I stared into the students eyes and said, "When you leave the deep practice zone you might as well quit." The students sat stunned. Charlie raised his hand and said, "You mean we don't have to practice?" I responded "No, you should stop. In fact, I would put your instrument away and go do something else. If you are not concentrating you are wasting time."
The belief that TIME = EXCELLENCE is only partially true. Daniel Coyle has taught me in his book "The Talent Code" that practice is really only effective when students are engaged in the process or as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call "Flow". A similar logic seems to permeate schools as well.
I have found that schools believe that student time spent "off task" during lunch, passing time and recess should be reduced so that more time can be spent in the classroom. In fact, time spent in non-tested subjects should be reduced so that more time can be spent in subjects that will lead to higher test scores. In other words, the more time spent "on task" in subjects "that matter" will result in better educated kids.
In 2007, the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University found that 62% of school districts had increased the amount of time spent on English language arts or math in elementary schools since 2001, while 44% of school districts had cut down on time spent on other subjects. The survey showed that 20% of school districts had reduced recess time. According to the 2016 Shape of the Nation report, just 16% of states require elementary schools to provide daily recess. (Reilly, Katie. “Is Recess Important for Kids? Here's What the Research Says.” Time, Time, 23 Oct. 2017, time.com/4982061/recess-benefits-research-debate/.)
I believe that allowing students frequent "brain breaks" is not only important, it is necessary. More time on task will not equal excellence unless the students are engaged. Any teacher can tell you that students (heck, humans) will reach a point of saturation. Brains just need time to linger with ideas, to absorb information and to disengage.
Schools tend to avoid "unstructured" time with students for obvious reasons - they are concerned about kids getting into trouble and making poor choices. The solution is to restrict this time and to place students in highly structured environments. Yet, this is not what is best for learning and does not help our students who struggle with mental illness and trauma.
Recently, I finished a book called Teach Like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms by Timothy D. Walker. As you can imagine the book reveals insights into what makes Finland so successful in regards to their education system. What was unique about this book is that the author, Walker, was a teacher in the United States before moving to Finland. His perspective is that of a US teacher trying to fit in a new educational climate. In the book he writes:
Anthony Pellegrini, author of the book Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota—has praised this approach for more than a decade. In East Asia, where many primary schools provide their students with a ten-minute break after about forty minutes of classroom instruction, Pellegrini observed the same phenomenon Walker had witnessed at his Finnish school. After these shorter recesses, students appeared to be more focused in the classroom (Pellegrini, 2005).
Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a U.S. public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less focused when the timing of the break was delayed—or in other words, when the lesson dragged on (Pellegrini, 2005).
In addition to this, a number of recent articles has also talked about schools realizing the importance of breaks during the day: Texas School Beats ADHD by Tripling Recess Time.
I'm sure many administrators would shutter at the idea of providing more "breaks" for kids. But what if we actually gave students what they needed? What if we helped those students who need mental health supports and wrap around services? What if we supported all learners (and teachers) with appropriate breaks? What if we realized that there is more to education than the subjects tested on most standardized tests and invested in those subject areas rather than siphon minutes and resources away from them?
Time does not equal excellence. More is not necessarily better. We need to provide teachers with the autonomy they need and deserve to make the best choices for their students. We need to treat teachers like professionals and provide them with more opportunities to research what successful schools are doing. We need to provide schools with the resources necessary to take care of our kids - each and every one of them so that we can focus on teaching and learning. Time does not equal excellence. More is not necessarily better.
It was my first day back at work following my father’s funeral. Teaching that day was especially difficult, however being around my students lifted my spirits. I had just finished class when my principal, Clark Luessman, entered my room. He sat down with me and said, “How are you doing?”. I told him that I felt bad about losing one of the greatest mentors in my life. To my surprise, Clark quickly retorted, “You should feel fortunate. You had many wonderful years with your father. It is sad to lose those whom we love, but we must always be grateful for the time we had with them.”
Today, we lost one of the greatest humans to walk this planet - Clark Luessman. He was a magnificent father, leader, mentor and educator. I had the honor of working with Clark since he hired me in 2004. He made it possible for me to try new ideas and to take risks. I certainly would not be the educator (or person) I am today if it had not been for him.
As any of staff members will tell you, Clark created a sense of family within our staff. He valued personal connections. Frequently Clark would come to your room to give you an answer to a question you sent him in an email. He liked to shake your hand and say “Thanks for all you do for kids.” I appreciate that now more than ever.
One of my favorite quotes by Sir Ken Robinson is– “Farmers and gardeners know you cannot make a plant grow…The plant grows itself. What you do is provide the conditions for growth. And great farmers know what the conditions are and bad ones don’t. Great teachers know what the conditions for growth are and bad ones don’t.” Clark Luessman knew the conditions for growth. Our school grew and flourished as a direct result of his genuine care and guidance.
I owe my success as an educator to the support, guidance and wisdom of this great man. His leadership was the rare kind—a relentless quest to provide students with the best education possible, tempered by humility and empathy, and entirely driven by a genuine curiosity and desire to make a difference, not just in the lives of his students (for which there is abundant evidence) but in the lives of his teachers. I consider myself privileged to have been among them.
Clark also used to say “You don’t have to teach, you get to teach.” He wanted us to see the beauty in our students and this amazing profession called teaching. In other words, he wanted us to be grateful. Clark Luessman, I am grateful for you. I am grateful for the times we had talking about education, food, and our Packers. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work with you and to learn from you. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for being such an amazing person and leader. I am grateful just not ready.
It was a beautiful fall afternoon when a colleague approached me after a busy day of teaching. This was our conversation:
Colleague: “Can I ask you about your SMART Goal for this year?”
Colleague: “I see your SMART Goal has something to do with increasing empathy with your 7th grade band students?”
Me: “Yes that is correct.”
Colleague: “Why are you doing that as your SMART Goal?”
Me: “Have you seen the hallways lately?”
Colleague: “How will you teach empathy?”
Me: “Using Salvation is Created by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov”
Colleague: “I don’t understand”
Me: “Chesnokov wrote Salvation is Created . He was told by the Russian government that he could no longer write sacred music and must write for his country. Salvation is Created is one of the most beautiful pieces you will ever hear. It was one of the last sacred works he ever wrote. The tragedy is that Pavel Chesnokov never heard it performed. Can you imagine writing something this beautiful and never hearing it performed? That is my entry point to empathy.”
Colleague: “How will you measure it?”
Me: “We will do reflections and look for signs of growth, vulnerability, and change.”
Colleague: “What if you don’t meet your goals?”
Me: “I would rather aim for empathy and fail than aim for a lower goal and achieve it.”
A “SMART” goal is one that has the following criteria: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. At first glance, these criteria seem to make perfect sense. Who would argue that goals should be random, undeterminable, impossible, inapplicable, and never ending? However, we must consider the implication of producing a measurable outcome. No measurement system in the world can assess what most matters in life: Integrity. Determination. Empathy. Resourcefulness. Connectedness. A Thirst for knowledge. Passion. Creativity. Adaptability. Confidence and kindness. Respect. These are the qualities that adults who are truly prepared and engaged possess. They are beyond measurement and they are what we must actively cultivate in our students.
Admittedly, I have impressed administrators with color coded Excel spreadsheets brimming with numbers and graphs in the past. Yet, I would argue that some of my worst teaching created some of my most impressive “data”. I believe that numbers and letters cannot summarize the complexities of our classrooms. I also believe that when our focus is on producing measurable data and not on our students three things happen:
As Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything important is measurable and not everything measurable is important.” Carrots and sticks play too big a role in our schools. We tend to create safe goals focusing on standardized test scores. Surely, academic progress is important but it is not sufficient. I believe that schools must consider the growth and well being of the whole child. Districts need to cultivate safe spaces for teachers to take risks, think critically, and explore new ideas. As teachers, we must be courageous, advocate for the learning not easily represented in a number and avoid setting goals that just “check the box.” In other words, it is better to aim high and fail.
We have all heard the idiom "the straw that broke the camel's back", describing the seemingly minor or routine action which causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, all due to the cumulative effect of the small actions. This proverb actually began with the saying ""It is the last feather that breaks the horse's back" (1677). Either way, the important concept is this -- a human/animal can only take on a certain amount before they can no longer handle the load. What seems to be a minor, almost insignificant, addition can make a huge and sometimes devastating effect due to the load already being managed.
For a moment consider the load our public schools already carry. What societal influences/necessities have increased the load placed on our schools? What resources have been given to meet those increased needs? At what point will we reach the "final straw"? In my twenty years of teaching in Wisconsin's public schools I have seen and felt the increased load placed on our schools. I believe that we need to recognize the load that has been placed on our schools and take the necessary steps to support those who serve in this public role. We must be very careful not to push to a point at which we find, or even get close to, "the final straw".
So what straws have been added?
Obsession With Numbers - With every passing year I hear more and more of the rhetoric: "raising the bar", "higher accountability", "test scores" and "data". Our obsession with competition versus collaboration and test scores versus the love of learning has hurt our schools and our students. I believe that we need to have high standards but we must not forget the students in this process. Our only goal as educators should not be to raise test scores, but rather to instill a love of learning within each child. If we can get kids to love learning than test scores will take care of themselves. In fact, Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience stated “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” Moreover, Alfie Kohn wrote in his book The Homework Myth, "Any aspect of learning (or life) that appears in numerical form seems reassuringly scientific; if the numbers are getting larger over time, we must be making progress. Concepts such as intrinsic motivation and intellectual exploration are difficult for some minds to grasp, whereas test scores, like sales figures or votes, can be calculated and tracked and used to define success and failure. Broadly speaking, it is easier to measure efficiency than effectiveness, easier to rate how well we’re doing something than to ask whether what we’re doing makes sense. Not everyone realizes that the process of coming to understand ideas in a classroom is not always linear or quantifiable - or, in fact, that measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.” Data is an important tool in education but should not be the focus of education.
Mental Health - Our students are coming to school with higher ACE scores than ever before. What is ACE? Adverse Childhood Experiences or in other words, forms of trauma. The ACE score is a tally of different types of abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood. "Five are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. Each type of trauma counts as one. So a person who’s been physically abused, with one alcoholic parent, and a mother who was beaten up has an ACE score of three." (https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/)
In fact, a recent study found "more than half of adolescents have had at least one of these adverse childhood experiences, and nearly one in ten have experienced four or more. (Source: NSCH, 2011-2012)
Child psychologist Hilit Kletter, of Stanford University's School of Medicine, says that "to spot these children, she looks for visible signs of stress to understand what might have happened to them and how best to intervene. Kletter says reactions to trauma are sometimes misdiagnosed as symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, because kids dealing with adverse experiences may be impulsive — acting out with anger or other strong emotions." Kletter explains, "It's something that's very common in trauma: difficulty in regulating emotions and behavior. That's why a lot of these kids get in trouble with the classroom." (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean)
Studies show that kids who are dealing with high ACE scores are overloaded with stress hormones. In other words, they are in flight, fright, or freeze mode. These kids are simply not ready or able to learn in school. These students often have a hard time trusting adults or developing relationships with classmates. I see students displaying difficulty with…
We cannot just throw this on the backs of our teachers and expect them to make significant progress with students dealing with trauma while teaching twenty plus other students (dealing with normal adolescent challenges!) “It is not uncommon for school professionals who have a classroom with one or more students struggling from the effects of trauma to experience symptoms very much like those their students are exhibiting.” (The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resilience, and Academic Success - Wolpow)
Doing More With Less - Some say that money cannot fix our problems. I would argue to say that money is essential in order to allocate the resources necessary to educate our students. Schools are being asked to take on more and more to deal with societal challenges such as trauma but with fewer resources. We must fix the way we fund our schools. Governor Scott Walker has done long term damage to the schools in Wisconsin with his budget cuts and his attack on the teaching profession.
Teaching Profession - As a young child I remember tagging along with my father to do errands in our hometown of Arcadia, Wisconsin. No matter where we went, everyone knew my father. In fact, everyone knew all of the teachers in this small town. There was a certain amount of reverence for the teachers and the profession in general. I still see some of this today. I believe this is what makes Wisconsin so special and wonderful. Yet, much has been said and done in recent years causing damage to this noble profession. We are now facing one of the worst teacher shortages in history. We must realize the difficult work our teachers are doing each and every day. We must lift up the profession and encourage our students to consider becoming educators. What teacher made the biggest impact on your life? Imagine a world without that teacher in your life?
It is imperative that we reinvest in our teachers and education system. We need to end our obsession with numbers and put our focus back on the kids.
In the 1950's Toyota implemented the Andon Cord. It was a physical rope that followed the assembly line and could be pulled to stop the manufacturing line at any time. Just think, any worker had the autonomy to stop production at any time in order to fix a problem. Management understood that the workers who were on the line understood the products the best and gave them the ability to suggest changes.
Do educators have an Andon Cord? My concern in education is that the adults who are closest to the students often do not have their voices heard. I believe that successful schools not only listen to its teachers, but embrace teacher leadership in real ways. In fact, a recent study found that "students who go to schools where their teachers have a leadership role in decision making perform significantly better on state tests." (Will, Madeline. “Students Fare Better When Teachers Have a Say, Study Finds.” Education Week, 1 Nov. 2017)
I believe that Teacher Leaders are poised in the perfect position to do this work and here's how:
My plea for administrators, policy makers, and community members-- listen to your teachers! As Sir Ken Robinson stated, "There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools." Teacher voice is necessary. Teacher leadership is powerful. It is time to use this wisdom to combat the challenges that face our schools.