Another Inspiring Teacher

My former students who are now teaching are not my only inspiration. Reading about the Illinois Teacher of the Year [chicagotribune.com] inspired me to reach out to her for a profile in this blog. Although Dr. Rachel Mahmood is currently in Pakistan, she generously agreed to a Wi-Fi phone call. On that call she blew me away with her passion, wisdom, and humility. The characteristics I inferred from the Trib profile were borne out in our conversation. Mahmood provides a model for the hallmarks of great teaching, including:

  • Being passionate about teaching and learning
  • Having a mission
  • Building relationships
  • Creating an inclusive learning community
  • Trying creative approaches
  • Collaborating with other educators

When I asked what drives her passion, Mahmood replied, “One of the things that I’ve learned from being an educator for 20 years is that whatever you focus on, expands. When I feel myself start to get negative, I try to change my focus to something positive… if you search for good in your colleagues, students, and their families, you will see more good. Seeing all the positives  drive my desire to stay in education. For me, teaching doesn’t really feel like work. I wake up every day excited to go to school and learn with students.” Passion from teachers like Mahmood becomes contagious and drives student interest and commitment.

Mahmood describes her mission: “Growing up, I never felt a sense of belonging in school because my culture, my race, and my religion were different than my peers. I was often embarrassed of my identity.  Now as a teacher, I have a mission. I want students to feel proud of their identity and have a sense of belonging at school. I also want teachers not to feel marginalized because their identity is also different from their colleagues.” That purpose guides her actions and creates a positive impact.

This exceptional teacher recognizes the importance of building relationships. “Being able to get to know my students and incorporate their identities into my classroom” helps her figure out how to help students connect with the curriculum and personalize it. Covid gave her an opportunity to connect more personally with with students. Being in each other’s homes wore away a bit of the boundaries between teacher and student and humanized her as they saw her being a parent as well as their teacher.  All of her students qualified for free lunch and have limited access to resources, so Mahmood started doing visits to kids’ homes, taking her “trunk of treasures” filled with donated books and prizes for her students. She found this brought her so much closer to the community. 

Mahmood also acknowledges the importance of building relationships with parents and the community as an effective way to address concerns driven by the culture wars. “I have been lucky that students and their families have always appreciated my style of teaching.  What little criticism I have received has been from people who don’t know me.” From day one she prioritizes that every family needs to know how much she cares about their student, and she continues to work at her outreach to parents to produce and maintain a high level of trust.

Mahmood’s commitment to an inclusive and welcoming community grew from her own experiences as an “outsider” in school. The daughter of a Russian Jew and an Indian Hindu with German-Italian Catholic stepparents, now married to a Pakistani Muslim, Mahmood said she didn’t see herself in the school’s curriculum. “When you’re absent from the curriculum, you learn a lot of unintentional lessons from well-intentioned people. I learned lessons about my identity that were unintentional that caused me a lot of trauma. Then I found multicultural education. I became a teacher, because I was still searching for that belonging in school” [Ibid.]. Students learn a lot about what is normal in our society from school. Now she normalizes cultures, languages, foods, stories and histories of all backgrounds in her classroom.

Finding creative ways to teach helps Mahmood reach students. She regularly assigns projects for her students. Some of her notable projects are news broadcasts, soap carvings, clothespin dolls, collages, mysteries, mock trials and debates. During the pandemic, she did almost every single project on Zoom that she used to do in class. Each quarter she dropped off a gallon-size bag with materials for the projects at students’ homes. Some supplies came from school funds while others were made or bought by her or donated by parents and neighbors. Instead of lecturing on history, she brings it to life. When her class studied the plight of refugees in Vietnam in the 1970s, she had her students pack bags filled with the items they would take if they were forced to leave their homes. Their discussion about their choices brought their revelations to the plight of refugees today. 

Dr. Mahmood’s consulting website, https://equityteacherleader.com/, evolved from her efforts to collaborate with and encourage other teachers to see the many benefits of  multicultural education. During the pandemic she won an award from Teaching Tolerance (now called Learning for Justice) and wrote an article that led to other educators reaching out to her with ideas on how to make virtual classrooms culturally responsive. Already experienced with spreading the word of best teaching practices across the state, she will use the sabbatical she receives as “Teacher of the Year” to present on strategies to increase feelings of belonging among students and educators in the field of education “Students should remember school as a place where they felt affirmed and valued and had beautiful memories. Then maybe they will choose to return to school as educators. We must be intentional in affirming our colleagues in education. If we prioritize increasing feelings of belonging with educators, they are more likely to choose to stay in education.”

Dr. Rachel Mahmood is the kind of teacher I aspired to be. May she be an inspiration to all educators and communities; let us learn from her and adopt some of her ideas. Teachers like Mahmood make a difference, and public education has never needed them more. 

The Impact of ACES for Education

Ten days ago I had the privilege of attending a conference about resilience and ACES [Adverse Childhood Experiences]. A pivotal part of my training as a CASA/GAL [Court Appointed Special Advocate/Guardian Ad Litem], learning about ACES had already clarified why some of my charges struggle. They have endured traumas that most of us can only imagine when we see them on television or in the movies, but the research proves that trauma actually causes toxic stress, prolonged or excessive activation of the stress response system. “Toxic stress interferes with developing healthy neural, immune, and hormonal systems and can alter our DNA expression. Over time, multiple ACEs—especially without adequate adult support—can affect the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems and have lasting effects on attention, behavior, decision-making, and response to stress throughout a lifetime” (preventchildabuse.org).

The 10 ACEs originally included:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Alcohol or drug abuse by a parent
  • Mentally ill parent
  • Divorce
  • Incarceration of parent
  • Childhood Domestic Violence

The consequences of higher ACES scores can be devastating:

  • People with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to be smokers and seven times more likely to be alcoholic.
  • Having an ACE score of 4 increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400 percent, and attempted suicide by 1200 percent.
  • People with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune diseases.
  • People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years (safe-sound.org).

Additional research expanded the list of ACES to include “experiencing poverty, discrimination, bullying, community violence, migration-related stressors, and foster care involvement” (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

All is not lost, however. We can counteract the impact of ACES through the buffering, consistent presence of a caring adult. We can counteract them through trauma-informed care and education. We need to shift the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” and respond accordingly.

Although I’ve been studying ACES, the recent presentation on resilience and ACES sparked a thought I should have had long ago. Perhaps because the research began near the end of my public-school teaching career, I knew nothing about it as an educator.

Now I believe that every educator should know about ACES, their implications, and how to respond to student behavior and needs more effectively. It can be done. If you want to see brilliant trauma-informed education, watch the film, Paper Tigers. It “asks the following questions: What does it mean to be a trauma-informed school? And how do you educate teens whose childhood experiences have left them with a brain and body ill-suited to learn?” (kpjrfilms.co).  At Lincoln Alternative High School in the rural community of Walla Walla, Washington,  teachers and a brilliant principal provide students with that critical stable, caring adult to help them change their lives. Their work demonstrates the principles of a trauma-informed organization:

  • “Safety
    • Throughout the organization, patients and staff feel physically and psychologically safe
  • Trustworthiness + Transparency
    • Decisions are made with transparency, and with the goal of building and maintaining trust
  • Peer Support
    • Individuals with shared experiences are integrated into the organization and viewed as integral to service delivery
  • Collaboration
    • Power differences — between staff and clients and among organizational staff — are leveled to support shared decision-making
  • Empowerment
    • Patient and staff strengths are recognized, built on, and validated — this includes a belief in resilience and the ability to heal from trauma
  • Humility + Responsiveness
    • Biases and stereotypes (e.g., based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, geography) and historical trauma are recognized and addressed” (traumainformedcare.chcs.org)

It might be easy to assume that ACES are a problem of certain communities, but the truth is that they are prevalent everywhere.  The original ACE study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente in California from 1995 to 1997. “What’s particularly startling is that the 17,000 ACE Study participants were mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class, college-educated, and all had jobs and great health care (they were all members of Kaiser Permanente)” (acestoohigh.com).

The presentation hit me like a ton of bricks… why weren’t educators everywhere learning about ACES and adjusting their pedagogical approach accordingly. I vowed to reach out to local school districts to connect them with professional resources. Students today are struggling more than they were pre-pandemic, and they need a trauma-informed approach. I wish I’d known about this when I was still in the classroom. I vow to bring this information to classrooms near me now. Won’t you?

Another Teacher Role Model

Today I bring you another former student who has become an excellent teacher. She and I reminisced about her successes and struggles as my student and now as a teacher herself. 

A while back, I wrote, “Even as I struggle with the current teacher shortage and an inadequate teacher pipeline, I find hope in the passion and commitment of some teachers currently in the classroom.” That’s still true. Julie Robinson Hill is one of those teachers, decades after she was my student.

Julie initially set out to be a principal because she didn’t see enough women administrators. Although she started as a theater major, she wanted a day job that was more predictable and switched to English and Secondary Education, a fortuitous choice because, once she got in the classroom, she realized she liked working with students more than she’d like administration. After 21 years, Julie retains the passion that brought her to her students.

Before Covid, Julie loved teaching theater and fine arts. She believes those classes really help with belonging. Online learning during the pandemic shifted that and put her in English full-time. After a year, the school turned her theater office into a costume closet, and kids no longer get to gather and build community there.  That saddens her, but Julie has found camaraderie and new challenges in teaching English. At first, she felt unprepared to teach Creative Writing, but she found her way. She even uses some of the exercises and prompts she remembers from my creative writing class!

Julie still talks about her years teaching theater a bit wistfully. She spent fifteen years doing that, nine of them theater only. She found herself working on all cylinders for productions, especially when she collaborated with a friend on the show Spelling Bee and felt she had a perfect cast that rose to high levels of excellence. That show ended up in the High School Theater Festival and went downstate, the artistic and collaborative pinnacle of her career at that point.  

Now Julie transfers that passion and drive for excellence to her English classes. She gets to know so many more kids and see different sides of them. She has a different demographic than her theater kids, but these students also love performing with her guidance. They do podcasts and open mikes at ARC [Academic Resource Center] Fest; they choose and workshop their projects.

I asked Julie what has been most surprising to her as a teacher. She responded, “You don’t realize from the teacher side that many things that you need to do end up weaving together in awe-inspiring ways. You pull on things from your life.” She finds that when she’s working with kids, “everything else melts away – that magic is always there.”

A bit of a people-pleaser by nature, Julie has learned to let things roll off her back more. When theater parents were upset about the part their student got [or didn’t get], they might have preferred to believe it’s her fault instead of accepting that someone else was a better fit, but she’s learned to let that go. She uses rubrics in English to help explain students’ grades, but she acknowledges that there’s an element of subjectivity and has learned to get on the same page as parents most of the time.

Since the pandemic, the biggest issue she sees is that students, parents, and even counselors believe that students need more downtime, while she believes too much downtime leads to procrastination and feeds anxiety. She encourages her students to take a fun class or peer mentor special needs students; that way they would feel less stressed and more productive and more part of a community. Julie says her students crave community, want to feel good about themselves, and want to be challenged. She builds community and creates challenges in class.

What advice would she give to new teachers, parents, and/or the public at large? Julie acknowledges that it’s a hard time to go into teaching, that teachers have less autonomy than they used to, but that it’s worth it. She would tell a young teacher, ““If you have the drive and passion, if you seek a life of creating with young people, then find a mentor and go all in.” She has been mentored one-on-one by a retired teacher who helped her see what wasn’t working and why; she calls that the “greatest “cup-filler” of her career. Teaching is not just a job to Julie; it’s her calling. She would encourage parents to allow their kids to experience adversity and grow from it. “The thing that builds character and gives kids a sense of who they are and who they need to be is adversity.” Her teaching is an investment not only in her students’ academics but in their approach to the future.

Julie loves teaching adolescents because they may present as very sophisticated but aren’t yet set in their ways. So many kids come back and giggle about how they were and how much they’ve grown. She knew she liked kids when going into teaching but didn’t know how much she’d enjoy playing a small role in helping them discover themselves, take a loss, and develop some grit. She finds that being close to them is a fountain of youth for her and helps her feel optimistic. She finds it thrilling to see them start to develop their own set of beliefs rather than just parroting parents.

Julie really enjoys getting to know students outside of class, too.  She has traveled with kids and done extracurricular with them, and she just went to a school hockey game for senior night, discovering a whole different world that had her seeing those boys differently. She also worked with students on a food drive for a food pantry and relishes these connections. As the mother of three children under six right now, she’s had to scale back, but she still finds some time to know her students outside of class.

In the current system, Julie feels that students and families respond to incentives like weighted grades too much. She wishes students felt more of a sense of choice and that they might take classes because they’re interesting and different instead of packing their days with AP classes and creating frustrating workloads.

She herself, like all teachers, has a huge workload, so she’s learning to make peace with not being able to return some work as fast as she wants. She’s working on giving more formative feedback in class and being more selective in the other feedback she gives. Although Julie remains committed to extensive feedback in creative writing, she realizes that she needs to be thoughtful about what she chooses to collect. She sees focusing on critical thinking skills as leading to better writing.

Like many veteran teachers, Julie has faced numerous changes and challenges, but her passion for teaching and determination to support and engage her students sets her apart. She has adapted to change after change, making her an invaluable role model. Teachers like Julie Robinson Hill give us hope about the future of education.

Stop The Insanity!

The insanity continues. School shootings continue to threaten our students, and we know ways to reduce the danger. Arming teachers must not be one of them.

According to an Education Week analysis, there have been 14 school shootings this year that resulted in injuries or deaths, with 196 such shootings since 2018. There were 38 school shootings with injuries or deaths in 2023, 51 in 2022, 35 in 2021, 10 in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018. (edweek.org) Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children in the United States. (forbes.com) “The child firearm mortality rate has doubled in the U.S. from a recent low of 1.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2013 to 3.7 in 2021.” (kff.org) No other similarly large and wealthy nation has firearm mortality in its top four causes. [Ibid.] Guns surpassed car accidents as the leading cause four years ago. (cnn.com)

Everytown Research & Policy proposes a two-part plan that they say will foster safe and nurturing schools, address violence at its earliest stages, and block easy access to firearms by those who would do harm. First, they want to prevent shooters from getting access to guns by enacting sensible laws, including secure firearm storage laws and practices; enacting “Extreme Risk laws, so that law enforcement and family members can act on warning signs of violence and temporarily prevent access to firearms; raising the age to purchase semi-automatic firearms to 21; and requiring background checks on all gun sales so that minors and people with dangerous histories can’t evade gun laws.” They also propose solutions that “empower educators and law enforcement to intervene to address warning signs of violence, to provide the support that students in crisis need, and to keep shooters out of schools.” They propose “fostering safe and trusting school environments that can prevent violent incidents, creating evidence-based crisis intervention programs in schools to identify and support students who may be in crisis, implementing evidence-based security upgrades to prevent shooters’ access to schools and classrooms, and initiating trauma-informed emergency planning protocols so that staff can secure schools and law enforcement can respond quickly.”  (everytownresearch.org) Theoretically, we have the capacity to do all that. Do we have the spine?

Apparently not. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee just signed into law legislation that allows public school faculty or staff to be armed. This bill does have constraints built in, but it looks to faculty and staff to solve a problem it has failed to address. Tennessee Lookout, a non-profit news organization known for its commentary, writes, “The Tennessee ‘arm the teachers’ legislation superficially allowing public school faculty and staff to carry guns has the potential for tragic disasters and is awash with so many hurdles, caveats, and restrictions that few if any Tennessee school districts are likely to use it. When distilled to its essence, this newborn law is a legislative con job by those who want to appear to have done something to prevent school firearm violence while at the same time doing nothing. Back in Roman times, at least Nero fiddled.” (tennesseelookout.com)

Although the legislation offers guardrails and requirements, only those who approve participants will know who’s armed. Parents won’t know if their school has opted into the program or if their child’s teacher is armed. (washpost.com)

I am vehemently opposed to arming teachers. Armed and trained personnel like the police in Uvalde failed to save lives, and they have far more training in firearms than teachers ever will. Is it realistic to expect a teacher, even one trained in firearms use, to be able to get to a properly locked-up gun and use it to save lives? Might that teacher be seen as the shooter by first responders? What will stop disgruntled students from overpowering teachers and taking the guns? What is the impact on the classroom environment and student/teacher relationships? Couldn’t the resources devoted to implementing these laws be better spent on mental health responses?

There’s a reason that major stakeholder groups object to these laws. The American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, The National Association of School Resource Officers, the President and Executive Director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents 75 police forces from large cities in the USA and Canada, all oppose arming teachers. (everytownresearch.org 2)

Even before the pandemic, schools and their staff were asked to take on far more than traditional education, and the demands of student mental health issues have escalated. Placing the responsibility on teachers to solve school shootings is not only unethical; it’s also ineffective and dangerous.

We need legislators to overcome their debts to the gun lobby and do the right thing. Let’s use laws to protect our students in ways that matter. Let’s work on real gun control and keeping guns out of the classroom. Let’s have the courage to enact laws that will make everyone safer. Let’s let teachers teach.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Works Both Ways

Note: This is an op-ed with no cited research!

We recently saw a spectacular production of Purpose, an epic family drama by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, at Steppenwolf theater in Chicago. The parents in this family both project their expectations onto their two sons and label them unfairly, leading both sons to live up to those labels.

The play was a provocative exploration of family relationships that led to an hour-long discussion on the way home. To my surprise, that dialogue brought me to my frustration with the high school where I taught in Connecticut. That school offered five sections of freshman English, and they were labeled Honors, High Average, Average, Low Average, and X. Impotent as a brand-new teacher there, already planning a move to Illinois, I was powerless to convince the administration that such labels are harmful. Being called “average” may not encourage students to reach for greater success, but its impact pales in comparison to the damage done by a label like “low average,” not to mention “X.” I taught five sections that included two “average,” two “low average,” and one “X.” It must not come as a surprise that my classes lived up to [down to?] their labels, that my low average class made limited effort, and that my X class behaved terribly and did little work. I like to think that I made some progress in dispelling those labels, and I did eke some achievement out of all my students. But this experience offered the most blatant example of how important the way we label and describe people can be.

When I landed at Glenbard West, we had three levels of English for the first three years: Honors, Regular, and Basic. While those labels seem less hurtful, getting my “Basic” students to see themselves as achievers remained an uphill battle. I loved the smaller class size and less rigid curriculum that I could tailor to each class, but too many of my students accepted the premise that they were remedial students and could not expect to be successful.

I struggled to change their minds. I addressed these students formally, Ms. Smith and Mr. Jones, to show my respect. I seized on their best moments for genuine praise, like when one of my girls prompted a great discussion about why Curley’s wife doesn’t have a name like all the male characters. Together they were able to guess that Steinbeck wanted readers to see her merely as Curley’s property. When another student, responding to events in another book, said aloud, “When you choose not to choose, you have chosen,” I turned it into a poster for the class to see daily. And when one of those classes complained about being bored, I responded [as I always did] that “boredom is in the eye of the beholder.” They remained unconvinced, so I urged them to write about it. They produced this collaborative poem:

Boredom,

                  you walk around with nothing to do

you are the dull grey of an old movie

                  without the crispness of black

or the freshness of white

you stalk schoolrooms,

invading English and Biology classes –

even social studies and driver’s ed

are not immune to your attack.

You are invisible and sneak up on us,

                  Shutting down our brains

while our yawns gape, making teachers angry.

By English II-B

February, 1991

I was so pleased with their sensory details, impassioned emotions, and thoughtful word choice that I convinced them to submit their poem to the jury process for Page to Stage, our annual performance of student writing.  When it was chosen, they insisted they would not read it aloud on stage, that I should ask theater and speech students to read it for them. Knowing a bit about reverse psychology, I assured them I would do that if they weren’t up to the task. After some rehearsal during class time, they chose to participate, and watching them stand taller and taller during their choral recitation to an enthused audience is one of my favorite teaching memories. In my early years at West, I saw some of my “Basic” students go on to college, including one who went to a four-year school, something none of them would have predicted.

During the years of folded computer printer paper, when you’d just tear between pages as needed, I printed a multi-page version of a favorite quote that decorated my classroom wall: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” My belief that my students could achieve seemed to help them do just that. But when we label learners, we give them the wrong message. When we call students “Basic” or – heaven forbid! – “X,” we tell them we don’t think they can succeed. Too often they will live up to those negative expectations. We know better. We should do better by our students. We should avoid labels where we can and choose encouraging labels when we must use them. All of us fall prey to self-fulfilling prophecies, and we must stop setting students up for low expectations and failure. They deserve better.

Preparing Learners for the Future

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce produced a report, America’s Divided Recovery, proving that “Over 95 percent of jobs created during the recovery have gone to workers with at least some college education, while those with a high school diploma or less are being left behind” (https://cew.georgetown.edu). They warn that the recent job recovery focuses on high-skilled professional and managerial jobs, while the low-skill blue-collar jobs lost have not rebounded. Clearly education has a significant impact on lifetime earnings, and, according to a new report by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup, “the benefits of higher education go far beyond employment and earnings; a postsecondary degree can improve outcomes in everything from personal health and character to civic engagement and relationships” (insidehighered.com). How, then, do we re-engage students in their education and offer them a better life because of it? Student-centered classrooms are a potent start, but considering the options for our students after schooling has never been more important. Not all students can or should go to college. The job market has changed, and schools need to prepare students for the new realities they will face.

Ryan Craig, author of Apprentice Nation, points out that we’re last among developed countries for apprenticeships, with only half a million, which equates to only 0.3% of the workforce. He argues that apprenticeships, because they are real, paid jobs and allow students to check the fit of a potential career, are the best pathway, especially for underprivileged and first-generation students who tend to be bogged down with student debt (the74million.org). In the United Kingdom, apprenticeship providers go to big companies to set up and run apprentice programs where high school students work for a reduced apprentice wage and get experience (Ibid.).

Opportunities are few and far between in this country, but California has established “Apprenticeship Innovation Funding” that offers employers $3500 for every apprentice they hire and train (dir.ca.gov). The state of Indiana is transforming public high schools “by making career skills a major focus through more internships, apprenticeships and a drive to earn career credentials before graduating” (the74million.org2). Indiana will offer $5,000 Career Grant Scholarship Accounts for grades 10-12 to pursue career training.  State Rep. Chuck Goodrich, a sponsor of the bill that created the scholarships, said, “We want our students to graduate with not only a diploma, but also a credential, currency they can take with them” (the74million.org3). In Indianapolis, Victory College Prep High School “has placed every 11th and 12th grader in internships with companies or nonprofits for 10 school days a year the last five years, other than some pandemic adjustments” (the74million.org2). Staff acknowledge the need for more worksites to participate, and they are building the program.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis argues that, “A fragmented approach—where high schools, postsecondary institutions, and employers all work in their own silos— shortchanges everyone” (the74million.org4). Colorado has been a leader in preparing learners for the world of work: “roughly 53% of high school graduates in Colorado earn college credit or industry credentials through dual and concurrent enrollment while in high school, saving them an estimated $53 million annually on tuition costs. A growing number also participate in apprenticeship and “learn while you earn” models” (Ibid.). Although the state already has intermediaries pairing businesses and youth as well as Pathways in Technology Early College High School models, it has created a task force “to develop and recommend policies, laws, and rules to support the equitable and sustainable expansion and alignment of programs that integrate secondary, postsecondary, and work-based learning opportunities” (Ibid.).

Some individual schools around the country are beefing up their Career and Technical Education programs. John Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia, offers programs in Business, Information Technology, Health and Medical Sciences, Marketing, Technology Education, and Trade and Industrial Education (www.wps.k12.va.us). Elgin, Illinois, just received a YouthBuild grant for 16-24-year-old students who didn’t graduate high school; it provides mentoring and on-the-job training (haeelgin.org). In Georgia, the German-inspired Georgia Consortium for Advanced Technical Training (GA CATT) starts students in Coweta County south of Atlanta as apprentices sophomore year, likely the youngest members of any apprentice program in the U.S. For example, Walker Reese finished his three-year apprenticeship as a maintenance technician as he finished high school last spring and walked into a full-time job at Blickle Wheels and Casters in the city of Newnan. (the74million.org5). Such programs are common in Germany.

I am a big believer in a liberal arts education that empowers learners to think and to problem solve, but such an education on its own may not be enough for many students. The American “college for all” mentality does not serve all students well, as many fail to graduate or end up underemployed and in debt. It also does not serve the country well, as it fails to feed the pipeline for skilled workers in specific fields. We should learn from other developed countries and build apprenticeship programs and meaningful career and technical education. Then we will be serving both our students and our national interest.

A Blueprint for Meaningful Educational Reform

Words are inadequate to describe my excitement when I discovered XQ Institute, an organization “dedicated to rethinking high school” (xqsuperschool.org)! I’ve been poring through their material, and they promote everything I believe about how to redesign schools.

XQ Institute was co-founded by board chair Laurene Powell Jobs, founder and president of Emerson Collective, and Russlynn Ali, XQ’s CEO and former U.S. assistant secretary of education for civil rights. XQ’s board of directors also includes Geoffrey Canada, Marc Eckō, Jimmy Iovine, Michael Klein, and Yo-Yo Ma.

XQ Institute maintains that a school that bases its rethinking on this set of design principles “fully realizes its potential to achieve a bold, holistic, student-centered school design”:

  • Strong mission and culture
  • Meaningful, engaged learning
  • Caring, trusting relationships
  • Youth voice and choice
  • Community partnerships
  • Smart use of time, space, and tech (xqsuperschool.org)

These principles encourage shared values to drive change, interdisciplinary and engaged learning strategies, effective personal connections, student-centered learning with some level of autonomy, and the expansion of non-traditional approaches and flexible use of technology tools. What’s not to like?!!

I believe this framework effectively incorporates best practices that could transform schools and leads naturally to the XQ Learner Outcomes:

  • Masters of all fundamental literacies
  • Holders of foundational knowledge
  • Original thinkers for an uncertain world
  • Generous collaborators for tough problems
  • Learners for life (xqsuperschool.org2)

XQ Institute offers this ultimate goal: “students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and fully prepared for all that the future has to o­ffer” (xqsuperschool.org3). Doesn’t this description fit the needs of students, schools, and the country?

This set of outcomes reminds me of the Glenbard Essential Qualities I’ve written about previously. In the 1990s, they were knowledgeable person, critical thinker, effective communicator, quality producer, collaborative worker, responsible individual, and socially responsible citizen. They’ve evolved in important ways, and now include the following:

  • Practices responsible decision-making and considers impact on others
  • Creates, monitors and reflects upon ambitious and realistic goals 
  • Builds and sustains strong, healthy relationships 
  • Advocates for self and others in a socially responsible, empathetic manner
  • Employs a growth mindset that includes self-regulation, motivation, and resiliency
  • Communicates
  • Thinks Critically
  • Embraces Diversity
  • Creates
  • Collaborates (glenbard87.org)

The shift to verbs instead of nouns makes the qualities more proactive, and the new list seems even more aligned with my values as an educator and with the XQ Framework I admire.

The XQ Institute provides specific tools and materials to help schools undertake a serious self-evaluation and work toward change. Just imagine how a school might evolve to serve its students and community better if it shapes its curriculum and pedagogical design around these principles!

Change is hard, and school systems suffer from inertia. Visionary leadership from a thoughtful organization, accompanied by materials to lead schools through self-exploration, offers a real opportunity to transform schools to meet the needs of today’s students and the world. I would love to see school systems embrace the XQ Institute Approach. Our students, our schools, and our country badly need – and deserve – these changes.

Learning from the Best Teachers

For me personally, one of the greatest joys of having been a teacher for many years is the continuing relationships I have with former students. Discovering how they are making their way in the world and getting to know them as adults and peers is a gift. It also pleases me enormously that so many of my former students have chosen to teach. Some have left the classroom, but others are still phenomenally engaged.

Even as I struggle with the current teacher shortage and an inadequate teacher pipeline, I find hope in the passion and commitment of some teachers currently in the classroom. I recently got to talk to one of those teachers, my student almost twenty-five years ago, and his remarks inspired confidence in me once again. So I’d like to share some of them here.

Marc Nelson teaches art to 4th through 8th graders in Kewanee, Illinois, a district where 80% of students receive free lunch. His lovely wife, Jill Bartelt, teaches reading and math there. I remember his phenomenal artwork and his passion for literature in high school, including his I-Search paper on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Like me, Marc was inspired to become a teacher when a fourth-grade teacher invited him to teach his sister’s first grade class about his passion for Knights. Just as I fell in love with teaching as a sixth-grader when I read to my first-grade teacher’s children, Marc, too, was captivated by teaching. He initially thought he would teach history at the college level, but his love for literature and an amazing Shakespeare professor at Augustana inspired him to unite his passions through his art.

Because I follow Marc on Facebook, I have seen first-hand the way he incorporates other fields in his classroom. His kids don’t get to museums and art galleries, and they live in a more rural environment, but Marc introduces them to art and artists they would otherwise never meet. He involves them in projects that extend well beyond the classroom.

I asked what has been most satisfying about teaching for him. Marc spoke of a great administration and the amount of freedom and support they offer him. Every year he gets to try new projects and align classroom work with content area teachers. For example, when social studies classes are exploring the Great Depression, that becomes the focus in his art class. He says, “There are seemingly endless opportunities and ways to teach certain things.” He used available stop-motion equipment so his 7th and 8th graders could create a film together based on a true incident. His students often brainstorm a list of subjects they’re interested in and try to marry two of them. They’ve combined Covid and WW II, and the Ukraine in general and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe with mass graves that weren’t found until the 1990s. That’s the crux of why he loves this job so much – “It never gets old.”

When I asked about frustrations, he acknowledged a real drop in base knowledge of the average student and in maturity levels. Since the pandemic, behavior and attendance are bigger issues. Marc claims he’s pretty easy-going, so sometimes students test his limits. Yet Marc retains remarkable enthusiasm.

Marc’s experience in Americorps took him to numerous public schools where he saw vitality and energy. He chose to teach public school instead of college and likes that middle school and high school students aren’t yet fully formed. He found subbing at the local junior college art class quiet and less dynamic. The joy of discovery that his younger students find delights and surprises him. He engages them in community projects. “The work goes beyond the walls of the school, and the kids get so excited!”

Marc has avoided some of the parent interactions and interference that have been the bane of existence for other teachers. In addition to his administrative support, he tries to anticipate parent issues and come up with appropriate responses. He has had parents question some of his projects, but thoughtful discussion resolved those issues.

I admire Marc’s use of his art outside the classroom as well. He has mounted shows of his drawings of oppressed people in Syria, Israel, and Gaza. His students see him walk his talk about going out into the world, and that must inspire them. You can explore his work at www.marcnelsonart.com.

I also asked about advice for new teachers. Marc said, “Invest yourself in whatever you’re teaching, find a way that it’s fascinating to you which will help you ‘deliver’ it effectively.” He also urges parents to use their time with their kids to foster interests and raise a consummate, lifelong learner. They should ask their students about their passions and learning, build on that, read them books and take them places, and support the current instruction at home. He urges the public: “Do not give lip service to the importance of children but then hamstring teachers. Back up that importance with support for teachers and the schools. Attend events, go to fundraisers.” Too many people seem to think that public school teachers are just servants who are not worthy of respect.

Marc respects his students: “They’re so much more capable of remarkable things than I gave them credit for before I knew them.”  He likes responding to what’s happening with artists and what’s happening in the world. He gets them to engage with the times we’re living in and tells them, “When you walk through this door, you’re an artist and this is your studio.”

In a perfect world, Marc he would love to have more world-based projects – for all classes. He agrees that better pay and more respect for teachers are overdue. The workload remains arduous, but Marc avoids burnout by doing what he’s passionate about. He appreciates the freedom not to be bogged down testing and grading tests, and he values the support he gets (and gives).

Clearly there aren’t enough Marc Nelsons to go around – don’t we wish we could clone teachers like him? But he offers clear guidelines on how we all can help other teachers be their best selves:

  • Good teachers who are meeting standards need the freedom to design how they get there.
  • Students deserve projects and experiences that take them beyond the walls of the classroom.
  • Teachers need to support and encourage each other. Administrators, parents, and community members need to support good teachers.
  • When teachers can find a point of passion in their subject, they transmit that passion. The curriculum needs to be flexible enough to let them find those passions.

These are not “pie-in-the-sky” goals. They are achievable and worthwhile. Aren’t our kids worth it?

Charter Schools: Yay or Nay?

Image by Adam Lapuník

As an educator, I have complicated feelings about charter schools. I am committed to a public school system that serves all of our children, and I do worry that charters siphon off students who might help lead classrooms if they stayed in public school. On the other hand, the inertia of our school system makes change very challenging to accomplish. Unlike parochial schools and other private schools, charter schools are public schools funded by state and federal governments; they’re free to attend and open to the public. Depending on the state they’re in and their particular charter, however, they do not share all the constraints of traditional public schools. Charter schools have a level of freedom that’s valuable.

It’s been 35 years since Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, first suggested charter schools, and 31 years since the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota.(charterschoolcenter.ed.gov) Now over 7,000 charter schools in North America have more than 3 million students enrolled. (chalkbeat.org)

Chris Drew, PhD known as “The Helpful Professor,” identifies potential strengths of charter schools that are not as tied to state regulations, such as innovative and effective teaching, methods, a sense of community, and specialization in specific curricular areas. He warns, though, that charter schools vary by state, vary in quality, may have high teacher turnover rates, and often depend on fundraising. (helpfulprofessor.com)

According to Psyche Pascual of GreatSchools.org, charters are like public schools in that they administer the same state-mandated standardized tests; don’t charge tuition; can’t discriminate by race, sex, or disability in their enrollment; and are accountable to the city, state, county, or district that granted their charter. They can organize staff differently, however, and they may be run by a non-profit or a for-profit organization. They may have a founding educational philosophy like Waldorf or Montessori, but they may not. Nor are they always limited to hiring teachers with credentials. Many charters were founded by a group of committed parents or community members, and they often require parental involvement. (greatschools.org)

Current research suggests that charter schools are clearly gaining on public schools in terms of student achievement. In a recent landmark study, researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which studies charter schools, found that Black and Hispanic

charter school students advanced more than their counterparts in traditional public schools “by large margins” in math and reading. The study also found stronger “academic growth” among charter school students living in poverty and English-language learners, compared with similar students at traditional public schools. (usnews.com)

The Stanford 2023 report shows that, in the 15 years since their 2009 study, public school performance remained relatively flat, while students enrolled in charter schools showed large, positive growth. Over the 15 years between the studies, the reading growth of students in charter schools rose by 23 days of learning each year and student learning in math increased by 37 days of learning each year. (ncss3.stanford.edu)

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research used multiple factors beyond test scores to evaluate Chicago charter high schools. Although their students had a higher turnover rate than those in public schools (which is typical of charter schools), they still outperformed their public equivalents. Charter students appear to benefit from certain advantages over public schools: a collegial sense of responsibility and trust, higher expectations for moving up a grade and for college attendance, and greater parental involvement. (chalkbeat.org)

The charter school population continues to grow as well. Since the pandemic, 1.5 million students have left public schools, while enrollment at public charter schools grew by more than 300,000 students between 2019-20 and 2022-23, a 9% increase.  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 2022 annual enrollment report identified multiple factors valued by parents: higher-quality instruction (54%), smaller school and class sizes (47%), and better safety (47%) than district schools. (the74million.org)

Research on return on investment is especially compelling. Researchers from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform compared funding with performance data from the National Assessment of Education Progress and research findings from the CREDO Institute at Stanford University. They found significantly higher gains in charter schools compared to their public counterpoints: in reading, charters average 4.4 NAEP points higher per $1,000 spent than traditional public schools, making charter schools 41% more cost-effective in reading; in math, charters average 4.7 points higher per $1,000 funded, making them 43% more cost-effective in math. On average, each dollar invested in a student’s schooling in traditional public schools yields $3.94 in lifetime earnings. That same dollar invested in a charter school student yields $6.25 in lifetime earnings — a 58% higher return on investment over the course of a 13-year education. (bpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com)

The varied success rates of charter schools mirror the varied success rates of public schools, so their biggest advantage may well be the choice that parents and students get. Research confirms however, that charter school students are gaining an advantage over their public school peers. As an educator, surely I should be convinced to support charters. I have a grandchild in San Francisco who will benefit from school choice. Does that make me squirm? A bit… I do wish that public schools could have some of the flexibility available to charter schools, which might allow them to see equally fine results. If and when that happens, I will remain an avid supporter of public schools. In the meantime, however, I acknowledge the advantage of choice for so many of our students.

A Win-Win Solution

when did portland

The teacher shortage remains serious. The job has gotten even harder, pay has not kept up, and student and parent behavior is often problematical.

Portland, Oregon had its first-ever teacher strike this November after bargaining for five months when the previous contract expired. Portland’s over 4000 teachers were striking not only for more pay but for smaller classes and better working conditions. (apnews.com) They did reach a tentative agreement on November 26, and students returned to school on November 27. Teacher pay did increase, but not as much as teachers had sought, and the new contract does include extra pay for larger classes and class size committees instead of hard caps. (opb.org) Will changes like these in Portland and other districts be enough? Only time will tell.

Understaffed schools around the country are hiring long-term subs and unqualified candidates for roles normally filled by certified teachers. Teacher turnover rose to a historically high 14 percent in the 2021-22 school year, further exacerbating the problem. 

The Annenberg Institute at Brown University analyzed national teacher shortages. They found a national vacancy rate of at least 36,500 teaching positions, but when they extrapolate to include states that didn’t provide data, they believe the vacancy rate is closer to 52,800 positions. They also assert that over 5% of positions are held by unqualified teachers. They point out that the vacancy rates vary dramatically across regions and states. “For example, the vacancy rate per 10,000 students is more than 159 times as high in Mississippi as it is in Missouri.” (researchgate.net)

Teachers currently serving in schools are leaving faster than usual. Over a year ago, Brenda Cassellius, the Superintendent of Boston Public Schools, wrote about their high vacancy rate and shortage of bus drivers and substitutes. She asserts that we are losing current teachers and don’t have enough in the pipeline because pay and working conditions are so much better in other fields. (washingtonpost.com) My friends who are still teaching say that helicopter parents and students who too often no longer honor behavioral norms are driving them out. Hannah Natanson, a prize-winning education journalist for The Washington Post, provides a litany of factors: “Experts point to a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents — and sometimes their own school board members — have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues.” (washingtonpost.com2)

Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization committed to covering education and school improvement, warns that “Teachers appear to be leaving at higher rates, and there’s been a longer-standing decline in people training to become teachers. At the same time, schools may have wanted to hire more teachers than usual because they remain flush with COVID relief money and want to address learning loss. That’s a recipe for a shortage.” They also point out that high-poverty schools are the hardest hit. (chalkbeat.org)

NPR points out that certain kinds of teachers are still in short supply, teacher shortages hit high-poverty and high-minority schools more, teacher pay has stagnated even as the cost of a teaching degree has nearly doubled, and fewer people have been training to become teachers for nearly a decade. (npr.org) We need to address all of these factors.

“The Biden administration has unveiled a three-point plan to address teacher shortages: partner with recruitment firms to find new potential applicants, subsidize other prospective teachers’ training, and pay them more so they’ll stay…” (edweek.org) Improving pay, calming the culture wars, offering mentoring programs would all help.

There is another answer, though. Teaching is an exhausting job. Veteran teachers might not retire if they were permitted to job share with another teacher and cut their days and workload. Young teachers who might be primary parents might jump at the chance to job share to make their teaching role more compatible with the demands of their personal life. Younger teachers might help veterans update their skills in evolving areas like technology, while those veterans could mentor their younger partners in areas like classroom management and assessment. Ideally, each might even help cover the absences of the other.

 Helly Douglas claims “the lack of flexible working is a key reason teachers don’t return to the job after taking a career break. There are 250,000 former teachers of working age who are not teaching in state schools. Increasing part-time options could be a massive help to those who want to return but can’t because of health, family commitments or lack of available part-time jobs.” (medium.com) Just imagine what a powerful addition many of those teachers could be.

I loved teaching and really enjoyed mentoring new teachers, but I retired because I wanted to spend time with my grandchildren before they grew up completely and because I was tired. When I posed job-sharing to my district, they turned me down. People like me, with a job-share partner, could fill many of those shortages, and job-sharing teachers could learn from each other, which would benefit their students. This is an idea whose time has come!