Thanks, Boss

I’m sitting in a hotel in Ocean City, Maryland.  I’m attending the Common Ground Conference here.  This is an annual trip that I have come to love.  The location is a nice reprieve from my usual surroundings.  The topics are usually of great help and relevance.  The food down here is pretty good.  However, the thing I like most about this trip is the people.  Call it networking or schmoozing; I really enjoy being around folks of a like mind and purpose.  This conference tends to bring me that.  In just coming to this conference every year for the past 5 years, presenting here once or twice, I have made some dear friends who have helped me a great deal.  This conference is the thing that opened my eyes to the larger world of education.  I rarely thought of education outside of my classroom until my first visit here.  I did not think of education as a particularly innovative field.  It is safe to say that this conference led to me rethinking professional learning, which led to me rethinking how I taught, which led to me working on PD school-wide, which led to me working the job I work now.  It also led to this blog.  All of this leads me to my much larger point.

I was lucky.  One day my Principal emailed me about Common Ground conference and asked if I wanted to go.  In order to afford registration I would have to volunteer as a hall monitor, guiding people to bathrooms and helping them figure out the map.  I said sure, mostly out of not wanting to disappoint my new boss, and figured it would be fun.  Mostly, I was excited to have a day when I didn’t have to drive to work. Highway driving is fine for me but I hate having a commute.  As a nation we need to get serious about public transportation.  I digress. Soon after, my department chair, also new, came in and spoke to me about the conference.  She too would be attending and she wanted to know which sessions I would attend and what we could bring back to the department.  I recall this as a nerve racking conversation.  Was I supposed to have ideas?  I have always seen myself as the work horse type, not the creative mind.

The conference itself, though small compared to events like ISTE, was perfect for me.  I learned so much about where education was going but most importantly, I learned that I liked learning about education.  Learned is the wrong word.  I remembered that I enjoyed pedagogy.  I bought so many books.  I made it my mission to visit every booth.  I didn’t even know enough to be discerning. I just wanted to learn.

I remember taking the Light Rail back with my Principal and Department Chair.  We talked about the things we were excited to bring back.  We discussed how to get more teachers to attend the next year.  I didn’t realize the path that I was starting but it’s very clear at this point that Common Ground was a first step for me.  I was lucky.

I vent a lot about teachers who I feel don’t want to grow.  I get angry when I hear teachers bad mouth Professional Development.  I don’t understand not wanting to be better at your job or not taking advantage of learning when it is put right in front of you.  My motherboard doesn’t compute getting to a point in your work where you feel you have nothing left to learn and then being comfortable there.  Im always telling teachers to find the nugget of usefulness in PD even when it seems bad.  I tell teachers that Professional Learning does not have to take place in a classroom after school.  I say all of these things but I have to also admit that I was lucky.

Ryan Imbriale and Julie Cutlip saw something in me that led to my current happiness.  I was lucky that I had people around me who didn’t see me as disengaged, even though, at the time, that’s how I would describe myself.

Im still lucky.  I still have people like that around me and Im in a position to be that person for a group of pretty dedicated teachers.

Learned Lesson: Pay It Forward.

Common Ground Website

Help Me Help You

About a week ago I heard a coworker say that they have never been to a useful Professional Development.  There was a time when I would have taken this personally.  To be honest, I should say more personally.  It is my job to provide professional development to all teachers in my building and here, on the back end of my 4th year I’d like to think that I have a clear understanding of my strengths and weakness as well as my advantages and hurdles.  With this clarity, my internal response was clear; ‘If PD isn’t working for you, then it is probably your fault.’  Nevertheless, this is a hard notion for me to reconcile and I wonder if I’m being too harsh.  Teacher is not our only identity.  We all have families and friends and things we would rather be doing. Sitting in a chair, listening to something that doesn’t apply to my classroom could be annoying.  I try to keep in mind that not every teacher is a nerd for education like I am and that’s ok.

Maybe it was the word ‘never’ that got under my skin.  This teacher had NEVER attended a worthwhile PD.  Hyperbole aside, that’s a bold statement. It implies that everything that teacher needed to grow professionally was internal.  When offering PD to my staff, I take in a lot of factors.  The staff is surveyed every month, I take into account walkthrough observation data and anecdotal evidence from department chairs.  I understand that most PD doesn’t start there but Im willing to bet that more of it starts with perceived needs than one my initially think.   Still though…never.

This week, during my spring break, I attended a professional development opportunity on the NYU campus called #IgniteSTEM.  It was put on by the Ignite Stem team of Princeton University.  The purpose, as stated by the program, was to “empower leaders in education to disrupt STEM learning environments with project based learning.”  Overall, the experience wasn’t great.  It wasn’t all bad but there were some serious issues which I will outline below:

  • First off, I must say that early on I learned that the team that put this together was made up of college kids. They care about education and want it to be better.  At their age I doubt I could have done much better.  This is the lens through which I filtered my experience.
  • Start on time. Adults, have schedules.  Honor them.
    • When you realize that you haven’t started on time, adjust. Cut something or shave something down.
  • We all understand sponsorship. We have all experienced a PD that is really a sales pitch.  An entire conference of that is daunting and most educators don’t have the purchasing power required anyway.
  • Make sure that you have a dynamic speaker. While personality is secondary to content it is still important.
  • Give educators time to work. An entire day of sitting through sales pitches can still garner results.  You never know what seed it going to get planted.  Give teachers time to work on ideas.
  • Beware of overload. There were 12 informational sessions at this day long conference.  While my basic complaint is that not all of them were useful, I fear the inverse as well.  If every single thing were useful I would not know where to start.
  • We had 6 keynote speakers at this event.  While I may feel like I got very little out of this, perhaps others were very interested.  Giving us choice as opposed to having us all in one room could have helped a great deal.

As I stated, not everything was negative. Anat Agarwal of edX and Jonathan Rochelle of Google were bright spots.  The makerspace workshops were both educational and a lot of fun. The lightning speakers, the ones I heard, were delightful and student based. The snacks were great.

So a few hours into this PD I realized that I was not going to get out of this what I had hoped.  A disappointing notion but not a crushing one.  The day was not wasted.  Several members of my PLN were also at this function. Christopher Nesi of the House of EdTech and Stacey Lindes of #bfc530 were there with many of the same criticisms as me.  We banded together.  We learned to together.  We helped each other out in a coding session that could have quickly gone downhill. We peeled off from one or two of the speakers and discussed out own professional needs.  We took the seeds that we had gathered throughout the day and started planting.  From those events, I have some solid ideas to bring back to my school building/county.  Even before they showed up, I had a great discussion with a fellow education about the uses of Makerspaces in High Schools, an area where I truly struggle.  At the end of this very long day, I was pretty pleased with what I had taken away.

So I’m forced to think of my knee jerk reaction to the teacher who says they have never attended a useful Professional Development.  Yes, I still believe it is on that teacher to find PD that works for them.  I also have to admit that the hurdles they face are not all external.  Those of us who provide PD need to maintain our resolve.  We need to make sure that we are providing PD that is relevant and functional.  We need to consider how adults learn.  However, we are one part of the equation.  We can provide the opportunity to learn but not the drive.

Learned Lesson:  Professional Development is not always great.  When that happens it’s on you to make it better.

Sushi and Bias

Last night I got sushi with some old friends.  I stopped in on them on my way to #IgniteSTEM.  We talked about married life, work, Trump, being in our 30s and the annoyance of owning a home but not wanting to do any work on it.  None of the people I sat with were educators.  Scott and Joe both work in IT and Gail works in a psychiatric center. This becomes important later. Eventually, I was asked about my feelings on Betsy DeVos and school vouchers in general.  I launched into my prepared thoughts on the issue for when talking to non-educators.   For the record, here are my thoughts:

DeVos:  There are plenty of educators with whom I disagree but I trust that they understand the system.  Michelle Rhee comes to mind. I find her position on teacher workload and teacher tenure awful.  I find her general attitude about teacher unions to be backwards.  I find her stance on charter schools to be simply misguided.  That being said I respect the time that she has spent in education and I believe that her beliefs come from a place of wanting to help children.  I believe that because she has taken the time to study the issues.  She is a smart person with whom I disagree.  DeVos is not that.  She, like Rick Perry and Ben Carson, was put in a position in order to dismantle it.  I don’t trust her decisions because she has not studied.  The kid who didn’t do the reading doesn’t get to explain the text to the class.

Vouchers:  Public education is a beautifully socialist idea.  Every kid gets an education.  Period.  Sure that’s a difficult task and hard to accomplish but it is, in fact, holy work.  School vouchers, the process of using government money to subsidize private and charter schools, is a travesty and bad for America in the long term.  Instead of a level base, now we have tiers.  This is compounded by the fact that charters and private schools can kick kids out.  Now, you have turned public schools, which can’t and shouldn’t kick kids out, into a trash can.  An expensive trash can that widens the economic gap between rich and poor for generations.  I want every child to get a great education and I believe that our country is capable of it.  I think we, as a whole, lack the political will.

So I gave an abbreviated version of these two thoughts to my friends and used the example of them not liking a park across the street from their house and expecting the government to pay for their backyard landscaping.  As we were speaking, a woman sitting at the adjacent table, told her child that they were leaving.  She did so loud enough to make sure we heard her.  She then told her child that she couldn’t ‘sit here and listen to this, especially when none of us were educators.’  She then left abruptly, again in a manner ensuring that we were aware.  A few minutes later, as I searched for the bathroom, I saw her standing with the rest of her family pointed at me angrily and, I assume, recounting her version of events.

… I’m never sure how to respond in such moments.  I’m conflict averse, like most people are, I think.  Should I have stopped her before she got up and had a discussion and asked for her point of view?  I would love to believe that I lived in an America where that was possible.  Should I have confronted her when I saw her obviously pointing at me?  I could have calmly asked her opinion.  Should I have never answered the question for fear that someone within earshot may have disagreed?  I know I don’t live in that America.  I know that I immediately made assumptions about her that were unfair and politically motivated.  I need to work on that.  I have to admit that I hope I’m given the opportunity to talk to that woman someday and find out what led to her assumptions about us.

Learned Lesson: Speak your mind but check your bias.

The 1st Blog

I want to say from the start that I tried to not do this.  I’ve wanted to start a blog for a while now but to be 100% honest they seem more self-indulgent than anything else.  I read so many Ed Blogs that are just a random person writing random thoughts on education.  Every time I came up with an idea for a format or topic, I would search and find that someone had beat me to it.  For a while I figured I didn’t need to blog.  It seemed like enough people were doing that already.  So in the meantime I tweeted and ed-chatted and wrote for random ed sites.  The problem with all of that was that they weren’t on my terms.  So here I am, trying something new/old.  And as I write this I have to admit that I’m having a thought for the 1st time in this arena. What’s wrong with being self-indulgent?  If a teacher, a public servant, can’t from time to time, pontificate for a few paragraphs then who can?  Still though, I need a format to keep me in check.  So, here’s the deal.  Once a week (or as often as I am able) I will openly reflect on my job and my role in education.  I will end those reflections with a lesson that I have taken away from my experience. Also, from time to time, I will interview fellow educators and ask them about lessons they have learned from the field. I’ll post these on Twitter and hopefully be of use to somebody.  If you would like to talk further about these experiences then feel free to contact me via Twitter @MrEandre.  Thank you for your time.