Burnout

The burnout is real and the burnout is bad. Just about everyone, everywhere knows the empty, exhausted, aching sensation – least of all anyone part of a school community. Each day comes with a new article about truths banned, staff shortages, educators leaving, National Guard substituting. The local and national pressure is absurd and intense, the day to day job unpredictable and draining.

Not many people can relate to the experience of having a deep calling to your profession, a daily reckoning with your purpose and responsibility in our great democratic experiment. All educators can. How so many people can be targeting something so important is beyond me. When that dignity and grace is questioned and attacked with such invective, certainly we have lost sight of the great moral arc we have been traveling on all along. The truth is that educators are qualified professionals, caring individuals, and committed community members. We are the tender core of what makes this a free nation, which is a dangerous thing to desecrate.

When anyone doubts the collective integrity of educators, they doubt the hope of the future. The hope that’s driven each generation forward toward a more just world, even through the darkest times. The enthusiasm for censorship and surveillance to the level and degree that is appearing in state houses across the country effectively means that the next generation will have to uncover free and critical thought on their own. I have no doubt they will, but it will take time and struggle – an unnecessary struggle that we have placed on them in a shameful pursuit of denying the truth.

Put that on top of the days teaching no less. The well-documented days of being short staffed, dealing with explosive behaviors, wondering about the silent ones, navigating the ever-changing Covid guidance. The results are not good. The worst part for me though, what this story misses, is how in the midst of all of that, the inspired moments that we all aim for in our teaching still come through. They come through with a power so explosive in contrast to the daily struggle, in an instant reminding me exactly what’s at stake. This is a glorious thing, but the whiplash is intense. Opening up to the experience leaves me with a raw vulnerability to the hurt I know will come over and over again, but it’s one of the strongest forces keeping me in the work.

I can’t reference a ratio of good to bad , I don’t keep a tally of these things the way some wellness tips would have us do in a little notebook. I’m too afraid of what the results would show – some numbers I’d rather keep unknown. I do know my inspired moments don’t happen every day and sometimes only once a week, but when they come they make up for lost time. At least so far they do, and I’m holding out hope that they will through the future.

This doesn’t rank me against other teachers. This isn’t about tolerance or ability or anything like that. This is the experience that every educator is having, a part of, and who we are and what we each decide is right and just. What this is doing is giving us a shared effort, a chance to find solidarity in a national tragedy. It’s my belief that a shared trauma will become a movement in time. With that I’ll follow Neil Young’s advice: “It’s better to burnout than to fade away”.

Keeping Commitments to Education in Vermont

Next year will be my tenth as a teacher in Vermont. It’s a sobering and proud milestone for me – a recognition of roots and dedication to this state that has opened up purpose and passion in my heart since I was an 18 year old on UVM’s campus. In my mind, this tenth year of teaching is the recognition of my commitment to a career, not just employment. A career defined by the giving of time, energy, attention, second chances and the giving up of ego, biases, weeknights and sunday afternoons with the family. All so that future generations of Vermonters will continue to embody our nation’s most honorable and just values.

This commitment, however, bears no fruit without the support of those it is meant to benefit. Upcoming debates and votes on more school closures, recommendations to place an egregious amount of pension liabilities on teachers, punishing our least-paid education staff for rises in healthcare costs, and conflating inadequate learning management technologies with changing graduation requirements have left me feeling that at this moment Vermonters are at best confused about what they value in the education of their youth.

We’ve all been there before. You’re overworked and aching to the bone, sitting in a meeting where the information is coming at you too fast in language that is too technical. You look around and some people seem to nod or agree with what’s said. You make a quick assessment – it looks like the people running the meeting know what they’re talking about. Something in you says this doesn’t make sense, but in an effort to not stall progress nor look unintelligent for asking a question you don’t know how to word, you remain silent until the end. You leave with some combination of regret, disappointment, and apathy.

Right now conversations about pensions include eliminating COLA, increasing AFC years, increasing employee contributions, and Rule of 90 adjustments. Health insurance revolves around HRA’s vs. HSA’s, third party administrators, out of pocket costs, premiums, and wellness prescriptions. School closures are being dictated by equalized pupil count, capital projects, and excess spending penalties. All of which is a daunting task to make sense of, least of all in the middle of a pandemic. Don’t get me wrong, each of these is a vital component of a functioning, equitable education system. But the tone and tenor of conversations is that all of these technical components are somehow broken and can only be fixed through severe austerity measures. Least of all in the middle of a pandemic.

There is always an alternative. For too long the pendulum has swung in the direction of cuts, reductions, and elimination. The gap between the wealthy and poor is the largest it’s been since the Great Depression and continues to widen. Lawmakers can recognize that after a decade of recessions, a global pandemic and an opioid epidemic, the working class can be gutted no longer. There is no more left for them to give without permanently damaging the state’s future economic and social potential. It is time for Vermont to reinvest in all of it’s commitments by ensuring that everyone pays their fair share.

We Need(ed) a Statewide Reopening Commission

On Friday, July 10 Secretary French announced that the Agency of Education, Vermont Superintendents Association, Vermont Principals Association, and the Vermont School Boards Association are not interested in forming a statewide planning commission for the reopening of schools that includes the voices of teachers, parents, support staff, and nurses. Rather, these organizations believe that the Reopening Guidelines have provided enough structure to individual districts so that they can flexibly design their own reopening plans. And therein lies the issue.

When we introduce individual flexibility to a global pandemic we lose our ability to control the spread of illness, even death. It is all but guaranteed that we are not leaving interpretation of the reopening guidelines to individual districts, but rather to the administrators of those districts. There is no guarantee that every district is working with a group of diverse stakeholders, including teachers, parents, support staff, and nurses, to plan accordingly. And if these teams are being convened, there is no doubt that they are compelled to fall back on the same old power structures common in schools, where administrators and superintendents attempt to maintain the role of boss rather than true collaborator. Who convenes the meetings? Who determines the agendas? Who points the members of these teams to informational resources? Who has the ultimate say on whether we will be going back to a full time, part time, or remote student day? I find it hard to believe that anybody other than administrators will be making these decisions. I am not saying this is a nefarious action on the part of administrators. It is simply the structure of a power dynamic that has no place in the life and death decisions of a reopening team.

I live in Vermont because I often find myself aligning with the reluctance to give up local control. This myth of Vermont politics, however, should not blind us to the fact that local control of schools has been disappearing over the past several years. Districts are merged. Teachers and support staff subscribe to a state-wide health plan. Salaries are negotiated with the feeling of a high-noon standoff, where neighboring districts eye each other, looking to see who will blink first and set the comparable. Be assured that the same is happening with local plans for re-opening. Everyone is hesitating to make critical decisions out of fear, lack of knowledge, and misunderstanding in a time when every passing day brings us that much closer to the unknown.

I would support this hesitancy if it came from a place of concern about the health and well being of students, educational staff, and their families. But with a governor who has made it his agenda to cut funding for schools since his initial election, I am led to believe that this hesitation ultimately comes down to a price tag. No superintendent wants to be the one who makes the call that would increase a budget more than their neighboring districts have. No school board wants to ask for more money from their community. This has led to decision making from a place of competitive fiscal austerity.

I must insist that there is another way. Engage a statewide commission of educational stakeholders, comprised of people who were in the school buildings when the pandemic first began. These are the leaders who figured out how to make remote learning work in a matter of days or weeks, who have been anxiously considering the reopening of schools since March. Coming to the table as equals, they would be able to stand up and say exactly what schools need in order to open. The state would be compelled to respond, to find the money, to ensure that until there is a vaccine, it will do everything in its power to protect the citizens of Vermont. Unfortunately, bureaucracy has led our state to eschew this responsibility to include those on the front lines, who work most directly with the students in our care, and I fear for what August has in store for us. I fear our narrow approach to the unknown.

Assessments in a Pandemic

Right now there is no shortage of inspiring examples of the resilience of educators teaching, families supporting, and students learning. This should come as no surprise to us. Even if, like me, you fear that clear communication and critical thinking may not be valued at our highest levels of government, the individuals who make up our civil society (you, me, and our neighbors) really do, and always have, placed our collective faith in the promise of an education. Education was always about people, and that is why we can bear witness as it adapts and thrives at large.

What is not adapting, and in the process causing grief and outrage, is the system of education. This system was a far cry from perfect to begin with – built with inherent racism and inequity for social classes but with enough latitude to shine light on select moments of manufactured meritocracy such that the collective conscious of white America has been able to champion the promise of an American Dream through public education for generations. When I say manufactured meritocracy I mean lotteries for charter schools, merit-based scholarships, “Indian boarding schools”, and a whole semester’s worth of American education history to start. This is the legacy and current reality that must be kept in mind when we do the good work of public education. And now, at the individual level, we are all compelled to buy into this system through the hope and prayer of grades.

There are three components to education: curriculum, instruction, and assessment. What you see in the inspiring news stories and on your social media feeds is evidence of expert teachers excelling at adapting curriculum and instruction in the digital realm. Let it be known that we’ve always been experts at adapting these two components in the physical realm as well. What I see in the more heated, divisive stories is a society coming to terms with the ways in which we’ve been told to assess what students get out of our curriculum and instruction. Assessment has traditionally been all consumed by the Carnegie Unit – a metric of averages that may or may not take into account a whole variety of factors that are or are not in a learner’s control, such as attendance, “timely” completion of work, “focus” during a particular time of day, understanding a particular concept in exactly the same way a state agency wants you to, and recall to name a few. Many great educators have tried to manipulate the Carnegie Unit to be less nebulous and more understanding of individuals’ life circumstances, but that act in and of itself should be an indication that the system is inequitably leaving a student’s fate up to the choices of those who are daring enough to be better.

I am hearing stories from across the country of how the pandemic is forcing us to come to terms with the Carnegie Unit in the most absurd ways. Educators are distraught over how they can possibly fit the realities of our global situation into such an ill-defined average of expectations – expectations that were feigned to be met in “normal” times and certainly cannot be met in the time of social distancing, lost jobs, and an economy at a complete standstill. How can a single number on a report card for an Algebra 1 class possibly explain what is happening right now in a student’s life?

Legislators and policy makers, with no experience in the classroom themselves, are desperately clinging to what they thought were the stable structures of a No Child Left Behind/Every Student Succeeds education by telling us to continue to pay tribute to the Carnegie Unit for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year. And with that tribute we are further imperiling the students and families who are desperately trying to play a game that was always rigged against them, in circumstances that are now even more so egregious.

A better way, a more humane way, would be to trust the curriculum and instruction designs that educators are fluidly adapting. Trust that when students are present, they are always learning – perhaps not exactly as anticipated, but exactly as the human experience demands all of us to learn, constantly. Allow the students to tell us and show us what they have learned from us, in unique and novel ways, as they navigate this strange, new, frightening experience alongside us. Grant teachers the wherewithal to be the educational experts that they are and encourage them to make the final approval of a student’s understanding without punishment for their life circumstances. Most importantly, isolate proficiency in academics from habits and behaviors. They are not one and of the same.

We will not get there with the new trend of bucking Carnegie Units for this semester with Pass/Fail. We will only get their once we make the concerted effort to eliminate Carnegie Units altogether, and begin to allow for transcripts that speak to proficiency, interest, motivation, and life experiences. We must emerge from this pandemic with a renewed belief in people. We must create systems that recognize and reward the diverse American experience. How can we ever go back to what was,  after this?

UVM Outstanding Teachers Day Keynote

Good afternoon. Congratulations to Bibba (2020 VT Teacher of the Year) and everyone being honored here today. Being recognized as one of your district’s outstanding teachers of the year is a very big deal. You should feel proud of this accomplishment, honored to be a part of this cohort, energized by the expertise surrounding you. I’m serious, you cannot be congratulated enough right now. Let’s spark this fire one more time – I want you to reach out to an outstanding teacher next to you and give them a smile, handshake, clap on the back, hug, whatever you gotta do, but take thirty seconds to congratulate that person right now. Go for it.

Thank you for doing that. And thank you to all of my humble types out there for accepting the praise. You know who you are, the ones who might be sitting here right now thinking it’s a bit uncomfortable to have the spotlight on you. Or maybe you’re relishing in the praise today, but you’ve got this expectation that this is just a moment in time, and tomorrow you’ll be back in the classroom and that title of “outstanding teacher” will be put back in the filing cabinet. I’m here to tell you – don’t do that. Well wait, yes, do go back to your classroom tomorrow, but don’t you dare let go of being known as outstanding. Your students deserve a teacher who recognizes their own outstanding practice, a teacher who actively tries to share that shinning beacon of outstanding with everyone they meet. 

About 3 months after being named the 2019 Vermont Teacher of the Year, I was asked the question I had been sickly anticipating from the moment I submitted my application. A student of mine was having a particularly tough day, and in flash of frustration said, “Why are you even the teacher of the year? You work at Winooski.” HHHMMMMM. If you’ve had that trauma training you what I mean when I say my reptilian brain perked up and said in my mind, “Excuse me? You do not get to talk about yourself, your community, or me in that way!” HM. Deep breath. Exhale. And I replied, “That’s exactly why I’m the teacher of the year.”

You see, education, our glorious bedrock of democracy, has not been immune to the axioms of free market economics, where competition is said to bring about the most desirable results, where people behave in rational ways to maximize utility in all of their transactions, where our implicit bias has us view awards and recognition as acknowledgement of first place, better than, best at. Of course, none of this is unquestionably true. I don’t need to tell you, spend twenty minutes in a crowded cafeteria during lunch time and then let’s talk about rational decision making. 

This student of mine was buying into the narrative of best and worst as a default in a difficult time. I don’t fault them. This fetish of status has metastasized over generations, fueled by technology growth, big data, and uncertainty about the future. No matter how harmful, it is still comforting to take refuge in our perceptions of order and patterns. 

As a side note, let me tell you how much fun it is to be a math teacher who just loves to disrupt order, patterns, and step-by-step procedures. I’m serious, if any of you think that the literal order of operations, you know, PEMDAS, is the only, let alone most efficient way to simplify an expression, meet me afterwards. We’ve got some talking to do. 

So let me share with you, in an unabridged way, what my student and I talked about that day. First, I am partial to Winooski. We should all be unashamed to say that we take immense pride in the communities we live and work in. To me, Winooski is a truly quantum experience. Just bear with me here. Quantum mechanics, in my layman’s understanding of the science, tells us that the universe is a mess of probabilities until we momentarily observe it – in which case we lock in our perception of what we think is true and real. A lot of people momentarily observe Winooski and say, “diversity”. But the truth of the place is the immense probability and potential that happens before and after that observation. It is a futile effort to lock in a perception of Winooski. Like any good society, Winooski School District is a miasma of contradictions that fuels a burning desire for anybody who steps through those doors to simply live in it, to feel what it’s like to serve in a place where the only constant is, was, and hopefully always will be, change. 

So right off the bat, I refuse to take to heart any ranking metric of our school. I acknowledge that data points serve a purpose, but that purpose is not to depress a community. I know the unbridled, explosive truth of this city.

Furthermore, the relationships I have built are, and the work that I have done is outstanding. I literally am a person who stands out from the normal status quo. I don’t do this on my own. I am not a hermit or exile. I do this because those around me have faith in my abilities, support my decisions with their actions, and agree with my yearning to just always do better for our students. I pay back the faith and investment by supporting others to stand out, by routinely reflecting on my moral compass, and by being genuinely curious about how others view the world.

I am not the best. I am just someone people trust, because I trust them.

And that, that is who each and every one of you are. If I took anything away from the final season of Game of Thrones, it’s that the best leader is definitely not the one who strives for the role, nor is it even the one who has leadership thrust upon them to their reluctance. The best leader is the one who is ambivalent about the title, who continues to stand out and stay true to a higher calling through the exciting and frustrating times alike.

You have all been gathered here to formally acknowledge your leadership role in your own unique schools, but I have to insist that this day be more than that for you. This should be a day that inspires you to stand out even further, to begin to take actions that you and others can be proud of. You are now a model of righteousness, a beacon of what is possible. Believe in this, and it shall be so. 

We are entering into a phase of the Anthropocene, this era dominated by human development, in which our actions have and will create an irreversible escalation of environmental and social discord and upheaval. Our future generations will create new technologies and jobs, but more importantly, they will be grappling with issues such as rising sea levels, increased desertification, and mass migrations on scales never experienced in all of human history. The time is now, and only now, to prepare our students for this very real future. The only way to get there is to be intentional about standing out. We must be conscious of our efforts to erect this image of an outstanding individual so that our students, colleagues, and fellow citizens can look upon us and say “That’s what success looks like.”

Small steps will inspire larger ones in turn. Write your thoughts out and seek to publish them – as a social media post, as an op-ed in your local newspaper, as a feature in one of the many education outlets you know about. Attend a meeting. Join a committee. Reach out to your local legislator to talk about what it means to be in education today. Maybe even run for office yourself. See yourself as an educational expert, of which you are. And do this, take these steps, with the ultimate goal of disrupting a system that allowed, encouraged, told my student to think that anyone coming from Winooski could never be outstanding. Resist this inequitable, rigged construct of competition and help bring into focus that which was meant for us all along – a democracy of collaboration, where each and every citizen holds and is held up by one another. That is who you are, that is what today means, that is what you must continue to do.

Thank you.

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.

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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.