teacher quality

How should we teach about social justice in a post-(Michael) Brown world?

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Beth Ellor

Picture a 5th Grade classroom in Chinatown on New York’s Lower East Side. Twenty-seven mostly Asian children – when I use the classic ‘clap, clap, clap-clap-clap’ signal, they fall silent immediately, eyes on me. Thorough plans from their teacher, including Social Studies – based on a Scholastic News magazine article about Selma and Civil Rights.

How do we introduce this to first generation immigrants (based on their accented English and preference for conversing in Chinese) who clearly have no context for that time? We read the article round-robin (a rarity these days), but the follow-up questions are met with blank stares. To enliven the short article, I’ve found some archival photos online to project on the Smartboard, and invite some discussion of how people might have felt then, seeing the shocking images on TV for the first time ever. Then I continue to a video from the recent 50 year anniversary celebration, specifically the speech made by John Lewis before he introduced President Obama. Immediately I regret this, for so many reasons.

The computer is set to the wrong screen resolution, stretching the images too wide. The sound quality is poor, and Rep. Lewis, with his strong Southern accent and also choked with emotion, induces snickers and imitations. My heart freezes. The mikes, positioned for the tall president, virtually obscure the much shorter Georgia Representative Lewis, so he appears to be bobbing in and out of sight. Suddenly, a Civil Rights icon and personal hero of mine is being subjected to derisive whispers and mirth. I find myself reminding them sharply that this man was willing to give his life for his beliefs throughout the Civil Rights struggle, and on that day, he almost did. The youngsters straighten their faces and attempt to pay attention, but there is no resonance for them. Someone else’s fight in some distant time, and definitely not about them. Epic Fail.

During lunch, I examine the bulletin boards around the room, which are based on their study of the Civil War era. Contemporary illustrations have been pinned up, surrounded by hand-written responses by the children. Around an engraving of enslaved people hoeing land and planting, an overseer on horseback holding a whip, and a white man lounging against a fence, watching, the children have noted: “The people want to get all the work done.” “He needs to make sure the work gets done.” (The overseer) And “He is watching to make sure the work will be finished in time.” (The white man) No-one remarks on the whip, the ethnicity of the characters, or the leisurely stance of the slave-owner.

I fall back on my own stereotypes of China under Chairman Mao, with the devotion of workers to collectivism, common goals of productivity, and self-effacing obedience. 60 plus years have passed since the Cultural Revolution, but how do Civil Rights images look to an Asian immigrant compared to a child born in the South Bronx, in Newark, NJ, or in Selma, Alabama? How does a teacher bring up the subject effectively in a 5th Grade classroom in Chinatown? And does it matter?

So it was with perfect synchronicity that I attended a meeting on May 12th called Digging Deeper: Teaching Rights and Social Justice in a Post-(Michael) Brown Era, offered by the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, in partnership with:

International Perspectives on Human Rights Ed, International Ed Program, Dept. of Humanities and Social Services, Steinhardt School.

NYU Partnership Schools Program

Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, NYU.

The event was spearheaded by Carol Anne Spreen, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Steinhardt, NYU, and Chrissie Monaghan, Ph.D. Coordinator, NYC-RTE.

http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/faculty/Carol_Anne_Spreen Faculty biography.

http://curry.virginia.edu/articles/right-to-education, including links to other published works.

Her immediate boss, Jonathan Zimmerman, was also there to give an outline of his own contributions to the subject.

http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/faculty/Jonathan_Zimmerman Faculty Biography

Also on hand was David E. Kirkland, who spoke from both a professional and personal perspective about the systemic factors influencing people and communities of color in recent times.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgOoLi1iE7k – for a video with Assistant Professor of English Education David Kirkland discussing how we can understand the complex literate lives of urban youth in and outside of the classroom and the experiences that develop their identity and engagement with the larger world.

http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/faculty/David_Kirkland Faculty biography.

Following these presentations, short introductions were given by representatives of organizations which provide various forms of support and expertise to schools and public forums. I was already familiar with several of these, such as

Teaching Tolerance, http://www.tolerance.org/classroom-resources

Which is the education arm of the

Southern Poverty Law Centerhttp://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/teaching-tolerance Also

Howard Zinn’s education site https://zinnedproject.org/ -in conjunction with:-

Teaching for Change, http://www.teachingforchange.org/ and

Rethinking Schoolshttp://www.rethinkingschools.org/index.shtml

But there are so many dedicated organizations also offering social justice education programs!


Facing History, Facing Ourselveshttps://www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources#bottom

Equitashttps://equitas.org/en (look under educational resources)

Amnesty International: http://www.amnestyusa.org/resources/educators

Asia Society:  http://asiasociety.org/education

Human Rights Watch: http://www.hrw.org/about

Global Nomads Group:  http://gng.org/program-pathways

Speak Truth to Power:  http://rfkcenter.org/speak-truth-to-power and http://curriculum.rfkcenter.org/

Street Law Inc.  http://www.streetlaw.org/en/home

Brooklyn 826 (Valencia 826) http://826nyc.org/

Educational Video Center:  http://www.evc.org/tools

Voice of Witness:  http://voiceofwitness.org/education-about/

While each of these offer distinctive resources and focus, every educator who cares about increasing the depth of exposure and understanding of their students will find a wealth of support here. As with all resources, find the one(s) which meet your needs, match your voice and purpose, and stick with it.

To return briefly to my 5th graders – the educators I spoke to had two important messages.

  • it is best to start with personal stories and experiences before launching into the topic, so that you can create common ground between your students and the theme you plan to launch.
  • (this especially from Facing History, Facing Ourselvespresenter Daniel Braunfeld), create the plans around the age and experience of the students themselves. What works for one group may be entirely inaccessible for another of the same age/grade, so Facing History curriculum is always developed together with teachers on site, not scripted in a pre-digested format.

An article in Scholastic in 5th Grade will be too early and a mismatch for the children’s historical perspective, compared to mine after decades of living through it myself! I hope they will eventually get to discover for themselves, using one of these wonderful programs which are free and available to teachers and schools everywhere!

This post originally appeared on Beth Ellor’s examiner.com page, and was republished with permission.


Beth Ellor has explored the New York City schools as a parent, as an early childhood teacher, and as a retiree currently providing professional development to inner city schools (as an independent contractor for a celebrated i3 provider). Also a substitute teacher in a wide range of schools, she is a close observer of the reality behind the rhetoric of school success, struggle and reform.

K-12 Writing Standards: What Will it Take to Improve Them?

While global communication has grown and improved by leaps and bounds in the past two decades, the same cannot be said for K-12 writing skills. A new study released by Gary Troia at Michigan State University finds that K-12 writing standards are stagnant from a decade ago, along with student writing achievement. What’s more, Troia says that nearly 25 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. are not performing at a proficient writing level. He takes aim at the Common Core standards for writing and says that though some ideas are strong, others are still not asking enough of student writing.

Any U.S. K-12 educator, in any topic area, can certainly relate to Troia’s findings and surveys have found that employers also bemoan the writing deficiencies of their workforce. So if Common Core suggestions are not enough, what is needed to truly transform the writing landscape of K-12 classrooms and learners? Here’s what I think:

Earlier computer/keyboarding introduction

Troia touches on this point in his study when he says that most schools do not comprehensively address keyboarding until third grade. Many children are learning to type, or peck out letters, on a computer keyboard long before they are tracing letters in a Kindergarten workbook. Through keyboarding, children learn spelling and reading, as well as develop their memory skills. So why are schools waiting until the third grade to maximize on this facet of early composition and phonics? Basic handwriting and traditional ways of learning to write are important, but so is the technology that supports contemporary communication. Writing curriculum should include keyboarding and generally more screen instruction at a much earlier age to capitalize on the technology that can catapult U.S. students into a higher level of writing proficiency. The ideas are there – they just need to start earlier.

More interdisciplinary focus 

Writing is not an isolated school subject; it is a skill that permeates all topics of learning. Parents, teachers, students and administrators need to stop considering writing an area of strength or weakness (much in the way we gear students towards math/science pursuits or creative areas if the talent exists). Writing is a must-have skill in the global economy and one that will be needed in some capacity for every career. We can’t let students off the hook if writing is simply not their strong suit. Writing is a skill that anyone CAN master with enough practice and its practical applications need to be emphasized in every subject area.

Remedial intervention

College is not the place where students should receive remedial help on their writing. Stronger programs need to exist as young as pre-K to ensure that no child moves forward without a firm grasp of the writing skills required. Teachers need time and resources to intervene on an individual level. Of course parental help here is also a necessity but cannot be relied upon to ensure that all students have writing proficiency as graduates. Promoting students that lack grade-level writing skills in the hopes that they will catch up only furthers the problem down the road.

It’s time to put writing on the pedestal it deserves. It is the foundation of K-12 academic success and workplace achievement. If we put writing on the back burner, it has the potential to damage every other subject area and hold our students back from their true achievement in school and life beyond the K-12 and college years. Now is the time to make writing a priority, particularly if we expect this next generation of students to lead globally.

How do you think we can collectively improve K-12 student writing proficiency?

New Teacher Tip: Handling Challenging Behavior Problems

Every class has its share of challenging students. If you feel frustrated with the behavior issues that you have to handle, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone—handling behavior issues comes with the job description. Experienced teachers also have trouble managing talkative students, power struggles and disputes among students. Behavior Management: A Whole-School Approach, a book authored by behavior management expert Bill Rogers, delineates how to handle tough behaviors. Typical classroom behaviors and strategies for handling them are detailed below.

Talking in Class

The nonstop talking of a chatterbox can distract other students from concentrating on their work. This is something that you can tackle by giving positive instructions and avoiding negative ones. Rather than using a “no talking” approach, direct instructions to specific students, and ask them to “remain quiet.” Follow this with a “thanks” to indicate that your request has been met. If the talking takes place while you are speaking, simply stop speaking. This works as a reminder to students that they are supposed to listen and not talk among themselves.

Power Struggle

Some students refuse to concentrate on their work and complete it as a way to pull the teacher into a power struggle. Do not fall into this trap at any time. Give students choices with consequences attached. Let them know that if the work is not completed within a specified time, they will miss free time or face other consequences. This puts the responsibility of their behavior on them and teaches them to make choices at the same time. Make sure to show appreciation to students with a smile or a “thank you,” if they make the right choice.

Arguments Galore

Students who challenge everything the teacher says or does can distract the class by forcing it to focus on secondary issues. It might be difficult not to reprimand a defiant student, however getting defensive or adopting a hostile attitude is not likely to solve the issue. Remain assertive and civil and focus on the primary issue. Repeated instances like these may require and “after class” discussion with the student to explain how the behavior spoils the relationships with you and interferes with learning time of his/her peers.


Sulking behavior is also a distraction for the teacher. This is one behavior that needs to be nipped in the bud immediately. Have a private discussion with the student as soon as you observe this behavior. You might have to demonstrate the student’s behavior and mannerisms to him in order to clearly explain his behavior. More often than not, brooding students are unable to understand that they are being rude or socially unacceptable.

Over Dependence

A student who requests assistance all the time may be doing so out of a need for attention or may genuinely not be able to accomplish the task on his/her own. Assess the reason behind the clinging habit before you address it. Try ignoring the persistent calls to look at the work for a while, and when he/she waits patiently, reward him/her by looking at the work enthusiastically. Another strategy is to have students ask their peers before they speak to you for clarification.

Given that these are the five most persistent and frustrating issues most teachers face, adopting the right strategy for handling them should ensure that you have a class that is well behaved.

New more hands on help? Here is an amazing video from the American Psychological Association for teachers looking for tips on how to deal with challenging behaviors.






Attribution Errors in America’s Classrooms

Cause and effect aren’t always clearly and correctly paired in America’s classrooms.

Teachers don’t always have the time, energy, or awareness to properly attribute underperformance.

  • Is a disengaged student sleeping at his or her desk being lazy or suffering from lack of sleep?
  • Is disruptive behavior the reflection of student boredom or a cover for not understanding the material?
  • Is a sudden drop in academic performance really indicative of intelligence or simply a need for reading glasses?
  • Are poor test scores more a reflection on the teacher’s failings or a lack of support and encouragement for students at home?

Fundamental Attribution Error: School Edition

The gap of understanding in the classroom can be compared to how road rage incidents get escalated.

Suppose you fail to notice a light turning green at an intersection. You might explain your negligence in any number of ways — you were caught up in a song playing on the radio, you were monitoring the progress of a pedestrian nearby, you were investigating the car behind you via rearview mirror — all of which emphasize external factors, rather than individual failings.

Now suppose you were behind a car that wasn’t moving after the light turned green. Same situation, same outcome, but many people would instinctively blame that driver in more intrinsic ways — the driver was being stupid, careless, selfish, etc.

This is the essence of fundamental attribution error: we look outside ourselves to explain behavior, but focus on internal factors to explain the behavior of others.

We see a similarly challenged dynamic in dating and romantic relationships. In the absence of good communication, each member of a couple is prone to developing his or her own narrative to explain behaviors, perceived emotions, and even the successes and failures of a couple. When he comes home at night, is he being dismissive and distant because something is wrong with the relationship, or simply because he hasn’t stopped worrying about a bad day at work? Is she struggling to come up with a diner destination because she doesn’t know what she wants, or is she being purposefully passive-aggressive?

When applied to academic settings, the same fallacy is apparent. Both students and teachers are accused of not caring enough to try harder or perform better. A national preoccupation with educational outcomes — the effect we look for from our schools — has exacerbated a lack of understanding about the inputs, or causes.

Looking Upstream in Education

It is human nature to look for patterns; in the absence of clear, verifiable patterns, it is also human nature to invent patterns even in spite of evidence. In sports, for example, this can manifest as superstition:

  • don’t shave during Stanley Cup Playoffs
  • don’t wash your team jersey until the season is over
  • don’t curse a pitcher by saying he is on track to throw a perfect game, etc.

The outcome — surviving playoffs, having a good season, pitching a perfect game — clearly has no measurable or meaningful connection to the behaviors extolled, but the belief in their significance continues undeterred. In social contexts, a similar fallacy prevents us from correctly attributing effects to their causes. In education, it is possible we have focused on desired outcomes that fail to account for the power of confounding variables.

The variables of student life today are too many to count: from home life, social life, and social media, to the quality of instruction, the presence of role models, and even the medium of instruction and assessment, there are a lot of variables getting in the way of assigning cause and effect.

To move beyond fundamental attribution error, or falling into the old habit of superstition, it is important to spend more time and energy looking upstream for the real causes that need our attention. Going upstream is a principle of public health in which caregivers go beyond treating symptoms and instead look for opportunities to prevent sickness and injury. Businesses engaged in corporate social responsibility and other forms of social entrepreneurship take a similar approach: throwing money at a problem or social ill no longer impresses consumers or shareholders. Looking upstream for opportunities to meaningfully impact communities and benefit the world not only makes for a better story, it makes for more lasting forms of giving.

Both of these examples apply in education as well. By going upstream to understand what drives student performance, classroom behavior, and any other outcomes we care to monitor, we can better connect cause and effect and control for other variables. Going upstream in education isn’t just a matter of more spending or more resources, but of aiding teachers, administrators, and the general public to focus on what really drives outcomes.

When we stop focusing on outcomes to the exclusion of understanding inputs, we create a machine for using money and resources without generating improved results. When we go upstream to identify the real cause and effect relationship surrounding school, we can put our resources where they will have the greatest benefit.

Why Neuroscience Should Be Taught in Teacher Preparation Programs

Most teacher preparation programs focus exclusively on education. Future elementary school teachers learn about the latest methods for teaching students reading, writing, and math. Middle and high school teacher preparation programs focus on the content area their students will be teaching.

This sounds like a great idea. Teachers should know about education research, methods, and the content they’ll be teaching. But if teacher preparation programs want their students to become truly great educators, they need to teach more than just these things.

In fact, teacher preparation programs should be getting into the sciences—neuroscience, that is. Neuroscience is the study of how the brain and nervous system are developed and how they work. Neuroscientists examine how the brain is connected to behavior and cognition.

How could neuroscience help teachers? Neuroscience can help teachers understand how the brain learns new information. Even having a basic knowledge of neuroscience can inform the way teachers teach.

For example, neuroscience tells us that when children learn new information, that information goes through pathways in the brain. These pathways connect neurons together. The more connections that exist between neurons, the easier it is for the brain to access information.

What does this mean for teachers? When students learn something new, they need to be able to connect it to something they already know. This forms strong neural pathways and makes recall easier.

Teachers who have studied neuroscience know this and more. They know how to get all of a student’s brain active and ensure that what students learn sticks.

In addition to helping future teachers understand how students learn best, neuroscience can help them manage student behavior. Often, the reasons students behave poorly is due to stress. Neuroscientists have studied how stress affects the brain, and their findings can help teachers better understand students’ behavior.

By preparing future teachers with knowledge about how the brain works, universities can help create better teachers. Teachers who are experts on neuroscience and the brain know how to teach students in a way that will make information stick. They’re also better prepared to handle problem behaviors and understand what makes students act out.

Though including neuroscience in teacher preparation programs isn’t traditional, the benefits it offers are numerous. More and more teacher preparation programs are including classes on neuroscience in their curriculum.

What do you think teachers should know about neuroscience? How can studying the brain help future teachers? Let us know what you think!

What is the Importance of a Personal Learning Network?

As discussed in a previous post, a personal learning network (PLN) is a customized social media platform for educators. But instead of sharing pictures, status updates, and liking each other’s filtered profile pictures, educators can learn from people and resources around the globe to improve their teaching methods, stay up-to-date on the latest edtech trends, and receive endless outside support.

Today we’re listing a few key reasons why you should invest in a personal learning network, for the good of yourself and the students you’re responsible for.

So, why PLNs?

Control Everything

No one knows which areas you struggle with as an educator more than you do. Nothing can tell you exactly what’s going on inside your classroom aside from the memories you relive every day. So, it’s your job to seek out a select number of experts and fellow teachers who specialize in or have experienced the same difficulties.

The great thing about a PLN is that it doesn’t limit you. Combine in-person and online resources, wade through several websites, speak with educators and tech professionals and cognitive psychologists. Chat online or skype or meet for coffee. The resources are endless and there are endless ways to customize your experience.

A lot of educators shape their PLNs with a question. How does the classroom adapt to a tech-driven world? How can we personalize education for every student? How do we keep girls interested in STEM courses?

A PLN means people from all around the world with a variety of different specialties are collaborating to answer one question. With that equation, it’s almost impossible for a solution not to arise. If you’re experiencing a problem, the PLN you build is your personalized team combining their knowledge to help solve that particular issue.

A solution to your educational struggle is on the horizon.

Get Challenged

A PLN is not necessarily a group of like-minded individuals. If that were the case, you wouldn’t be seeking out other opinions in the first place because it’s likely you already have a group of people in your life who feel and think exactly the same way as you.

PLNs provide you with people who have different viewpoints on hot topic issues and, if they’ve been vetted beforehand, have a wealth of knowledge, credentials, and research to back up their arguments.

As educators, sometimes we haven’t fixed the problem because we keep using the same method to solve it. A student is struggling with math and we send them to the same tutor, or explain it the same way, or use the same software. Sometimes we need someone to come in and point us in the opposite direction before a solution is found.

Get Out of Your Own Head

In the same vein, the solution to our problem is often right in front of us. We just need someone with fresh eyes to stand before us and point it out.

How do you know you’re in the dark about the latest edtech tool if you’ve never heard of the software to begin with?

If your lesson strategy feels stale or something isn’t clicking between you and your students, get out of your rut and ask the outside community for advice. It’s guaranteed that someone in the education community has experienced the same problem and found a solution they’re desperate to share.

Share What You Know

PLNs aren’t just about taking, they’re about giving back to your network by sharing your own knowledge, ideas, and reflections.

If you have a groundbreaking idea about preparing your classroom for a tech-centered, universally connected world, share it with others and receive feedback, research partners, and ways to develop and execute the concept.

Your unique ideas help others in the education community grow, and if you’re in the development stage, having a sounding board to bounce ideas off of is invaluable to the growth of any project. 

Find a Support System

Being a teacher is an emotionally grueling job that people outside of the education world can’t always understand.

Having an online or in-person group of teachers to share stories with helps you cope with and release emotions building within. Is your classroom underfunded? Vent to fellow teachers sharing the same struggle. Are you feeling exhausted by your profession rather than inspired? Talk it through with educators who’ve been exactly where you’ve been.

Don’t just think of PLNs as a professional resource; think of it as a form of virtual therapy. 

Support Your Students

Don’t limit the kids in your classroom to your own educational preferences and methods of teaching. Interacting with other educators allows you to bring different opinions and ideas directly to your students, so they can also be exposed to a variety of opinions and new ways of thinking.

Education is moving away from the institution and towards the individual. Presenting students with other resources helps them personalize their own educational experience.

In short,

Every website, journal, Twitter feed, and individual person is a resource. With an infinite number of resources in the universe, now widely available through social platforms and internet access, you have the power to hand-pick which ones will contribute to your personal and professional growth.

Create your own personal learning network, if not for yourself, for the people you make daily decisions for – your students.





Have You Hacked These Cognitive Tools?

Modern technology offers a plethora of cognitive tools for implementation in your classroom. You’re likely familiar with pedagogical tools and teaching resources, but you may also be wondering what exactly a “cognitive tool” is.

Cognitive tools are tools that, when used outside of the classroom, play a role in productivity. They include word-processing programs, spreadsheets, and e-mail programs. Applied to the classroom, these become cognitive tools, because they improve the learning process, enhancing thinking and understanding. Let’s look at some examples:


Spreadsheets are screens that are divided into rows and columns, and are supplied in programs that have mathematical and statistical computational capabilities. This information can also be used to generate graphical data from the numerical data. Spreadsheet analysis programs are provided with a wide range of formulas that allow many functions, some of which resemble low-level programming, while others are complex mathematical functions. Both of these functions can be used to assist students with learning. Spreadsheets require the prior collection of data, which may be obtained from various real-life or online sources. Real-life sources could be data from a student’s bank account showing how much money the student earned, received, or spent in a month. Or a group of students could collect data while conducting a study on how many cars come in and out of the school parking lot in a month. T

he data would need to be organized into a row- and-column format to make use of the analytical capabilities of the spreadsheet. This skill in itself is useful in showing students how to identify which data is important and how to arrange it. Analysis could be largely automated through familiarization with the various formulas available within the program. Further familiarization with the program would allow students to be able to take their data and convert it into a graphical or visual format, making it meaningful, relevant, and interesting to other students. This could also reduce the work required of the teacher, who could design the exercises so that the correct arrangement of data, formulas, or analysis is crucial in allowing the graphs to appear correctly, thus allowing them to quickly identify students who require additional assistance.


Another cognitive tool that’s very useful in statistical analysis is a database, which is a vastly more powerful tool than a spreadsheet. Databases are larger, more robust stores of data, but are generally built on a more advanced programming platform than spreadsheets. Whereas spreadsheets store single items of data, databases can store information regarding how the data has been changed, and can link items of data together to form data relationships. Databases allow much larger stores of information to be created, as well as allowing multiple students to access them and make changes over a period of time, keeping a history of those changes for future use.

Word-Processing Programs

These have many advantages over paper and pencil. Editing is a lot less tedious, as you can change the document while you work on it without having to erase and start over. Some word-processing programs offer students the option of group activities, so that the group can all work on the same document.

Desktop Publishing and Multimedia

These programs allow users to combine text elements with audiovisual information, such as graphics, videos, audio clips, animations, and other display and design elements. Students who learn with these options become competent in constructing and delivering a complete document that includes videos, audio, and graphic information as well as text.

Most of the programs mentioned here now come standard with laptops and desktop computer software. If you’re curious about how to best implement these cognitive tools in your classroom, read on in future articles about how to best apply technology to your curriculum.

How National Board Certification Helped Me Turn Around a Failing School

Note: The following guest post comes to us courtesy of Dr. Kiela Snider, who has served as an educator in California for over 23 years and has held her current position as principal for Palm Springs Unified School District for the past 12 years. In 2000 she joined the ranks of National Board Certified Teachers (Early Childhood Generalist).  She believes that children learn best when they are in a learning environment that has been shaped by best teaching practices. This was evident in 2007/2008 school year she led 100% her staff in completing either the National Board Certification or Take One! program.  The results of this ongoing commitment resulted in school wide reform at Julius Corsini Elementary that included exiting Program Improvement Year 5, decrease in teacher turn-over, and increased parental involvement.

In the summer of 2005, I was named principal of Julius Corsini Elementary School. It was a tough assignment for a first-time principal. Located in Desert Hot Springs, CA, Corsini was the lowest performing school in the state’s third most dangerous city. Few expected me to last longer than a year – let alone completely turn around the school.

Desert Hot Springs is exactly 100 miles outside of Los Angeles, and the low cost of living has made it attractive to many gang members looking to escape scrutiny from the LAPD. Like the town, Corsini did not have much going for it either. There was so much gang activity that the local news station used images of the school became every time it reported on gang-related crime even if the students and the school had nothing to do with the incident. A housing boom more than doubled the school’s population from 500 to 1,100 students almost overnight, and parents grew weary of an unproductive and unsafe school system they saw as swallowing their children.

Teacher turnover was a staggering 75% each year, and few of the remaining 25% truly wanted to continue working there. Corsini became known as a dumping ground for ineffective teachers, and many teachers in the district considered placement there tantamount to punishment.

During my first two years, test scores continued to drop.

I may have been only 32 years old, but I did not lack preparation. I joined Corsini shortly after completing certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. With a decade of experience educating students from low-income communities under my belt, I chose to pursue the advanced teaching credential because no one else in my district had completed the rigorous peer-reviewed process. I was looking for a challenge. Board certification forced me to articulate exactly what I was doing in the classroom and, more importantly, why I was doing it.

While Board certification improved my teaching practice, I found that my training helped me coach and support my teachers—the perfect skills as I transitioned to my role as administrator. It also emphasized a continuous analysis of one’s teaching practice so that teachers can identify and replicate what’s working and what’s not.

I used this approach at Corsini, and I included all of my teachers in the process. To be honest, it wasn’t a skills issue. Only the best teachers can do well in this type of environment. Through observation and evaluation, I concluded that low morale among faculty was the primary source of the school’s problems. They were simply tired of feeling like they were struggling—both their students and themselves.

Working with my teachers, we determined the best professional development option to address the faculty’s needs. The main complaint from the faculty was that typical teacher training does not make connections between theory and practice. However, I knew of one program that fully focused on practical application.

In the spring of 2007, every faculty member agreed to pursue their own professional growth program through the National Board. It generated immediate results.

Within one year, Corsini student test scores on California’s Academic Performance Index increased 13% percent by an average of 55 points. The following year, scores rose an additional 30 percent in reading and 16 percent in math. Teacher turnover rate dropped to nearly zero.

Attendance at parent-teacher conferences more than doubled from 45 to 95 percent. In 2010, Corsini was one of only six schools nationwide to receive the prestigious National School Change Award from the National Principals Leadership Institute.

I give all of the credit to the National Board Certification. Teachers didn’t see the process as a chore—but as a tool for building a true learning community. Corsini’s story is not a fluke. Nearby Joshua Tree Elementary School tried the same approach and achieved similar results. The school’s principal is Daniele Snider—my sister.

This was more than enough proof for the school district to transfer me to Desert Springs Middle School in 2011, a feeder school for Corsini, and where I was able to see the fruits of my efforts first-hand from the well-prepared students arriving from my former elementary school. I took a slightly different professional development approach at Desert Springs than I did at Corsini. Veteran teachers have the option and support to pursue National Board certification, but it is not a requirement for all new hires.

Like Corsini, Desert Springs Middle School has seen a dramatic jump in test scores. Last year, we saw a 40 API point gain and math scores doubled in proficiency. The school moved from the bottom 20% of similar schools to the top 60%. We make it very clear that there is a standard of excellence that is not an aspiration–but an expectation–for all teachers.

In the three years since I have left Corsini, I am happy to say the school continues to excel academically under new leadership and the foundation I help to lay nearly seven years ago remains strong.

The Call to Teach: Multicultural Education

America’s “melting pot” status is one that most citizens are proud to claim. The fact that people here often refer to themselves as one ethnicity or another, and rarely as simply an American, is proof that being from somewhere else – however far removed – is a source of familial pride. Even African Americans, who do not always have an Ellis Island story in the family tree, find collective strength in the stories of their ancestors and what it means for their lives today. This blending of cultures is both a blessing and curse of the K-12 classroom. With more diversity than ever, teachers have to adjust methods from one student to the next, and from one year to the next. Multicultural education is about more than a classroom with varied skin color – it includes careful examination of the neighborhoods, parenting styles and general experiences that shape each and every K-12 student.

In my new book The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching, I examine multicultural education and what impact the diverse students of today will have on the next generation of educators. Today I want to touch on the term “multiculturalism” and examine its meaning in K-12 classrooms.

Defining Multiculturalism

In its most basic sense, multicultural education is a progressive approach for transforming education based on educational equality and social justice. The components required in educating a multicultural education are content integrations, prejudice reduction, empowering school culture and social culture. These all relate and all require attention as they relate to the efforts of conflict resolution in today’s world. What kids learn in their classroom environments when it comes to interactions with those who are different from them translates into how well they will manage life in the global marketplace.

In the last century, there has been an increase in global mutual acceptance of opposing views and different cultures – though arguably, there is still a long way to go. Specifically when it comes to America, it is crucial that multicultural education exist with the increasing number of students who speak a second language and come from somewhere else. Diversity exists even within mainstream society and students need to have the communication life skills that multicultural education promotes.

Teaching in a Multicultural Society

So what does all this talk about multiculturalism really mean in the contemporary classroom? What can teachers do to make sure they practice pedagogical individualism and promote the diversity that exists in society as a whole? Since each classroom is different, each approach will be varied as well. Some important common ground when it comes to multicultural teaching should include:

Careful observation. David Kolb created a four-step model for really understanding the needs of a particular student group. He starts with concrete experience, adds reflective observation and then moves to abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. In other words, multicultural education cannot be taught in a textbook. It must be developed by each educator based on a particular student group.

Learning style guidance. Teachers can help students discover their academic strengths by helping them discover their own learning style. In this way, students discover what method of comprehension works best for them based on their own backgrounds and personalities. If educators make this learning style quest a class project, an inherent lesson in multiculturalism is taught.

Pride in heritage. Educators should look for ways to emphasize the differences between students in a positive light. This might mean writing essays on family background or partnering with other students to help each other develop projects that accent the culture of the other. This can include prompts that look back on family history for generations, or could ask students to look at their current family setup.

There are scores of ways that educators can approach multiculturalism in K-12 classrooms but the first step is recognizing its importance. For today’s students to experience lifelong success on the global scale, educators must recognize the need for multiculturalism in pedagogy.

How do you adjust to and promote multiculturalism in your classrooms?

4 Tips Cash-Strapped Districts Can Use to Pay Teachers What They Deserve

It’s no secret that teachers in the United States receive little recognition and a salary below their abilities, and that their training after hire consists of professional development that rarely leads to much growth. There is also little incentive for teachers to strive to earn more because pay isn’t based on excellence, but on time on the job. This can lead to quality teachers feeling burned out, with no recourse for better pay for their efforts.

But with a little creativity, this truth can be reversed—even for districts on a tight budget.

Without further ado, here are some things to consider so that teachers can get paid what they’re worth, whether funds are abundant or limited:

1. Rethink the “teachers on an assembly line” mentality. There is a tendency for American teachers to be treated like factory workers. The No Child Left Behind program holds teachers entirely responsible for their students’ performance on state achievement tests, regardless of the many variables that influence students’ performance on these tests. For example, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prepare a sixth grade student reading at a second grade level to perform well on a state achievement test. It is no wonder that standardized testing has caused schools and teachers to panic.

2. Put it into perspective: remember that school principals and other administrators receive comfortable salaries. In addition to concerns about job security, low compensation, and student performance on high stakes test, teachers must also worry about subpar principals who are overcompensated for the successes of teachers. Although administrators deserve to be fairly compensated for their work, their pay does not seem equitable compared to that of teachers. If administrators are to be compensated fairly for the job performed, then teachers, too, should be fairly compensated.

3. Prioritize paying teachers more, and question the assumption that this has to be expensive. When considering these issues, a major mistake made by reform groups is to table efforts at improving teacher salaries because the expenditure does not fit into the school budget. If children are America’s most precious commodity and the focal point of the nation’s educational system, then the lack of funding is no excuse to forgo efforts. Many school reform efforts are cost-effective and can be implemented by resourceful educators. When there is a lack of money, change is contingent upon the faith and commitment level of the faculty and staff. Money should not be wasted on model programs and unsubstantiated trends.

4. Think about the indirectly related factors that will help teachers. Considering factors such as teachers’ professional development, while at first may seem unrelated, can be a key factor for successfully improving teaching salaries as well. When analyzing budgets, it is important to set aside money to hire teachers with the ability to create and teach in-service professional development programs. The ability to train the staff and educators internally will save the school money, and will give the teacher/expert a feeling of usefulness. For instance, a teacher with 30 years of experience and a demonstrated ability to obtain amazing results from her specific teaching strategies might create a professional development seminar to share her expertise. This saves the school an enormous amount of money, and saves the administrator the trouble and cost of hiring a consultant. These savings can then be passed on to the teachers, perhaps in the form of bonuses, etc.

In the end, schools operating with limited funds to support reform efforts will need to be both resourceful and creative in order to affect positive change and strive toward equitable pay for superior teachers. Forward thinking leaders, committed and imaginative teachers, and a supportive community can contribute to change that improves the working environment of our teachers – and their salaries too.

I am sure that you also have some interesting insights on how to pay teachers what they deserve, even on shoestring budgets. So share your thoughts below in the comments.