A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Friday, July 19, 2013

Job Hunting Reflection

Initial considerations for preparing a response:

In preparing to go before a hiring squad, the most frustrating thing is not knowing -- not knowing which positions are available, not knowing any interview dates, not even knowing which schools are hiring. Not knowing can lead to doubt and worry, feelings of dread which can easily spiral out of control, but I have neither time nor resources to waste. My time is coming.

Dr. P explained that schools are required to consider "early hires" first and that he would not be able to schedule me to go before the panel hire until every early hire candidate has been processed. He said that his secretary would be calling me around July 15th, which has not happened. Existing in a state of limbo can drive a man crazy. Worse, it can drive everyone around him crazy too. What to do?

In The Art of Exceptional Living, Jim Rohn declares, "it's not what happens, it's what what you do." He also adds pointedly, "affirmation without discipline is the beginning of delusion." Proceeding in an undisciplined fashion would be like trying to cut with a dull blade, an exercise in futility, so exercise discipline I will do.

Rohn includes the ability to reflect in his summary of five critical abilities that a person needs to cultivate in order to be effective. I am not by nature a reflective person. Rather, I am disposed to action, a pragmatist. Given the nature of my present task, however, reflecting in a step-by-step, matter-of-fact  fashion is probably my most responsible and opportunistic course of action. T'is the season for reflection.

Just as Socrates, who was spared a few precious sunrises by the serendipitous occurrence of a festival, used his unexpected gift of time in a relaxed, courageous, and purposive way, finding some consolation in philosophy, perhaps I should find the good in the delay, as opposed to viewing the delay as a burden. I need to untangle a gordian knot to sort out what differentiates me from other candidates, a process that requires patience as well as time, neither of which I possess in great supply, as I prepare myself for the blood sport of fighting abstractly for a few coveted positions.

In analyzing the ability to reflect, Rohn recommends,  "sometimes you need to go into a closet and shut the door." I have endeavored to follow his recommendation that I close the door to the best of my ability, a daunting task for somebody culturally, genetically, and by personal preference inclined to ADD, for somebody who gravitates to the give and take of conversations, for someone who thrives on the pluroma of sensory experience, for whom the drip, drip, drip of stillness is like water torture.

To align my responses with the needs of a panel, since any panel will need for me to differentiate myself from all other candidates, I am preparing by responding to a few key differentiators:

  • First, my mom posed a series of questions to help me clarify my role in teaching classes that produced data that, in Dr. P's words "speaks for itself." Typically, I chafe at reducing characters to simple abstractions. Moreover, having witnessed a lifelong parade of salespeople take credit for themselves, often unfairly, to gain a competitive advantage, I have developed a bitter distaste for "selling" myself, but if qualitative analysis and taking credit where credit is due is the price I must pay in order to get paid, so be it. Shikata ga nai.
  • Second, I reviewed a copy of Dr. P's School Improvement Plan (SIP), which offers a window into the culture of accountability and collaboration he has shepherded over the past two decades. If ever there were a national model for "data-driven instruction," an example for how one school has been able to consistently demonstrate conclusively its ability to "close the gap" between whites and students with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELLs), Dr. P has the numbers to back it up, which is why, he explained in a staff meeting, at our school we are left alone. My ability to produce numbers that "speak for themselves" was crash-tested in an environment in which hormones, high stakes testing, and high rates of poverty create a volatile mix. Universally accepted research indicates that an effective teacher is the number one differentiator between classes that achieve academic success and those that do not. Bottom line: despite an unorthodox, unpredictable style, which has in the past sometimes invited unwanted scrutiny, in a high stakes, high profile scenario, my numbers measured up.
  • Third, I reviewed a list of International Baccalaureate (IB) Learner Profiles, which remained prominently displayed in the classroom that I took over. Since Dr. P's school will undergo IB recertification in the coming school year, having recently experienced, first-hand, the process of school accreditation during my internship, I can share some of that experience with the panel. To prepare students and staff at the high school that was undergoing re-accreditation, I came up with the idea of giving everybody cue cards, which was adopted school-wide.

My sister Dawn wisely suggested that I go before a quasi-panel in suit and tie, so that I can simulate the panel experience, with my sister, my mom, my dad, and Michael Greaney, serving as Inquisitors. To experience what Dennis Waitley, in The Psychology of Winning, calls "the preinforcement of success," when I officially "come out of the closet," submit to the Inquisition I will do. Thus, I will get additional crash-test data which I can use to make needed adjustments.

Here are a few things I came up with in response to mom's list:

6. What specifically did you do differently during this long-term sub assignment that improved your performance, aside from support from a good team?

  • Fully Embraced Formality. I adopted an all-business demeanor. Formality clarified roles. I was the teacher. Students were students. A side benefit of greater formality was that playing the straight man only enhanced the comedic affect whenever I said or did unpredictable things.
  • Deescalated drama. Unwanted drama had been my undoing during my other long-term assignment with a 6th grade class six years ago in my final stage of clinically supervised experience as I was completing ODU's Career Switcher program. My mentor at the time advised me to "go under the wave," suggesting that sometimes it's better to be indirect when attempting to correct problem behaviors. This Spring, when a student openly suggested that I had been unfair in not disciplining a certain girl because maybe there was something inappropriate going on between us, rather than allowing me to be drawn in, I looked the student in the eye, smiled, explained that we would talk about this later, waited for an appropriate transition, quietly asked him to come with me to talk about it out in the hall, then in a flat tone explained to him that he needed to explain what had had happened to his parents before I called home, otherwise I would write him up.
  • Implemented behavior management strategies from  IRIS Resources, developed at Vanderbuilt University. I had learned about these in Dr. Eacho's Behavior Management class at Marymount.
    Although as recently as last Fall, in a prior long-term experience, I had tried without success to apply these same strategies in an attempt to help a certain non-category 4th grade student working within a self-contained setting, I wisely realized that it would be foolish to generalize from that experience. In Dr. P's school, given the confidence that my team and administration "had my back," I was able to act decisively nip problem behaviors early in the Acting Out Cycle.
  • Disrupted the disruption cycle. During the first week of my recent takeover, at the very moment when I began to transition into direct teaching mode, students would interrupt me, destroying any sense of flow. I wondered aloud how anybody could learn in such an environment. In response, I immediately implemented a Parking Lot system"Don't interrupt when I am starting a lesson unless you are "bleeding, barfing, or dying," I quipped. I then handed out sticky notes. Thus, I was able to let students know that their questions were very important to me and deserved a thoughtful response, but that I would only respond to their questions at a more appropriate time.
  • Maximized the frequency of student response. One of my primary initiatives was to introduce call and response procedures inspired by Chris Biffle's Whole Brain Teaching approaches, which Shannon Melideo introduced me to in her lesson planning course.
  • Accelerated the feedback cycle. I made a commitment to get graded papers back to students quicker than I had ever done before. Students needed to know more immediately about their misconceptions. They needed to know I was serious about my offer to make myself available for help after school. In reducing my turn-around time for grading and handing back student work, I sent a clear message that I understood their misconceptions and that their grades were valid.
  • Maximized responsiveness to parents. One afternoon, I had a surprising conversation with a mother when I called home to inform her about my disappointment that her son had not showed for my special review session for a make up of the state test to be held the next morning. She threatened to go to administration the next morning to complain that nobody had called to tell her that her son would be taking the state test the next morning. Afterwards I found Mr. C, one of the after school administrators to discuss what had happened. Mr.C observed wryly that the student had "called my bluff," and added that I needed to make my calls to reach the parents of at-risk students sooner. As I was leaving the building at 9:30 that evening, having connected with as many parents of students on my D and F list as I could, I knew what I had done would make a difference.

7. Dr. P gave you credit for improvement in overall test scores of your 6th grade class, as compared to their 5th grade scores. (As he said, "Numbers speak for themselves.") You credit the team and the system. What was your unique input?

  • Individualized feedback. The class I took over at the end of March already did a tremendous job showing their work. Representational thinking is a terribly difficult habit in math to teach. Students, as a rule, already were doing this. When I introduced new material, however, I quickly noticed certain misconceptions proliferating. Since I was grading homework so quickly, I immediately realized that many students were not actually doing their own thinking, but had been copying the work of others. Knowing that in many cases students did not know what they were doing, I made it a point to get quiz grades back to students quickly, using my grade book and lists of missed assignments to communicate to students that I knew they did not know what they were doing.
  • Balanced the collaborative co-teaching load. Bill Specter, my collaborative co-teacher in two of my five classes, is an ESOL teacher who "pushes in" in various grade levels. I encouraged Bill to take on more of a lead role than ever before. I frequently praised Bill for his unique ability to break down processes in a step-by-step way. Consistent with the idea of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I knew that everybody would benefit from how Bill broke things down, and made a conscious decision to transfer Bill's contributions to other classes. Although, except for a few brief moments between classes, we rarely planned together and I typically set the agenda, Bill and I seamlessly switched off between taking the lead or taking on a support role with egos never getting in the way.
  • Focused on a few critical assignments. As a result of analyzing how the state tests had been constructed, I got a strong indication of which concepts and procedures that students were likely to encounter when taking their state tests. Based on what I was seeing on homework and quizzes, students, I became highly concerned that the majority of the students had not mastered critical concepts underlying procedures for working with coordinate points, circle graphs, and probability. Large percentages were not completing certain key assignments. Operating under the assumption that the underlying reason why the majority of students had stopped turning in their homework consistently was a fundamental lack of understanding, I asked students what I could do to help and asked students what they could do to help themselves. My decision to focus on a few critical assignments resulted in a sharp increase in the number of students who began consistently showing up for help after school.
  • Guaranteed a fresh start to disengaged learners. By April, a noticeable cluster of students, particularly boys, evidently had lost hope. Recalling the words John Thompson, a former Georgetown University basket ball coach, "it's not where you start, it's where you finish," I repeated a promise I made to the class, that everyone in the class still had an opportunity to earn an A for the quarter, simply by earning an A on the final exam. By personally guaranteeing that every student still had a chance to win, despite how bleak the gradebook looked, I was able to help a number of students make remarkable turnarounds. One student, who failed the state test by a single question, who had probably turned in less than 30% of the homework throughout the year, responded to my expressions of disappointment in his underperformance by earning an A on his cumulative final exam.
8. How would you balance improving the performance of the class as a whole vs. helping an underachieving but talented individual?

  • Everybody benefits from responsive teaching. Just as curb cuts have made buildings and sidewalks more accessible for everyone, the premise of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is that when you incorporate differentiation strategies into lesson plans to accommodate special needs, everybody in the classroom benefits. In Conscious Classroom Management, Rick Smith recommends that teachers "speak slower, and repeat more often." When a language specialist is teamed with a general education teacher, everybody can benefit.
9. Has your thinking on the use of test data changed? Are you using it more effectively now.

  • Slaughterhouse of accountability. I maintain a deep-rooted skepticism about the reliability and validity of much of the student performance data collected and disseminated, both locally and nationwide. I continue to harbor major doubts about how data is being interpreted. I worry about the extent to which our picture of what is happening with individual students is clouded by overly broad conclusions drawn from unreliably small sample sizes, generated by individuals with their own agendas, in schools generally lacking in common formative assessments. I worry that short-sighted efforts to boost student performance have led to an abandonment of soft disciplines such as the arts, a movement away from educating the whole child, a marginalization of teachers as professionals, and an overemphasis on the teaching of procedural knowledge, leading to a proliferation of disengaged learners.
  • Prestidigitation? The public has been sold by educational leaders on the idea that schools have been on a smooth upward track since 2001, both locally and nationally. Reports of steady growth have often been generated, under threat of sanctions, or opportunity for secondary gain. If performance has risen so steady, how is it possible that the same persistent 30% failure rate in our schools remains more than 30 years after the Nation at Risk?

  • A recalibration in how I view test data. Dr. P's School Improvement Plan (SIP) provides the best rationale I have ever seen for using data appropriately. Dr. P's plan illuminates four key strengths in the 6th grade, #1-collaboration, #5-common assessments, #9-individual growth, and #10-consistent strategies. The key area of need: improve ESOL scores. The plan listed a number of SMART Outcomes (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) including achieve a 90% pass rate in the 6th grade, something we exceeded. The Close the Gap Outcome was to shrink the variance of white students to LEP to 5%, which we also exceed. The Individual Growth Outcome was measured using something called a Value Added Chart, where every student's test score (i.e., formative assessment data from every common assessment) was entered and color-coded as red (failing), yellow (at-risk), and green (passing). The Contextual Comparison Outcome was to reduce the overall variance in pass rates between Gen Ed, ESOL, and SPED to no more than 15% on state tests. SMART Strategies included Circular Review, Lunch and Afterschool Remediation, Frequent Feedback, Individualized Test Correction, Content Review, and greater emphasis on Open Ended Questions. An old adage states, "what gets measured gets done." In reviewing quarterly responses, and having entered my class's Value Added Data, I have a better appreciation of how the plan helped structure discussions during Collaborative Team Meetings (CLT's). Used appropriately, I have a deeper appreciation of how quality data can benefit individual students, and how central gathering and interpreting the data can be to the management of a school.
11. Were your inputs "innovative," or were they due to "hard work."

  • The difference between a sharp and a dull blade: Necessity is the mother of invention. I implemented a 3 second rule after receiving an email from a parent of a student whose grade on his interim report had dropped from an A to a B-. Viewing her son as a "bellweather student," (i.e., if a bellweather student is struggling, I need to change what I am doing), the next day, I substantially tightened up class procedures across the board. I confided to my 4th period class how much I secretly enjoyed having a class like theirs, because this class would expose my weaknesses, enabling me to correct them. I also confided that my Student of the Year might actually come from their class, since anyone who could excel in such a difficult learning environment probably deserved this award. Just as if I had been working with a dull blade, I realized that all my hard work was getting me nowhere, so I developed a plan based on everything I had been reflecting about. By the way, the child who had complained to his mom about problems in my class earned a 96 on the final exam, and was awarded my Student of the Year.