Wednesday, May 13, 2020

K-12 Education Needs Reimagining

K-12 Education Needs Reimagining

Jonathan T. Jefferson

Humankind's illusion of dominion over the earth has been shaken back to reality by an unseen stealth attack, perpetrated by the world’s only true superpower, mother nature. Among the billions of people taking shelter at home from her COVID-19 wrath, are tens of millions of American school children. Crisis of this magnitude reveal competent leaders, bumbling idiots, and opportunists. Allow your own assessment of the facts to determine which categories you would place New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo in.

On May 5, 2020, while giving one of his daily Coronavirus updates, Governor Cuomo said, “The old model of, everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom, and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why, with all the technology you have?” This statement, and the question he asked, initially set off a firestorm of criticism. Randi Weingarten, United Federation of Teachers union president, tweeted, “Hey @NYGovCuomo .. what about the amazing educators .. who are “reimagining education” EVERY DAY during this #COVID19 crisis.. Why not start with the thousands of them... and @NYSUT and the #NYSRegents.. They have wonderful, creative, caring ideas ... #justathougt.” Apparently in response to concerns raised by the likes of Weingarten, Governor Cuomo established a "Reimagine Education" advisory council. Weingarten is among the 20 members on this committee.

When I initially saw the criticisms leveled against the governor, I was not surprised. After all, I asked this same question when I began my career in K-12 education nearly 27 years ago. Why are our school systems, modeled after factories during the industrial revolution, still operating in the same fashion during this pandemic as they did during the Spanish Flu? Staunch defenders of this outdated model inevitably came to its defense. In his book, “Who Moved My Cheese?”, Spencer Johnson posits that having cheese makes one happy. When you are comfortable with the way things are, why change? One reason to look for new cheese is to avoid being stuck with the old and foul. Another reason is that if you do not change, you can become extinct.

The governor's committee is chaired by a college president, and he is joined by school district superintendents, a teachers union president, and an assortment of other experts and advisors. Noticeably missing are school-age children, and more young adults who have recently graduated from the K-12 system. Young people can speak about the challenges they are now facing in their current line of work or area of study. One youthful voice is not enough, as their life experiences vary greatly. I hope the governor's advisory council does not defend what is, but joins in the conversation to consider what could be.

School buildings are definitely needed, but they should be a part of a blended model that includes an equal amount of time learning outside of buildings. The era of stay-at-home moms is long past. Parents who do work from home do not necessarily want their children underfoot. Children still need to attend schools to engage in group activities that prepare them for a group working environment, musicians need to get together to learn how to harmonize in bands and orchestras, many vocational trades require hands on experiences, and sports teams need places to practice and compete.

Technology allows for automation. The taking of attendance and grading of most exams can be done instantly. Students, parents, and teachers can review progress reports continually, and the need for in-person parent and teacher conferences can be eliminated. Virtual conferences could be scheduled as needed. Also, Imagine dialing in for PTA meetings, imagine never needing to make up for a snow day, imagine cyberspace inclusion and exploration. There are countless possibilities.

I am only scratching the surface here regarding what technology is capable of. Asynchronous and synchronous lessons, video and audio productions, international collaborations, self-paced learning, etc. Instead of spending millions of dollars on new classroom buildings, consider splitting the day to allow secondary students to attend either in the morning or afternoon. Days, weeks, and semesters could also be alternated. COVID-19 may inspire a mountain of positive innovations. I hope children, not crafty seasoned educators, take the lead in determining what the future of education will look like.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Quote from "Teddy" by J.D. Salinger

Excerpt from the short story Teddy by J.D. Salinger

“What would you do if you could change the educational system?” ….

“Well...I’m not too sure what I’d do,” Teddy said. “I know I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t start with the things schools usually start with.” He folded his arms, and reflected briefly. “I think I’d first just assemble all the children together and show them how to meditate. I’d try to show them how to find out who they are, not just what their names are and things like that...I guess, even before that, I’d get them to empty out everything their parents and everybody ever told them. I mean even if their parents just told them an elephant’s big, I’d make them empty that out. An elephant’s only big when it’s next to something else-a dog or a lady, for example.” Teddy thought another moment. “I wouldn’t even tell them an elephant has a trunk. I might show them an elephant, if I had one handy, but I’d let them just walk up to the elephant not knowing anything more about it than the elephant knew about them. The same thing with grass, and other things. I wouldn’t even tell them grass is green. Colors are only names. I mean if you tell them the grass is green, it makes them start expecting the grass to look a certain way-your way-instead of some other way that may be just as good, and maybe much better...I don’t know. I’d just make them vomit up every bit of the apple their parents and everybody made them take a bite out of.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Trauma-Informed Culture

Trauma-Informed Culture
Jonathan T. Jefferson

            Trauma-informed cultures are cognizant of the fact that their clients have been traumatized and will present with a host of issues that they seek to relieve without further negative impacts.  It is important to ascertain the scope of an individual’s adverse childhood experiences prior to attempting to treat them.  Areas of concern are broad and include historical trauma, toxic stress, resilience, executive functioning, and compassion fatigue (experienced by employees).
            The Black Lives Matter awareness efforts can be attributed to historical trauma.  This form of trauma spans generations and pertains to certain cultural, racial, and ethnic populations.  African Americans experienced centuries of slavery, Jim Crow era segregation, and current high rates of incarceration.  Native Americans (Trail of Tears), Jews (Holocaust), Japanese Americans (internment), and many other groups may present with symptoms of historical trauma.  “...historical trauma often involves the additional challenge of a damaged cultural identity.” (Sotero, 2006). 
            A trauma-informed culture would cultivate positive relationships, be non-judgmental, and demonstrate understanding of the negative impacts trauma has had on marginalized groups of people within society.  Focusing on a group’s fortitude and resilience can be an avenue toward healing.  Making supportive connections with key members within local minority communities (e.g. church leaders & elected officials) would be essential to addressing historical trauma.
Toxic stress is lengthy in time, intense, or persistently recurrent, and detrimental to overall wellness.  “Toxic stress can increase health risks including heart disease, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders, substance misuse, and has long-lasting negative consequences for cognitive functioning, behavioral health, immune functioning, and physical health.” (Hamoudi, et. al, 2015).  This was evident in my late maternal grandmother who lived through The Great Depression.  Upon her passing, my family found stockpiles of canned foods stored in her apartment.  This was likely the result of an anxiety disorder triggered by experiencing long periods of hunger. 
Health and human services organizations that are trauma-informed can disrupt patterns of toxic stress by relieving financial burdens on families and individuals, creating safe havens, and referring clients to relevant health care providers.  Removing barriers to services (e.g. cost, location, &/or transportation), and making connections with clinical mental health sources when warranted would also be evident.  Having these supports in place is necessary to avoiding retraumatization.
“Resilience is the ability of individuals to not succumb to adverse experiences and is the typical response to adversity.” (Southwick, Bonanno, Masten, et. al, 2014).  “Resilient people have a good sense of themselves and their abilities and have the life skills to feel competent as individuals.” (Ginsburg, 2014).  “They often have strong connections to other people in their families, communities, or schools, as well as a solid understanding of right and wrong and a sense of integrity.” (Ginsburg, 2014).
When I think of resilient people, I think of World War II veterans who experienced
unimaginable human atrocities yet managed to live long fruitful lives.  Nelson Mandela also comes to mind.  After twenty-seven years in prison, he went on to become South Africa’s first black president and lived to the age of ninety-five.  A trauma-informed culture would implement programs for youth that build social connectedness, emotional mastery, self-confidence, and self-control.
            No trauma-informed culture can succeed without having programs in place to account for the executive functions and self regulation of individuals.  Executive functions refer to brain development affecting abilities such as critical thinking, problem solving, planning, decision making, and completing tasks.  This is an extensive and critical topic that can easily encompass an essay of its own.  “Children who have experienced prolonged or pronounced stress and adversity, including poverty and trauma experiences, may struggle more than other children do to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” (Zelazo, et. al, 2016).  Strategies to improve working memory, along with meditation and yoga, to improve concentration are among the processes that have proven successful at improving executive functions.
            As important, a trauma-informed culture would be attentive to secondary traumatic stress/compassion fatigue.  Secondary traumatic stress disorder is a normal, but hazardous, result that can come from working with traumatized individuals.  The symptoms of this fatigue are many and impact the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physical domains. 
Trauma-informed cultures openly discuss the impacts that working with traumatized clients can have on employees.  Employees should be encouraged and supported to engage in personal wellness activities (nature walks, nutritional counseling, mindfulness practices, painting, photography, etc.).  An anonymous and free employee assistance program should be available, and employers must informally and regularly check in on staff.

      Ginsburg, Kevin R. (2014).  Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings (3rd edition).  American Academy of Pediatrics.
      Hamoudi, Amar, Murray, Desiree, W.,  Sorensen, L., & Fontaine, A. (2015).  Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress: A Review of Ecological, Biological, and Developmental Studies of Self-Regulation and Stress.  OPRE Report # 2015-30, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
      Sotero, MM (2006).  A Conceptual Model of Historical Trauma: Implications for Public Health, Practice and Research.  Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice (1)1:93-108.
      Southwick, SM, Bonanno, GA, Masten, AS, et. al (2014).  Resilience definitions, theory and challenges: Interdisciplinary perspectives.  European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5:25338.
      Zelazo et. al (2016).  Executive Function: Implications for Education (

Monday, November 13, 2017

School Superintendents' Contracts -For academic innovation, 5 years is better than 3

School Superintendents’ Contracts
For academic innovation, 5 years is better than 3

Jonathan T. Jefferson

Too many people in leadership positions are there for the wrong reasons: ego, money, power, etc.  Subordinates are often left wondering if their supervisor was the best available person for the job.  In the world of public school education, choosing the wrong superintendent could have a detrimental impact on our greatest resource: children.  During my career I have worked with many exceptional educators.  Most of them state that they would only consider a superintendency at the very end of their careers.  In essence, depriving students of many years of leadership from the best and brightest innovators.

Why is this so?  Why are so many talented individuals opting to avoid or delay moving into a superintendency?  The answer is simple.  Moving into a superintendency is a risky proposition.  After years in education, earning tenure, and providing their families with financial security, who would risk it?  Superintendents are more often than not offered three-year contracts.  That is less than most elected officials.  How many superintendents have the courage to make controversial changes even when backed by empirical evidence?  Fear of offending a board member or an influential member of the community are real considerations.

Public and private schools today are essentially the same as they were in the 1920’s.  Our school systems are notoriously slow to change.  Fortune 500 companies would fail if they progressed at the same pace.  Most superintendent searches are not only limiting their pool of candidates by advertising three-year contracts, they also look for people who have traveled the same career paths: building administration, central administration, etc.  These limitations ignore the fact that successful leaders do not need to hail from traditional pathways.

What might offering five-year contracts do?  For one, it may increase the pool of candidates considerably.  Second, innovation would be given a chance to flourish.  Instead of fearing the backlash of decisions that create discomfort, superintendents would gain the benefit of time to watch their choices bear fruit.  

Naysayers could raise concern that a school district signing a “bad apple” for five years is risky.  That would ring true if the candidate were not thoroughly vetted.  In today’s digital age, there is no reason why the candidate’s blogs, podcasts, and media interviews should not be readily available.  Their professional contributions to newspapers, journals and/or book publications can also offer insight.  Lastly, if possible, visiting their current place of work to interview colleagues, teachers, and students would provide the best character references.

It is time that we begin making real changes in our schools.  Motivating more people to join the ranks of chief school officer with five-year contracts may get the ball rolling.  Otherwise, the snail's pace of progress will continue.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Importance of Play

The Importance of Play
Jonathan T. Jefferson

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” - Charles E. Schaefer

It was the summer of 1982.  My new Evel Knievel styled red, white, and blue bicycle survived the journey from Queens to Macomb, New York.  I was as anxious as any 12-year-old would have been to get their bike down from the roof of Dad’s brown Ford station wagon.  Taking a spin on the rolling hills of the rural farming community my family called home for so many summers was all I could think about since the scent of spring first tickled my nose.

My 16-year-old cousin Derek and I constructed a ramp from the door of a crumbling wooden out-building.  We stacked stones underneath one end until the ramp’s angle was steep enough to allow my bike to jump clear over the ten-foot wide swampy area in front of our home.  I conducted a few practice runs from the road, down the dirt driveway, and onto the wooden ramp.  Gauging the speed necessary to propel myself from the ramp onto the high grass on the opposite side of the swamp, occupied my thoughts for days leading up to the main event.

Today, I still wear the scars from a practice jump that canceled the main event.  Now, as an educator, I can see clearly how the unadulterated creative play of my childhood ingrained in me a true understanding of mathematical and scientific principles that were taught in school during the years that followed.  Conceptualizing the relationships between angles, height, speed, and distance was not difficult due to my real-life experiential practices.

Recently, I viewed a Tedx Talks presentation titled The Decline of Play given by Boston College Research Professor, Dr. Peter Gray.  Dr. Gray shared the results of the dramatic decline in play in developed countries over the past 60 years.  Results such as the following in children, adolescents, and young adults: increase in anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, suicide, and narcissism.
There are times when I assume something to be true, but I lack empirical evidence to prove it.  Dr. Gray’s presentation motivated me to delve deeper into the topic of play.  Are my beliefs that I learned to navigate challenges inherent in social interactions better owing to play?  Did older children model for me how to teach by being patient and responsible educators during challenging new games?  Was the sometimes cruel banter between peers, wins, and loses all experiences that prepared me for adulthood?  My gut response to these questions is yes, but what else does the research say?

“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” - Froebel

“Chronic play deprivation may have the effect of gradually dehumanizing the children it affects, with a consequent loss of their ability to care, to emphasize and exercise compassion, or share the same reality as other children.  The available evidence suggests that play deprived children become disturbed, aggressive and violent adults” (Hughes, 2003).  Maybe I can thank play for the fact that I have never been arrested, and tend toward empathy over violence.

Parents reading this may be thinking that their child is not play deprived because they receive physical education in school, belong to a sports team, or attend play dates arranged by adults.  These activities may be beneficial at helping children to remain physically fit, stave off obesity and diabetes, and possibly help control tendencies toward hyperactivity; however, it is free play that researchers are finding most apt to benefit the whole child.  “…free play refers to activity that is freely chosen and directed by the participants and undertaken for its own sake, not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.  Thus, adult-directed sports and games for children do not fall into the category of free play” (Gray, 2011).
According to Gray (2011), “Play functions as the major means by which children
  1. develop intrinsic interests and competencies;
  2. learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules;
  3. learn to regulate their emotions;
  4. make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and
  5. experience joy.
Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.”  What teacher would not want to receive children with the aforementioned strengths?  How much better would children perform academically if curriculum were scheduled around the premise that play comes first?

“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.” - William Saroyan

Skeptics may doubt the prudence of scheduling schoolwork around play; after all, to compete in a global society the products of our schools must be intellectually strong.  When referring to a commonly accepted international barometer, the PISA survey, one nation that places a high value on play does exceptionally well.  The survey compares 15-year-olds from around the world in reading, math, and science.  It is conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years.  Since 2000, Finland has consistently scored among the top countries in all three areas; joining the consistently high performing countries of South Korea and Singapore.  “Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play” (Partanen, 2011).  Finland also places a high value on equality.  Regardless of socioeconomic standing, gender, and/or citizenship status, all students receive the same quality education.
Vanderschuren (2010) concluded “that the pleasure of play has the ability to reinforce learning activities…”  I can not tell you how many times my 12-year-old mind went over the projected speed needed to jump the swamp on my bike.  It was mid-summer.  No homework had been assigned, and no adults were involved in my plans.  I did not think of it as a learning activity.  It was fun; pure, unadulterated, fun.  “Play provides opportunities for children to learn, as they discover, create, improvise and imagine.  Children’s immersion in their play illustrates how play enables them to simply enjoy being” (EYLF, p.15 quoted in Educators guide p.32).

Imagine an urban street filled with children of all ages.  A street similar to the one I grew up on in Queens, New York.  My seven siblings were spread over 19 years.  Friends in my peer group had older and/or younger brothers and sisters in the peer groups of my siblings.  Often age-mixed play would ensue whether in backyards, playgrounds, or living rooms.

One of my favorite neighborhood games was called Catch One Catch All.  The older children set the parameters; no entering the alleyway, stay out of Mrs. Dickson’s garage, and the cross streets (avenues) were off-limits.  Many of these limits were the same limits set by our parents for the youngest among us.  The object of the game was for one person to begin as “It” while the others found hiding places up and down the block; under cars, behind bushes, in trees, and on rooftops.  It would count to some specified number with their eyes closed.  Once It opened his or her eyes, It would proceed to find the first person.  The found player would then join It in searching for the others.  This pattern would continue until everyone was caught.

Younger players would inevitably get caught first, and they would strategize together to catch the older players.  Over time, the hiding strategies of the older players would be learned by the younger, and the cycle continued.  Gray (2011) concluded that

“…age-mixed play offers opportunities for learning and development not present
in play among those close in age, permitting younger children to learn more from
older playmates than they could from playing with only their peers.  …the more
sophisticated behavior of older children offers role models for younger children…
…permits older children to learn by teaching and to practice nurturance and
leadership; and they are often inspired by the imagination and creativity of their
younger playmates.”

In remembering the beauty and wonders of play, it begs the question, where did we go wrong?  Has the advent of technology taken us away from the social richness of play in a manner that television never could?  How can we turn back the clock on the narrow testing and accountability, policy driven, standards based schooling that now dominates the educational landscape?  These are more than just questions to ponder.  The mental health and well-being of generations of young people depend on our collective next steps.

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” - Albert Einstein

When she was U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton stated the following: “We were so independent, we were given so much freedom.  But now it’s impossible to imagine giving that to a child today.  It’s one of the great losses as a society.  But I’m hopeful that we can regain the joy and experience of free play and neighborhood games that were taken for granted growing up in my generation.  That would be one of the best gifts we could give our children.”

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) (2009).
Belonging, Being, and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.
Canberra: Australian Government.
Gray, Peter (2011).  The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and
Adolescents.  American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463.
Gray, Peter (2011).  The Special Value of Children’s Age-Mixed Play.  American Journal of
Play, 3(4), 500-522.
Hughes, Fergus (2003).  Sensitivity to the Social and Cultural Contexts of the Play of Young
Children, In J. Isenberg & L. Jalongo (Eds.), Major Trends and Issues in early
Childhood: Challenges, Controversies, and Insights (pp. 126-135).  New York: Teachers
College Press
Hughes, Fergus (2003).  Spontaneous Play in the 21st Century.  In B. Spodek & O. Saracho
(Eds.), Contemporary Perspectives on Play in early Childhood Education (pp. 21-39),
Greenwich, CT.: Information Age Publishing
Partanen, Anu (2011).  What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success.  The
Vanderschuren, Louk J.M.J. (2010).  How the Brain Makes Play Fun.  American Journal of
Play, 2(3), 315-337.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Someone is Going to Get Hurt or Killed, and There's Going to be a Lawsuit

Someone is Going to Get Hurt or Killed, and There’s Going to be a Lawsuit
By Jonathan T. Jefferson
           “The sky is falling the sky is falling.”  Maybe it’s my position as a School District Director that makes me feel like I am being chased by Chicken Little every day.  I look in the mirror frequently to make sure that I am not inadvertently wearing a sign that reads “PLACE COMPLAINTS HERE.”  My guess is that others in positions of leadership experience similar issues.
           When I was a beginning teacher, a veteran teacher once told me that if I wanted to get something done right away, I should say that it’s a safety issue.  I never acted on that advice, because Aesop’s fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, made more sense to me.  If everything is an emergency, than nothing is an emergency.  This basic tenet has not been learned by many who report to me.  Instead of simply requesting something new because it would be more efficient, easier to use, and/or aesthetically pleasing, the additional implications that there’s going to be a lawsuit if the improvement is not made is often stated for added measure.
           This article is not my version of an elaborate complaint.  There are serious health implications associated with complaining.  I will share these risks along with methods to avoid them.  In addition, those like me who are looked upon as billboards for complaints will learn new methods to deal with them.
           In the article by Dr. Travis Bradberry, How Complaining Rewrites Your Brain for Negativity, research was shared that should give chronic complainers cause for pause.
         “When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch
out to each other to ease the flow of information.  This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future-so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it.” - Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.

Bradberry also shared research from Stanford University that showed “…complaining shrinks the hippocampus-an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought.”  Furthermore, according to Bradberry, “…complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.  It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.”  These are scary facts!
           Bradberry suggests replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, instead of being pessimistic, be optimistic.  In time, accentuating the positive will become the norm.  For example, a bulk of the physical education equipment at one of my schools went missing.  I informed the teachers that new equipment would be ordered, but for now, borrow from another school within the district.  One of my teachers immediately complained that another school would not have the size ball that he prefers, and that someone could be hurt or killed if the wrong sized ball were used.  This was of course a grossly exaggerated complaint.  Thinking optimistically, the teacher could have been delighted at the fact that his school would be getting all new equipment, and temporarily being without any equipment could lead to the implementation of creative new activities.  If a concern needs to be aired, Bradberry suggests solution-oriented complaining; have a clear purpose, start with something positive, be specific, and end on a positive.
           Dealing with chronic complainers can be exhausting.  I found myself walking away from the onslaught of complaints as deftly as possible.  Before I understood the structural impact that complaining has on an individual’s brain, I would be inclined to take their extreme exaggerations to heart.  Does this person think I’m an idiot?  Don’t they know that I know they didn’t attend law school?  Why do they always bring bogus liability claims into their complaint?  In a Psychology Today article by Dr. Guy Winch titled How to Deal with Chronic Complainers, he stated that “Chronic complainers’ perceptions about their hardships are deeply embedded in their personalities and sense of identity.”
           Everyone needs to know their strengths in order to handle complainers smoothly.  Fact based humor has become my go to strategy.  Last summer I stood in a gymnasium with three of my physical education teachers, one of them requested a series of permanent holes be installed in the floor for volleyball standards.  I saw the benefit of not having to roll the current heavy pole and base systems out, but each of the teachers immediately raised concerns that our current pole and base system could fall on someone.  I looked at each of them, and stated that our current combined years in education totaled approximately 100 years.  During those years, not one student ever had a volleyball pole fall on them.  They laughed at themselves when they saw how unnecessary their exaggerated liability comments were.
           When a complaint is indirect, but false, I choose to respond indirectly.  During a recent staff development workshop, one of my teachers said to our guest lecturer that our school district’s technology department is awful.  The teacher did not acknowledge that the technology department loaded 30 iPads with dozens of applications specifically for our workshop.  In addition, our guest lecturer had just benefited from their assistance in setting up her new iPad Air to work with the classroom’s projector and screen.  Sadly, this same complainer ignored the years of videotaping that technology department personnel faithfully completed for her when she coached.  My indirect response was to publicly thank the technology department for their efforts in assisting us to have an excellent professional development experience.
           To chronic complainers I say this: The sky has never fallen, and life or death issues rarely present themselves in the world of education.  Do your health a favor, and chose to be an optimist. To those leaders out there who are bombarded with complaints, know this: It’s not a personal attack on you, but a complainer’s brain wiring that contributes to their exaggerations.  Know your strengths, and apply the strategies that work best for you in dealing with complainers.   

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.