Sunday, February 26, 2012

Teacher Professional Growth - What Matters?

I was 43 years old when I started working on a master's degree. These days it's common for teachers to pursue graduate degrees shortly after earning a bachelor's, but in 1979 when I started teaching, that was the exception. So I'd been teaching awhile when I applied to graduate school.

The program was new, the first cohort of practicing classroom teachers to pursue a degree in K-12 Literacy at the same university that awarded me a bachelor's degree in Secondary English Education. It was significant that the program was for teachers, in actual classrooms, because it made the work relative and meaningful. In addition, our schedules were considered so no classes started before we could get out of school, maneuver around car pools and buses, and meet together at an off-campus site that was convenient to us.

At the risk of being melodramatic, my master's program was life-changing to me, as a teacher and as a person. But last week, I heard a Superintendent of another state's Department of Education tell a room full of teachers that a master's degree doesn't make a difference in the classroom. He went on to add that a PhD doesn't matter either. Oh, and neither does National Board Certification. I'll get back to that...

But first, I'd like to let Dr. Superintendent, who, by the way, has never taught one day in a K-12 classroom, know that, as a result of my graduate degree, there are now hundreds of struggling readers who've been assessed and diagnosed, and, as a result of my ability to pinpoint their exact deficiencies in reading, have had the opportunity to grow by a grade level or more during my time with them. Because of my master's degree, I put my overhead projector away and stopped the "correct this sentence" daily warm-up because I figured out that my students were unable to make the connection to their own writing.

My research in graduate school, on the effects of poverty on reading, enabled me to better understand my students and the struggles they brought to my classroom. I literally left that program with an arsenal of instructional strategies that made me a better teacher.

In addition, the collaboration that occurred in that program helped me understand what my students were experiencing before they got to me in middle school - there were over twenty elementary school teachers in my cohort. We discussed, we bounced ideas off each other, and we listened to concerns, research results, and success stories. As a practicing classroom teacher, I was able to connect to every story, an experience that was different from when I earned my first degree and had never taught my own students.

My master's degree mattered.

Before I even walked across the stage to receive my graduate diploma in 2003, I had begun the process of National Board Certification, another growth experience that changed me as a teacher. I was able to take those strategies I learned in my graduate program and mold them to fit the needs of my own students. While writing my entries and viewing my videotapes, I reflected on ways to improve my teaching: I spent hours trying to determine how to help my students grow in reading and writing, an accomplishment that a candidate for National Board Certification must prove in order to be certified in English/Language Arts.

I was able to scrutinize every element of my teaching as I pursued National Board Certification, and at the same time I honed up on some skills I had learned back during my undergraduate days - I reviewed my content vocabulary and revisited my college textbooks in an effort to prepare for the assessments that are an integral component of the National Board process. I also reflected on my accomplishments as a teacher leader in my school and looked for ways to make a bigger impact on my profession.

I remember asking myself a million questions while planning each lesson: how can I teach this better? How can I raise my expectations for how I teach and how my students learn? National Board Certification was the reason I asked those questions.

When confronted by the teachers in the audience who disagreed with the Superintendent's opinions, he answered, "The research does not show that master's degrees and National Board Certification make a difference. It is clear that the really good teachers are the ones who pursue higher degrees and national certifications anyway. They're already good."

Well, Dr. Superintendent, I may not have numbers and percentages and data. But what I do have are stories. For every negative thing you can say about the ways that we grow as teachers, I can tell you a specific story about a specific teacher who made a difference to kids who aren't numbers, kids who have actual faces and names. I'd love the opportunity to sit down with you and tell you those stories.

Just so you know, when I wrote my National Board Certification entry and chose the one thing that was the most meaningful in reference to my growth as a teacher, I chose my master's degree. If I had gone through the National Board process first, and had been asked to reflect on my growth while writing a graduate paper later, I would have named National Board Certification as the most significant. Both experiences changed me as a teacher and impacted hundreds of students as a result.

Shame on you, Dr. Superintendent, for not listening to what the very teachers you are supposed to represent are trying to tell you. Sometimes it's not about the research, the data, and the numbers. Sometimes it's about real classroom teachers and their real life-changing experiences.

And's about the faces of the students who learn as a result.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Finding Miss Kilpatrick

My sister in elementary school...such a cutie!

Picture this: you're a little girl, seven or eight years old, and you share a bedroom with your sister. Every time you try to enter your own room, you're met with a shriek: "GET OUT! I'M PLAYING 'MISS KILPATRICK!!!'"

Or what if you say to your little sister, "Do you want to play with me?" and she always, always, says, "Yes, let's play Miss Kilpatrick!"

My sister Lisa had every reason to adore her first grade teacher because like me, she actually had two first grade teachers. And like me, she had a rough start in school.

If you've read my book Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make, or have heard one of my keynote speeches, or have stood in the same room with me for over five minutes, you know that I started out first grade with a teacher who wasn't very nurturing and encouraging. But after a stroke of luck, fate, and fairy dust, I was removed from that class and sent to Mrs. Warnecke's room in the basement. It was there that everything changed.

My sister's story is almost identical, except in her case it was the teacher who moved on, not her. Lisa's first first grade teacher was even less nurturing than mine if that's possible. There are horrific stories of a stick, a bamboo rod maybe, that stood in the corner threatening the roomful of six-year-olds. She tells that although her body wanted her to write with her left hand, her teacher grabbed her right hand and tried to make it write. She especially remembers the day she glanced at the boy in the seat behind her, never saying a word. But she and the boy were made to stand by the concrete wall during recess so that the other kids could look at them and laugh.

(Another teacher came by and spoke in a soothing manner to my sister that day - my own Mrs. Warnecke - who continued to make a difference with children even after I had finished my first, and second, grade years.)

My mother recalls taking a ride in an administrator's car back then, an attempt to get him off campus so she could tell him what was what about that classroom. His words to her? "That teacher will be gone soon." It seems my mother wasn't the only parent complaining about the situation in my sister's class.

Exit mean teacher with the bamboo rod. Enter Miss Kilpatrick.

By this point Lisa was terrified of school, too scared to speak, but Miss Kilpatrick encouraged her, made her feel safe, even allowed her to actually enjoy school. For that reason, the "Miss Kilpatrick" game of lining up stuffed animals and baby dolls and teaching them from a small chalkboard became Lisa's favorite pastime.

Fast forward forty-five years. Again Mrs. Warnecke has made a difference. It was she who sent "Miss Kilpatrick" the book Finding Mrs. Warnecke, the story that took place in an elementary school in the sixties. It was she who enabled a little first grader, now a grown woman, to find her beloved teacher.

Miss Kilpatrick (now Dr. Bradshaw) is a recently retired career educator. Over the years she taught children (like my sister) how to have confidence, and eventually she even taught adults how to be leaders in schools. She, too, has made a difference.

Our correspondence has been similar to those early conversations with Mrs. Warnecke - stories from the "old days" at Bragtown Elementary, reminiscing about former teachers and students we can recall. For example, Dr. Bradshaw remembers, as my mother and my sister do, a student in that first grade class who used to climb out the window. I was able to tell her the "rest of the story" - that student grew up to go to jail and, at one point, even escape from prison. I ended with "some things never change."

And it is true....some things don't the thrill you get when you reconnect with a teacher from your childhood. That experience has changed my life, and as a result my sister has been able to reflect on her early days as a student and think about what shaped her - as a student and as a person.

Thank you Mrs. Warnecke and Dr. Bradshaw for the care you gave to two troubled little girls in an old elementary school building. We've never forgotten...