Alignment: Blessing or Curse?

“Alignment.”  Sounds like a great concept, huh?  It means “arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative positions.”  Nice, sterile, stable, predictable. In a word, neat and tidy.  (Well, okay, that’s three words, but that won’t deter me from the rest of this column, so read on.)

I work in a district where alignment has been a buzzword for at least a decade.  Apparently, we started talking about it because often, students would transfer classes a week or two into the semester — that is, for example, they’d switch from Mr. Brown’s 4th period economics class to Mrs. Jones’ 6th period economics class.  It was usually because the students would want to take a certain elective at a certain time, but to do so would mean a complete rearrangement of their schedules. (Okay, occasionally it happened because a teacher simply rubbed a student the wrong way, but let’s not go into how some kids didn’t like me in my early years of teaching.)

But when those student got to their new economics (or math, or science, or English, or whatever) class, they’d find that the teacher in the new class was using a different textbook, going at a different pace, covering different curriculum, and generally providing a diametrically different experience than the old class did.

We can’t have that, said the school board.  So the policy became the following: teachers who teach the same course will go at a similar pace, use the same textbook and the same cumulative projects/experiences, and use the same grading scales (if not identical rubrics).  And that has been the experience of every teacher working in my district since at least 2007.

Now, I want to say right here that the problem our board was trying to solve was a real one.  Different teachers using wildly different grading criteria does indeed lead to an equity problem.  It leads to awkward conversations between parents and teachers, along the lines of “Well, Mr. Brown gave an A to most of his students on this assignment, why didn’t you give an A to my kid?”  It leads to administrators looking embarrassed and then to come-to-Jesus chats in the principal’s office, where teachers are told they need to align more with their colleagues.

Here’s the problem with alignment: it is (or can become) depersonalizing, and it can really make relationships with students difficult.  And that, in the opinion of this author, outweighs most of the possible benefits.

What happens when you go at a predetermined pace with a group of students who isn’t ready to go at that speed?  Do you stay the course and leave the students behind? Or have a room full of kids who disconnect from the material because they mastered it quicker than you’re teaching it?

What happens when you teach skills to kids who haven’t mastered those skills by the end of the unit?  Do you leave the students behind for the sake of keeping up with your colleagues, and abandon the quest for skilled students?

What happens if you clearly have to reteach some content to some or all of the students in your class or classes?  The hard-core alignment people will say, “Nope, no time for that, if the kids didn’t get it the first time, obviously you did something wrong, shame on you, but that’s the breaks, we have to cover all this other stuff, carry on (and be prepared for a meeting with your administration later this semester).”

And where do we draw the line and teach the students that are in front of us?  The real, flawed, anxious adolescents who are human beings, not an abstraction or a statistical model; the ones who need to be known more than they need to know things at this point in their lives.  When do we decide to teach those kids, not the kids in a different classroom, or a kid that doesn’t exist at all (except on some spreadsheet in a district office)?

Look, I’m not a school board member.  I can’t tell you what the pressures are on these men and women from the communities they serve, except that those school board members probably would like to be reelected.  I just know that alignment for its own sake, or taken to an extreme, means that we’re not teaching individual students and meeting their needs. Instead, we’re teaching Joe and Jane Averageteen, whomever they aren’t.

My intention this year is to be a good team member and a good citizen of my district.  But given the choice between teaching the specific children in my room during any one class period on the one hand, and teaching content that the students didn’t choose and a pace they didn’t know about on the other…I think you, dear reader, know what I am going to choose.

Those are the facts.  Back to the show.


My Biggest Fear…And What To Do About It

It’s now less than two weeks until the beginning of the new school year. For maybe the first time in my career, I am neither panicked nor nervous about the prospect of facing my incoming students and beginning our journey through United States history and civics.

What I am nervous about, however, has nothing to do with the students and everything to do with my fellow teachers. As strange as it may sound, I have a secret fear of collaboration.  Let me explain.

My tendency, when meeting with my colleagues, is either to acquiesce to everything they want in terms of curriculum or pacing… or to proclaim the rightness of a certain agenda or plan of action in a “take no prisoners“ manner. Neither approach has been particularly successful.

If I give in to what others want without making my own views heard,  I come away from the meeting feeling useless and something like a freeloader. If I come on too strong in expressing my opinions, I usually meet resistance or opposition.  And, since I’ve usually led with emotion rather than research or science, I get out-argued by people who have given some serious consideration to what they want to do in the coming school year or semester.

In my school, and in my district, we are required to be in close alignment with each other – – that is, we need to be going at the same pace, with the same textbook, the same cumulative experiences, and largely the same assessment at the end of each unit.  What that means is that there is relatively little room to innovate or to deviate beyond what we all “agree“ on as a teaching cohort.

So what’s a boy to do? Being a doormat doesn’t work, and neither does doing my imitation of a Sherman tank.

I think I know what I will do in my first meeting with my colleagues this year, and I’d like to share it with you here.

This time, I am going to assume that my fellow teachers of U.S. history want what is best for our students no less than I do. I am also going to assume that none of them is out to get me or to make what we are doing personal or competitive.  And I need to keep in mind that they are trying to meet their needs in what they are saying and planning in the same way I am… That is, they want to feel secure, acknowledged, meaningful, and appreciated. (Thank you, Abraham Maslow.)

This time, I am also going to work hard to counteract the self flagellation that I have tended to do in the past. Previous to this year, it was difficult for me to hear about what a fellow teacher was doing that was new and innovative without seething inwardly, beating myself up emotionally, and communicating a message of “Why the hell didn’t you think of that??“ to my mind and heart.

I don’t like starting the school year feeling bad about myself or my role in the school where I work. It has taken me several years to realize that’s not a good feeling, and that it is not natural or helpful.

Oh, I will come in with some ideas. Ideas that I think are good, that are backed up by research, and that I have have considered carefully before I ever get to that series of meetings.  And I intend to advocate for those ideas on that basis.

But this time, I will realize that this is not a competition. This is not about who’s idea is more prevalent on a generalized unit plan. This is not about being dictated to by people who don’t know the dynamics of my classes, and it is certainly not about “winning.”

If my colleagues don’t want to do the same things that I do, rather than act like a sore loser, I will try to find a middle way – – where we reach a compromise.    Like, for instance, I’ll teach that research skill your way, and you add in this review game or brain break that I came up with. Or, failing that, I will try to implement my idea in a small, non-disruptive way in my own classes. I win, the kids win, and my colleagues aren’t thrown off from their own lessons.

Last spring, I told my principal (whom I have known for decades, and whom I consider a friend) that I wanted to take my teaching to the next level. This is one of the ways I think I will be able to do just that in the next 10 months, starting next week when I arrive on campus to work with my fellow historians.

Wish me luck!

Becoming a Connected Teacher, Part 3 (Conclusion)

We begin our final episode in January 2018.  I’ve Gone Through The Motions, gotten my Wakeup Call, and become Connected. But the most dynamic part of my journey was still yet to come.

In the new calendar year, I was again feeling a little detached.  The slew of students in my classes were more difficult to deal with; several had no interest in school at all and plenty were being either disruptive or openly defiant during lessons.  I still felt supported by my Twitter friends and at least some of my colleagues, but I felt as if I had hit some sort of wall in my teaching.

I was listening to an episode of PodcastPD with my Twitter friend Chris Nesi (@mrnesi) one afternoon on my drive home from school.  Chris’ guest that day was a chap named Rich Czyz (@RACzyz), who had written a book on professional development called The Four O’Clock Faculty.  As I listened, I began to understand that there was a deep need at my school (and within my own psyche) to go deeper with my own growth as a teacher.  The books I had read, the chats I had participated in, those had been valuable…but I needed more.

I needed a daily, dynamic, personal group of colleagues who would be passionate about education and who would be there to talk about their experiences every single day.  I needed a PLN that didn’t meet as words on a screen once a week for an hour, but as a regularly devoted clan of educators who had the same deep-seeded desire to go further that I myself felt. I needed to join a tribe.

MTT 3.0: #4OCFPLN. I had heard about Voxer from someone I met at a Google Certification workshop, but I hadn’t really experimented with it until that month.  I found out that a group of teachers was starting a study of The Four O’Clock Faculty on Voxer, although I couldn’t tell you how I actually made my way into the group.  Me being an audiophile and one who was dissatisfied with my current online interactions, I decided to give this a shot.

Once I got to know these folks, I realized that there were worlds of progress I needed to make in my thinking about school and teaching.  The people in the book study group were uber-passionate: they ate education for breakfast, rubbed it in their hair, drank it on the way to work, snacked on it in the afternoon, dined on it at night, had generous helpings of it for dessert, and probably smoked it, shot it up, or snorted it in the middle of the night.  They were full-on devotees; I was a dilettante.

But this group had something more than passion.  They had compassion.  Listening to them made me feel like there was no great mystery to getting better at teaching.  There was no secret formula locked up in some vault somewhere. It was all about listening, reflecting, and implementing.  The message wasn’t “We know what is going on, and if you don’t know, we can’t tell you.” It was “None of us completely knows what is going on, and we want to learn what you know about it.”

When we’d all finished reading and discussing the book, we realized that we had not only learned a lot about professional development, we had grown to like each other and the conversations we’d shared.  We decided to keep the group going and to create a Voxer PLN, which we christened #4OCFPLN.

MTT 1.0 would have cowered and fled from such a group of educators.

MTT 3.0 remained behind to keep learning.

That decision brought me to where I am, professionally.  Every day, I get to talk to brilliant, caring educators from all over the country about our craft, our thoughts, and our lives.  #4OCFPLN is not just a group of colleagues, it’s a source of friendship, support, and wisdom. We talk about school, family, pets, books, movies, super-heroes, kids, vacations.  And the fact that I get to hear these people’s voices, as opposed to seeing their words in a Twitter chat, means we have that much more human closeness.

What of MTT at this point?  I’m not finished with my journey by any means.  I don’t have all the answers, and I doubt I ever will.  I’m still learning about what relationships with students mean, what the value of homework is, what role the students ought to have in voice and choice in the classroom.  And a hundred other things.

And I will keep journeying.  I will work, sweat, rage, think, reflect, smile, laugh, encourage, and love, this year and every year, and my companions will be there doing the exact same things and sharing their journeys right alongside me.

I can’t tell you what MTT 3.5 will look like yet.  But he’ll be better.




Becoming a Connected Teacher, Part 2

The year is now 2016.  Your humble narrator has made it through MTT (Mike The Teacher) 1.0: Going Through the Motions during his first 12 years in teaching high school, and then been jolted out of apathy by MTT 1.5: The Wakeup Call.  (Read the first part of this blog post if you want the story.)  

My colleague Libby, whom I resented for spoiling my easy-peasy teaching practices, suddenly resigned; her husband had taken a high paying medical job upstate.  Now I was left without the motivating menace she had been. The question was, at the risk of throwing out a cliche: could the genie of professional development now be put back into the bottle? Or would I just relax into a complacent style again without Libby looming two classrooms away?

MTT 2.0: Connected. The process of getting my Google Level 1 Certification was assisted by a series of “bootcamps” that my district put on for us during the fall of 2016 and the winter of 2017.   I attended these after-school session faithfully, and in doing so, I discovered that not only was the Google Suite (or GAFE, or whatever they were calling it back then) brilliantly designed for student success, it was elegant and easy for teachers to use.  Even the timid ones like me, who swore they would never use any technology in class until they had mastered every single nuance, could implement Docs, Sheets, Slides, Keep, Calendar, Gmail, and the rest of the apps in the classroom almost immediately.

As the school year went on, I started using those technologies, but I also began to quietly poach some of the lessons that Libby and others had put in the shared Google drive we had established for our teaching cohort.  We had put materials there with the idea that anyone could use or not use whatever was in there, no questions asked and no egos involved. As it turned out, not only was I not ashamed of helping myself to what others had worked on and been successful with, I was pleased to have widened my palette and tried a few new things with my students.  And the kids like a lot of the new stuff as well!

Then came the fateful Saturday morning in April when I got up early, made myself a cup of coffee, and logged onto a Twitter chat for the first time.  I was irrevocably changed by what I experienced that day.

Not only were the people on the chat (and I couldn’t tell you what the hashtag was) totally enthusiastic about their teaching in a way I had never seen before, they were amazingly welcoming.  They were very patient in showing me how to participate in the chat, how to use the hashtag in statements to the group, how a Q&A session functioned…the works. I came away from that chat with not only some practical ideas about the classroom, but also with a totally new perspective on my career.

I learned that day, and in the dozens of chats that I joined that summer, that this job was, and is, nothing like I thought it was.

Teaching isn’t about facts.  It’s about faith in students.

Teaching isn’t about content.  It’s about connecting with kids.

Teaching isn’t about tests.  It’s about tenacity.

Teaching isn’t about grades.  It’s about growth.

Teaching isn’t about procedures.  It’s about progress.

And the lessons haven’t stopped.  Every time I join a Twitter chat, I come away with new connections to fellow teachers, who are struggling and learning right alongside the kids they teach, and who are willing to share their experiences and their wisdom with me.  And, I’m gratified to say, they also ask me for my experiences and advice!

Since that day of connection, I’ve told several colleagues that they need to get on Twitter, that there is a treasure trove of connectedness and wisdom in those chats and in the PLN that gets formed there.  

The response has usually been something like, “I have enough professional development resources right now, so I don’t need to be in an online chat room.”  

Bull.  Every teacher ought to be on Twitter.  Or, if they don’t like the specific medium where our President bloviates dozens of times a day and Kim Kardashian shows off her latest plastic surgery, they should form some other connection online with a community of other educators who can sustain, encourage, motivate, and reinforce them.  

I don’t agree with everything George Couros says, but he’s spot on when he says that teachers who shut themselves off from every possible resource for their professional development are dooming themselves to irrelevance.  The days of being the lone figure in the classroom, working in isolation and coming up with brilliant, cutting-edge lesson materials with no help from his/her counterparts, are gone and gone forever. (If they ever existed.)

So, by 2017, I’d finally (and it was very late in coming) become a reflective educator.  I had become a connected educator. But there was one more stage in my journey that I needed to take.

Part 3 coming later this week.


Becoming a Connected Teacher, Part 1

I guess you could call this “A Midsummer Night’s Scheme.”

Being the good Silicon Valley child that I am (born in Redwood City, raised in Los Altos, and now a resident of Mountain View), it’s natural for me to think of my  development as an educator as a progression of updates. So for this journey I’m going to talk about, I’ll refer to myself as MTT, short for Mike The Teacher, and to the three stages I have experienced so far the way many would refer to apps or software as it is improved and changed.

MTT 1.0: Going Through the Motions.  I started teaching full-time at a public high school in 2004, with no real idea of how all-consuming the career would be.  I’d taught part-time at local colleges for a while, but those were hit-and-run gigs where I rarely developed a rapport with students and fellow teachers.  In fact, it’s fair to say that I treated my college students the way I had been treated by my own professors — brief, impersonal encounters, where names weren’t exchanged and where the prevailing attitude was “I said it in class and it was on the transparency (!); if you didn’t get it, that’s not my fault.  Go and read the text again.”

For the first few years of my high school teaching, that was more or less how I acted.  I hadn’t learned that the teaching profession was an all-consuming, 24/7 ministry; that it was based on relationships, not content; that to take the attitude of the adjunct professor was to abdicate the role of teacher; that the kids I had in my classes were not abstractions, but real, vulnerable adolescents who needed to be listened to and honored for what they were.

I was a fair instructor at that time.  I knew how to manage a classroom, how to deliver a lesson, how to make sure the kids learned the content.  I fulfilled my duties on campus, stayed in the good graces of my administration, and got along pretty well with my colleagues.  But I wasn’t a well-informed professional. I didn’t real education-based books other than Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, preferring to read thick historical tomes that were great intellectual exercises but had no bearing on either my relevant knowledge base or my in-class practice.  I spent too much time online, but it was never with the idea of connecting with other educators or finding out what the best practices were for high school teachers.

And from time to time, I felt a nagging sense of discontent.  It all seemed too easy, as if I was just turning keys and getting the same product.  To paraphrase Betty Friedan, I looked at my teaching every so often and murmured to myself, “…is this all there is?”

That was, I am sorry to say, the first 12 years of my teaching career.

MTT 1.5: The Wakeup Call.  In 2015, a new colleague came to our school after a good friend in our department had suddenly quit the profession to get married.  I’ll call this new colleague Libby for privacy reasons.

Libby, quite frankly, scared the s**t out of me.  Not only was she vivacious, efficient, and enthusiastic, she did all the things that I myself had shunned.  She read the books on education that were hitting the shelves; she put in the hours outside of school time to help her kids; she made an effort to know each one of the students by name and by interest; and she was treating her “job” as something that took up her entire existence.  (Okay, she had a husband and two kids, so it wasn’t her entire existence, but you get the picture.)

Libby had ideas for an improved curriculum, she could back up everything she wanted to do with both practical experience and research, and she loved every minute of her job.  And the students and faculty adored her.

Where did that leave me — the safe, detached, disengaged jobber who leaned on what “had always worked,” who resented this interloper coming into “my” school (from which I had previously graduated, no less!), who heard that murmuring louder and louder every day inside my head?  Well, it left me inwardly seething and mentally grasping.

What do I have to do to be as cutting-edge as Libby?  How come I can’t be that teacher that is poised to change lives, instead of the one who checks the boxes and collects the pay?  What is it about this sassy, carefree teacher that makes her so confident? Where do I even start in changing my practice? Those and other questions paraded through my head all that year.  

(Before I wrap up this section of the story, I hasten to add that I probably should not have let Libby get under my skin the way I did.  To compare yourself to another teacher, I know now, is not only unnecessary but can also be harmful to your own attitude and your own practice.  But the MTT 1.0 mentality I had when Libby came to my school wouldn’t permit me to respond to her example with anything but insecurity and self-criticism.  I know better now.)

My first tentative steps towards MTT 1.5 included consulting other teachers, outside of my school, for their recommendations of innovative books on teaching.  I cruised over to the local Barnes & Noble and bought up an armful…Today I Made A Difference, 22 Habits That Empower Students, The Happy Teacher Habits.  And I started reading.

Maybe more important, I took a deep breath, logged onto, and started looking at this new thing called the Google Certified Teacher program.  This might be a start on being more relevant and more technologically savvy, I thought. This might be the step I needed.

It turned out to be a start, all right…of a journey I never, ever anticipated.  Stay tuned for MTT 2.0 and 2.5, coming later this week.

Summer (Can’t) Breeze (By)

My apologies to Seals and Crofts for that title, but there’s a larger point here.

As a teacher, I’ve always had trouble with the summer.  I have generally figured that those 9 or 10 weeks were more or less mine — to read, sleep in, catch up on movies and TV shows, spend time with family, and generally recharge my batteries.  And the thought of doing anything related to my classroom before I absolutely had to — not counting the summer school class I taught, of course — was absolutely anathema to me.

When I would try to force myself to work on stuff for the upcoming school year, it was like wading through an ocean of peanut butter.  The thoughts weren’t well formulated, the process was agonizingly slow, and my mind was just not focused on the task at hand.  After all, why sweat over something that is almost two months away when the Giants are beating the Dodgers on TV, my son wants to build a Lego project, and the latest Ace Collins book just arrived from Amazon?

This summer is going to be different.  I’ll still get plenty of sleep (including naps), and I will not short-change my family time.  But my Google Keep list is already full of things I plan on doing to make next year better than this one has been.

Some of the professional objectives I have are:

  • Plan out all my units for both Civics and US History
  • Make a playlist of all the walk-in and walk-out music I will be using for both classes, and to save it on YouTube
  • Participating in all the Twitter chats I couldn’t consistently do during the school year
  • Make a list of pledges to my students to be given out on Day 1 of the new semester (watch this space for more of those)
  • Do some experiments with EdPuzzle and FliGrid
  • Incorporate hyperdocs into every unit (and use ones I made up this year with my colleague)
  • Watch “The Vietnam War” series and try to implement it into the corresponding unit of study

My dear PLN, hold me to this: This summer will be the offseason for Mike the Teacher-Athlete. The day after graduation, at sunrise, I will be up, sucking down some much-needed coffee, and attacking this list with gusto.

Okay, maybe I’ll wait until the Monday after graduation.  But no later!!

My One Word

When I first heard about the “One Word” theme on Twitter, I have to admit that I dismissed it as kind of a pointless exercise.  After all, who could possibly encapsulate their entire year into one word, no matter how ambitions or appropriate it was?

But then I figured, why not?  After all, most of my PLN doesn’t have time for long explanations of what I want to do as a teacher.  (I know, you’re reading one right now, but this is considerably more than 280 characters long, and besides, if you’re reading this, you are part of my PLN and care about my progress as an educator to some degree.)

So, I settled on a hyphenated word.  I want to be…a door-opener.

What I want is to create opportunities for kids to succeed.  Not always in terms of superior classroom performance — but maybe.  Not always in terms of winning a business competition — but maybe.  Not always in terms of writing an essay that wins them a trip to New York City — but maybe.

I want kids to see me showing them there are opportunities to grow intellectually.  

I want them to see that improvement in the course of a year is vastly more important than a 4.0 GPA, no matter what a single test or a college may say.

I want them to see that success is, as John Wooden put it, “peace of mind which is a direct result of…knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

I want them to know that a single missing assignment doesn’t mean the end of their grade, nor does it mean they can’t learn anything from the material they missed the first time.

I want them to be able to come through my open door to ask for help, and to know they will get it when they need it — even if it’s at the last minute.

I don’t want them to have another experience with a teacher who gives no quarter, who slams doors on growth, who demands constant perfection, who doesn’t forgive, who is overly stringent with kids with the justification of “This is how it’s going to be in college.”

Some teachers have said, in my hearing, that they shut off chances for students to learn because “They have to learn responsibility.”  Bull.  Most of my students know they have to be on time for a theater rehearsal, or that they have to make sure their little sister is fed while Mom and Dad are at work, or that they have to get to work on time to keep their after school jobs.  Or that they have to lift their weights, or run their sprints, or practice their scales, in order to succeed.

To be the kind of teacher that I’ve just described is to be a door-slammer.  Well, I’ve had the door slammed in my face as a student.  I’m sure you have too, at some point.  It didn’t feel right, because it wasn’t right.

I resolve, this year, to open — and prop open — doors for my students until there is literally no time left for the door to be open.

Gonna go make some doorstops in the workshop now…wanna come with?