Monday, August 23, 2010


It is our first day of school with our teachers; students come on Wednesday. I am thinking about all the new teachers opening classroom doors and greeting students for the first time. My sister-in-law is one of them! I am thinking about how our state's budget crisis is affecting how we all do our jobs, and about how the pressure of accountability and student achievement increases nonetheless.

Today's post is the text of a keynote address I delivered several years ago--while I was still teaching--to a group of teachers concluding their beginning teacher induction program. It's about accountability for one's own success, and the power of reflective practice.

When I was a young child living on the East Coast my parents would take my brother and me to Tanglewood in Massachusetts for outdoor symphony concerts under the stars. I remember watching the famous Arthur Fiedler conducting the Pops. I was mystified by conductors. It seemed to me that they controlled a hundred musicians with a baton. I thought that it was the waving of that baton that inspired the actual notes and melody. I longed to be a conductor, to see what kind of music would result from the command of my amateur hands.

On the first day of school, on my first day of teaching, I felt like a conductor, for when I asked my students to sit and please listen to me, they did. I was astonished at their distracted obedience and was tempted to ask them to stand, and sit, over and over again. They were giving me power I hadn’t earned yet. Teaching is one of those jobs that constantly asks you to assess the fine line between power and utter powerlessness. It would not be long before I remembered wistfully the day my students sat when I asked them to.

I am here to talk with you about reflective practice and the value of looking critically at your students, yourselves, and what you do. So I thought about you, “graduating” from “beginning-teacher-hood” and moving on to “you should know perfectly well what you’re doing now,” and I thought about myself in my first year of teaching. It was 1993. I taught middle school science in inner-city Washington, D.C. through the Teach for America program, and therefore without the benefit of a teaching credential or any long-term formalized training.

I am quite sure that I was advised by someone in those early days and months to keep a teaching journal, so I could record triumphs as well as frustrations and learn from my mistakes. Of course, that didn’t happen. All I could muster in terms of reflection and record-keeping was a gridded teacher’s plan book. In one column I would write the plan for each day of the week, and in the next columns, I would jot quick notes about what we’d managed to cover in each period, because it was never the same from class to class. I pulled out that plan book to prepare for my talk today because I remembered that as the students would leave class, I used to draw a face for each period—smiley if class went well, frowny if things had gone awry, with notes about which parents to call. There were a lot of frown faces in those days. And in retrospect, I realize that this was my first form of data collection.

I’d like to share with you a couple of the anecdotes:

Wednesday, September 15, 8th period: “They talked, I yelled.”
Monday, September 27, 8th period: “Had to treat them like babies again.”
Wednesday, September 29, 1st period: “Like a cliché. Paper flying across the room. Something needs to change.”
Tuesday, October 5, 8th period: Frown face with hair spiking out: “Nightmare. Tears popped out.”
Tuesday, November 2, 7th period: “Detention for the whole class.”
Tuesday, November 9, 8th period: “I lost it, everyone fighting with each other, Tonya shoved me.”
Wednesday, November 17, 8th period: “The usual hell.”
My favorites: Monday, December 6, while I was at a meeting and had a sub for 2nd period: “Lollipops stolen. Gradebook erased.”
Then Tuesday’s entry: “Discover grades erased off computer, too.”
Wednesday, January 26, 8th period: “Total chaos.”
Tuesday, February 15th, 8th period: “Ricky threatened my life, and my nonexistent car.”
Tuesday, March 1, 2nd period: “gave teary, impassioned speech about humility.”

And the inevitable, “I hate my job” in mid-March.

I laughed as I read those entries from long ago, and marveled at the fact that I am still a teacher. What I haven't read to you, though, and what are also included in that plan book, are the small successes, like “Armando tried today—he really tried!” and, “Had a good talk with Terika,” and, “Successful lab; kids excited to learn more about buoyancy.” There’s a definite trend toward more smiley faces by the end of the year.

The thing is, only I and those students really know what happened in that classroom that year. I am certain they learned something about science, as well as about kindness and optimism and hope, which we all demonstrated by showing up at that school day after day. But I have no proof of this. We are isolated as teachers, believing in what we do and thinking we know what’s good to teach and what really works with kids. Unfortunately, though, that’s not good enough. We need to prove that what we do and that how we do it produces results. For our job is not to entertain children or to control them. Nor is it to make them believe what we believe. We must demonstrate that our students have developed, progressed, and grown in skills, knowledge, and the ability to think critically while under our tutelage. This is what we’re paid for. Data collection and reflection are ways for us to own our curriculum and instructional strategies—for us to show that what we do is making a difference.

You are often being studied and assessed and your students’ data analyzed without anyone truly observing or understanding what happens in your classroom. And if we are not careful, this data, in the form of grades, SAT-9 results and reading scores, will be all that is used to judge us and our students. We know that those numbers do not represent a complete picture. So as teachers, we need to increasingly stand behind our own numbers. This means choosing data to study in your own classroom.

For example, I suspect that students in my AP Literature class became more avid independent readers this year. In order to show this, I have asked my 12th graders to list the outside reading they’ve done which was inspired by required reading for class or recommendations made by me or other students. I can then compare this to the ways in which students characterized themselves as readers at the beginning of the year.

Data collection takes many forms. When you give a quiz, do you analyze the items to determine which questions are most frequently missed? What could you do with this information? Will you reteach something? What is this quiz really about or for, anyway?

Often we teach concepts without knowing if it’s necessary to do so. Getting together with other teachers and analyzing students’ papers for trends can often be informative. You might find that students have mastered the use of semicolons. You might find they’re not capitalizing properly. You may find that they are consistently missing the more complicated fractions problems. The point is, your teaching is then informed by data. And when you compare later outcomes to that first set of papers, you can prove that something happened.

We all have favorite lessons or units that our students love and we think “work.” But we need to examine the benefit of these lessons—how can we defend them with measurable outcomes? That term, measurable outcome, is one we’re growing to resent when it is applied from the outside. As consumers, though, we expect it, when we pay for the Weight Watcher’s program, or hire a plumber or stockbroker. And our students’ parents expect measurable outcomes from us.

Data collection allows us to reflect on what we do. And even if you are not in the habit of analyzing data, you are forced to reflect, because students represent a gigantic mirror—in them we find our flaws, our triumphs, pimples we hadn’t noticed yet, etc. I remember, from that fateful first year, when Tonya, particularly frustrated with me and my class, walked out in the middle. But before she left, she turned on her heel and told me, “Miss Moore, you are a chicken-legged bitch.” My students were horrified, agape. Angry students had called me a bitch before, but never “chicken-legged.” Meanwhile, I was seeing myself in a whole new light: I’ll take chicken legs, I thought. Much better than thunder thighs!

Teaching is a give-and-take, a dance, as I mentioned before, between power and powerlessness. But reflection involves abdicating some power. Because absolute power means essentially that you are always right, and the students, if they don’t do well, are the ones who are wrong. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. You must be willing to examine the effect you have on students—qualitative and quantitative—to truly improve as a teacher. Last year for my teacher research group I planned to study editing and revision practices in my Creative Writing class for seniors. It was to be purely scientific. I would study the students’ writing behavior and look for ways to challenge them. It became clear, however, that in my first year teaching at the high school level, I had some behaviors of my own worth examining—strategies and assumptions and attitudes that were not working with older students. Last year was a crucial year for me to study myself qualitatively as a human working with other humans.

Reflection—whether it’s done in a teaching journal, in a group of other teachers, or actively in your own head--means celebrating your and your students’ successes, and from the failures, looking for new ways to succeed. You can tell by the look on a student’s face when you’ve hurt his feelings with something you said; reflecting is thinking about the ways in which you respond to students. You know when your students have all performed poorly on an assessment; reflection is considering why, and what you can do about it.

Leaving the clutches of an induction program means you are pretty much left to your own devices to be good teachers. I would admonish you to humble yourselves. Never assume you have it all figured out. And if you do, have the data to prove it. Model reflection for your students as you ask them, too, to consider their strengths and weaknesses. The classroom is a place of learning for both students and teachers. And as I ultimately learned, conductors may wield the baton, but they need a cooperative orchestra to make beautiful music.


Ms. P said...

Perfect for "new year's eve." And just plain inspiring (and, of course, amusing). Thanks . . .

Ms. F said...

I heard that speech when you gave it, and I was just as moved reading it here as I was hearing it 3 years ago! Thanks for the back to school inspiration!