I adore professional development days. I think it’s because teaching is always so hard and I get to sit back and reflect. I adore reflection and writing about teaching. Really I don’t mind reflection and writing about anything and maybe it’s just teaching because that’s what I worry about.
Today I lead my very first professional development session. I led a discussion on the book “Never work harder than your students and other principals of great teaching.” The group concluded that the title was kind of just to suck you in because the bulk of the book was about things that teachers can do to improve instruction. The other principals centered around knowing what your students value, starting where they are, giving them effective feedback, and prioritizing what is really important. The book sounded a lot like TFA guidelines because it suggested backwards planning, tracking and scaffolding. It was standards driven as well. It was really interesting to see what teachers had to say about the applications of the book to our private school where we have to encourage students to study less and the average GPA is 3.3. We also don’t have standards to teach which I find a bit disconcerting at times. I really want to know that my students mastered something that is considered above average nationally so that they can compete at the ultra competitive colleges that they attend.
In fact I joined the grading committee to talk about the very issue of our inflated grades and what they really mean. The guess is that at U Prep a C means “you are not really trying and don’t understand the material well” and an A means “You know what you are supposed to and do all of your work.” There isn’t really a grade left for exceptional performance that means anything. I do give A plus’s to kids who are really head and shoulders above the rest.
Our school definitely holds things together because of the high quality of teachers, students and parents but some of the teachers wanted to have more specific guidelines about grading. We were all confused about the merits of allowing retakes which was a major premise of the book. Some worried about grade inflation already being rampant and others argued the authors point that we really want the kids to learn from their mistakes so we should reflect that in our grades. Like it or not our students are incredibly motivated by grades so it is critical that they are well-aligned to what we really want them to do.
I ask myself all the time about what is valuable for students to do and what they really need to know. It’s such a hard question but my guess it is perseverance, the ability to learn, to be organized, to think about ideas abstractly and logically, to take concepts and apply them in new situations. I know that this is not always what I test and that it’s possible to do well in most math classes if you’ve got a good memory for rules and procedures and key words. Authentic assessment is such a challenge.
In the last part of the day I spoke to the school counselor about my employment situation and the stress of not knowing if the job was a great fit for me. It was really nice to just open up to someone at school about what was going on and have them agree to come to my class and offer suggestions that won’t feel like they are connected to my job. It was a little strange to talk to the counselor about the principal and my concerns that I wasn’t sure if teaching was the best profession for me but he was really nice about it. And I know he will be a great resource because he is fantastic at interpersonal relationships which is what I guess I’m supposed to work on. His belief is that you must have good relationships with students so that they will listen to you. Sometimes I wonder since Teach for America framed success in teaching as about applying a certain set of skills such as tracking and investment and de-emphasized personal relationships. I know it was great just to know I could go talk to someone who knew a lot about the situation and was not going to tell anyone or endanger my job.
And on one final note I stayed in my classroom forever today doing tracking on the first Geometry quizzes that I’m sorry to say that my students didn’t do very well on. I know that we will get there but I’m trying to figure out how to frame passing back quizzes with a class average of a C. I know for all you TFA people that might seem like great news but I know some of my students and their parents will take that news rather hard. I planned an entire lesson giving them guidance about what to work on based on what they missed. I even got some really cool Geometer’s Sketchpad activities for those who did well on the quiz. I realize that this is what I probably should have been doing since Day 1. I’m not quite sure why I couldn’t quite get it together on how I was going to use data to inform instruction and motivate students. I swear that I’ll do it this year just to say I accomplished it before I perhaps go back to school or find a job more related to curriculum.