacher could receive professional development credit for a Saturday spent exploring that big box of manipulatives that arrived with the new math series? Or what if the history teacher had extra motivation to read that new book about the Lewis and Clark expedition? I’m sure the science teacher deserves credit for a day spent researching and developing new hands-on experiments for her students.
As a former technology teacher, I can certainly relate to this. It seems like the software company released a new version every year, and I spent a few Saturdays learning the features and capabilities. I certainly didn’t mind the extra work, and I enjoyed teaching the latest versions of the software to my students. But shouldn’t I get a few hours of professional development credit for that? I was certainly developing my professional capabilities.
Realize I’m not talking about learning opportunities that could be accommodated in the daily planning period. I’m talking about in-depth, self-directed learning opportunities. Professional development.
Teachers should be able to earn professional development points when they form a learning community with other teachers. I enjoy workshops with the “out-of-town” experts (and many of you know that I have been that expert on many occasions.) But typically in any teacher workshop, all of the participants have a college degree and many years of experience. Let’s not make the assumption that each teacher knows what all of the other teachers know. We can learn from each other. There’s lots of knowledge in that room, and most of the participants would be happy to share. Let’s call that sharing what it is: professional development.
Over the years I have attended dozens of professional development workshops. Let me describe the session that had the biggest impact on my career. During my early years as a library media specialist (Okaloosa County, Florida – mid 1990s) we had an especially productive library program throughout the district, led by a dynamic advocate in the district office. Our regular monthly meetings always resulted in new ideas.
For one meeting our district librarian asked everyone to bring 40 copies of our favorite handout that we used with students, and to prepare to talk one minute about our handout. You can guess what happened at the meeting. Everyone got a file-folder of handouts, and a brief description by the librarian. Ten years later I was still using information I obtained at that meeting with my students! We were the experts. I’m sure most schools, departments, and faculties could host similar share-and-tell events. And those events should be opportunities to earn professional development credit.
My first teaching job began in 1983 at Oak Ridge High School in Orlando. At that time, Oak Ridge had about 3,000 students. I taught speech, debate and grammar as part of a 30-teacher English department. Professional development and teacher evaluation were a little less structured back then. Basically, if the principal said you were a good teacher and progressing in the profession, your contract was renewed and you got to teach another year.
I was observed that first year by the principal, Mr. Bill Spoone. After the lesson, he shook my hand and told me I did a good job. Then, he handed me a half-sheet of notebook paper that listed the names of five or six teachers. “Go watch these people teach, then tell me what you think.”
I checked the master schedule, and made contact with each teacher. (It was a bit awkward. I was the 22-year old rookie, and these teachers were definitely more experienced.) I arranged to observe each teacher once or twice during my planning period. In addition to the expected English teachers, there was a history teacher, a science teacher, and even a foreign language teacher on the list.
As you can imagine, I learned more by observing those teachers that I did in my two years of university education classes. I saw an English teacher deliver passionate lectures on poetry (5 years before the movie, Dead Poets Society.) I saw a science teacher guide his students through a hands-on lab. I heard a French teacher gently prod the correct pronunciations from a class of high schoolers. I saw a history classroom decorated with student-created posters and projects. All of these experiences continue to shape my teaching 30 years later. Can we please give professional development points for teachers who observe their more experienced peers?
Closing thoughts. As you read my suggestions, you probably thought about the potential for abuse. Couldn’t the history teacher just say he visited the Civil War battlefield while on vacation? Couldn’t the member of the cohort group just toss the shared handouts in the trash? Couldn’t the first-year teacher conspire with his experienced colleague to fabricate a list of classroom observations (nod, nod, wink, wink?) Well, sure. But that’s where we have to remember the “professional” part of professional development. We have to trust that teachers will act with integrity and hold themselves accountable. (A one-page written report describing the professional development experience would certainly be appropriate documentation.) Is there potential for abuse? Sure. Just like some teachers make grocery lists in district-sponsored workshops and watch the ballgame while listening to a webinar. System abuse is regrettable, but hardly unique to self-directed professional development activities.
Professional development is essential for long-term excellent teaching practice. Self-directed professional development activities deserve a place alongside more traditional district-based workshops and college classes. Awarding professional development credit for the experiences described in this post would encourage all teachers to improve their teaching repertoire while sharing their knowledge with their colleagues.
In my 30+ year teaching career, I’ve had the good fortune to teach students in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. I’ve worked as a classroom teacher, a library media specialist, and a college adjunct instructor. I’ve taught required classes and electives. My youngest student was 4 years old, and my oldest was in her 70’s. The ability to work with so many age groups in so many settings has been a blessing.
My varied experiences have also given me the opportunity to see education from many different perspectives. Several times in my career my long-held beliefs have been crushed by first-hand experiences. Here’s an example: before I started working at the elementary level, I couldn’t understand why some first graders couldn’t read at a first-grade level. I mean, at the beginning of first grade, nobody can read, right? Elementary teachers are probably grinning at my past naiveté.
I’ve also concluded that elementary classroom teachers are probably the most misunderstood group in the field of education. So, in this post I offer six things that elementary teachers wish other educators understood. The list isn’t all-inclusive; I’m sure every elementary teacher could add one or more items. My hope is that secondary teachers and administrators can gain a deeper understanding of elementary school life, and an appreciation for those hardworking elementary teachers who teach in this challenging environment. I also hope to put smiles on the faces of my elementary colleagues.
(Note: although I’ve never worked as an elementary classroom teacher, I have worked alongside them as an elementary library media specialist. I’ve written this post in first-person. Please indulge my literary license.)
"We don’t just play games and take naps."
Have you looked at the elementary textbooks recently? Our students are expected to read and write multi-sentence passages by the end of kindergarten. In math, they’re adding and subtracting. In other words, kindergarten is the new first grade.
We teach some intense material in elementary school. Do we sometimes use games as a teaching strategy? Sure. Kids love games, and it keeps them involved with the lesson. Elementary attention spans are notoriously short, and with so much to teach we use all of the tools in our teaching tool-kit every day.
And no, we don’t take naps anymore. Not on purpose, anyway.
“For us, reading is a skill.”
If you teach language arts in middle school and high school, you probably focus on literary elements, expressive language, character analysis, and development of an intrinsic appreciation of literature. We understand those things. We went to college, too.
But for us, reading is a skill. Students come to us at age five, and they don’t know how to read … yet. It’s our job to teach them the skill of reading. Like any skill – swimming, riding a bicycle, learning a new language – instruction and practice are critical.
So yeah, we get excited when a student earns 100 AR points. It means they’ve read a pile of books, and that’s practice. They will be a better reader when they get to your English class. They’ll be more successful in their other classes, too, because they can read grade-level textbooks. And correct me if I’m wrong, but most of the math problems on your middle school standardized tests are word problems. You’re welcome.
And by the way, several literary concepts including plot, characters, setting, and sequence of events are in our elementary language arts standards. In first grade. Really.
“Yes, those participation ribbons are important.”
We get some grief from a few parents and secondary educators whenever we hand out participation ribbons at field day or other school events. “You should only recognize the winners,” they say.
With all due respect, they’re missing the point. In elementary school, we’re not necessarily trying to determine the fastest kid, the best speller, or the student who knows the most states and capitals. When we award participation ribbons, we’re recognizing the act of completion. You did it. You gave it your best. You finished the race. You didn’t quit. Those are elementary lessons. Give me a class full of middle school students who learned how to persevere in elementary school, and I can teach them anything. Giving-up is a bad habit, and it begins in elementary school.
You know that husky high school football player who just earned a college football scholarship? He was the slowest kid in my third grade class. His torso grew wide before his legs grew long. But he finished the race on field day and got his participation ribbon. Eventually his legs grew longer, he continued his interest in athletics, and he became an excellent high school athlete. We saw that potential when he was a pudgy 8-year-old. He just needed a little time and a little encouragement. And he needed someone to celebrate his sincere best effort.
“Some students are already behind on the first day of kindergarten.”
Imagine a kindergarten class on the first day of school. There they are. None of them have had a single day of schooling. They are all a blank slate. They’re all at the starting block of the educational marathon. Nothing could be further from the truth.
You see, there’s just one prerequisite for kindergarten: age. If a child is five years old by a certain date, they’re in kindergarten. There’s no entrance exam, and no prerequisite class. Just days on a calendar.
We conduct a screening evaluation for every new kindergartner. We ask them to identify shapes (“Point to the circle”) and numbers (“Can you show me the number 3?) We ask them to say their name, their address, and their birthday. Some kindergartners come to us singing the A-B-C song, writing their names, and adding 2 + 2. Other students don’t know what a square looks like, and they can’t pick out the yellow crayon in the box. Some students are ready for kindergarten, and some just aren’t. We have 10 months to get them all ready for first grade.
Add to that the age discrepancy or our kindergartners. Let’s imagine the birthday cut-off date is August 1st. The oldest child in my class could turn 6 on the first day of school. The youngest child could be five all school year. Any parent or elementary teacher can tell you that’s a big difference at that young age.
“We agonize over every child who needs to be retained.”
When one of our students is in danger of failing for the year, it weighs heavy on our minds, and keeps us awake at night. I was his only teacher this year. Is there something I could have done differently? Is there any way he can meet the goals for this year? If I retain him, will my principal give me another chance with him next year?
We have to consider whether it’s more effective to have the child repeat the grade, or to send him or her on to the next grade level with deficient skills. Will those deficiencies be corrected in a few months, or will the child continue to perform poorly? There’s really no way to be sure. And sometimes when we make the painful decision to retain, the parent insists on promotion.
When a student fails your high school math class, they might have to take summer school, or just double-up on math credits next school year. When an elementary student fails a grade, their entire educational time-table is delayed. They join an entirely new peer group. They graduate a year later. This is the toughest decision an elementary teacher has to make. Every elementary teacher knows the name of every child they have ever retained.
"You’re basically seeing the continuation of what we started."
Obviously, as secondary teachers, you’re teaching advanced skills. We get that. But please, don’t forget that we built the ground floor.
You’re teaching calculus, and we taught addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. You’re teaching chemistry, and we taught the scientific method. You’re teaching anthropology, and we taught them how to read a map. You’re teaching literary analysis, and we taught them how to read. We enjoy being part of that process. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see the end-result as much as we’d like.
As you can tell, I have a great deal of respect for my elementary colleagues. I hope this post has made all of my readers consider the important work done by elementary teachers every day. Maybe you could send a quick e-mail or Facebook message to your friends who teach elementary school. Thank them for the groundwork they created for your students. And I understand they like chocolate, although that may just be a rumor.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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