I have been working in schools for eight years as a teacher, department lead, and instructional coach. I am by no means a veteran of the field. Despite this, by and large, I have been left alone to independently seek resources to improve my practice or received coaching that was ineffective and misaligned to the realities of my classroom.
I’ve always felt this disconnect, but it hit me even more concretely this week in a professional development session for instructional coaches. We were asked to describe the best mentor we’ve had as educators — what were the qualities that allowed us to learn from them, the structures they used to teach us, and the lessons we learned from them? As I scanned my memories of the last eight years, the officially assigned coaches or mentors did not come immediately to mind. Instead, it has been peers, books, online forums, and my students that filled my head with lessons and pushed me to improve.
As I reflected more deeply, going year by year, I realized how much of my lack of professional development stemmed from greater issues in public education: lack of financial resources, inexperienced teachers and administrators trained by alternative certification programs, high staff turnover and burnout, and the heavy focus on standardized tests.
In my first year teaching, I was assigned a mandatory mentor to meet with biweekly. She rarely observed my classes or asked for lesson plans as a source of data to develop my personalized goals; she usually asked me how I was feeling about my own practice. Much like a doctor asking a patient to diagnose themselves, she left it to me, a twenty-one year old novice, to pick a focus area for my learning. I gave the answers that “felt” right, but I was never confident I was seeking the right resources. Most of our sessions focused on classroom management, but since she hadn’t seen my students’ behavior or my delivery, her feedback consisted of things I had already found in books like The First Days of School or Teach like a Champion: stand at the door and greet students, circulate around the room a lot, don’t put your back to the class while writing on the board, etc. It was disconnected from what was actually going on in my classroom and my planning, and it flat out didn’t work to make me better or help my students. I usually left those sessions feeling more exhausted and confused than before we met. I want to go back and coach myself like Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghost of PD future. “Stop focusing on behavior. Look at your lesson plans. Script your questions ahead of time. Pick more engaging content. Get to know the kids better. Really listen to what they’re saying in class.”
In my second year, it was assumed by administration that as I had survived my first year, I was competent enough to be left alone. The principal (who had taught for only four years before being fast tracked into administration through the Leadership Academy) came once mid-year, observed for fifteen minutes, and left. We never had a post-observation meeting. At the end of the year, I was asked to sign off on five “Satisfactory” observations for my file towards tenure. I survived that year, and learned via trial by fire. I came out feeling grizzled, and wondered if teaching was for me. I had no idea if I was doing a good job, and though I had strong relationships with my students and their academic results seemed solid, I felt unmoored in my career. I thought about leaving teaching, but stayed because I loved my students and the community I worked in.
Fortunately, in my third year, a group of veterans formed an informal peer observation group. The plan was to pick a partner, observe them every other week, then meet in the off-weeks to debrief and give suggestions and discuss. This was the most important group I have ever been a part of professionally. Throughout the year, I was paired with teachers across grade level and content area with varying levels of experience and teaching styles. Through spending time in their classrooms, I learned an infinite number of lessons — everything from how to use the physical space in my classroom more creatively to how to infuse engaging multimedia into the most mundane lessons. I am eternally grateful to the teachers who voluntarily gave up lunch breaks to meet with me, who welcomed me into their classrooms, and allowed me to question their methods with a generosity of spirit that made me the educator I am today. Their lesson plans, their teacher voices, and their passion for the true work of teaching lives in every class I have ever taught or PD session I have led.
After my third year, I moved to a brand new school as a founding team member. The school had not been planned well from its inception, and amidst the chaos of figuring out new systems for everything from collecting attendance to choosing curriculum, our administration had less than zero time for coaching. The only instances that an observer ever came to my class were reactive, in both negative and positive ways. If there were conflicts between certain students, a visitor might come for a little bit and stay in the room, but the focus was never on instruction, only physical and emotional safety. Conversely, I would frequently invite the whole school community into my class to see presentations, debates, or readers’ theater my students were sharing to celebrate success. Rarely did anyone, especially from administration, take me up on my offer. I was so disappointed I couldn’t foster the same “open-door” policy among the new staff that had become so important to me at my old school. Once or twice, the principal popped in and complimented my classroom management, but the content or structure of my lessons was not a point of discussion. Still, I could only judge from my students’ reflections and my own research that I was learning to become a better teacher. Again, I didn’t receive any formal feedback for an entire school year.
Finally, the following year, I got a coach. She was an experienced, passionate, and purposeful educator who asked me early in the year, “What do you want to work on? What should I look for when I observe?” She came to my class, stayed for entire periods, took detailed notes, and videotaped my lessons. This Cinderella with a ragged unit plan got a fairy godmother full of probing questions and content knowledge. She let me drive my goals — I wanted to learn how to question better, how to flip my classroom so I could be a facilitator and my students would be accountable for accessing the knowledge they sought. This coach pushed me to consider how to increase the number of minutes students were speaking to each other in class, and we researched techniques and strategies together. We watched taped footage of my class together, attended external PD workshops together, and re-wrote curriculum together. I had never felt more effective or energized; I knew my decisions in planning were grounded in evidence-based strategies, my students were performing at extremely high levels in both standardized tests and project-based assessments. I was able to use the innovation and pilot strategies we had come up with to teach others in my department. It was exactly the teaching utopia I had dreamed of. And then, because of nasty political decision-making at the administrative level, my fairy godmother left to work at another school. I was devastated, but I didn’t blame her. I knew the coaching she had given me was rare, and I was still craving her expertise and constant challenges to improve.
In my last year at this school, I experienced a slow decline in my emotional engagement in the work of teaching, despite having extremely high test scores and a greater leadership role in the school. I was observed the most I had ever been in my career, but it was the least helpful time I’ve spent in meetings. While my previous coach had tracked things like percentage of student vs. teacher talk, rigor of questioning, and text complexity in her observations, my new coach was checking items off on a list, exactly the same as he had in every other class he visited: Were rules posted? Was there common formatting on worksheets? Did I have a behavior tracker on the wall? And most importantly, was there a standardized test question embedded in every lesson? The deep, personal inquiry into student learning was replaced with questions of compliance and testing. I pushed back in feedback meetings, and was reminded repeatedly that our students would only graduate if they passed the state exam. I wanted to shoot higher than the state test. I wanted my students doing college-level work, thinking beyond a simple multiple choice test question. I wanted them to question me, the texts, and each other. I wanted them to argue, reflect, and create authentic artifacts of their learning. But the resistance I faced was strong, and it drove me out of the classroom.
Today, I work to mentor new teachers-in-training, and much of my drive for coaching is rooted in a desire for them (and most importantly, their students) to have what I did not. This year, I’m challenging myself to plan my coaching with the three major things that worked for me in mind: personalized development goals grounded in classroom observations and student data, opportunities for peer-to-peer observation and feedback, and use of coaching time to seek new resources and work side by side with a mentor, rather than receiving top-down feedback. I hope to be transparent about these goals with my team, so that when fatigue hits in March, they’ll hold me accountable to what I said I would do, and refocus me as the facilitator of a community of adult learners.
I challenge you, educators of all types: do what you can to support your colleagues’ growth to help prevent burnout and turnover.
New teachers: find a veteran and hang out in their classroom while they teach. Ask them questions about their practice and take risks to try some of their techniques.
Veterans: instead of chatting with them in the teacher’s lounge, open your classroom door to the fresh-faced teachers joining your staff this year. Show them how you balance all of the hats you wear as a teacher. Create a community of teachers who support and learn from each other.
Administrators and coaches: ask questions of the teachers you coach. What do they see as their biggest challenge? Where do they want to grow? Work alongside your teachers to develop a culture of inquiry and learning. Seek feedback from them all along the way, instead of just providing yours.
Let’s make this school year one that fosters development for all, so our children can reap the benefits.
I was a teaching artist for 15 years before I made the leap to full-time administrative work. A lot of factors contributed to this decision: I quit acting (feeling I needed to establish myself as something more than a performer), my wife lost her job, and I wanted to develop new skills. At that time, my colleague Michael Wiggins, newly crowned Director of Education at Urban Arts Partnership (UAP), was focused on increasing the pedagogical acumen of the organization. He hired me as an Instructional Coach for Fresh Prep (a groundbreaking program using Hip-Hop music and culturally responsive pedagogy to support previously failing New York City students as they work to pass the Social Studies and ELA Regents Exams). So I left acting in November of 2013.
My first task at UAP was to write a process-drama curriculum that supplemented the program’s academically oriented Hip-Hop music; this was right up my alley, as I love designing engaging lessons for students. The wonderful thing was that writing this curriculum wasn’t too far off from the teaching artist work I’d been doing; the only difference was that I myself wouldn’t be teaching every lesson. It seemed like an easy transition into full-time, gainful employment. And, as I pushed to finish the first edition of Global History lessons for Fresh Prep, not once did I miss performing, particularly because while I was writing I was also able to observe our TAs in classrooms and lead professional development workshops for teachers and administrators. I was working in a field directly related to my passions, without having to worry about finding the next gig. Well, kind of…
What I learned — the hard way — is that my full-time salary, paid regularly every two weeks, was not enough to successfully subsist. Taxes were exorbitant, and I had to be in the office five days a week, so it was difficult to pick up extra work; I realized that although teaching artists live from paycheck to paycheck, if scheduled strategically, TAs can make more money than their administrative counterparts. As a teaching artist, I could cobble together various residencies to make a decent income. I didn’t receive paid vacation, but on the other hand I was not beholden to be anywhere. I could work a three-day week, focusing on something else the other four. I could go to a bar at noon on a Tuesday (which I often did, before my kids were born). This full-time job was actually putting me in the hole. I had to find a way to make more money.
As an actor, I always had a backup plan; with this in mind, I made sure that I stayed on the teaching artist rosters at several organizations. I was able to work weeknights, on Saturdays, and could even teach the occasional early-morning class before heading into the office at 10. I was hustling just as much as I had before my full-time gig, and yet I knew I needed to continue working as an administrator. Why? Because I felt people had more respect for an organization’s administrators than its teaching artists. Sensing an opportunity to grow as an educator, I had to spend less time in the classroom and more time behind a desk; it was frustrating, but I believed it would be beneficial in the long run. And, because I was a good Instructional Coach, I was quickly promoted to run UAP’s Professional Development Program. This seemed like a great move, mostly because I happen to love working with teachers and informing their practices; in fact, it is what I love most about being an adjunct instructor at NYU.
Did I forget to write that? I’m also a university professor on the side. In 2010, when I was still acting and freelancing as a TA, I was asked to teach a college course, and over the years I have been offered several more.
In my first position at UAP, I juggled teaching multiple courses, writing curriculum, and working hands-on with Fresh Prep teams in schools. However, in my new role as Professional Development Manager, my primary focus became coordinating schedules; I was rarely able to observe team members, because all the workshops happened either at the same time (in four different boroughs) or during school hours, when I needed to be on-call for our TAs and partner organizations. This was a highly administrative job, and it did not allow me to teach as much as I liked. I was becoming the admin guy.
Did I miss performing? Not really. But I did miss being in the room with a group of students, creating magic. The days of “make a circle” and “clap once if you can hear me,” or “tell me how that made you feel,” were gone. I was beginning to long for those precious moments when I’d have to ask students to stop throwing markers, fighting, or, you know, licking each other. I was now a program manager who knew how to make one sick spreadsheet, use Salesforce, and transfer attendance records for the accountant to report. I was sinking into a sea of systems, trying to claw my way toward the light just above the breaks.
Soon after making this move, UAP received an Arts in Education — Model Development and Dissemination grant from the U.S. Department of Education to adapt Fresh Prep for middle schools; this new initiative was called Fresh Ed, and I was asked to come on as the Project Director. I would have to build the program from scratch: write new lessons, coordinate schedules, manage a multimillion-dollar budget, and create digital content. I was also elected to serve on the Board of Directors for Arts in Education Roundtable. Then came the news that a session I submitted had been accepted at SXSWedu. I would be facilitating a workshop in Austin, Texas, focused on teaching history through Hip-Hop. My hard work was being noticed and rewarded. I was beginning to see how I could live my life as a full-time arts educator.
Still, something was missing and I couldn’t really put my finger on it.
I don’t regret my decision to become a full-time administrator, but I sometimes wonder if it was the right choice. When I quit acting, I was a working actor, and as crazy as it seems, I really miss the need to look for more work. It kept me hungry. It drove me to be a better performer, educator, dad, and husband. On top of that, I long for the days of less predictability, when I could go home to visit family, have a beer with friends (even strangers), sit down to read a novel, work out, take a nap, and of course worry about money. Yes, there is some security in being a salaried employee, but there is nothing like working a gig and just getting paid for it. Every penny seems earned. As a freelancer, there was an immediate sense of value attached to every acting job or classroom residency. I honestly miss traveling from school to school, going from audition to audition, and living paycheck to paycheck.
On the other hand, I love the work we create and implement at UAP. I love empowering other teaching artists, and I love collaborating with people from different fields, on local and national levels. UAP was once again accepted to SXSWedu; this time I’ll moderate an earth-shattering panel: Can Hip Hop Save Us? Beyond SXSW, we’ve been able to showcase our work at NY Tech Meetup, NYC DOE District 75, NYC DOE iZone, Google Education Think Tank, Google Geek Street Fair, NYU, and more. And, in spite of all that, as an administrator I maintain a pretty consistent schedule. I am not flying to Iowa for a small part in a movie or traveling to DC for 3 months to work on a new play. I may travel for events, but those trips are planned months in advance and they’re always brief. For the most part, I see my family every day.
But I have to ask myself: am I happy? Is this what I set out to do after earning my MFA in Acting from Brandeis? I always knew teaching would be a constant (even when I was at Morehouse College, exploring different majors, I was a Benjamin E. Mays Teaching Scholar), but I had also assumed that I would continue to perform in some capacity.
Two years ago, my wife worked as a costume designer for MTV, so I stayed home with my kids and played all summer. I auditioned, I got work on a few TV shows, and I read a lot of books. I was relatively content, and my wife liked knowing her job was only 3 months long. We didn’t necessarily know how we would pay for food or rent when her job ended, but we were happy. And shouldn’t life be about happiness? That said, would we still be happy if/when acting jobs dried up and the relentless schedule of TV designers became a long-term reality for my wife? I guess we’ll never know.
Over the years, I have been able to build a strong reputation in the field of arts education; my passion for performing may have waned, but my passion for education has remained.
To fully realize technology’s potential to improve the opportunity to learn, research findings [from the disciplines of cognitive science, neuroscience, education, psychology, sociology, and economics] should be communicated in a way that is useful to [everyone] looking for effective methods to improve student outcomes. ~ DigitalPromise Research Initiative
We at Kiddom like to ponder how classrooms and learning might evolve as a whole.
Toward these ends we’d like to tip our hat to DigitalPromise.org who is collecting and sharing scientific research and studies of how better classrooms and learning might be fostered. Subscribe to their newsletter!
Sara went to Syracuse University to get her undergraduate degree in secondary science education. While teaching, she realized how many students with disabilities were flying under the radar and not receiving the air that they needed from teachers. She decided to attend Southern Connecticut State University to get her Master's in special education with a concentration in assistive technology.
Often you hear about those great teachers who gave their students all this knowledge that they were able to take and use in their future schooling, job or life. I would argue that the greatest teachers are not the ones who teach you the most content, but those that teach you experiences that can change your life.
I was that little girl with every possible dream of what I would be when I grew up. I wanted to be a doctor, an actress, a singer, a teacher, a veterinarian and even a fire truck (yes, truck, not fireman — I was only 3). I kept some of those dreams as I went into high school, and my love for learning and helping others learn grew with me. That’s when Mr. Samuelson became my teacher.
He was my AP biology teacher, a subject I love, so it wouldn’t take too much effort to make me like you as the teacher. However, it wasn’t the content he won me over with; it was the way he let me learn. I was the type of kid that always learned the way I was supposed to: by reading, taking notes, studying hard, which all lead to those great grades. I did that in this biology class, but I also got a chance to learn a different way, without realizing that it would shape the rest of my life.
Of course in science class, there are tons of labs and hands-on experiences for learning. I always loved this part of science, because rather than reading about reactions and processes, I got to see them. There was one lab that really hit home with me, and Mr. Samuelson noticed. This was the fetal pig dissection (gross to most, awesome to me). Instead of a normal lab, it was a lab practical, so we had to be able to show Mr. Samuelson that we knew the anatomy by just looking at the pig. I went and showed him exactly how much I loved this lab. What he did next was let me use this love in a way I had never done before.
Mr. Samuelson let me go around and help teach the other kids in my class where all the different parts of the pig were before they went to go present to him. This became somewhat of a regular thing for the rest of the school year, where I got to help him teach the other students. For someone who was always kind of all over the place with figuring out what I wanted to be when I got older, this was one of the greatest experiences I could have had. I realized how much fun and how rewarding teaching really was. I also realized that I actually could combine my love for science, which had always made me want to me a doctor or a vet, with this rewarding feeling.
There is so much focus in schools now on cramming content into students’ heads and increasing test scores. Looking back on my schooling, I did study hard and tried to get good grades, but that isn’t what I would say was the defining moment of my school career. Years later, now a teacher and getting my Master’s, AP biology with Mr. Samuelson is still what I look back on as the greatest learning experience I have had. I think, at times, teachers and administrators need to think about the experiences they are giving their students, along with content knowledge. You never know where those experiences might bring students!
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907
As told by the late historian Henry Adams, educators impact the lives of their pupils in a profound way. Many students go on to pursue careers relating to exciting course material brought to life by a gifted professor during their academic journeys. Others are so moved by their teachers’ demonstrations of knowledge, care, and ability to inspire young minds that they become educators themselves.
As the millennial generation enters the workforce, its members increasingly seek vocational paths like teaching that allow them to take an active role in the development of their communities. Many of these post-grads fresh to the profession are doubling-down on giving back. They are taking on some of the most challenging jobs available at charters, turnarounds and otherwise-struggling public institutions in underfunded districts.
Often, new teachers land these positions through programs like Teach For America (TFA), Teaching Fellows (TF), Americorps, and other education oriented non-profits. To reach this enthusiastic crowd, Teach For America has marketed its program to prospective members as an “illustrious two-year postgraduate service mission rather than a safe middle-class career choice.” Similarly, Teaching Fellows promotes the service aspect of their offerings, summarizing their practice as “training a generation of great teachers… for the students who need them most.”
Both have enjoyed success pitching this message: Teach For America and Teaching Fellows claim 37,000 and 33,000 alumni, respectively. Americorps has used similar themes to attract over 900,000 participants since 1994; however, Americorps’ service opportunities are broad in scope, and only an (undisclosed) portion of their members enter into education.
It is commendable that these groups match eager-to-help graduates with the schools and students who need the most aid. That said, matching is but the beginning, and the programs do possess flaws. All too often, conditions are so bad that teachers don’t last. Despite their passion for the practice and appreciation of the students, they quit. Some abandon their posts mid-semester, while others depart once their program commitments expire.
After four years at a charter school, Sarah Fine quit too. In her essay Schools Need Teachers Like Me, I Just Can’t Stay for The Washington Post, Fine notes, “Nationally, half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, and in urban schools, especially the much-lauded ‘no-excuses’ charter schools, turnover is often much higher.”
That is not to say that Teach For America, Teaching Fellows and Americorps are wholly responsible for our lamentably high teacher-turnover rates. Undoubtedly, these programs wield significant power; they are responsible for the placement of tens of thousands of teachers in jobs. That granted, there are millions of teachers across the nation, and TFA, TF and Americorps staff only a small percentage of them. Moreover, structural problems concerning resource allocation in our education system gave rise to the problems these not-for-profits seek to mitigate. Regardless, TFA and TF are useful to us in that they have clearly stated agendas, defined training protocol, and vocal alumni; the wealth of information provided by these sources lends well to discourse.
Thanks to the proliferation of blogging platforms, we need not imagine the day-to-day realities of a teacher at one of these high-turnover schools. A quick search-engine query for “why I quit teaching at a charter school” yields hundreds of anecdotes, op-eds, and testimonials. Many former educators describe exactly what circumstances led them to walk away from a profession they loved. We took the time to read these teachers’ thoughts, and identified some recurring themes.
The most common problems cited by departed teachers were insufficient training, micromanagement in the classroom, burdensome workloads, inadequate compensation, a lack of recognition for their efforts, and the promotion of a “hero culture” by principals and training programs that says more, harder work can overcome structural incongruencies.
Regarding the former-most complaint — insufficient training for new teachers — consider that Teach For America participants engage in training that goes on no longer than five weeks. Further, NPR writes that TFA has “helped open the doors to alternative-certification programs for teachers…[so that] today 1 in 5 new teachers is certified by a path other than a bachelor’s degree or master’s in education.” After their abbreviated training sessions, new hires are barraged with evaluation methodologies they must integrate into curriculum while actually teaching students and developing lesson plans.
One former teacher offers that there seemed no end to the influx, stating, “I had to read a book on how to properly teach. I had to collaborate with coworkers on how to properly implement one educational theory after another. I watched videos and read articles about effective teachers… I was told to give more exams, score more exit tickets, give more assessments… They encouraged me a lot, saying… that I would be much better next year… but I felt like I wasn’t a teacher anymore.”
Sarah Fine further details what micromanagement in charter schools looks like, writing, “One afternoon [in the Spring of 2010], when my often-apathetic 10th graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class ‘seated and silent.’” She continues, decrying that she and her colleagues would spend “weeks revising a curriculum proposal… only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it.”
The same out-of-practice professor also complains of “the ever increasing role of bureaucracy… in our system of education” and “the overuse of assessments” to the point that “we have created students who see reading as a test and not a pathway to learning.” Many other teachers speak against the overuse of testing, and the pressures on teachers in “no-excuses” schools to make their students perform. An anonymous educator writes in The Guardian that “the passing on of every ounce of exam burden my way took its toll,” and contributed to her departure from the classroom.
In telling teachers that greater effort is the path to improving student scores (i.e., promoting the “hero culture”), schools and training programs “[lean] heavily on the rhetoric of bootstrapping, [which makes] new teachers tend to feel individually culpable when things go wrong in the classroom,” says Lean Donnella of NPR.
Former charter teacher Sarah Matsui writes that her trainers at TFA tried to convince new teachers “that a ‘can-do attitude’ is all it takes to overcome systemic gaps in our schools.” However, she notes, “Scaling up even the best of intentions or holding the highest expectations for individual students will not change the differential funding of our separate school districts.”
Matsui provides an example of starkly different per-pupil expenditures for the city of Philadelphia’s (79% black and latino students, $9,299 per student annual spending), relative to neighboring Lower Merion, just outside the city limits (91% white students, $17,261 per student annual spending). Preaching that hard work is all that is needed to overcome this massive disparity in resource “reinforces the myth of meritocracy,” according to Matsui.
Irrespective of their beliefs on meritocracy, teachers are expected to work harder, stay later, and make excellent of what little they’re given. Abbas Manjee writes of his early experiences at a charter school that, “Like any first-year teacher, my life revolved around my profession: plan, create, assess, grade, adjust, repeat.” He shares that over time, expectations spiraled out of control and eventually, “it wasn’t enough to just teach well anymore.”
Manjee described teachers’ expanded roles, noting, “We make phone calls home. If someone doesn’t pick up, we call again. We connect with social workers during lunch to investigate student concerns,” and continues listing other behaviors not typically associated with teaching. Unfortunately, the added time and stress inherent to educators’ expanded responsibilities does not come with a comparable rise in wages. Sarah Fine says of her pay that, “over the course of four years, my school’s administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries.”
Regardless of their successes, efforts, or acumen, many teachers find themselves unsung in avenues aside from income. To this point, Deanna Lyles shares, “I quit because I wanted to be treated as a professional.” Another comments that, “I just got sick of being in a profession that I felt held no real status in this country.” Sarah Fine observes that, “When people ask me about teaching… what they really seem to mean is that it’s unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long.” In his essay Why I Quit Teaching, Abbas Manjee says plainly that the “complete and utter disrespect for my profession has finally gotten to me.”
Clearly, a multitude of factors contribute to the early departure of new teachers from the profession. Some problems — like inadequate training and teacher departure immediately upon completion of program terms — can be remedied by the not-for-profits specializing in training in placement. Other issues, like teachers under-compensation and heavy work loads, require broader, structural solutions that necessitate significant power to implement. To that end, no single tech firm or teacher placement program can fix them, no matter how noble their goals or innovative their methods.
Clearly, teacher turnover is a dynamic issue that deserves our attention. Catherine Ionata notes in the NY Times that “Research has shown that teacher-student relationships are absolutely crucial to student success,” and that “These relationships cannot be built in a year or two.” At the risk of childrens’ educational outcomes present and future, we must work harder and engage more fully in our efforts to lower the teacher turnover rate across our nation.
When I was in kindergarten, I absolutely loved when my teacher provided me with a clear, descriptive rubric aligned to Common Core Learning Standards with every assignment. If you think I’m joking, it’s because I am. CCLS didn’t exist when I was in Kindergarten. I remember playing with Legos, building toy railroad circuits, drawing and pretending to be Superman, and of course, crying for my mother. And I’m pretty sure my Kindergarten teacher wasn’t using a rubric to assess the rigor of my sobbing.
Recently, an article from the Atlantic has been making its rounds with educators on social media. In short, the article juxtaposes America’s strict, academic “reform” approach with Finland’s “let kids play and figure it out” approach to kindergarten. It’s an insightful case study of two well-intentioned, yet very different schools of thought in public education.
Any time a concerned American suggests we take lessons on education policy from Scandinavian countries, they’re often blitzed with negativity. “It’s a small, homogenous country.” “They’ve never had to deal with our kind of immigration.” “That’s nice, but they’re all white.” Some of these criticisms may be valid, but they’re not solutions-oriented. They’re just statements that make excuses for our own lack of excellence in schools.
Obviously, we’re not Finland. But, we can still learn and adopt some of its best practices for our own needs. Or are we just too damn proud? In this standard Finland vs. America argument on education, we tend to ignore Finland’s neighbor, Norway. Finland is nearly as populous as Norway (and nearly the same square mileage). Both countries have a comparable labor force and both countries have similar immigration levels. However, Norway tends to score closer to the U.S. on the PISA, which is significantly lower than Finland. Norway’s teachers don’t need a masters degree, and yet there’s a national teacher shortage prompting ad campaigns to attract young professionals to teaching — sound familiar? Back in the early 2000s, Norway instituted a national system of standardized testing (called the NKVS). Again, sound familiar?
I don’t know about you (yes, you), but things haven’t really changed for me: I like to play. As a child, I loved to play. If I learned from playing, then that’s just awesomesauce. As a teacher, some of my most memorable “teacher moments” occurred when I purposefully built for play in my classroom. Yet, it was significantly hard to create the conditions necessary for play teaching high school mathematics. There was a constant nag in my head reminding me my students just had to pass the New York State Algebra 1 Regents exam. Otherwise, we’d both be judged as failures.
Working in education technology today, I’m even more passionate about play in school, but that’s also because I’m further removed from the classroom and the daily struggle to balance rigor, engagement, and fun. The thing is, we have to draw a line somewhere. I can’t imagine how much more anxiety I would have if play did not exist when I was in kindergarten. I can’t imagine how much more grade-driven I would be if my teachers used CCLS-aligned rubrics while I ran around making fart sounds and holding spaceships I made from Legos. Play time at home wasn’t exactly reliable because I grew up in a broken home, so I had to make the most out of any fun I could get.
There is no evidence to support that children cannot learn from play or learn and play simultaneously. A former student of mine used to tell me about how he already knew so much about the Crusades because of Assassin’s Creed. Sure, it’s a video game, so there are inaccuracies. In the classroom, those are called “teachable moments” (take note, those of you who have never taught). These “teachable moments” are opportunities to foster authentic discussion. It’s possible to have both. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m really trying to say is children need and benefit from play. We know this. If we’re going to insert literacy skills into kindergarten, it should be a data-driven decision, as in it’s backed by strong evidence. However, the data seems to support Finland’s approach. Why are we so stubborn with this? Let’s stop underestimating children. Bring back the crayons, the Lincoln Logs, and the Play-Doh please.
By: Abbas Manjee
VP, Teaching and Learning @ Kiddom
Former HS Math Teacher