Tag Archives: teaching

Start with what we have

I recently read a blog post by Chris Lehmann entitled Root Causes and the Save our Schools March. It was a very thoughtful post and clearly shows the sincerity of Mr. Lehmann’s education philosophy. In the post, he describes a classroom he observed and why he supports the Save Our Schools March in Washington, D.C.

I was directed there by a former collegue’s Facebook page, which shared the link, saying she wished she could work for a principal like him. After seeing who she was talking about, I knew that I would be writing a blog post about it.

You see, Chris Lehmann is in fact a really good principal. He is respected by many educators across the country, including me, as a forward-thinking education reformer. From his school, the Science Leadership Academy, Mr. Lehmann is able to try new things, make observations, learn from his teachers, and spread the word at conferences throughout the country. He is a true education leader. However, it isn’t all about the principal.

Principals have people who give them directives, who have people who give them directives, who have legislators who came up with the directives, who are following the lead of the nation’s leadership who have the ideas behind the directives. It all trickles down. Each individual principal has to make a decision about how much they are willing to put on the line for their vision. At the Science Leadership Academy, administration and teachers have the support of people who are able to provide a bit of an umbrella around them so that teachers can teach the way we all believe they should teach. Even as I type this, I’m thinking that Mr. Lehmann might have a different opinion – maybe he struggles against directives, as well, and just doesn’t make that as apparent to us as he highlights the really great things that happen at his school, and that is how it should be.

Which brings me to the reason for this post.

I listen to educators complain all the time about administration, about standards, about testing, about their students. I have witnessed educators whose response to something they don’t agree with is effectively a removal of good practices from their classroom. They decide to throw out everything they ever hoped for in their classroom and instead sit behind their desk and let their students figure everything out for themselves. While student-centered learning is a good practice, this type of learning is not – same lessons every year in the same sequence with a product of one PowerPoint with 13 slides, etc.

I have seen teachers who leave the profession because they didn’t agree with one administrator. I have seen teachers who turn into the teacher Mr. Lehmann described or the one I described in a post two years ago: Burnout: Trickle or Flood? They focus on what they don’t have. They focus on what they don’t like about their job.

They do not focus on what they do have.

They have students sitting in that classroom who want to learn. Those students have been conditioned to expect the burned out teacher instead of the one with a plan. They also have colleagues who share, or at least once shared, their vision.

Yes, they have standards they must teach. Tests they must proctor. Administrators they must satisfy. But 95% of the time they spend in the classroom, nobody is watching but the kids. They have control over the how in their classroom, even if they don’t have control over the what.

The end result – whether our students master the content – should be what we are focusing on. Any time we spend focusing on the negatives of our job is time we have stolen from children.

All of this is not to say I don’t see a need for education reform. I do. I just have an opinion about how it should come about. In presentations, I will often put  a picture of a mountain up. When it appears, I talk about the approach we have to take when we are tackling a problem and I see this as applying here, so I’ll share:

When we are climbing a mountain, we often lose sight of the top. We can’t necessarily see how to get up there – our view is obstructed by many obstacles and still others that we haven’t encountered yet. Once we get to the top and look down, we can see clearly the path we chose and the obstacles that path offered, but we can also see the path we should have chosen – the one with fewer obstacles – or the one with the kind of obstacles we could handle.

When we talk about education reform. We have to do it from the top down. As long as Washington is doing what they are doing, our states will do what they are doing, our districts will follow, and our principals will have to comply. As educators, we have the choice to either focus on the negatives or instead, to start with what we have. Run with what we’ve been given and make the best of it while we fight the fight from the top down.

I vote for starting with what we have.


The Power of a Teacher’s Words

My son came home from school yesterday asking me “Mom, is it illegal for a teacher to call their students losers?”

Two years ago, a colleague of mine walked down a middle-school hallway and heard a teacher scream at a class “you are all so stupid!”

In 1981, I sat in a classroom of 12 bright students who had been hand-picked to be in an Honors Chemistry class while the teacher told us all how unworthy we were, how worthless our thoughts were and that she was going to save us from our ignorance.

The bad.

In 2000, I visited with a college professor of Biology in her office at her request where she said “Elaine, you would make a fantastic science teacher.” I had not considered even enjoying science after 1981 and this revelation changed my life, making me mourn the loss of 19 years of what could have been a life filled with science.

In 2006, I sent a note to the parents of one of my students, who I had had for three years straight (Biology, Chemistry, and an elective science), that said “Your son has a scientific mind. He should consider a career in engineering.” This student, who had simply not cared about science during his freshman and sophomore years, finally started caring after that note and ended up applying to engineering colleges during his senior year.

I listened to a speaker on Wednesday talk about how she had made the decision to become an engineer. She had a teacher at a community college pull her aside and ask her if she had ever thought about engineering as a career. She had not. Now she is a manager at a little global company you might have heard of – Texas Instruments – where hundreds of employees answer to her.

The good.

I’m going to make a statement that is not supported by my diligent research – it is just a speculation on my part:

The words of a teacher have more power than any other unrelated individual in a child’s life.

If a teacher, even sarcastically, tells their students they are losers, some of them will believe her. If a teacher tells a student they need to accept the fact that they will always have to flip burgers at a fast-food restaurant, many of those students will believe him. If a teacher tells a student they are capable of amazing things, some of them will do amazing things.

Please choose your words carefully in your classroom. If you say something and see that young face reflect the negativity in your words, correct it immediately. Look for things that will instill that spark in your students’ eyes. Give them hope that they can make a difference in the outcome of their own lives.

Don’t call them losers. It isn’t illegal – it is just wrong.

Going Paperless: Take the toolkit . . . out of the box!

This is the second article in a series discussing the journey towards a paperless classroom.

Now that we are in the right frame of mind to start the journey towards becoming more paperless (see previous article), it is important to make sure that we have the right tools in our bag for the tasks that lay ahead.

What does an engaged classroom use for technology?

Tools that are frequently mentioned are laptops, wireless tablets, pulse pens, netbooks, interactive whiteboards and similar high-tech tools. I think that the single most important tool in our teaching toolkit is the creative minds of our students. Without our students taking an idea and running with it, the technology tools are pieces of machinery. The most innovative uses of technology involve uses for which the technology was not originally intended, and it is often our students who find that alternative use.

As educators, we must find ways to create valuable lessons that engage the creative minds of our students. It is entirely possible to have a really well-built high-functioning piece of technology equipment that still serves the same purpose as a piece of paper and a pencil, and students are able to spot a pointless lesson from the moment it is proposed.

When your student discovers a new way of looking at a lesson or a new use for a piece of technology, give them room to get out of the box.

Going Paperless: Journey or Destination?

I had the opportunity to make a very brief presentation to Discovery Educator Network (DEN) educators during a webinar last week. It is part of the DEN “Shining STAR” series of webinars where Discovery STAR Educators like myself can share the things we are doing in our classroom.

Making the move toward going paperless has become a focus of mine this school year, so I shared some of my thoughts about the process. I really don’t know if every teacher can accomplish being completely paperless. I really don’t know if every teacher in a 1:1 school district can accomplish being completely paperless. What I DO know is that every teacher CAN make steps toward becoming paperless. Now is the time to do it. With Earth Day coming up April 22, there has been a push for teachers to make the pledge to be paperless on that day. This pledge isn’t about making sure you’ve made all your copies the previous day, it is about trying to develop lessons for the day that do not require the use of paper and create positive learning experiences for students. To make the pledge, complete the pledge form. This movement was started on the TeachPaperless blog.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting parts of my presentation on this blog with a more detailed discussion of the things I’ve learned through this process. Stay tuned!

Big Question #5: A Good Alternative?

I recently read an article in the Katy Sun online (read the article here) about alternatively certified teachers in Texas. As an alternatively certified teacher, I am always interested in the opinions and ideas expressed regarding this certification process.

The truth is, I think the process needs some “tweaking”, although I also believe it is a good program. The certification process I went through was rigorous and I believe it prepared me better than other programs I could have chosen to go through.

There are two problems inherent with the alternative route, as I see it:

1. More mature (I don’t want to upset my fellow oldsters – oops, I did it anyway!) alt cert teachers will discover that they have difficulties adjusting to this completely new job market. We are used to merits getting us somewhere and upwardly mobile paths to leadership. We are accustomed to processes making sense to the bottom line and people being accountable for their own action (or inactivity). When we enter the education arena, we find our jobs on day one to be the same job it’ll be in year 20, and we also find that the teacher next door who “drills and kills” gets paid on the exact same pay scale we do when we struggle over each student and over each lesson. On the other hand, younger alternatively certified teachers, who have very little experience in any job whatsoever, may find that they are ill-prepared to work anywhere, let alone in the education world.

2. The alternative certification process doesn’t require us to do any student teaching. The program I went through required many hours of “observation”, which I believe helped me immensely. I’m glad I didn’t go through one of the programs that didn’t require this, but I also feel like those hours of observation could never compare to the student teaching requirements in traditional education degrees. Being thrown into a classroom on my first day of teaching, with nobody standing beside me, guiding me, was daunting. It was plain scary. Somehow, I managed to make my students think I knew what I was doing – and eventually I think I did know what I was doing – at least as much as any teacher can.

What changes need to be made to the system, then? I believe there is a need and a usefulness for alternatively certified teachers. Often, these teachers are of high quality, although they tend not to stay in teaching for long. Is it because, like me, they begin to miss the hierarchy and structure of “real world” employment? Do they long for opportunities for personal growth that are not available in the education world?

Perhaps a required student teaching gig, like the traditional education degrees, is warranted. Surely a restructuring in education jobs themselves is in order. But how?

What are your thoughts? Don’t worry about offending me – if you have a thing against alternative certification, air it. Let’s get this discussion going!

Big Question: What are your thoughts about alternative certification?

Teaching Truth #5: It’s a Flawed System

When I originally started this blog, my intent was to stay away from this particular teaching truth. My reasoning was this — I was afraid if I made this point, people would consider leaving the profession, rather than being encouraged to stay, as is my intent with this blog.

Yesterday, during lunch with my new supervisor, who incidentally is a former teacher herself, the topic of why she left teaching came up. Some of her thoughts rang true with me and I began to wonder – should I put this on the blog? This morning, I opened my email to find an interesting article, published in EducationWeek, which was originally published in January, 2008, entitled Human Resources a Weak Spot. I’m not sure what made me read it, as the title doesn’t exactly sound interesting to me, but I did. What I found was another long commentary on the things that are broken in teaching as a profession. I decided to add my two-cents worth, so here I am.

The system is flawed.

Only in teaching can you start on day one with the same responsibilities you will have after 30 years on the job. You will be thrown into a room of seemingly hungry students and feel like you must have french fries and cheeseburgers smeared on you.  If you manage to struggle through, develop a plan, and become a good teacher, you will be sitting at a desk after school is out with words like sheltered instruction, differentiation, rigor and relevance, scope and sequence flying all around your head while the teacher in the next room decides what lengthy video to show their kids the next day or what worksheet to have them do – the same thing he or she has done every day for 20 years. You will get less money than that teacher does because of their long years of service. You will have exactly the same benefit package. You will begin to wonder if there is some way you can advance yourself.

There isn’t. That is, unless you think moving into school administration is an advancement. That would be a topic for another post, but I’ll just say that I personally don’t think it’s an advancement.

So why am I telling new teachers this? Being armed with the truth going in can advance your potential for success. Going into the profession with the real truth for an expectation can keep you from becoming disillusioned. The truth is, if you want growth, you’ll have to take comfort in personal growth. Become involved with an organization outside of school that can give you, during volunteer hours, a feeling of advancement. Take some classes or work on your Master’s degree. Some teachers work towards national certification. Whatever you do, be happy that you are striving to be the best you can be.

There is hope – you can also be part of a move towards reform. Think about positive alternatives to the current system. Try to work towards making changes, in baby steps. Become involved with a group of educators who share your concern. Don’t sit in the lounge partaking of the complaint sessions. They will depress you and are surely not motivators for positive change.

Hang in there – you are a teacher for a reason – hold on to that.

Teaching Truth #1: Collaborate

First in a series, there is no particular order to these – they are simply written about in the order they pop into my head.

In order to stay sane and keep yourself up-to-date and connected, it is important to affiliate yourself with some kind of a collaborative group. There are a lot of them out there. Be careful not to affiliate yourself with too many of them because following them and remaining active in them can be more overwhelming than trying to teach all alone. REALITY CHECK: finding time to be very involved in groups can be a problem. Find groups that will allow you to maintain your membership even through the times you are unable to participate. If you find a group becoming stressful for you, it might be time to consider finding a new group.


Ask around. Find out what group(s) other teachers are affiliated with. Get their opinion on how beneficial being involved with that group has been. Try the group out and see if you really find it helpful and easy to follow. A group that works for one teacher may not be a good fit for another.

My suggestion is to find a group or groups that have a theme you are excited about. You may decide a group of educators who teach the same thing you do is beneficial; if you are excited about technology, maybe an all-inclusive technology group is the answer; if there are particular products you use regularly in your teaching, the company that provides those products or services may have a collaborative group of educators already in place.

Whatever you do, don’t try to do it alone. Even the teachers who seem the most creative and experienced use ideas or pieces of ideas they’ve gotten from other teachers.

The groups I belong to:

Discovery Educator Network (DEN) – if you know me, you knew that was going to be the first group I listed. I’ve found this group to be the most beneficial group I’ve belonged to and the best decision I ever made in my teaching career. Membership in the DEN is free. They have launched leadership councils in several states/areas, and even in Second Life, so your experience in the DEN can involve educators near you or on a national level. The DEN also provides professional development throughout the year in the form of local events, online webinars, and other special events which are usually free to educators who have reached STAR status. The DEN conducts summer institutes which are invaluable for networking and knowledge-building. I have attended two summer institutes, a regional one in Allen, Texas in 2006 and a national one on a cruise ship to the Bahamas in 2007.

International Society for Technology Educators (ISTE) – Just what it says. This group is very large, but you can join small communities within ISTE which can be very helpful. ISTE has resources available that can be very valuable. ISTE has professional development throughout the year and also provides webinars, in addition to having a presence in Second Life. Their professional development opportunities generally have a cost associated with them. ISTE has an annual membership fee, as well.

National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) – Organizations for your content area are valuable in helping you find resources for your lesson plans. I belong to NSTA because of my science certification, but you can find organizations for yours. Most of the national organizations also have smaller local affiliates which can also be helpful. Most organizations of this type have an annual membership fee.

Twitter – not an organization, but a collaborative group. Twitter is a free service that I’ve found to provide valuable resources and ideas simply because of the group of people I’ve got on my list. Twitter enables you to get quick responses to questions you have and to post new ideas or resources you’ve found for others to see. Some educators have even had success in developing classroom collaborations with individuals from all over the world through Twitter. The key in building a successful twittersphere for yourself is to add educators you know, then look at who they are following and start following other educators on their list. If you decide to try this, add me to your list, I’m glad2be.


Second Life – often mistaken for a game, Second Life is a venue for people interested in collaborating on a national and international level. Free of the restrictions placed on us in real life, Second Life opens up a new world of collaboration in education. Registration is free. Come on in . . . I’m Celestia Cazalet.

Veteran teachers – post a comment here to tell us what organizations you’ve found helpful!