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Teachers Are Intellectuals, Not Missionaries

By Amanda Ripley, Washingtonian, February 2016

Teaching is seen as a moral, not intellectual, calling. It’s time to evolve from loving teachers to admiring them.

When Lisette Partelow embarked on a new career in 2012, she had all the props of an elite Washington professional: an Ivy League degree, management responsibility, challenging work, and a paycheck that placed her—in her first year on the job—in the top 25% of US salaries. Yet when she told people about her work, the response was very different than the one that awaited her attorney husband. “The reaction was ‘Oh, that’s cute,’” she remembers. “‘You must be sweet. But kind of dull.’”

Partelow, as it happens, was a teacher. And our standard narrative about teachers has long held that they’re underpaid and underappreciated—selfless, perhaps, but not exactly aspiring masters of the universe….

Many people still talk about teachers as if they volunteer in a soup kitchen—as if the hardest part is just showing up….

Hope Harrod, DC’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, [says] “When I tell people I’m a teacher, they say, ‘Oh, my gosh—that’s God’s work. Thank you.’”… The implications wear on her. “What they’re basically saying is ‘Thank you for doing that job so that I don’t have to.’”…

Harrod says, “They’re missing that I’m not actually sacrificing to do this. I’m working extremely hard because I believe in this intellectual journey—for my students and also for me. It’s deeply engaging.”

By “intellectual journey,” Harrod means the workplace questions that teachers grapple with daily: Why is Juan insisting that the answer is 15.5 and not 18? What’s happening in his head that isn’t happening in Scarlette’s head? How can she give him the tools to take apart his own process and rebuild it, piece by piece? For teachers, these challenges are as fulfilling as designing a two-story foyer might be for an architect or arranging a complex merger might be for a corporate lawyer….

People [who] don’t understand the intellectual journey…routinely ask what Harrod plans to do next: “Are you going to be a principal? What is the plan?” She…wishes they understood that her work already challenges her in every way, even after 14 years. Do people ask a pediatrician why she isn’t gunning to become hospital chief? “The underlying implication is ‘You’re not working to your potential.’ And I am.”…

As more people see teaching as prestigious, other magical changes follow: Parents begin to trust teachers a little more. Taxpayers start to believe their money is well spent. Politicians step aside so teachers can shape what’s taught and how. Most important, kids notice, too. When they hear stories about how hard it is to become a teacher and see the respect with which teachers are treated, students start to [see] that when adults say education is important, they might actually mean it….

It’s time to evolve from loving teachers to admiring them. There is a difference.

The first year my son attended a DC public school, I received an e-mail from other parents asking for contributions toward a holiday gift for the teacher…. Weeks later, I got another message asking for donations for a stroller, because the teacher was expecting a baby. Several months later, I received a third e-mail—this time requesting end-of-year gift donations for the same teacher.

Criticizing [such generosity] felt churlish. So I paid up. But…a wad of cash isn’t the highest praise for a professional. It’s not the way we show reverence for doctors and engineers. It feels more like a tip—a way to thank teachers for putting up with their sad-sack jobs….

If more parents understood what serious teaching looked like, what would they do instead? Maybe, at parties, they’d talk to teachers about their craft. They might ask to sit in on classes instead of just coming to concerts and games. And if they understood what their children would miss, they might not want them to be late for school.

Changing the reputation of a profession takes time. “In the United States, we’ve conceived of teaching as primarily a moral calling, not an intellectual one, for two centuries,” says Dana Goldstein, author of The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession…. There’s no way for a modern society to educate all kids to high levels without also cultivating a reverence for teaching….

At [the next awards program for outstanding teachers], let it be the one where no one apologizes to teachers for the pathetic salaries they no longer earn. Let it be the year that the mayor and TV personalities feel just a touch nervous onstage, staring out at the audience, suddenly aware that they’re not the smartest people in the room.

Amanda Ripley, a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, is author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way.

See also in ClassWise: “5 Ways Education Will Change by 2020”

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Let’s Drop the Education Buzzwords

By Levi Folly, Education Week, 5/6/15

It’s easy to become ensnared in language that sounds important but says little. Why don’t we just say what we mean?

Several years ago, [my] department head opened a meeting by asking us to share what was “happening in our firehouse.” My immediate reaction was to laugh….

For some of us at the table that day, the meeting was over before it began. “I don’t work or live in a firehouse,” one colleague said, “so you guys can talk if you like.” Another colleague [asked], “Why do we have to talk like that? Why don’t we just say what we mean?”…

It’s easy to become ensnared in language that sounds important but says little…. Too often we borrow language without considering its appropriateness. This was especially prevalent when many believed education should be run like a business and terms such as “blue-sky thinking,” “core values,” “take-away,” “best practices,” and others found their way into our lexicon. Equally troubling is how we use academic language in practical settings, perhaps to impress; how we quickly adopt the latest coined phrases, seemingly to appear current; how we rename strategies; and how we invent language when it isn’t necessary.

Here is a list of terms and phrases I hear education professionals use frequently during meetings and conversations: “unpack the standards,” “have a conversation around,” “powerful conversation,” “learner-centered teaching classrooms,” “two-dimensional curriculum,” “deeper dive,” “performance-based assessment,” “authentic performance assessment,” “rich conversation,” “21st-century skills,” “by name and by need,” “competency-based learning and personalized learning,” “messy learning,” and “building capacity.”

I am sure those using these phrases…want to communicate important information. I am equally sure they would be more effective if they used different language. Are students learners or teachers in “learner-centered teaching” classrooms? What is a “powerful conversation”? Is it different from a “rich conversation”? Does “have a conversation around” mean to discuss? Recently, a friend told me he’d spent “all morning helping teachers unpack standards so they understood what students should know.” I wanted to ask whether or not the suitcase had wheels….

“Why don’t we just say what we mean?”

I see no reason to overwhelm parents, students, or each other with an array of terms because we want to sound impressive, or because someone has written a book and we want to appear current. In fact, we are deluding ourselves if we believe practitioners internalize this language. Why would they?…

Martin Kozloff of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington considers this language “unmatched twaddle.” John Merrow, author of The Influence of Teachers, refers to it as “educationese.” Perhaps it is an attempt to elevate education among professions, for having a unique language is one indicator of a profession’s status. Nonetheless, if one’s message isn’t clear, shouldn’t one rethink the delivery?

I recently read that the University of Washington’s faculty identifies six characteristics of effective language. “Effective language is (1) concrete and specific, not vague and abstract; (2) concise, not verbose; (3) familiar, not obscure; (4) precise and clear, not inaccurate and ambiguous; (5) constructive, not destructive; and (6) appropriately formal.” By this definition, I’m not sure any of the items I listed before meet the standard of effective communication.

Perhaps readers have heard about the conversation between an elementary-grade student and his mother after the first day of school:

When the mother asked her son how the day had gone, he didn’t reply. The mother drove in silence but later asked, “Do we need to pick up anything for tomorrow?”

The child shrugged. “We should go by the grocery store.”

“OK,” the mother answered. “Is there something special you need?”

“I need fruit,” the boy said.

The mother was a bit confused, as she had just purchased fruit the day before.

“We have fruit at home,” she said, trying to sound supportive.

“I know,” the child responded, “but we need more. The teacher said we’d ‘pair share,’ ‘mix pair share,’ and ‘pair compare’ this year, so I need pears.”…

Let’s not burden our colleagues, confuse students, or send parents to the grocery store needlessly. Instead, let’s heed Molière’s advice: “Humanize your talk, and speak to be understood.”

Levi Folly coordinates the academic/enrichment summer-learning programs for Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools. He taught middle and high school English for more than 20 years.

See also in ClassWise:

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5 Big Ways Education Will Change by 2020

by Samantha Cole, Fast Company

 There’s room for more innovation, but the human factor will always be important.

We asked the world’s most innovative companies in education to school us on the future of the classroom, with predictions for the next five years. Here’s what we found out:

1. Students Will Interact With Others Remotely

Joe Williams [executive director of Democrats for Education Reform] predicts education tech will continue the push towards individualized instruction for students. Hadley Ferguson, executive director of the Edcamp Foundation, agrees: Kids can “reach out beyond the walls of their classrooms to interact with other students; other teachers; and renowned authors, scientists, and experts to enhance their learning,” she says. Some of those digital-native kids will grow up to become teachers, who will continue to build and use their own communities of learning online.

2. Tech Success Will Still Need Skilled Teachers

We might be sending kids to school in self-driving cars by 2020, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be taught by teacher-avatars and given tests via drone.

“Education needs will drive technology use, rather than the ‘coolness’ of technology trumping education,” predicts Shannon May, cofounder of Bridge International Academies. Instead of simply finding ways to put more tablets in kids’ hands, education technology will find new ways to supplement the best learning possible….

Jake Schwartz, CEO/cofounder of General Assembly, predicts that as technology advances, its limits will become clear. “‘Online’ is not a cure-all for education issues in this country, but it can help provide greater access to new skills training,” he says. “This is powerful when combined with curricula and programming created and led by practitioner educators. The human factor is always important.”…

3. We’ll Think Differently About The Diploma

Shannon May: “Today, diplomas granted by years in school are the dominant certification of ‘learning.’ Yet,…these diplomas certify nothing other than the fact that the person in question spent x years in school. Competency-based certifications testing specific skills, and bundling individual skills into professional groupings, will become a global currency for both employers and job seekers.”

The possibilities offered in technology feed into this shift. “A new curriculum is going to be created that builds on these possibilities,” says Ferguson, “allowing students to move away from rote learning and tackle real-world challenges and develop solutions for them.”

4. Students Will Have A Voice

Kirsten Saenz Tobey, cofounder of Revolution Foods believes…engaging and respecting students and families as wellness partners will become a new focus in ways we haven’t seen before. “Traditional education is very top-down, heavy-handed—sit down and read, be quiet, don’t ask questions—there’s still a lot of room for innovation.”…

5. Educators And Institutions Will Have To Adapt

By 2100, more than half the world’s population will live in India, China, or Africa. “Global policy leadership and sales of education goods and services will be shaped less by issues and needs in the U.S., and more by the issues and needs of Africa, South Asia, and China,” May says. “Market demand, and pressing policy issues related to urbanization and population growth, will shift the center of gravity of education provision.”

Put more simply, Tobey says, “We’re not quite stacking up to where the rest of the world is. [The U.S.] is feeling the pressure to be the world leader we think we are . . . particularly in math and science.”

“For schools of all types, content or curriculum will not be the core differentiator, but rather they will be judged on how well they coordinate complex offerings into a useful package for their students,” Schwartz says.

“Most professions can point to dramatic changes in the way they work, thanks to technological innovations” says Williams. “[Teaching] is starting to change, but it has been incredibly slow.”

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Rise of the New Groupthink

Commentary by Susan Cain, The New York Times, 1/13/12 Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers […]
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12 Things You Should Never Say at Work

by Jacquelyn Smith, Forbes Magazine, 2/15/13 According to Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, “In speaking with hundreds of executives and senior leaders over the past 20 years, certain phrases consistently come up as career-limiting. They jeopardize one’s professionalism and potential for promotion. They may seem harmless. But employees who use these […]
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