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.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Assumptions & Stereotypes Lead to Poor Practices

Assumptions & Stereotypes Lead to Poor Practices

This essay will remain neutral regarding race, ethnicity, and gender; however, my personal experiences should be sufficient to drive my point home.  Too often people assume their position on a topic is irrefutable although it is not backed by empirical research of any kind.  Many times during my career in education, I have heard it stated that minority students need minority role models in order to succeed.  The assumption is that if someone comes from a similar cultural background they will be better equipped to motivate a student to learn.  My personal case study does not support that premise.

For grades Kindergarten through 2nd, I attended a neighborhood school where all of my peers looked like me, the principal looked like me, and all of my teachers looked like me.  Due to my disengagement and wanderings, my mother chose to have me bused to a school in another neighborhood ten miles away.  The majority (95%) at my new school did not look like me; nor did the principal or the teachers.  This new school was academically two years ahead of my neighborhood school.  I, and the other students bused from my neighborhood, were not labeled incapable of achieving at the same level as the majority; instead, the high expectations for achievement held for the majority were held for me as well.  I needed to repeat the 3rd grade, I was given the extra reading instruction needed, and by 6th grade I graduated on par with the best of my classmates (effectively two years ahead of my neighborhood peers).  Today, those of us who were bused 10 miles away have achieved a higher level of career success than those who remained in the neighborhood schools.

How does what transpired with me in the 70’s and 80’s relate to today?  I now live in a neighborhood on Long Island where half of the population looks like me, and the other half look like another minority group.  All of the board members in the local school district look like the students, and the same can be said for the administration and much of the staff.  Due to self-serving behaviors for many decades by those entrusted with the school district, it is now the lowest performing school district on Long Island, and one of the lowest in New York State.  Similar downward trends are beginning to manifest in a neighboring school district with a similar racial/ethnic mix.  It is not the color of those in charge that is causing these failures, but the frailties of leadership, and the low expectations held for student achievement.

Stereotypes are also used too often to defend a position.  I recently read a brief essay where the author wrote that all school administrators should be required to spend ten years teaching before having the option of becoming an administrator.  This statement was made based on the assumption that too many administrators leave teaching because they were never very good at teaching and/or they want to earn more money.  How about those exceptional teachers who were encouraged to become school administrators?  How about the many examples of exceptional young transformational administrators who achieved improvement in their schools where others failed?  We are all as unique as our fingerprints, and our motivations and capabilities cannot be boxed in by the illusion of time.

If I am a poor teacher who was granted tenure after three years, why ruin another seven year span of student oversight before entering an administrative position that suits me better; not all administrative positions are based on curriculum and instruction.  I might be an organizational genius, and do amazing work in human resources.  I might be introverted, but love numbers, and do wonders as a business administrator.  Whenever we allow assumptions or stereotypes to guide our practices in education, we knowingly or unwittingly contribute to greater educational nonsense rather than enhancing the cause of greater educational knowledge, awareness and impact.

Advice for Bloggers

Advice for Bloggers

Before I publish anything, including my blogs, I have a couple of brutally honest friends give me their opinions.  They are not from my field of expertise (education), and they are experts with grammar and articulation.  Are my essays well written?  Do they make sense?  Good friends are not those who tell you everything you do is wonderful.  Good friends want you to put your best foot forward; therefore, they will share suggestions with you that they believe will make you shine even brighter.