Friday, April 29, 2016

Conversations Shape Attitudes

The following guest post is from Dr. Crystal Nelson. She is a music teacher at Camden Elementary and an RTI Interventionist for Benton County Schools. Dr. Nelson is also a colleague of mine with Hope Street Group where she works to amplify teachers’ voices in Tennessee. 

For as long as I can remember, I have considered myself “bad” at math.  As a student approaching college and deciding what I want to do with the rest of my life, I shied away from anything that might involve math, which severely limited my educational and career options. As an adult, my attitudes have changed and I have realized I am not bad at math. As an educator, I am concerned when I hear the, “I’m not good at math, I don’t like math, I’m not a math person” limiting mindset for students when they choose their careers.  I want them to have every option available to them. There are enough limiting factors in the world; students should not have arbitrary limits set for themselves. Most of the recent bustle to prepare students to be “college and career ready” has been focused mostly on creating/implementing new standards and figuring out how to best teach to those standards. In the current culture of academic rigor, parents and educators alike must focus on making students believe that being bad or good at something is not set in stone and then help them to believe they can be good at math.  

Changing students’ attitudes about math, or other subjects, involves changing the conversations we have with children and teens. Encourage them, and remind them “You might not be good at this now, but you can get better.” No one (hopefully) tells a beginning band student to just give it up, they won’t ever be good at their instrument.  The band director tells the student what to do to get better, teaches them how to practice, and tells them to go practice! The same concept applies with math. Teachers and parents should help them know what to do to get better and has them practice.  

Another important reminder for teachers, parents, and students to consider is that it’s okay for things to be hard. It’s okay to struggle. It is okay to fail abysmally at some tasks.  It’s part of learning and growing.  (However painful it is to watch your kiddos struggle!) Create a safe place for kids to fail so they will realize it’s not the end of the world and they can pick themselves up and try again. While it is not okay to fail a class, occasionally failing certain tasks allows kids to grow the skills they need for when things don’t work out in life. It gives kids security in knowing they can take academic and non-academic risks, set high goals for themselves, and accomplish things that are hard; and if they fail the task, nothing insurmountably bad will happen. They won’t be a huge disappointment to their parents, their grades will not suffer beyond repair and, while they may be disappointed, they can recover. (Although, a separate conversation about how schools assign grades and the high stakes attached to GPA should be had.) Parents and educators strive to structure students’ success, but children need to know that failure isn’t something to be afraid of. Allowing the fear of failure to limit oneself contributes to students’ overall success as they reach and accomplish more than they ever thought they could.

One other common statement that teachers and parents should guard against telling kids is, “It’s okay. I was bad at math too.”  It perpetuates the excuse that being “bad” at something is acceptable and it destroys their growth mindset. Of course everyone has inherent strengths and weaknesses, but labeling someone as “being bad at math” is often times limiting. If you’re trying to empathize with a child’s struggle, please be mindful of how you phrase it.   

The attitudes we have greatly influence how we approach tasks, how we respond to people, and how we act in situations. As teachers and parents, we want to cultivate attitudes in our children that will best set them up for success. Students should certainly not pursue careers for which they are not well suited. However, we should help students achieve their potential and break down any barriers and limitations they might set for themselves.  Changing our attitudes and conversations is integral to the process.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Graduating with Empathy

Given an increasing lack of empathy in today’s society, I feel that this post is very timely. Students, teachers, and administrators can all benefit from having more empathy. The following editorial is from Dr. Ryan B. Jackson’s blog, and is printed here with his permission. Dr. Jackson is an assistant principal at Maplewood High School in Nashville.

I love hopping on Voxer and listening to other leaders make the case for top leadership traits. Passion, communication, vision, ingenuity, integrity – the usual suspects. All solid traits, no doubt, yet I’m here to make the case for the underdog of emotions, the most underrated of all leadership traits: I’m here to amplify Empathy.

I’ve been serving in education for a decade, all of which has been in a large, urban school district serving primarily low socioeconomic students. If we’re being transparent (a trend I hope never gets old) serving in high-poverty schools can harden even the most passionate of educators. Maybe that’s a little shortsighted, as today’s educational landscape seems to contort and constrict just about all educators regardless of setting. Appreciating just how tough it is to be an educator helps when trying to understand why something as powerful as empathy sits buried at the bottom of the leadership trait totem pole. Today’s educators are so busy weathering the continuous tempest of change, we too often embrace the callous, cold reflection of our data and directives.

The reflective practitioner in me not only understands but has also been entirely guilty of the educator’s survival tactic of trading empathy for sympathy, the arm’s distant 2nd cousin to truly helping others. Unlike sympathy, empathy goes beyond feeling, beyond compassion; it pushes into action-verb territory as it forces us to step inside each other’s world, witnessing the struggle – free of judgment and perception. When we embrace empathy-based leadership or teaching practices what we’re really doing is committing to a lifestyle change, a paradigm shift that begs us to perpetually shift our perspective at will, depending upon whom we’re dealing with at any given moment.

And, well, it’s hard.

Sometimes our bodies’ own physiology makes legitimate excuses for our behavior. Let’s face it, our science shows we’re comprised of about 70% water and like water innately we tend to travel down the path of least resistance. Thus, if we leave it up to nature, and I’m sure Darwin’s philosophy of Survival of the Fittest would affirm, empathy doesn’t stand a chance. In his book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Eric Jensen makes the case that empathy absolutely must be taught, as it is not one of our six innate emotions yet imperative for successful socialization. Therefore, since we’re not born with the knowledge of empathy coupled with the fact it’s an arduous trait to continuously and effectively implement, we begin to understand exactly why empathy falls into the “I know I should be doing this but…” category, right next to exercising, clean eating and financial planning.

Going back to Jensen for bit, I actually think it’s dangerous to presume all leaders and teachers are capable of exercising empathy. The fact is, just like so many of our students, if they, too, weren’t taught empathy early on, there‘s a strong chance they flat-out don’t possess it – at all. That’s a scary thought, a very, very scary thought yet nonetheless true. Furthermore, as 21st century leadership continues to shake-off the antiquated traits of leadership’s yesteryear, it’s important we disengage from the barbaric mindset that all leaders must be overtly tough and that vulnerability and emotional intelligence play second-fiddle to authority and power. And so, if we genuinely buy into the ideal that education is the key to unlocking the world’s potential and that our academic institutions are the last training outposts before we reach the world’s wilds, it then behooves us to identify empathy, analyze it, apply it, before finally – hopefully – creating cultures that reflect understanding, love and equity.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Are you TNReady for the ACT?

High school students (and some 8th grade students) have the option to take the ACT test several times a year. Currently, high school juniors get to take the test once for free, and there is a bill pending in the legislature that will allow them to retake the test a second time for free. For students, doing well on the ACT means financial aid to a university somewhere. For high schools and school districts, the ACT is one of many accountability measures that supposedly determines how well-prepared students are for post-secondary education. 

I adamantly challenge the premise that ANY test can adequately measure a student’s readiness for life after high school. All state-mandated tests are one-time snapshots of a student’s ability and none of them require the student to demonstrate knowledge in a real-world context. Many recent studies have concluded that there is no correlation between a student’s ACT score and future post-secondary success. Because of that, there is a growing trend among universities around the country to weigh other criteria heavier than a student’s ACT score. This trend has not, and may not, hit Tennessee with any great force.
Tennessee’s new TNReady exam is a much improved method to determine what students have actually learned because it requires them to go beyond simply figuring out the correct answer. They have to apply concepts and know how they arrived at that answer. With that said, there are several problems with TNReady: it’s too long, it allows Tennessee to compare itself with only two other states who use Measurement Inc.--Florida and Utah, it may not be developmentally appropriate for elementary students (especially in math), and it’s not reliable as evidenced by the online computer system crashing on the first day of testing. 

To solve this problem, Senator Janice Bowling has introduced SB 1984 in the legislature, which, if passed, allows local school districts the option to use the ACT Aspire suite of assessments instead of TNReady. Tullahoma City Schools, Maury County Schools, Maryville City Schools, Coffee County Schools and Oak Ridge Schools have already expressed support for the bill. There are many advantages of switching to ACT over TNReady. 

It will probably lead to a fewer number of tests and less time spent testing students. This equates to more class time for teachers and students, which means more opportunities for authentic learning. The ACT has existed for almost 60 years and is reliable. Little to no additional professional development is required to transition to ACT because of the plethora of test questions available, which also make this an easier test to prepare my students for. That, in turn, will increase student proficiency on the ACT, which will lead to more students getting college scholarship money and will make myself, my school, and my district all look like we are adequately “preparing” our students for college. Finally, many other states are using the ACT Aspire suite of assessments for their statewide assessment. Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all use multiple ACT assessments in their states. Wouldn’t it be better for Tennessee to compare itself to 11 other states instead of 2.

I support Senator Bowling’s bill because I believe it is a step in the right direction. However, it’s important to understand some of the negative ramifications of replacing TNReady with ACT as it is outlined in this bill.

To begin with, it’s more expensive and individual school districts would have to pay for it. In the fiscal note for SB 1984 it states a few interesting things: the state will not purchase the suite of ACT tests, it will cost local school districts approximately $20 per student if they want to switch from TNReady to ACT, and, as a result, “it is estimated that few, if any, would elect to do so.” It appears that only school districts with a wealthy tax base could afford such a move.

Secondly, in this age of accountability, if some districts give the ACT while the rest of the state continues on with TNReady exams, it then becomes nearly impossible to accurately compare districts and teachers with each other, which is the purpose of TVAAS. In case you aren’t aware, Tennessee’s TVAAS model predicts students’ future test scores based their scores on previous test scores. How well teachers meet or exceed these predictions affect the entire education landscape--from the school report cards that are published annually to evaluating an individual teacher’s effectiveness, which is sometimes used to determine teacher salary and possibly whether or not the teacher is retained.

Here is my advice to the legislature as they are considering this bill. Admit that you made a mistake in contracting with Measurement Inc. and wash your hands of them. Then, purchase the ACT Aspire suite of assessments for Tennessee’s students instead of relying on individual districts to pay for it. It’s what you should have done in the first place after deciding to replace the PARCC Assessment. Cheaper is not always better.

Monday, April 25, 2016


As a public school educator, I have certainly shared and commented on many education-related topics on Facebook and Twitter because being an educator is far more than a job--it’s a passion that wakes me up in the morning and gets me energized for the day. Social media is a good venue for educators to express their voices. Take Tennessee's voucher bill, for example. Teachers in this state were strongly against it, and social media played a role in keeping vouchers from becoming a reality. The defeat of vouchers was a rare win for Tennessee’s educators--most of whom, like myself, are active on social media platforms. We comment and share and voice each other's opinions in a seemingly strong cacophony of teacher voice; yet, educators often feel left out of the decision-making process of their own profession. I, too, sometimes feel like a powerless pawn in a game of chess in which I don’t have control over the movement of any of the pieces. What’s worse is that there are organizations from within Tennessee and from around the country who are determined to privatize education, and they do a great job of miseducating and misleading the general public about their own public schools by focusing on the negative and by publishing false information. This hurts educator morale, and, as a result, we are not expressing our collective voice at the same decibel level as before.

When the opportunity came knocking for me to join Hope Street Group, I eagerly applied. Hope Street Group, in its first year in Tennessee, is a non-partisan, non-profit organization whose mission is to improve public education through elevating and broadcasting educator voice. After all, educators know best what’s working and what’s not working in their classrooms and with their students. Including myself, there are currently 29 Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellows across the state, and last semester we conducted an online survey and in-person focus group meetings on the topics of educator leadership and professional development. This information was compiled into a report by a third party and was delivered to those who make decisions on educators’ behalf--including the Tennessee Dept. of Education, lawmakers, and school boards. 

I was fortunate enough to go with a small group of Teacher Fellows to Nashville and present the report to Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candice McQueen. Below is a picture from Hope Street Group’s meeting. I’m standing immediately to the left of Dr. McQueen.
McQueen picture
The short meeting went way beyond its scheduled time slot because she was interested in what educators had to say. Dr. McQueen asked many specific questions about the information contained in the report, and the Tennessee Department of Education is working on implementing some of the recommendations. It goes to show that, when allowed the opportunity, educator voice does make a difference. That fateful night in December was the first of many giant steps in the direction of elevating educator voice in Coffee County and throughout the state.

Another step in that same direction is this new “Tennessee Teacher Voice” blog. My vision for this blog is twofold. I intend to elevate educators' voices from my own county and from across the state by making the public aware of our solutions-oriented views on educational issues. I also want to highlight many of the positive activities occurring in educators' classrooms and schools of which the general public may be unaware. A quality education is the foundation of a thriving society. It impacts all of us!