Testimony to VT Senate and House Ed Committees

On Tuesday, February 26th I had the honor of spending the day in Montpelier with several other amazing educators during the VT-NEA’s Stand Up For Students Day. As part of the experience, we met with Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson, and Stephanie Yu from the Public Assets Institute, as well as my own local representatives. I’ll be honest, this was my first time really engaging politically at the state level, and I was blown away with the reception we received. Everyone was approachable and genuinely curious about what it means to teach in schools these days. Consistently, I heard that legislators want to hear your voice on the problems that they are addressing! Seriously, every e-mail I’ve sent to a legislator in these past few weeks has been responded to within 2 hours. These people are dedicated to representing you!

As part of my time in Montpelier, I provided testimony to both the Senate and House Education Committees. I’ve been working on crafting stories that get to what I see as the heart of proficiency-based education. Here is my attempt at that:

“Members of the education committee, thank you for inviting me and my fellow educators here today. I am Tom Payeur, the 2019 Vermont State Teacher of the Year and a math teacher at Winooski Middle/High School.

I am motivated to live, grow, and teach here in Vermont because I firmly believe that educating with proficiency based graduation requirements is critical in preparing future generations for the challenges of global climate change and emergent technologies. This motivation is deep and powerful, a force that wells up from inside and keeps me moving forward when things get uncomfortable, like when a new lesson falls apart mid-class; when conversations about grading and curriculum become muddied and confusing; or when I hear, over and over again, ‘I’m not good in math’, ‘I’m never going to use this in my life’,  and ‘They don’t even know their multiplication tables’.

You see, when I encounter these challenges, I take it personally. As a teacher, and especially as Vermont’s Teacher of the Year, I am both praised and condemned. Praised for accepting and responding to children whose families struggle with securing fundamental needs like nutrition and heat at home. Condemned for attempting to respond to those needs with innovative practices and addressing systemic bias head-on. And because I take these challenges personally, I often find myself facing crippling self-doubt and anxiety. If not for my motivation to make sure that all children have a chance to honestly understand and lead in the world they will inherit from us, I would have burned out years ago.

My students are no different. In fact, their experience is ten fold that of mine. Me, I’m a thirty-one year old, fairly established with my spouse, a house on an acre and a half of land in Starksboro, and years of higher education. My students struggle with agency over their lives each and every day. Perhaps they’re not sure if they will be living in the same apartment next week. They may be grappling with a family member falling prey to the opioid epidemic. They may be shocked and confused by the sudden change of a system that once honored “grades” but now honors ‘proficiencies’.  Where is, and what is, the motivation that moves them forward?

This question is on my mind and in my heart each and every day I teach at Winooski in my proficiency-based classroom. PBGR’s, implemented with fidelity, have given communities the chance to break past the barriers of imposed credits and seat time to explore the deeper, and more powerful driver of personal motivation. A student and their family, in a truly proficiency-based setting, can no longer see a 4.0 and perfect attendance as the key to success. Now, success becomes personal to each individual, and is found in the exploration of one’s passions and interests. This is a big change from the external to the internal, and no doubt difficult. This is great practice for the large disruptions our children will encounter in the future world.

Motivation is close to impossible to measure. It comes through most powerfully in our moments of uncertainty and failure, moments that a“traditional education system denies our students’ the right to. It is uncovered in trends and patterns that emerge through years of curious exploration. It exists inside and outside a school building’s walls, and illuminates the paths our students walk in their communities all seven days of the week. Our students deserve to be recognized for who they are, where they come from, and where they would like to go.

As such, I ask you to consider this fundamental question when discussing not only PBGRs, but all equity-producing legislation that you will take up in the future: Will this help all students develop and uncover their own personal motivation? You can do this by ensuring that learning environments are safe from the threat of gun violence; by instituting education funding structures that are clear to understand and fair to all Vermonters; and by supporting collaboration, rather than competition, between school districts in their quest to discover what PBGR’s mean to their community. Safety, common sense, and communication will create environments where all of us can honestly and earnestly get to the work of empowering every single student.

Thank you for your time and consideration.”



Performance > Procedure

Just last week at Winooski High School we wrapped up the first semester with our 4th annual JanPo. JanPo, short for January Exposition, is a week-long event where students showcase their practice, and in select cases mastery, of our six graduation expectations: Communication, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Culture & Community, Persistence, and Wellbeing. JanPo, and the second semester’s JunePo, are Winooski’s evolution of “Finals Week”. Where once we had students hunched over desks scribbling upon what amassed to hundreds of sheets of paper, we now bear witness to students giving speeches, performing dance and musical recitals, expressing vulnerability and resolve, extrapolating on their strengths and weaknesses to expert panels, and providing feedback to one another in the pursuit of becoming proficient in the use of transferable skills.

In a later post I will tell the tale of our transition from Finals to Expositions (and the dashed dream of trimesters – oh, how some of us yearned to see OctoPo become part of the lexicon!). But for now, I hope to impart the necessity of Expositions when we consider what education looks like in the twenty-first century.

I believe it’s taken at face-value today that our economy is no longer majorly supported by manufacturing jobs and that the fastest growing industries are service-based. I’ll try to avoid some armchair economics here by simply saying that try as we might, manufacturing as we have known it to be in the United States will continue to diminish as emergent technologies increase automation and efficiency well into the future. This is not to say that manufacturing will be less important. Rather, those who hold manufacturing jobs, as well as everyone else, will need to know how to work with, fix, adapt, share knowledge of, and ultimately create emergent technologies at a rapid pace. As jobs are lost and created in the upheavals of efficiency, the next generation’s workers will need to know how to fluidly move between what we perceive right now to be “different” sectors of the workforce. How soon we will see that a builder of homes could make a career change to app developer practically overnight. The link that will allow those brave souls to cross what are now perceived as rigid boundaries is a mastery of common traits valued in all positions of a 21st century economy: transferable skills.

Adages remain because they hold universal truth, and so it is with “actions speak louder than words.” As more and more people become flexible in their careers, I can only imagine that our traditional document-based, buzz-word laden job application process will become swamped with a deluge of resumes, and ultimately switch to one that cuts through the fluff and straight to the matter: show me what you can bring to the table. Performance will become, and in our most emergent of fields already is, the crucial factor in securing a job or support for a brave new idea. The ability to express passion, purpose, experience, and self-knowledge is the true currency of leverage.

And that’s only the “jobs of the future” argument. Lest we forget, a vast majority of our workforce won’t even be able to access those jobs if we continue to approach the challenges of global climate change with a procedural mindset. A Final Test leads students astray – it indicates, over and over again, that solving problems is delegated to the pen and paper (or whatever device these days), and that those who can hack it are problem solvers, and those who can’t, well, let’s help you out. Performance demands that all students face those challenges head on, create something with mind and body, and share it with their community. Performance puts mistakes front and center, provides ample opportunity to fail, and from that failure, the chance to grow in the eyes of others. Performance breeds comfort in the unknown – the type of experience our next generation will undoubtedly need.

“Know thyself”. Is this not the deepest, most vexing challenge of a life? I would say it is not attained through detachment and routine, but rather in those moments of struggle, discomfort, and vulnerability in front of others. Give your students, your children, your community members a chance to go there. We will all be better off for it.

The State of Status

“Promoting student engagement (by, e.g., selecting challenging tasks, exerting intense effort and concentration in the implementation of tasks), framing mathematics within the growth mindset, acknowledging student contributions, and attending to culture and language play substantial roles in equalizing mathematics gains between poor and non-poor students (Battey 2013; Cross et. al. 2012; Kisker et al. 2012; Robinson 2013).”

– Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. NCTM, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2014.

My math colleagues and I receive regular, profound professional development from Teachers Development Group, focused on applying what the research says about math learning to our daily practices. All of this research is succinctly packaged in the NCTM publication Principles to ActionsIf your work requires you to consider math teaching in any way, shape, or form, you need to have a copy of this text at arms length at all times (And you really need to consider reaching out to Teachers Development Group to support you in enacting said research).

The beauty of Principles to Actions comes across in what initially appears to be straight-forward, no-nonsense, single sentence summaries of ground-breaking research, just like the quote above. When I read that quote, I am struck by the profound power that comes from it’s simple structure: Do these things and all students will succeed. Open any page and you’ll find such statements. I’m choosing to focus on this one in particular because today I want to think about status – in the math classroom, in the school system, and in the way we view the necessary shift to transferable skills.

Sometimes I wish I had some sort of device, like a black light, that I could sweep across my classroom. But instead of picking up splatters of questionable material, it would illuminate with a sickening glow the status that I aim to eliminate each and every day. A student raises their hand (splat) and asks, “Is my answer right?” (plop). Another student stays quiet when given twenty five seconds to share their idea with a partner (sploosh). One student says “Oh, I get it” after listening to another student explain their thinking (glorp). Status oozes from most interactions in a math classroom because society perpetuates the idea that “there’s always a right answer in math”; that it’s perfectly fine, and in fact sometimes a badge of honor, to say “I’m not good at math”; that inevitably there is that one person in the class who will “get it” and if we just wait on that person to speak, then we’ve done our job as students; that the teacher’s role is to show students how to perform an algorithm, and the students role is to practice the steps.

These issues of status are perpetuated in the school system when schools resort to levels and tracking (there’s a whole section on this in Principles to Actions). Status breeds competition and creates a hierarchy that inflates and deflates egos in staff and students alike. These rifts fall along lines of socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and every other social construct that has ever been used to discriminate against a “group” of people. Our measures of success and readiness, such as high school graduation and college acceptance, rely on this hierarchy of status to determine what doors get opened for whom. No doubt, I’m banging on a drum that’s just about worn through, but we can’t seem to let go of this self imposed prison of status for the life of us.

Teaching to research, as opposed to teaching to our biased opinions about perceived abilities, equalizes mathematical gains between poor and non-poor students. Hundreds of hours of intentional, scientific research has confirmed this. It says it right there in that quote! There is no student who cannot learn mathematics to a highly rigorous degree. So why do we continue to allow institutions to exist that were intentionally built to restrict access? Why do we continue to defer status to individuals who do not practice what the research says?

The shift to transferable skills requires a reckoning with status. When a school begins to earnestly implement proficiency based grading of transferable skills, our traditional identifiers of status are revealed as inequitable. What is “class rank” when GPAs disappear? How do you choose a “valedictorian” from an entire class of individuals who have each demonstrated mastery in their own, personal ways in their own, personal interests? What is a “head of the department” when the main focus is to teach a transferable skill, something that is inherently shared by all departments? How does a standardized test score honestly measure the academic worth of an individual who spent their time in school developing projects that have a real impact on their community and their own growth as a civic-minded member of our nation?

Let me be clear, there is a distinction between status and prestige. Status, as I am viewing it, is a fixed relational aspect of an individual. Status says that at this moment in time someone is the best, someone is the worst, and we need to conform our social interactions based on this ranking. Prestige, however, is an honor bestowed upon someone because they have excelled at something special. Prestige can lead to status based on how it is viewed and utilized, but when approached correctly, should bring people together. I find the honor of being named the 2019 Vermont State Teacher of the Year to be prestigious. I hope my voice doesn’t get misconstrued as a symbol of status. If it does, I hope you would let me know.

Status has led us to the largest wealth gap since the Great Depression and has left huge swaths of the population disenchanted and frustrated. Status continually marginalizes, distorts, and erodes the promise of our future generations. A line can be drawn from those small moments of status-laden interactions in our classrooms to the state of our collective response to global climate change. By adhering to research, implementing status-reducing practices, and championing transferable skills above all else, we can find our way to a future that is less dire than the one currently predicted.

Are you willing to forgo status for the benefit of us all? Are you willing to see the great potential in everyone you meet? Are you willing to see the future, brightly illuminated by diversity, and smile?


Knot in the Gut

Shifting the focus of education to transferable skills that will support students in a world coming to terms with climate change both illuminates and shadows the soul. In one moment you can almost feel the electricity leaping between every individual cell in your body as connections pop into your mind at an alarming rate. In then next moment, only emptiness – a sucking void of limitations, inadequacy, and disappointment. Both can ruin and inspire the work.

I want to focus on the shadowing effect, because today it reared up for me, unyielding and demanding of my attention. I believe we all have our own physical experiences with this effect, and by naming that physical experience, we can begin to understand and ultimately accept it. My physical experience is the feeling of a knot just below my diaphragm, that wells up through my esophagus with a tightening just below my jaw. If this goes on for a couple of days, I get a sharp constant pain along the right side of my spine directly between my shoulder blades.

I don’t hate the knot. I see my journey in this work following a wave-like path; the knot will come and go. I don’t see the knot as an irritant or some intrusion into my otherwise centered and focused life. The knot is a signal that some epic struggle is about to begin, and that I should prepare to readdress my beliefs and reassert my core values. I am not exactly excited or encouraged when the sensation shows up, because I know it will bring plenty of anguish and self doubt, but these are things I must feel and think my way through, and so I do.

The knot today, and leading up to it this week, was in large part due to an identity crisis that I encounter from time to time as a teacher leader. I am doing the work (teacher) and analyzing how the work aligns to the vision (leader). In one moment I am engaged in high-leverage professional development with math best practices (teacher) and in the next I am considering trends in school wide implementation and how to make this work sustainable (leader). In a conversation with a colleague at the end of the day, the best way I could describe the sensation was, “It’s like performing surgery on yourself.”

Being a teacher leader can be a dizzying confusion of roles, and often there is very little refuge to find. As a teacher, administration looks to you for a “boots on the ground” perspective. As a leader, colleagues look to you for the inside scoop on administrative priorities. As a teacher, I pass no evaluative judgement on my colleagues and their practices. As a leader, I need to analyze organizational trends and patterns to move the vision forward. As a teacher, I worry about being timely with my assessments, relevant with my instruction, and engaging my students with all of the diverse experiences they bring in the moment. As a leader, I worry about communication channels between stake holders, teacher retention rates and working conditions, and the state of equity in my school.

Essentially, a teacher leader is the antithesis of the public education institution as it stands. They exist at all levels of the chain of command. They dance between all layers of the organization. They are on call, for all of their connections, at all times of the work day. They can be plaintiff, defendant, and mediator in the same instant. Being so connected can also be isolating at times.

It is this type of role, however, that is most important when we consider what makes the shift to teaching transferable skills take root and explode with tangible results. When a school encourages its teachers to move fluidly between previously rigid roles in a quest to make transferable skills a reality of their culture and climate, that’s when we are truly changing the landscape of public education. Teacher leaders disrupt the system in pursuit of creating a new norm, respective to the demands of the of 21st century uncertainties of global climate change.

Today, the knot reminds me of this. After two hours of writing this post, I don’t quite feel it anymore. And like that, I’ll charge on as a teacher leader. We’ll all move on past our own knots. Preparing future generations to address the issues of climate change requires this of us all.


How We Read the Fourth National Climate Assessment

Read it.

All of it.

No, you don’t get to come back and read what you think is my upcoming synopsis on it. You read it through and through.

Don’t forget to take notes.

I think you forgot to click on some of those info graphics.




The Fourth National Climate Assessment is large, intense, and overwhelming – all indications that it is a thorough and precise piece of work. It deserves attention, when and where you can give it, until you have digested it all. Download it as a PDF, print it, and keep it by your bedside. Keep it opened in a tab on your browser – the ever constant reminder that your work is not finished.

Avoid confusing or conflating it with the current Administration. The day it was released does not matter. Political reactions do not matter. The pundits and their opinions do not matter. The research, the hesitant scientific detachment, is a monumental totem that looms far above the coifs and spray tans below.

Distrust the appeal of a cleverly worded headline or a truncated analysis. The Fourth National Climate Assessment is much too important, much too omnipresent, to be left for the buzzards of interpretation. To read its full length is our right, our duty, our reckoning, our salvation.

Talk with others about what you read. Reference the research, repeat phrases that stand out, ask questions, pull at your hair, slam your fist, cry – share this all with others. Do not look for an easy solution, or any solution for that matter. Do not walk away from a conversation feeling like this has been put to rest.

Feel uncomfortable, feel affronted, feel lost, feel hope, feel…feel…feel. Make the Fourth National Climate Assessment a part of your deeply held memories, flood your brain with feeling, with norepinephrine and epinephrine, so much so that the experience is encoded into your hippocampus. Let it pop into your thoughts at unexpected times, and savor what that means, what the connection is, and how you can share that connection with someone else.

Let the Fourth National Climate Assessment become a place of regular reflection. Are your thoughts and actions cognizant of its presence? Embrace this gift of knowledge with fervor and zeal. We have very little time to understand and address global climate change. The work each of us does on a day to day basis needs to have clear, concise connections to mitigating this massive challenge that has been thrust upon us.

Read it. You must.

The Making Change Story

“I went to the store the other day and the kid behind the register couldn’t make change when the register malfunctioned. They don’t even teach the basics anymore…”

I hear this anecdote an obscene amount of times because I am a math teacher leading a massive shift in educational priorities. And if anyone should be an unyielding, pragmatic, last-remaining bastion against the tide of transferable skills, it should be the esoteric math teacher. So what am I doing, shirking my duty of making sure that everyone knows how to efficiently make change by promoting more time spent practicing transferable skills? If the kids can’t even count, how can they possibly pay bills, get loans, or do their taxes? They’ll be slaves to technology and never know how to think for themselves!

I am being facetious. But the whole story is built on hyperbole and assumptions. I’m usually told this story by people who genuinely want to understand how transferable skills will help the next generations address the issues of global climate change. They are often playing a form of “devil’s advocate” for the following dilemmas:

More time spent focused on transferable skills means less time spent on “practical knowledge”. Of course. From a quantitative view, there are only so many hours in a school day, and if you add something new, something old either gets thrown out or reduced. In time only though. Teaching content through the lens of transferable skills boosts the qualitative value of “practical knowledge.” For example, over the course of an hour in a math classroom, you can show students a procedure for subtracting and have them practice that procedure. Your evidence of learning will be how often they got the correct solution and maybe a self reflection. OR you can have them practice the component of PERSISTENCE that says, “I use what I learn to continue growing” by asking them to create their own procedure for subtraction after reviewing a previously learned procedure for addition. Your evidence of learning will be a procedure that is student-owned and explicitly connected to prior knowledge. Which leads me to the next assumption:

Mathematics is Arithmetic. And history is dates, and language is structure, and science is facts, etc. This utilitarian view of education is pervasive in our capitalist society. Knowledge must serve an economic purpose meant to increase efficiencies in established institutions. This view limits the truth of what we teach – that mathematics is the art of pattern-making, language is the constantly evolving fabric of communication, history is a complicated web of power and privilege, and the scientific method is our ultimate tool in furthering collective understanding of our world and our selves. This is what I strive to teach, and how beautifully transferable skills connect these practices. Speaking of institutions:

Education is the passing on of norms and traditions from one generation to the next. When new generations no longer uphold the same values and practices as older generations, then there is conflict. Members of the older generation may feel disrespected. Members of the younger generation may feel frustrated. This is a tension that has and always will exist. When we provide students the opportunities to practice and become proficient in transferable skills, we are setting them up to confront their frustrations with an open mind as young people, and to grapple with the changing nature of humans as older people. Education is about managing and preserving an ever-flowing river of change, not building dams and dikes to control it.

So the next time you’re at the store and you hand over $11 to the cashier for a bill of $5.45, take a moment to appreciate the incredible experience you’re about to have. You have knowledge that while it may be “easier” to hand over a $10 bill, you choose $11, because the difference is a return of four $1 bills or a single $5 bill. You know all about your day, your history and your perceptions, but chances are you know nothing of the cashier. Consider how communication, critical thinking, creativity, cultural awareness, wellbeing, and persistence will inform your interaction and help you connect better with this individual. Approach the situation with transferable skills in mind, and you’ll be the one making change!




Transferable Skills are REAL


Climate change has and will continue to present challenges of unprecedented magnitude and complexity, the likes of which our species has never confronted before. I say this often to myself, and only lately, after being honored as the 2019 VT State Teacher of the Year, have I begun to say this out loud to other people. So much of my career is caught up in legacy and seniority, and I was nervous to speak my thoughts out of fear of being written off as another crackpot do-gooder who would burn out or “come around” soon enough after a couple of years doing the day-to-day job of teaching. Seven years in and one massive school change effort later, I now see that the issues related to climate change are too large and daunting to keep my thoughts unspoken for such a selfish reason.

The only realistic way we will be able to come to terms with global climate change is by explicitly teaching the next generations how to identify, practice, and master the use of transferable skills. In my community, we call these skills Graduation Expectations (GX’s). They are:

I often find that these skills get thrown around indiscriminately in conversations without any real weight because they seem so subjective, so very “fluffy” compared to the content standards we are familiar with. For example, the Pythagorean Theorem is the same wherever you go, and to some people, it exists irrespective of their selves. But creativity? Now that feels like it could be a different thing to different people, and a very personal thing at that. Skeptics may even go so far as to say that it sounds like we are teaching aspects of personality, not unlike brainwashing.

In an attempt to bring some clarity, hope, and inspiration to what transferable skills really are, you may have noticed that I have linked Winooski’s own, community-created assessment rubrics for each GX above. Each rubric has dimensions that can be directly planned for, practiced, and assessed in large scale projects. They anchor every learning opportunity that is offered in our school, providing our students with multiple chances to become proficient at, yes, understanding who they are. My hope is that students leave with the wherewithal to encounter and overcome difficult situations through their true understanding of what it means to be human – that we have a brain that contemplates, grows, and changes itself. And because we can mold our selves for the better, together we can certainly do the same for the world.

In the end, this understanding of our selves and the skills we all share is paramount to overcoming the issues of climate change, because the issues of climate change are directly related to our collective activities. Only when we accept that these issues have human causes can we then find human solutions. Teaching transferable skills is how we get there.