It’s Time to Build Mirror Factories

After reading @edgeBlogger’s recent posts: A Glimpse into the Mirror and A Long Gaze Into the Mirror, the metaphor of looking into a mirror reminded me of one of my favorite novels – Fahrenheit 451. Before I get to the metaphor – a little background on the novel.

If you have read the novel, you will remember that it deals with a society dealing with many problems, such as, over reliance on technology, over emphasis on sports, gossip, sex as forms of entertainment, mindless violence and vandalism,  and a complete lack of any real human connections. Despite many of the problems portrayed in that society (which eerily are beginning to resemble our own society’s shortcomings), it is the willingness of most of the citizens to remain ignorant and isolated from their current realities that I find to be the root of the problem.

Now back to the metaphor: *vague spoiler alert* Towards the end of the novel after disaster has struck, the protagonist wonders what to do next; his friend, Granger, tells him:

“We’re going to build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look at them.”

Think about this concept of building mirror factories and the implications it may have in the education world today. What I like about this metaphor is that it is a long-term solution not just a quick fix. Granger could have said we are going to build a few mirrors or we are going to make everyone look into the mirror – but building “mirror factories” suggests that structures will be put into place to ensure that reflection will occur – and people will not be able to hide from their current realities.

In regards to the teacher shortage, @edgeblogger makes the case here Long Gaze Into the Mirror, for the huge need to reflect, so that we are all aware of our current reality.  And when I am using the collective pro-nouns “we” and “our” I am including all educators and stakeholders. We can no longer remain blissfully ignorant of the big picture by continuing practices and maintaining attitudes that are short-sided and self-serving many of which @edgeblogger mentions, but a few worth another mention.

– Allowing students to fail because of lack of effort.

– Denying teachers adequate time to plan and reflect.

– Over emphasis on Accountability

– Over emphasis on Autonomy

– Isolated Classrooms

– Giving grades that are not accurate feedback on learning.

– Attempting to measure teaching and learning through one shot high stakes testing.

– Ignoring the difference between “what was taught” and “what was learned”

This list could be elaborated on and expanded on – but I think the audience of this blog as small as it is (shout out to my 9 followers!) has a pretty good understanding of these practices.

So now – the obvious question.  What does building a “mirror factory” look like in actual practice? I have a few suggestions but welcome you to comment below with ideas of your own to continue this conversation.

Building a Mirror Factor = Practices and attitudes that are guided by reflection in order to help us become aware of current realities, so that we may begin to improve our reality.

– Develop capacity as a listener.

– Develop capacity as a member of a PLC.

– Embrace the need for Autonomy and Accountability.

– Build shared knowledge in order to make informed decisions.

– Teachers – open classroom doors to other teachers.

– Video your lessons and watch them by yourself and with peers/coach.

– Don’t wait until the end of the unit to find out if your kids know the content.

– Plan for the students who will struggle and plan for the students who already know the content.

– Give teachers adequate amount of time to make these plans.

– Give students adequate amount of time (during the school day) to catch up, when they do need extra help.

– Ask “Why are we doing this?” and “Why are we doing this, this way?” All the time!

– If people ask you why give them a good answer – or be open to change what you are doing.

– Know your students

– Study your craft (read, go to trainings, edcamps, twitter chats…)

Building a mirror factory involves changing the entire culture of education to ensure we don’t just employ quick fixes to the problems we are dealing with – but we create a culture that begins to weed out the problems.  In order for this culture shift to occur, we have to reject blissful ignorance – even if it is easier. “I’m just going to do it this way, because that’s what everyone else does and I’ve always done it like this” or “I am just doing it like this because they told me too.” If we are in it for the long haul, all stakeholders need to pitch in and begin the hard work of building mirror factories.  Maybe one day, when our work is done, we will be able to gaze into those mirrors be satisfied with what we see.

“It doesn’t matter what you do,… so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.” (Fahrenheit 451)

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Teacher Shortage: The Glass is Empty

If you’re a pessimist, you make think the future of education in Oklahoma is grim.  The job market is changing. Many of the jobs are being outsourced or automated – making it more difficult to find a decent job with only a high school education.  Many of tomorrows jobs probably don’t even exist yet, so it is  more important than ever public education is graduating students that have the ability to learn and adapt.  So logic says if we need better students – we’ve got to make sure we are putting them in classrooms with great teachers.  However logic doesn’t seem to be present in the conversations being had by those that control educational policy. With 182 emergency certifications, it is easy to have “the glass is half-full” type of attitude when it comes to education.

If you are an optimist, well you probably haven’t spent much time in schools. 182 teachers that wasn’t able to get a job teaching through one of the nine options outlined means that at a minimum 3,640 students will be effected. That’s assuming that these are all elementary teachers with only 20 students per class (wishful thinking). If these were all secondary teachers with 120 students each (again wishful thinking) we could be talking 21,840 students in classrooms with teachers who are on emergency certifications. There isn’t really a silver lining to this teacher shortage; it needs to be priority #1 for policy makers. The cup isn’t just half-full it’s damn near empty.

There is nothing wrong with individuals seeking emergency certifications – some of them will undoubtedly turn into great teachers, and I really hope they do.  I hope they fall in love with the profession and teach with passion.  But I think in some cases, the reality is that schools are having to settle for unqualified teachers.

After spending some time in the #oklaed blogosphere reading about the teacher shortage in our state, it is tough to not simply say what has been said already, or say it as eloquently as it has been said by: This Teacher Sings, Fourth Generation TeacherOkeducationtruths, Random Teacher Thoughts, and Excellence in Mediocrity. So I want to look at the issue from a different angle.

In most of the conversations about the teacher shortage, I notice a lot of talk about recruiting new teachers, (which is important) and admonishing lawmakers (which is always fun and needs to happen) but I think we need to redouble our efforts to keep the good teachers we already have! I often hear the statistic quoted that 75% of teachers don’t make it to the 5 year mark.  I am not sure on the accuracy of that – and would love to know how that stat holds up in Oklahoma alone – but accuracy aside – we need keep good teachers in the classroom.

How can we retain great teachers?

OKEdtruth’s hit the nail on his blog titled: Why Teach here? Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose.

In short, the blog discusses Daniel Pink’s video that identifies autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the key ingredients for motivation. I think this applies to retaining the great teachers we already have and when one of these ingredients goes missing.

Autonomy: Teacher’s like to feel like their input and ideas have valued; they wanted to be trusted as the professionals that hey are.

A delicate balance exists between accountability and autonomy.  When the balance is too “accountability heavy” – usually driven by high stakes testing – teachers feel they aren’t trusted and valued and begin to lose their enthusiasm for their job.

Mastery: People like to do stuff they are good at. The converse is also true – a major reason I don’t sing or dance. Sorry Mindy this teacher doesn’t sing =)

We lose a lot of teachers because they don’t feel they are being effective.  Teachers need more time to learn to be good teachers. They need longer contracts, less time in front of students, more time in effective PLC’s, more time working with instructional coaches, paid days during the summer to plan curriculum, access to rich professional libraries including time to read /reflect professional literature, time to observe effective teachers, and tuition waivers to take grad courses in their subject area.

It is difficult to improve at anything if all you do is practice the same way over and over. In order to improve. If we want to keep the teachers we have, we have to give them opportunities and the means to master their profession.

Purpose: Teachers like to feel like they are making a difference and what they do matters.

I think purpose drives most educators into the profession, but now more than ever teachers are getting burned out faster than we can replace them.  I think the key to making sure teachers don’t lose “purpose” is effective leadership. When the ultimate purpose becomes passing a “test” you lose that initial idealistic vision you once had of changing the world one student at a time, and teaching loses it’s magic.

Teacher’s need the freedom to develop relationships with students and colleagues, so they can feel they are part of something bigger than test scores, and grades, data, and evaluations.

Finally, as much as I like Daniel Pink and his three keys to motivation – I still believe one thing is lacking that may help us recruit and maintain teachers.

Money: It may sound shallow, but the fact is people go to school, get educated, and work to make money. that’s the driving force.  Many careers have pathways to advance in a career. If you are good at your job there are promotions which earn you more money and responsibility. That’s not the case with teaching. A phenomenal 20 year veteran gets paid as the teacher who has taught 20 years, but has never changed their lesson plans.  There is no way to “move-up” and remain in the classroom.    Sure you can be the department chair, or the head of the safety committee, but usually that just means doing some extra work for a stipend that doesn’t even get close to covering the time.

So what a lot great teachers do is leave the classroom and get into admin. and move up from there.  Which is great, because we need good people in those positions too. What if each school had money to put a few “lead teachers” on admin contracts. Give them more responsibility, but keep them in the classroom.  Would that convince some to stay in the classroom? Students would benefit, new teachers would benefit, admin would benefit…   We’ve got to find a way to provide incentive (by incentive I mean money and a lot of it) to keep quality teachers in the classroom, otherwise the shortage can only get worse.

So what options do great teachers have in order to advance their career AND remain in the classroom?

*cricket cricket*

Not Everyone Can Be a Teacher

I am a little late to the party, but after spending this week at #EngageOK and reconnecting with an old college friend of mine, Mindy Dennison, author of the blog theteachersings, I feel compelled to contribute to her blog challenge: “Why Teach?”

Today more than ever, it seems, this question is worth exploring.  With the negative press education receives, the distrust from state and federal legislators, increasing student gaps in student achievement; I haven’t even got to the part about low pay and lack of any tangible incentive to be a great teacher.  So, why teach?

Other than the fact we get nights, weekends, holidays, and summers off, it is difficult to explain to anyone outside of the education world why anyone would enter the profession and why some of those who are crazy enough to enter it actually stick with it.

Not everyone is willing to enter a career where they fulfill mandates created by people with no experience in the field.

Not everyone is willing to enter a career where they are tasked with “creating an acceptable end product,” but often receive components with missing parts.

Not everyone is willing to enter a career where they are asked to create products according to specific and constantly increasing demands, yet not given the tools to do so.

Not everyone is willing to enter a career where being great at your job earns you the same amount of money as someone who performs poorly.

But, not everyone gets to enter a career it’s possible to make over a hundred teenagers per day feel like they are part of something special – like one of my old teachers Mrs. Bear who use to have us raise our right hand and repeat after her to swear we wouldn’t plagiarize when we wrote our papers on Orwell’s 1984.  Or ,like my Jr. High speech teacher, who included a question on her semester test about a speech I did on how to head a soccer ball – Thank you Mrs. Thurman. Or even Mrs. Bower, my math teacher who often squirted me with the water bottle she used to clean her overhead when I got too distracted.

Not everyone gets to have a career where you can offer validation, pride, and even hope in a word, or even a look, like my senior English teacher Mrs. Dishman who looked at my sternly with one eyebrow raised when I handed in my topic for my senior paper: Soccer. “This better be good” – she said.  After many weeks of hard work, I turned in a fifteen page paper on the evolution of the popularity of soccer in America and earned an “A-“; I may still be more proud of that paper than some of the work I did in grad. school.

Not everyone gets to have a career where your passions and enthusiasm can be contagious – in a good way.  Like one of my professors/mentors, Claudia Swisher, reminded me of the power of reflection, rekindled my love of reading, and infected me with a passion to become the best teacher I could be – not for her, but for my students.

Not everyone can be a teacher.

So, why teach? I think it’s a paradoxical combination of narcissism and humility.  I teach because I want to have the chance to be remembered by those who I taught as someone who did make a difference, just as I remember many of my teachers.  Yet, I teach with the understanding that I will often fall short and the challenge of improving my craft is… well, as Mindy put it in her blog – never boring.