Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Psychosocial Milieu of Teacher Post Observations

Psychosocial Milieu of Teacher Post Observations
Jonathan T. Jefferson & Veronica L. Schauder

“I’m saved everyday by the intrinsic value of the work I do, which I truly enjoy.”  Al Jarreau

For more than 15 years, I have been in the unenviable position of having to observe teachers with the goal of providing them with constructive feedback that they could use to improve instruction.  Each school district I worked for had different requirements related to teacher observations.  These requirements were based on their collective bargaining agreements (teacher contracts).  Some districts only required tenured teachers to be formally evaluated twice per year; others once.  Similar differences exist regarding non-tenured teachers; additionally, some agreements forbid formally writing up unannounced observations, while others encourage it.  In my experience, the unannounced observations were more authentic.  Teachers needed to shine all of the time, as opposed to giving the occasional “horse and pony” performance.

The past few years have witnessed a seismic shift in how tenured teachers respond to their formal observations.  Due to state education departments (e.g. New York) tying teacher evaluations to the results of student performance assessments, a wave of anxiety has entered the profession.  No longer does it appear that tenure is a safety net protecting teachers from everything short of being excessed or facing criminal charges.  Now, my post observations with teachers have gone from an exercise that each of us check off of our list to a deeply rewarding or disturbing encounter with another human being.

When my current district first began using the Danielson rubric to evaluate teachers, I had one teacher’s rating as developing.  Before our post observation, the teacher attended one of my department meetings where I demonstrated how with minor changes a lesson can move from developing to highly effective.  Immediately after that department meeting, during our post observation, the teacher said that he now understands what is expected of him.  Since then, the same lessons he has been delivering for 20 years have vastly improved.  This is an example of how a post observation can be rewarding.

Surprisingly, a teacher who routinely delivers better than effective, and often highly effective, lessons engaged me in a rather disturbing post observation conference.  The lesson I observed was typically better than effective; however, this teacher was so upset about the score affixed to the lesson that she became visibly emotional.  When it was clear that the emotionality would not move me, she instantaneously settled down.  She went on to inform me that she checked on other teachers’ scores (I assume they shared that information with her), and she asked me if I thought this was the worst lesson I observed her teach, and she was shocked that I missed evidence that would rate as highly effective.

Yes, I was annoyed, but I tried to get a few points across.  Firstly, do not allow external measures  determine how you choose to value yourself or your work.  I also get evaluated on a four point scale, but my evaluators will never know the true scope of what I do, so their opinions do not sway me.  Secondly, I formally observe only one of the several hundred classes each teacher teaches every year; therefore, if you know that you do what is best for your students, keep doing it.  Lastly, no matter how much evidence an observer writes down, they will never see everything.  The only remedy for this is to video record a class from multiple angles, and watch the video countless times.

Wanting to better understand and address highly effective teachers who behave as this one did, I reached out to a colleague who deals with psychosocial issues professionally.  The following was her feedback to me:

There are so many variables that influence a person’s ability to receive progressive feedback.  I considered my own experiences managing offense and defense in the post observation conference. Here are my top three takeaways;

1. Tame the Temperament.

The success of the post observation conference is contingent on two wildly varied temperaments searching for synchronicity.  

Does the person in front of you align with your intensity, share your favor for consistency or eagerly approach new situations and challenges?  Are they impulsive, restless and strong-willed?  Maybe they are serious, cautious and slow to adapt.  What if they simply prefer a quiet and caring atmosphere and require an awakening of interest to spark creative problem solving?  

The post observation conference is a contemporary stress that can trigger the fight or flight response. A danger signal pops up, nerves start firing messages to prepare the body to escape, fight, or freeze. If the highly effective teacher also has a highly intense or anxious temperament, the conference facilitator may need to shift the perspective to assist and compensate as needed.

This dance of temperament is best met by taking inventory of the other person’s character traits. The success of the post observation conference depends on a significant exchange of ideas that influence each person. The conference dyad can prompt deep impact or estrangement. Take stock of sweaty hands, shaking legs, and racing thoughts. My throat gets slightly tight before the conference even begins. It is my reminder to breathe deeply, listen carefully, and speak with confidence.

Temperament is a continuum that impacts our adjustment to everyday life. Those on both sides of the desk who recognize the signs of an activated response system and understand temperament are better able to navigate this tricky emotional balancing process.  

2.     Adaptation = Emotional Evolution.

You have to love the simplicity of adaptation. Stretch, change, modify, do what is necessary to function in a situation and ensure survival.  

Seems easy enough, until you have to put it into practice.  If your temperament is of a rigid nature, and the other person in the conference is making a suggestion that brings a chill up your spine, your response system is activated and the strategy being proposed now feels like a swift kick to your ego.  Time to exercise your emotional flexibility.
I recently heard Dr. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, speak about the relationship of managing emotions and business success.  If you are brave enough, try the free emotional agility quiz on her website. Her quiz reveals how you navigate emotions and how aligned you are with your values.

As the systems in our world continue to change, a myriad of agendas and policies can challenge the most even-tempered achiever. The ability to govern limiting thoughts and mindfully respond to emotional triggers increases emotional agility, flexibility and adaptation. The tools of emotional intelligence should be shared thoughtfully to be embraced graciously. We are introducing the RULER Approach to Social and Emotional Learning, from the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence, to our staff and children.
All parties have to do their work to catch their thoughts and emotions mid air so the post observation conference can be postured for meaningful exchange of ideas, promoting growth and development.
3. Mindfulness makes the Moment Matter.

So how do we make ourselves fully present for the process?

A mindfulness practice helps put space between our thoughts and responses.  If you pay full attention to the moment you are in, without judgment, you reap the rewards of feeling the full force of this crazy thing called calm.  Learn our primal response system, identify temperament traits and work out the emotional flexibility muscles.
Take a try.  Observe the moment just as it is- a moment.  Begin a slow, deliberate breathing pattern.  If any judgmental mind chatter starts messing with you, let it pass. Create a safe word or phrase to restore your focus.  Enjoy the sweet release of neurochemicals activating the relaxation response and inducing a sense of well-being.  Now you are ready to rock your world.
As I was writing this, a coworker had just completed her post observation conference.  She was pacing with a smile.  Her body and mind weren’t yet synced, I could tell she was still processing the experience.  I checked in on her later in the day.  She was restored to a place of quiet confidence.  As she reflected, she realized she needed to hear the words spoken in her conference.  She is an amazing teacher, and the children love being around her.  She saw that by stretching out of her comfort level, she could elevate her teaching practice and deliver information with compassionate structure.
Her level of self-awareness supported her emotional registry of the critique.

She acknowledged the physiological responses triggered by the conference, her even temperament availed her time to process and she welcomed the strategies to improve the quality of her situation. It took a few deep breathing moments to abandon any unwarranted influences. As soon as the emotional coast was clear, she could mindfully embrace her natural superpowers that make her shine.  She took the information and made it work for her.
By the way, I took Dr. Susan’s Emotional Agility quiz.  It was pretty insightful.  I, like so many others, need to practice my values.  They recommended I make some changes to my habits so I could see greater levels of growth and development.  By enduring the short-term discomfort of effort to implement these changes, I will be rewarded with greater opportunities to thrive.  

Spot on.

Friday, February 19, 2016

When Ignorance Is Not Bliss
By Jonathan T. Jefferson

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  Edmund Burke

The above statement was said in different ways with the same meaning by a few intellectuals throughout history.  It came to mind recently on two fronts; politics and sports.  Keep this in mind as you read my essay: air travel is the safest form of transportation; highly publicized plane accidents do not change this fact.  “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.”  Adolf Hitler. 

Those who are prone to bigotry have found a standard bearer in Donald Trump.  He railed against Mexican immigrants claiming that they are violent criminals, promising to deport eleven million of them, and planning to build a wall to keep them out.  His supporters, even those living in Texas, cheer Trump’s position, and boldly proclaim that Mexicans should go back to their own country.  Maybe those Texans did not benefit from excellent history teachers.  If they had, they would be aware that Texas belonged to Mexico prior to the Mexican-American War (1846-1847); furthermore, I have never heard a Native American tell anyone to go back to their ancestral home.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, Donald Trump suggested banning all Muslims from entering the United States.  Timothy McVey was not Muslim when he bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that took the lives of 168 people on April 19, 1995.  It was not armed Muslims who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon on January 2, 2016.  In fact, the leading scorer in NBA history, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, is Muslim.  Once the most popular man in the world, Muhammad Ali, took on the legality and merits of the military draft on behalf of all Americans.  Doing so caused him to sacrifice nearly four years of competition while in his prime.  Of course, let us not forget about the Muslim men and women bravely serving in our armed forces. 

Too often young people are oblivious to history.  In 1996 NBA star Shaquille “Shaq” O’Neal (age 24) asked his Olympic team coach, Lenny Wilkens, if he ever played in the NBA.  Shaq was unaware that Lenny Wilkens is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and was honored as one of the top 50 players in NBA history.  Shaq’s more knowledgeable Olympic teammates found this amusing. 

There are times when young adults make statements out of ignorance that are inflammatory.  Cam Newton (age 26), the quarterback for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, and this past season’s NFL MVP, said the following, “I’m an African American quarterback that may scare a lot of people because they haven’t seen nothing they can compare me to.”  This comment can be construed as offensive to those of us who have been watching NFL games long before Cam Newton was born.  We observed talented and athletic African American quarterbacks including Warren Moon, Steve McNair, Randall Cunningham, and Donovan McNabb among them.  Cam also ignored a contemporary of his, Russell Wilson (age 27).  Russell Wilson has played in two Super Bowls, and won a championship ring at age 25.

Yes, there are times when “ignorance is bliss.”  Do fathers want to know about everything their daughters do in college?  Do any of us really want to know everything about our neighbors?  More often than not, ignorance is not bliss; it’s just ignorant.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

From Knowing to Doing

From Knowing to Doing
To be an effective teacher requires overcoming the illusion of control, and fearlessly applying proven practices to benefit students.  The reality of how far some educators need to go in order to apply research to practice was brought home to me recently when I visited an elementary school in the district where I work.  Upon walking into the gymnasium before school, I found a few hundred students ranging from grades K thru 2 seated in neat rows with their legs and hands folded not making a sound.  It was appalling.  I thought I walked into North Korea and Kim Jong Un was about to give a speech.

Of course, I was not in North Korea, but in North America.  In place of an unbending dictator were two New York area physical education teachers standing in statuesque admiration of the control they wielded over those young cherubs.  Initially, I walked out of the gymnasium disgusted, but I immediately returned to address the physical education teachers who should be well informed on the importance of movement; especially before academic engagement.

I reminded them of the benefits of movement in the morning that I reinforced with current research in department meetings, and for summer reading.  One of the teachers responded that he was well aware of the benefits as he himself was the recipient of morning exercise.  Though he himself had reaped the benefits of morning movement, I found it ironic to currently find myself in a gymnasium filled with stationary students who also appeared petrified to exercise their vocal cords..  A different teacher said to me that it would create liability issues to have students engaged in movement during the morning.  She also mentioned the noise that they would be making.  I also found her response interesting.  These same students would be playing during recess, but the morning somehow would create liability issues.  I do not believe the teacher has a law degree, but as a school administrator, I have become accustomed to lawyerly responses when a teacher wants me to bend in their favor.  I also have no problem with children laughing excitedly, talking, and making joyful noises.

When I shared the fact that other schools in the district were applying movement during morning arrival, one of the physical education teachers arrogantly responded by saying, “I would like to see that.”  As if somehow I was delusional in believing that better methods of engagement existed.  I mentioned the fact that one school was allowing students to dance in the morning, and yet another school of equal size was taking students on morning walks around their building.  That teacher’s rude comment feigning a lack of belief was troubling coming from a supposedly seasoned practitioner.  Was he truly unaware that students could enjoy line dancing, yoga, aerobics, calisthenics, etc., in a safe manner with minimum space?

I finished my soap box with the physical education teachers by emphasizing that if my child attended that school, I would not want them sitting in the morning before heading to class.  Knowing what is best for children, would anyone want less for their own?  Maybe it would require more effort on the part of teachers, teaching assistants, and school administrators, to organize activities that would get students’ blood flowing, send more oxygen to their brains, and increase the firing of neurons.  All of which raises the essential underlying question:  Did we devote ourselves to the field of education in order to cater to the comforts of adults, or is our mission to do everything in our reasonable powers to  benefit the learning-process of children?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Education: What Fareed Zakaria Missed

Education: What Fareed Zakaria Missed

Dr. Jonathan T. Jefferson

The title of this opinion piece may lead one to believe that I am going to be critical of Fareed Zakaria.  Far from it.  I am an avid watcher of his television journalism.  I appreciate his attention to detail, use of empirical data, depth of questioning, fair and balanced reporting.  However, when it comes to my area of expertise (education), there is a finite, but critical, aspect that all journalists have missed.

There has been a mountain of reporting on the status of America’s education system.  These reports have been fueled by American students’ steady decline when compared to other developed, and developing, nations.  Measures of this decline often come from results on The International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), and the more recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that has Americans ranked 28th in the world in education.

Journalists have focused on the uproar surrounding Common Core State Standards, state testing, and parents opting their children out of state testing.  Prior to the advent of the Common Core, parents and educators had begun to complain about the number of tests being implemented, reporting of test results, and increased pressures.  There once was a time when tests were appropriately used for diagnostic purposes.  Where are students succeeding and struggling, and how can educators adjust what they do to improve students’ performance?  Now, state tests are punitive.  Principals and teachers are graded on student performance with the long term risk of losing their jobs.  Educators have pushed liberal education aside to focus on the limited scope of state exams.  The pressures educators are feeling trickles down to students and ventures home to parents.

Common Core State Standards are not a bad thing.  How Common Core has been rolled out, and testing students based on standards they have yet to be taught, is a bad thing.  In his interview with Microsoft founder Bill Gates that aired on Fareed Zakaria GPS May 17, 2015, Mr. Zakaria asked Mr. Gates what he thought of the Common Core.  Mr. Gates was correct in explaining how the standards provide a unified, focused, and step by step approach to teaching math.  On that occasion, the questioning regarding education ended there.  In fairness, Mr. Zakaria discussed a variety of topics with Mr. Gates during that interview.

To his credit, Mr. Zakaria came to the defense of liberal education in his recently released book “In Defense of a Liberal Education”.  The critical component negatively impacting students that is not being publicly discussed is the increased probability that a student will be affixed with a disability label.  If state test results are going to threaten an educator’s livelihood, then labeling a hard to teach child with a disability might absolve them from taking ownership for having to effectively teach them.  Once labeled (ADHD, ADD, AD, OCD, etc.), a child’s lifelong aspirations may be thwarted.  This is the conversation I would like to bring to the national, if not global, square.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Succeeding In Organizations

Succeeding in Organizations
Jonathan T. Jefferson

“If I knew back then, what I know now
If I understood the what, when, why and how
Now it’s clear to me what I should have done…”
George Benson 20/20 lyrics

I heard it said that today’s graduates will make an average of nine job changes during their careers. I heard that said several years ago, but it is likely still true today. Yours truly is in his ninth professional job since leaving graduate school in 1993. In each of the nine organizations where I was employed, I earned stellar evaluations from my supervisors. How did I succeed, and why did I work in so many places? This essay will share some insights on how I navigated through the challenges inherent in all organizations.

The size of organizations range from one to millions, their purposes differ, and their organizational charts vary. However, there is one constant that is evident in all. People... People make the world go around, and they are the engines that keep businesses running. Have you ever made a mistake and said to yourself “I’m only human”? We all make mistakes just as we all harbor frailties. Therefore, where there are people, there exist shortcomings. Understanding that all organizations have inherent imperfections is the first step toward individual success.

The maze within organizations is beset by mine fields and potholes. There exist uplifting personalities, downtrodden souls, and every other character trait imaginable. Where do you fit in? Are you the jovial type who likes to whistle while you work, the constant complainer, or the angry-at-the-world-just-because employee? What about those around you? Like it or not, we are often judged by the company we keep, and there is the quintessential notion that “birds of a feather flock together.”

New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, absolved himself of the actions taken by two of his former advisors (Chief of Staff, & Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) regarding “Bridgegate”. Bridgegate refers to the George Washington Bridge lane closures aimed at frustrating Fort Lee, New Jersey, residents to punish the Fort Lee mayor for not endorsing Christie’s re-election. Christie tweeted, “I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act.” However, he appointed individuals who might harbor a penchant for vengeance. Those willing to win by any means necessary… Considering Mr. Christie’s very public berating (“Sit down and shut up!”) no one should be surprised by the alleged egregious behaviors of those he appointed.

To succeed you must have a moral compass. Having a moral compass includes having integrity, being kind, and being balanced (not apt to over-react). Doing what is right when no one is watching, treating people the way you want to be treated, and choosing to navigate still waters instead of rough rapids. Along with a moral compass, one must be able to look into the mirror of their character and make an honest assessment. What are your shortcomings, and how can you overcome or mediate them?

Clearly, if Christie’s advisors were self-aware, and guided by a moral compass, indictments could have been avoided. The same could be said for the 11 former Atlanta school educators convicted of racketeering for changing grades on students’ state exams. What drove them to this? Was it greed? Performance bonuses were paid based on students’ improved test scores. Was it fear? With mortgages, car notes, and student loans, the fear of losing one’s job if they did not play along (cheat) may have been real. Knowing their own frailties (greed, fear, etc.), and having a moral compass, would likely have kept those wayward teachers on the right path.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

As a Child - When an Adult

As a Child – When an Adult
Jonathan T. Jefferson

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  1 Corinthians 13:11 King James Version

The above quote is a fitting start to this self-study.  I am not a religious man, and I rarely use quotes from religious texts.  As you will read, my life experiences are at odds with the statement written above.

In this essay, I will represent myself as John and my neighborhood peers as Lance.  We are all African Americans who grew up in a predominantly black middle class neighborhood in Queens, New York.  By the time we reached adulthood, we learned that the average income of blacks in Queens was higher than that of whites.  This was due to the fact that most of our parents worked service jobs for the city, state, or federal government.

By the age of two, John’s life experiences began to diverge from Lance’s.  John’s parents bought a rustic rural farm in northern New York’s dairy country.  John and most of his seven siblings were introduced to white farming families, and John spent the bulk of his childhood summers engaging with them.  In contrast, Lance either remained in the neighborhood all summer, or spent a couple of weeks visiting family in predominantly black communities in southern states (e.g. Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi, etc.).  John experienced kindness and friendship while learning about life on dairy farms, and he looked forward to his summer escapes from city life.  Meanwhile Lance more or less became more immersed with city life, and the newest trends in black music, dance, and sports.

By the age of seven, the gulf between John and Lance’s trajectory grew even further.  John’s lack of effort and penchant for truancy at the neighborhood school led his mother to “bus” him out to a predominantly white school district roughly 10 miles away.  After visiting this school, his mother believed the “foreign” environment and richness of resources would keep her son engaged and reacquaint him with his early potential.  This would prove to be true.  John’s new school was academically two years more advanced than his neighborhood school, and in the process John’s socialization lead him to embrace diversity, as he attended many bar mitzvahs and sleepovers with his new friends of varying cultures.  Some of his new friends would also sleepover his house, which afforded them a reciprocal learning experience.

Life, however, was not always peaches and cream at John’s new school, as he would find himself on the receiving end of bullying from fellow black students in the “busing” program.  In this regard, distance from home base proved somewhat detrimental.

Summers added even more diversity to John’s experiences.  Amish farmers began to move into the dairy country of his summer escapes.  The ability to enjoy life with less was the foremost lesson he took away from his observational interaction with the Amish.  Lance, on the other hand, in succumbing to the prevailing peer pressure of the local neighborhood, received accelerated lessons in materialism and found himself more consumed with the fashionable attire he could attach to his body (sneakers, jeans, hair styles, etc.) than the batch of information he could plant in his brain to help direct the course of his life.

With the brief descriptions of the different upbringings of John and Lance, let me share a glimpse of their adult lives.  John did well in school, but college did not interest him.  He wanted to travel, see the world, and explore other cultures.  He had been suffering migraines all through high school, so the Marine Corps did not accept him; he reluctantly attended a local college.  The diversity of his college peers, and the excursions he took for college credit (skiing in Quebec & hiking in the Adirondacks) quickly warmed John to the idea of college.   Lance, meanwhile, saw his options as limited to enlisting in the army.

As a child, John traveled and experienced different lifestyles; no wonder he was keen on doing the same after high school.  Many neighborhood high school students felt largely unacquainted with the notion of college, so Lance joining the army was indeed a common pattern amongst his peer group – it certainly was a better option than falling into other neighborhood traps entailing drugs, crime and violence.  One nevertheless wonders if Lance might have thought differently had he traveled the more rigorous academic road that John was subject to?

Moreover, as a child John almost intrinsically found himself fulfilling the role of de facto teacher among his peers.  He would share the realities of the black urban experience with his white school mates, while enlightening his neighborhood peers about the social mechanics of other cultural environments.  Over and above racial distinctions, John’s teaching extended to informing both city groups (black & white) about details of life on a farm and the unique values of Amish living.  After graduating from a diverse city college, John went on to attain an advanced degree at a rather vanilla New England graduate school; after which, a teaching career awaited him.  Meanwhile, once Lance completed his tour of military duty, public-sector/blue-collar service jobs beckoned him to join their ranks.

John would ultimately embark on a career teaching and coaching sports as he had learned to do as a child.  He also became a school administrator with a compulsion to immerse himself in many different types of work environments in the education sector – ranging from white districts, wealthy districts, city schools, black and Hispanic districts, and private schools.  John’s work capacities varied as well from assistant principal, director/principal, central office executive, etc.  Lance, on the other hand, remained in one job year after year.  He never relocated, and seldom sought advancement.

The experiences John and Lance had as children clearly impacted the choices they made as adults, or even conceived them.  Thus, if I may offer a functional alternative to the Apostle Paul’s scripture: We don’t so much put away childish things as we ideally apply the richness of our child experiences to our adult lives, the act of which helps to ensure maximum growth.