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Organization, routines, how to organize one's day- these are all fundamental parts of the boarding school experience. Current research tells us that they may be even more important that we think. 

I've been telling families for years, that there's nothing magic about going to boarding school. It's a different way of going to school with one of its foundations being a structured, organized, routine day that students internalize and carry with them.

David Brooks highlights two new books in his May 1st column- The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin- both of which make the case for practice, discipline, and routine as the root of genius. Americans like to believe in the myth of genius as the root of great success, but it turns out that that most mundane of duties- practice- might actually be the root of achievement.

"The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It's not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it's deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft...

The primary trait she (the developing genius) possesses is not some mysterious genius. It's the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice routine.

Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we're "hard-wired" to do. And it's true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it's not who you are, it's what you do." (NYT)
It turns out that my long-time colleague and friend, academic dean (at Wolfeboro,The Summer Boarding School), Joyce Ferris has been right all along. For years she's given what's known has her "P- Speech" before final exams- an exhortation to pick-up your pencil and actively practice, practice, practice. She's been right all along.

Photo credit: Mani 's lounging world

Good Teaching is Committed Work

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chalkboard.jpgThe New York Times ran a conversation (Teaching: No 'Fallback' Career) covering a subject that regularly comes up at our house and, currently seems to be on many peoples' minds as they consider the stability of civil/public service careers- "maybe I'll go into teaching?" In the framework of a struggling private sector, it's a nice sentiment; it sounds good; people think the schedule is good; it's indoor work and, for some reason, people perceive at as an easy, second-tier profession that anyone can practice without too much difficulty.

After all, we don't pay teachers particularly well and they certainly aren't accorded much social status. But with the collapse of finance and the contractions of other industries, 'maybe I'll teach?"

My wife and I shake our heads in wonderment. "Do these people have any idea what a classroom is like? I'm dumbfounded by how little people seem to know about classrooms and, sometimes, irritated by the opposite side of the same coin, how much they think they know about a profession that they've never pursued.

I have been a high school teacher and administrator and my wife still is a high school math teacher and has been an administrator. My argument against such sentiment usually begins something like- "X has no idea what's it's like to live and function among high school students for your entire work day. There's no way he/she can spend their day not speaking adult." Or, my other primary observation on the topic- "So-and-so finds no amusement or joy in kids being kids. The first time that a student responds like a teenager instead of an adult so-and-so will explode."

Most adults aren't built for teaching based on the basics of the situation- being an adult in the student or kid world all day. I haven't even needed to address teaching practice and thinking to get most adults to think twice about their teaching sentiments.

To teach well, one has to love being among kids- all day. Be professionally adaptive and adept. And, operate with a heightened sensibility of service. It's not about you.

In "Teaching: No 'Fallback' Career" The New York Times collected the thoughts of five education professionals on the subject of moving into the classroom.

Their observations should prompt our thanks for those who make the classroom their profession and give pause to those who believe the classroom easy.

Pam Grossman professor of education at Stanford University:

"...Because all of us have spent thousands of hours in classroom observing teachers, we may underestimate the skill required to engage a group of children or adolescents and ensure that they are learning. Much of the teaching we do in everyday life, as parents or employers, involves telling or tutoring. As parents, we help children with math homework, test them on their vocabulary words, answer their questions. But teaching is much more than telling, and teachers have to know more than right answers.

Good teachers must also be connoisseurs of error. Over time, good teachers can anticipate predictable errors and misconceptions, understand the logic behind the error, and help move students toward a deeper understanding. Work on the teaching of mathematics at the University of Michigan has demonstrated that what they term "mathematical knowledge for teaching" distinguishes teachers from mathematicians and more effective teachers from less effective ones..." (NYT)

Patrick Welsh English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA:

"...The notion that anyone can teach is pure myth. No matter how much one may know or how altruistic one may be, some people are just temperamentally unsuited to teach and are toxic for kids. The problem is that it is difficult to identify those types.

....It won't take you long to know whether you love teaching. As nervous as I was, it took me about 10 minutes after first walking into my first class some 40 years ago to realize that for me the classroom is a magical place where I wanted to work. At the same time if you realize you don't love it, do your students a favor: get out and look for another line of work..." (NYT)

Kenneth J. Bernstein teaches social studies at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Greenbelt, MD. He blogs about education and other subjects as teacherken at Daily Kos:

"...it took me until my third year before I was fully competent, even though the students, parents, fellow teachers and administrators were all pleased with what I was doing. I learned to rethink each lesson, from class to class as well as from year to year, and to adjust my lesson plans according to the students in each class.

That's the hard part, thinking more about the students than about the content. It is probably the biggest challenge for many career switchers. One doesn't have to be their buddy, but one has to build relationships of trust..." (NYT)

I asked my accomplished math-teacher wife to chime on this post and she adds this series of thoughts:

"Manager. Entertainer. Mathematician. Care. Performance. Preparation. Knowledge. Teaching always appears easy to the outsider. Poor teachers make it seem easy because they do nothing. Effective teachers make it seem easy because they make teaching seem effortless. Either way, the public is duped. The only way to understand the level of commitment and expertise necessary to be a good teacher is to do it yourself. Do it for a minimum of three years. Then, decide if A.) it's the place for you and B.) if it's easy."
Photo credit: Bright_Star
I often look at the touted promises of the 'next' technology with a jaundiced eye. This is technology put to great, direct, effective use.

The Washington, DC area chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has provided  Georgetown University Hospital's pediatric oncology program with six laptops and webcams that hospitalized students use to follow lessons and stay connected to their classrooms and lessons.

Becky Wilson, a leukemia patient, follows along with her classmates at Jamestown Elementary School.  She told the Washington Post (Webcams Allow Students to Stay Connected: Thanks to Donated Gear, Even Serious Illnesses Aren't Keeping Some Children Out of the Classroom) that "she has been able to join her first-grade class almost every morning in solving math problems, listening to poetry and working on group projects."

Lisa Wilson, Becky's mom, also told the Washington Post: "She's a very bright child...The webcam really just adds that extra dimension that she misses."

Aziza Shad, Georgetown's pediatric oncology director added:

"Having this technology available is really a turning point for children with cancer and other serious illnesses...They miss their teachers. They miss their friends. These laptops with webcams provide a perfect way for them to participate in a lesson and stay connected with their school." (Washington Post)
Photo credit: mshades
I almost let this comment go, but it's too good to pass-up. Last Thursday (3/12) David Brooks focused his column on President Obama's education reform an efforts (No Picnic for Me Either). While Brooks pushes, prods, and argues that Mr. Obama needs to move educational policy to recognize and reward great teachers, I was particular struck by two paragraphs in the piece where Brooks recognizes great teachers as the ones who build healthy relationships with their students.

"...The Obama approach would make it more likely that young Americans grow up in relationships with teaching adults. It would expand nurse visits to disorganized homes. It would improve early education. It would extend the school year. Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

We've spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher. You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience..."
When families ask me, 'why private or boarding school?'  My answer invariably is a treatise on relationships. Relationships fundamentally differentiate the boarding/private school experience.
My wife, Virginia Cornelius, has been honored as the Mississippi teaching winner of 10th Annual 2007-08 Siemens Awards for Advanced Placement. She teaches Calculus, pre-calculus, and algebra at Lafayette County High School here in Oxford, MS. Working through her nomination she received some great letters from her past students. She's most appreciative of her students who've come with her through years at Cushing Academy and Lafayette. Our two children are especially proud of mommy.

A Little About the Siemens Awards for Advanced Placement:

To qualify for the award, teachers must have " a minimum of five years of teaching experience in math, science or technology AP courses are selected for their exemplary teaching and enthusiastic dedication to students and the AP Program." (Siemens)

The awards are part of "the Foundation's signature programs--the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, the Siemens Awards for Advanced Placement, and the Siemens Teacher Scholarships.  The awards recognize exceptional achievement in science, math, and technology. By supporting outstanding students today, and recognizing the teachers and schools that inspire their excellence, the Foundation helps nurture tomorrow's scientists and engineers." (Siemens)
Proctor Academy has an interesting blog post (which we learned about on their Twitter feed) emanating from its Mountain Classroom and their time floating down the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico.

A mood of sameness, but difference runs through the piece. Constructed definitions and vocabulary, but what do these things mean and how do they affect the people living on the ground.

"To the left, America. To the right, Mexico. Interesting how they appear to be exactly the same."
What makes the two different are the terms and values that we assign them and when we examine our language, assumptions and definitions, we learn a lot about ourselves.

Finding, Training, Committing-To and Retaining the Best Teachers

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There's never a shortage of holy grail pursuits in education. "How do we reach all students; is there any way to make sure that all students achieve; and, can we possibly provide equal opportunity/education for all" are just three of the larger issues. Connected to these three are the never ending questions of finding and retaining the best teachers. Can we identify and keep good teachers in the profession and how can we do this?

President Obama's campaign talked about education and the reality that America will need two million or so new teachers during the coming decade. This means that public education will get substantial stage time over the next few years.

"The country needs a massive education overhaul, and better teachers will be the most important element in that overhaul. Spending more and attracting able teachers is the best way to use resources to improve the human capital of our children and the future of our nation." (Glaeser, Boston Globe)
We must find, train and retain the best teachers because the strongest correlation to student success is- as best as we can tell- is quality of teacher:

"The clearest result from decades of education research is the importance of teacher quality. My colleague Tom Kane finds that students who are lucky enough to get a teacher in the top quarter of the teacher-quality distribution jump 10 percentile points in the student achievement distribution relative to children who end up with less able teachers. Improving teacher quality has about twice the impact on student outcomes as radically reducing class size." (Glaeser, Boston Globe)
Suddenly, in my reading the topic, pops up everywhere. Each article comes out the same research with each author adding a perspective or twist:

Most Likely to Succeed
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/15/081215fa_fact_gladwell

Studying Schooling
http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/01/studying-schooling

Want better schools? Hire better teachers
http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2008/11/07/want_better_schools_hire_better_teachers/

Recruiting, retraining a new type of teacher
http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/04.08/09-teachers.html

Summarized, there is no way to identify good teachers as they graduate from colleges and enter the classroom. Certification and an imprimatur from an ed school bears no relationship to a teachers quality and effectiveness.  

"The real variance was within the programs: each trained some stellar teachers, each trained some duds. A teacher's abilities, or lack thereof, become clear only over time. Thus, Kane argued, tenure review should begin only after the district has enough data to tell whether a novice teacher could ever become an old pro. Kane wouldn't remove the certification barrier entirely, he says, but he does advocate "moving the dam downstream, to where we actually have some information." (Harvard Magazine, Studying Schooling)
The best way to identify good teachers seems to be to apply the methods that the corporate sector uses. Hire larger classes of new hires- even those with degrees in subject matter as opposed to just education; train them; provide feedback and support; develop clear performance measures; promote, advance and pay the successful teachers letting the less successful go or remain in reduced roles- just like the private sector.

Teachers working with students is more valuable and important to professional advancement than a diploma or certification.

Gladwell's New Yorker article is the most readable and fun on the subject. I most enjoyed the analogy that likens finding a good teacher to finding a good NFL quarterback. Everybody looks good coming out college and entering the profession. But only the job itself can find and separate those who excel at it from those who will only be good, or, wash out of the profession all together. College is a training ground providing only minimal insight into real world success.  
Of course the NFL benefits from having plenty of money to finance developing and putting its talent pool through the learning period.

I love the idea of bringing the best and the brightest into teaching and having them work like hell to become great teachers. Then, I take a deep breath and say "damn, we've got long way to go; how can we pay for this?"

In my experience, the world has a very small supply of adults who find school age children interesting enough to spend the whole day with; there just doesn't seem to be a deep resevior of adults who want to work with children. Two, teaching is a low status profession and this cultural position is very difficult to overcome. Increased teacher pay could help by- at the minimum- demonstrating that teaching is a valued, important, fundamental piece of our society.  

And, third, the concept of tenure. In private schools, I never worked under a tenure system. And, bluntly, the whole concept of tenure for a school teacher strikes me as odd. As I understand it, tenure exists at the collegiate level to protect academic freedom keeping professors (with terminal degrees) from having to shape their research and publications to the desires of their department or school. Other than freedom from parental pressure, I don't understand the role of tenure in public school setting.

Finally and most importantly, if we want to demonstrate the value of great teachers by making them well-paid professionals, where will the money come from?

These are some heady hopes and dreams to pin on the Obama administration as they come to power short on cash.

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This page is a archive of recent entries in the Teaching category.

Standardized Testing is the previous category.

Tom O'Dell is the next category.

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