“Thank you for teaching the way you do.”

Twice a year, we have a sit-down evaluation/summary of our teaching. I say summary, because we actually get many ten minute observations – “evals” I call them – throughout the semester by multiple administrators, then a longer observation by the administrator directly assigned to the specific teacher. The main evaluator ties all of these individual evals into a summary, and shares the good, the bad, the goals/hopes for the next year…. You get the idea. I got mine yesterday. To paraphrase an award-winning actress, ‘they like me, they really like me!’

I teach because I love what I do. I love developing relationships with these young people. I love the process of discovery as together we learn how to learn, as I watch their confidence in themselves grow, as I let them struggle and grapple with the elements of learning. This process enthralls me. I think about ways to engage and nurture, ways to teach differently, ways to explain, to get students up out of their seats, to mystify, to surprise, and to delight.

It makes what I love to do that much sweeter when I realize that my employers value what I am doing – and they like the way I am doing it. It isn’t often that we get thanked for what we do. Yesterday, my admin said “thank you.” He said it more than once, in more ways than one, and I knew he really meant it.

When I work with my students, I revel in those moments when every child is engaged simply because they want to see if they can “do it.” That may seem an odd phrase, but it really is what teaching does.

What we also do is give them the “challenge” of doing. That child that puts his head down, that student chatting with his neighbor, or the one who distracts the class with silly comments or antics – are usually the ones who don’t know how. They don’t know how to begin, they don’t understand, they don’t know or think they don’t want to know. They weren’t listening for whatever reason, so now they are stuck. They use these coping mechanisms because they are uncomfortable not knowing, or they want to deflect the punishment they know and expect will come from their not knowing. These students are the ones who are most in need of our best teaching. This is also where the relationship we build becomes so critical. Without it, teaching on any real and lasting level will not happen.

My admin told me he loved watching the way I “handled” the situations with my kids, the way I was able to keep them individually engaged. He said I listened to the children, and used their feedback to tailor the lesson to address those needs.

Where does this knowledge leave me, the teacher? For me, it means my lessons need to lead to successes, small, visible, measurable, and very real, for that child! It means I have to meet each child where they are. It means I remind them of what they already know, encourage them to use that knowledge, and help them connect that to something else. Then I do that all over again with the next child, the next lesson. It never ends. But every layer added will eventually produce real learning: understanding, retention long term, and a personally rewarding feeling for the child that, I believe, will motivate these children to become persons hungry for more challenges, more successes – you, know, those college and career ready adults of our goals!

My most recent, and longest, eval was just two days ago. I received two “exemplary”, among the “proficient” scores from my admin. They were for the differentiations in the lesson and for the rigor. He commented on the expectation I had that every one of my students can and will learn the material, and that it showed through in my teaching. Then he told me that not every teacher felt that way. He also said that he expected next year that I would see even more “exemplary” scores. Apparently, I’m not the only one here with expectations!

We are moving into the last great pull of this semester. Between county requirements and unit material, there will be a test of some sort every week until the finals. In between, spring break will come and go, taking much of the student learning with it! There is no longer enough time. As my mom said to me as I left for college at eighteen, “if I haven’t taught you by now, it’s too late,” I want to believe that my students will carry something good from their time with me into their future, and not just memorize, pass the test, and move on.

“Thank you for teaching the way you do. Don’t stop doing what you are doing. You are a wonderful teacher, and we appreciate everything you do. Thank you.”

I couldn’t do what I do without my kids. I love what I do, even on the “bad” days, when discouragement, frustration, and a deep questioning of my own abilities hits hard. So, to all of you who teach, who struggle with whatever stumbling block: student, administrative, personal fears and concerns, that keeps you awake at night – THANK YOU FOR TEACHING THE WAY YOU DO! You matter. What you do matters. And even if you don’t hear it from anybody else, hear it from me, another teacher. YOU ROCK! (You really do!) Thank you.


When testing becomes superfluous…

So my colleague was commenting about another teacher complaining that the test was all procedure and no processing…. 

Let me back up a little. Formative assessment is constant, very informal, and is, at its heaviest, a quiz. Summative assessment, on the other hand, is very formal, comes at specific breaks in the unit and at the end, and is administered to all classes in the same curriculum. Once the curriculum summative is created, it is provided to each teacher. In the above instance, the teachers was complaining to the curriculum chair about the current test.

My colleague felt this teacher should have known the purpose for the summative: our summatives were just testing practice for the course final. 

I admit I was caught off guard- I didn’t know this was the purpose of our summatives either!

The argument made to me was “we really shouldn’t need to “test” (summative with a capital S) children unless they were making up material or they were remediating…” Huh?

It got me thinking about the true purpose of testing. If we are truly teaching for understanding, then testing is really superfluous, isn’t it? They will use the knowledge regularly, without the need to answer poorly constructed, artificial situations that are designed to test what they don’t know, with trick answers that are designed with the errors that are “usually” made by “most” students. There is something stinky about assessments with test banks so protected that they are secured better than banks! 

So let’s talk about how we, as teachers, can make summative testing truly superfluous.

Sonata in C, and Fluency: there is a price to be paid….

I found myself grading mounds of worksheets, and a couple of quizzes (remediations, really), and I began to wonder if I’d turned into one of those worksheet, algorithmic, obsessed teachers that focus on skill and drill over understanding. And I was beginning to despair, just a little. 

I thought about my students, and what allows them to experience success, because it is the successes that motivate each one of them to keep going, to persevere in the “icky, sticky, I don’t get this” parts where they struggle. Part of the reason my students struggle is the lack of fluency. Each concept, each set of steps, each decision they make to solve or simplify, takes a huge cognitive load. They exhaust themselves just remembering what they need to do to factor a number (“Mrs. M., what is a factor again?”)

These children are not fluent. Not in multiplication tables, not in knowing the difference between base and exponent – more than half of them will tell you, “a negative plus a negative is a positive, because two positives make a negative.” I remind them they are adding, not multiplying, and they bravely leap back in, “oh yeah, -11 plus -3 is 8.” And this is after they have laboriously put the computation in the calculator… And I draw another number line on the board, or we play the game where they move their token up and down a number line to the tune of positive and negative numbers.

These babies of mine are not fluent! But they will get there. And therein is my saving grace with the worksheet thing. You see, I learned to play the piano, and I took ballet lessons, and I was on the swim team. And I was good at them in that order. But each of those activities required PRACTICE! I knew what it took to swim 50 meters fast enough to claim the silver, the red, and the blue ( third, second, and first, respectively), but I was better at collecting the silver than the red or blue, because, well, practice was held in the cool early summer mornings – when I’d rather be sleeping, or reading, or doing anything else than getting wet and cold over and over and over…. Well, you get the picture! I never got “fluent” at the swimming thing. 

Ballet was a little better – no water! But I wasn’t slender or limber, and I couldn’t lift my leg to the bar without a pulley! I loved the plié, and the costumes and the recitals, but my heart wasn’t in it, (probably because my body wouldn’t cooperate by being tiny and graceful – one can only take so much of that feeling like a cow among graceful swans!) 

Then there was the piano. We had an old upright; beautiful and rich sounding tones would pour forth when my mother played. She could play everything! And if she couldn’t play it, she could sight read the music. I soon learned to love the sounds I could produce. I wanted to play the classics – Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and Bach and Beethoven. I wanted to play the rich beautiful pieces mom could play. I had heard them, I could read the notes, but I had to become fluent in the patterns. I would play the pieces haltingly, getting a feel for the notes, but then, to really learn the piece, I would have to practice small sections   – bar by beastly bar, until my fingers would traipse the keys of their own accord, and the piano would yield up its beautiful tones for me, the way it did for my mom. 

So, back to the piles of worksheets. I look at them: logarithms and exponentials; growth and decay word problems; breaking down the formula, picking out the beginning value, the ending value, calculating the rate factor from the rate; understanding the idea of 100% being expressed as one. My babies are practicing their fluency with the notation, even as we put details to the numbers on the page. While I teach for understanding, I really want to show them the beauty and the majesty of math’s rich and beautiful notes. I want them to want to produce the beauty that comes as they practice; as they practice the changing from exponential to logarithmic so that they can spot what they need to do when they have to calculate for time, instead of finding an ending balance; as they practice because fluency takes a lot of that cognitive, heavy, exhausting work and turns it into a beautiful smile when the light clicks on and the child yells, “Mrs. M, I got it, let me come up to the board and write the answer!” And so I will keep on with the practice, worksheet by beautiful worksheet. Success breeds confidence. Confidence breeds courage – the kind you need when you tackle something new, or when you persevere because you believe you can find a solution. 

To cut down on the paper (and the grading) I’ll keep varying the tasks:  physical practice, verbal practice, mental math practice, practice through competition, things like Jeopardy or Kahoot, because practice builds fluency, fluency builds success, and success is what keeps us trying. 

I did finally learn to play a pretty mean Sonata in C, but there was a price I paid to gain the fluency I needed. And, while I am not as good as I used to be, when my fingers find a piano, they slip into the gracefulness that eluded me in ballet, and the speed my body lacked in swimming competition, and they can “fluently” find the notes that will make the piano, and my heart, sing!