Saturday, January 21, 2017

Flush With Cash


In Donald Trump’s inaugural address he stated that our education system is “flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” Even if you feel there are problems with our current education system, both parts of that statement over exaggerations and potentially dangerous. Our school system is not depriving students of all knowledge. I could write a long post on all the great things that happen in our schools everyday (you can check out Stoneridge’s twitter @rcsdstoneridge to get a glimpse into what our school does on a daily basis), but for right now I want to tackle the school system being flush with cash.
First let’s talk about how money is spent at a district level. The way it works at most school districts is the district pays salaries, benefits, pays for building, professional development, programs like music, technology infrastructure, and big items. Then there is money given to the school site to spend. Every district will be different on how much they give their individual school sites to spend. I can’t speak for other educators realities when it comes to money but I will give you my reality as an elementary school principal.

At my school we have 574 students. I have 25 total teachers and 20 classified staff members. We have no assistant principal, no counselor, a nurse one day a week, and a school psychologist one day a week. My total school budget is right around $38,000 for the entire year. That is $38,000 to pay for things such as: paper, new books for students, supplemental curriculum, additional help for English Learner, Foster Youth, Student with Disabilities, sub costs if I want teachers to have time to plan or go to a training, training, replace projector bulbs, additional help like a crossing guard to keep kids safe at the crosswalk, bench for students to eat snacks, reading intervention program, and any additional technology. Does $38,000 sound like a lot of money to help take care of 574 students, a staff of 45 people, and a school campus that is around 80,000 square feet?
Our school is very lucky due to the fact we have a parent community that supports our students and school with generous donations. We are able to offer many extra programs thanks to our supportive families. Unfortunately most schools do not have that extra support. Should a school have to rely on fundraising and extra support from parents? And what if parents don’t have the resources to help the school?

I know people will say, well if you don’t get a lot of money as a site principal that must mean the money is being wasted elsewhere. I would strongly disagree with that statement. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about education budgets at the site, district, county, or state level; all of those budgets are tight. And these are good economic times in education as compared to five or six years ago. Some might say that money is going to teacher salaries since it isn’t going to the school sites. In a comparison of educator salaries in the United States as compared to other countries here is what the Brookings Institute says:

“While American salaries aren’t the lowest, many other countries not only pay better, but the gap is really, really big. The simple summary: Other countries make teaching a more financially attractive career for college graduates than we do.”

Other professions in our country usually make much more than their international counterparts. For example doctors in the US make around double the average salary when compared to doctors from other countries. And our healthcare ranking as a country (37th overall in 2015 according to World Health Organization) is actually lower than our education ranking (25th on the PISA) as a country. This isn’t an attack on our doctors, but my point is many professions in the US make much more money than their international counterparts. Teachers do not make more when compared internationally, and yet I see teachers attacked all the time for how much money they make.

The main thing that is usually cited when saying the United States school system has a lot of money is that we spend as much, if not more per student than any other country.

The fact is that America educates more poor students and students with disabilities than any other country. It costs more to educate these students. This is not mean, it is reality. And it is federal law, and rightfully so, that we must provide students with disabilities with a free and appropriate education. (By the way this is good information to know if you are ever in a Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education). Out of 35 economically advantaged countries we rank 34th in child poverty. We have a huge child poverty problem in this country.

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So it makes sense that we spend more per student as compared to other countries because we have students that need more help. It does not mean the education system is flush with cash.

Every year I discuss with my staff how we want to spend money as a school site. We talk about making sure students have books and technology. We talk about how we need to make sure we put money aside for basic things like paper and recess equipment. There are reasonable wants like maybe a day to plan or additional teacher training. In the end we always have to play a game called “Would You Rather”. As a staff we discuss what we would like to spend money on and say would you rather. Would you rather have that reading intervention program or six extra laptops? Would you rather go to that training or get extra books for the reading room? Would you rather have that author visit or new rugs in your classroom? The would you rather game is not a game you play when you are flush with cash. There are many issues we need to work on in education. How to spend a bunch of extra cash is not one of them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

CHOICE- Are We Preparing our Students for Their Future? by Christi Robertson

This post was written by Christi Robertson, a 4th grade teacher at Stoneridge Elementary School (@rcsdstoneridge).  You can follow her on twitter @RobWolfpack. 

Choice. This idea can make even the most simple daily tasks frustrating. I am crippled by choice. Whether it’s where my best buddies and I want to meet up for our dinner dates or even as ridiculous as my family asking what’s for dinner. I am so fearful of choice, that my husband had to choose our wedding colors (I’m not joking). Google search quotes for choice. As if my own fear wasn’t disabling enough, I now see quotes such as, “You are free to choose, but you are not free from the consequence of your choice” or even, “The choices you make in your life will make your life. Choose wisely.” I don’t need to wonder for long as to why it is that I can’t make a choice. I have come to believe its roots lie in my not wanting to make a “wrong” decision. When I finally do make a choice, that’s when the real chaos begins. Is this a “wise” choice? Will it negatively affect my life forever? Are people going to hate my choice?

When did the fear begin? I’m not entirely sure, but I do have some guesses. My goal is to make sure the students in my classroom, as well as my own two kiddos, will not be crippled by their own decision making, as I am.

Let’s Begin at the Source
Let’s start with the word choice. Six little letters that hold the key to my future happiness (according to several motivational posters hanging in many classrooms). Although the quotes are meant to enlighten our students, have we really taught them how to make choices? When I was in school, there were always right and wrong answers. Things were laid out in a specific format and our choices were limited. We were given an assignment, report, etc, and told how to do it. We were given the set of requirements, and a detailed description of the consequences of not following the requirements. Was I given a choice? Of course I was. It was to complete the assignment according to the guidelines or to not complete the assignment (okay, so really not much of a choice). Was this teaching me “how” to make choices? Are we, as teachers, really satisfied with this being the only opportunity for “choice” that we expose to our own students? I have decided that I am not.

When I look closer at this word, I see ideas stemming from its make up. I now see how this word is meant to be a foundational skill, nurtured and cultivated through multiple exposures. When we give students opportunity for choice, we build their ability to: Challenge themselves to be independent thinkers, be Honest about their understanding of the subject matter, take Ownership for their own learning, push their Imagination, develop their natural Curiosity, and show Enthusiasm for their new learning.

I believe that if we begin teaching our students HOW to make choices in a safe environment, we then are leading them to “choose wisely,” thus limiting the crippling fear that comes from making choices.

Are we challenging our students to be independent thinkers? Are we challenging them in their understanding of the content that they are learning? I find that when WE create the guidelines and specifics of the project, assessment, or assignment, instead of challenging students in the classroom, WE are limiting their understanding by not providing them choice. When we provide an opportunity for our students to choose how they want to show their learning, we no longer need to worry about meeting the needs of every student by designing something ourselves. Choice provides a natural differentiation for each and every student. Our job now is to be there to guide them through the decision-making process. More opportunities for choice in the classroom allows students to challenge their own potential, to think outside of the box, and to push the limits that may have existed by our own limited ideas of what they can or cannot do. Are we limiting the challenges of our students by not providing choice, or are we allowing them to challenge the limits through making choices?
Students sharing the pattern that they came up with in our math challenges.

Are the assessments we are providing students an honest example of their understanding of the standards? I can remember studying for tests as a student and being worried about getting the answers wrong. I vividly remember making notecards, rewriting my already meticulously written notes, repeating ideas in my head, so that I would be able to answer the test questions correctly. If you were to ask me today to take those same tests, chances are, I would fail. Let’s be honest, I would fail miserably. I also recall an assessment that I took in college that provided an opportunity for choice. My First Aid and CPR class at Westmont provided my first honest assessment and gave an opportunity for choice. Our final was a hands-on simulation. We began by waiting in a room and being called out for an “accident” that had taken place on campus. As we rounded the corner, my partner and I were faced with a car that had “crashed” into a tree. The driver was unconscious and the passenger had also sustained severe injuries. My partner and I had to make choices based on what we had learned to “save” the lives of the victims. How do I know that this assessment, with many opportunities to make choices, was honest? I later became an athletic trainer at the school and followed that up with working for the Portland Trailblazers as a trainer. When students are provided choices in projects or assessments, we are given an honest look into their understanding and their capabilities. We are able to see the honesty they bring from their experiences and schema. Choice also allows me to be honest about the proficiency of my students.

Students choose how they want show remainders.
I feel lucky to be part of a school district that is now providing opportunities for choice in our professional development. At our most recent PD day, one of the presenters mentioned that those who do the most work in the classroom are doing the most learning. Are we doing more work than our students? Are we giving them the opportunity to take ownership for their understanding through choice? Who is really owning the learning in our classrooms? If we can give students the chance to choose their output, we are giving them the ability to own their learning. It has been said that we take care of what we take ownership of… can our students say that they are given the choice to own what we are expecting of them? The most frustrating question I get in my classroom is, “Is this good enough?” I tell my students that if you are asking this question, chances are, you know it is not your best work. What I should be telling myself is, “Clearly, this assignment is limiting their choice, or they wouldn’t feel the need to minimize their effort.”

In the book, “Beyond Basketball” by Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Duke Men’s Basketball Coach (basically, my idol)), he tells the story of his working-class mother coming home for her job in Chicago. When she got off the bus, she was attacked by three teenage boys who were trying to steal her purse. She hung on to her purse with everything she had. When the boys realized that she was not giving up her purse, they ran off. When asked why she didn’t just give them the purse, she said because it was hers. Do you feel that your students are hanging on to their learning with a vice grip because it is theirs? Are we giving them the opportunity of choice to own their learning so that they will?

Some examples of student choices for their Mission projects.

Imagination knows no limits. It pushes what “we know” into what “can be possible.” It’s what drives our passions. It pushes our boundaries. Where are we giving our students the choice to use their imagination in the classroom? Coach K says, “Imagination gives you destination.” Do our students possibly already possess the tools necessary to be who they will become? How will we know if we never give them the choice to use their imagination to explore their potential?

Students presenting their Genius Hour Projects to Mr. Blom that they chose would improve our already amazing school.

Curiosity, to me, is the cousin of imagination. “Curiosity is the spark behind the spark of every great idea. The future belongs to the curious.” If we are leading our future, are we allowing them to show their curiosity through choice? Are we giving them a safe place to be curious, and cultivate their curiosity with guidance and support? Curiosity leads to a child’s investment of their learning. Giving students a choice to invest in their curiosity invites uniqueness and therefore, provides a natural differentiation in their learning. Dorothy Parker says, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” Let’s give our students the opportunity to take risks and be curious. Teach them to not be afraid, to try new things, to question the world around them, and turn those ideas inside out through choice.
Students created a “Biome Museum” to share what they learned about their favorite biome.
Have you ever found yourself exhausted at the end of the day from feeling like you need to show enthusiasm in everything you teach? Case in point: There I am, teaching static electricity, with an excitement that matches the last few seconds of a nail-bitter at Cameron Indoor Stadium, as if they are one in the same. I chant. I shout. I throw my hands around with wild abandon. As I end my lesson with, what I refer to as, “the grand finale,” I look across my room for those big eyes, wide with equal excitement. Instead, I find one student using their personal pencil sharpener as a shot glass (no joke), sitting next to a kiddo half asleep. In hopes that the third time’s the charm, I look to one more student, hoping that they were with me, only to find them attempting to hide a novel they are reading underneath their desk. At this moment, the buzzer in my head sounds, and even with all of my excitement for a win, Duke loses (and therefore, my lesson is a complete bust). Did I lack the appropriate amount of enthusiasm? As I wipe my damp brow, defeated from the effort required to make static electricity as interesting as possible, I conclude that it must be that I didn’t bring my full effort in this. I feel defeated thinking the hours of preparation did not meet my desired expectation. You see, static electricity is not what excites me, yet I feel the pressure to bring the enthusiasm for the students I teach.

When was the last time I was excited? I can tell you when it was. It was just today. It was watching my husband coach my kiddos in their basketball games. Even though I was tired from a long week of teaching, and the Advil I had taken in the morning to ease the back pain I was in wasn’t working, it didn’t hinder my enthusiasm. I cheered, I shouted positive praise, I even kept detailed notes in my head of great moments my kiddos had on the court to share with them later. My enthusiasm for this experience was not hindered by the “problems” I brought with me to the event. If we give our students the opportunity to make choices in their learning or output, there is a chance that the ever so popular bathroom trip, might not be as interesting as what they are learning or working on. Think about a time when you have been told what to do and how to do it. Maybe it was that last staff meeting, where your principal gave the new requirements handed down by the district office (not my principal, of course). How did you feel about it? Was it so exciting and you jumped on the opportunity to get started? If you’re anything like me, chances are, you rolled your eyes, and thought of 5,000 other things you could do that were more important than what was expected of you. Are we putting our students in this same predicament with their learning?

Students created a miniature golf course using any materials they wanted.

In no way am I saying that I have any or all of the answers on how to provide choice in your classroom. My goal is for all of us to create together a chance for our students to live a life that allows them to feel confident in the choices they will be forced to make. Let’s motivate ourselves to inspire our students through choice. Let’s teach them how to choose. Let’s let them: be Challenged, be Honest, Own, be Imaginative, Curious, and Enthusiastic about their learning. I challenge all of us to create a collaborative movement where we share the choices we are giving our students, because they deserve it. Let’s call it #choice.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Leaders Must Also Teach #leadupnow Guest Post

I loved being a teacher.  When I was hired as a principal I was very worried that I would lose touch of what it was like to be a teacher.  I heard stories of administrators who had become disconnected from what really happens in the classroom, and I was determined that was not going to be me.  The first two years of being a principal I walked through classes as much as possible and got to know the kids. I wanted to stay connected and by walking through classes and getting to know kids I felt a certain level of being connected but not as much as I wanted.  Teachers would ask if I ever missed teaching and I would tell them I really did; I missed it a lot. Toward the end of my second year I started thinking, why can’t I still teach? I loved being a principal but truly missed being in front of kids. Sure I was busy with principal stuff, but if I truly wanted to stay connected to the classroom, then the best way would be to find ways to still teach.  That is when I decided that I would substitute teach every class at my school for at least one hour. I also decided I would teach a math class once a week.

So during last school year I subbed for at least one hour every single class at my school, transitional kindergarten through 5th grade.  It was amazing. As a former middle school math teacher there was no way I could truly understand what it was like to teach kindergarten students without actually getting in front of them and teaching.

I learned many valuable lessons from teaching the classes.  These are just a few:

-Teaching classes shows others that you are willing to take risks
-Teaching shows students you care
-You gain a better appreciation for what teachers do on a daily basis
-You gain a better understanding of what teachers and students need which will help when decisions need to be made
-You can try some of the strategies that you have learned from observing other teachers

I am not sure if I will be able to sub in every class every year I am a principal.  This year I have given away time to teachers as prizes. I also still teach 4th grade math once a week.  I have made a commitment to myself that as long as I am in education I will find a way to get in front of a class of students and teach them.

I know there are many other educators that feel the same way.  For example, Jennifer Kloczko, Principal of Natomas Star Charter, teaches Choir and Star in Motion.  Joe Wood, Tech Director for Natomas Charter, teaches after-school enrichment classes like Minecraft.  The Assistant Superintendent of Education Services of my school district, Jamey Schrey, taught art to kindergarteners last year at my school.  These are just a few examples, there are many more educational leaders teaching at schools.

It doesn’t matter what role you are in.  If you are in educational leadership, it is important to stay connected to the classroom.  Being connected doesn’t mean you just walk through classrooms. The best way to truly stay connected is through actually teaching.  

It feels like a lot of decisions made for our classrooms are by lawmakers who have never taught, and there is a huge danger in that.  How can they know what schools need if they have never lived in a classroom? How can these people truly know what impact they will have if they don’t know what it is like to be a teacher?  That is why I urge anyone making decisions for kids to find a way to teach kids. It might not be weekly or even monthly, but find a way to get in front of kids and teach for at least an hour a few times a year.  What our teachers do on a daily basis is amazing. As educational leaders it is our job to know and remember what it is like to be a teacher so we can make the best decisions for all of our children.