Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Good to Great: School Edition

It has taken a while, but I have finally finished Good to Great by Jim Collins. The world of education shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the business world's findings concerning the development of a great organization.
One of the frameworks Collins explores is "First Who...Then What." Collins writes, "We found...that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats--and then figured out where to drive it" (13). He notes that with the right people on board, motivational problems disappear (42).
The first important gem for struggling schools lies in the mining of the right people. No quick fix exists for schools long entrenched with the status quo, yet as the old guard moves into retirement, struggling schools must make greater strides in attracting and retaining energetic, relationship focused men and women who understand that without the ability to connect on a human level, the content will never pass through the pipeline. The right teachers believe in the mission and are determined not to fail where others have failed before.
Secondly, struggling schools need the ability to move the wrong people out of the schools. Who are the wrong people? The wrong people have tunnel vision and lack creativity. They fail to buy into the mission (though they may be talented) and are willing to coast or rest on their laurels.
As important as having the right people in the organization, the leaders must put those teachers into the correct positions of leadership and the right classrooms. Some teachers have great success at moving the lowest performers quickly towards proficiency. Some teachers have great success at refining the highest performers carefully towards excellence. Some teachers are quite happy going about their business. Some teachers are never satisfied with their current business.

Until schools get these principles, they will never reach greatness.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

More on Race

A few posts ago I wrote about a professional development day which chastised our staff for not being culturally responsive to our Latino/a students. When asked, "Why do Latino/a students struggle to graduate from high school in four years," seventy-seven responses came back as "negatively coded"--meaning the statement put the blame on the students or the students' families.
Today, after finishing our Corrective Reading lesson for the day, one of my classes discussed this very question. All of the students are Latino/a. Here are their responses to the same question asked of the staff:

  • Puerto Rican kids don't care
  • Parents don't punish us
  • Parents didn't graduate
  • Too many teenage moms raising them
  • Latinos are not smart
  • Latinos don't care about education
  • In Puerto Rico we just skip school all day
  • We have trouble with the language
  • The Puerto Rican teachers here can't teach good
  • Teachers don't help Latino students and the White kids don't need help

Sounds much like the responses the culturally insensitive teachers gave. Now, I assume the immediate response by the "researcher" would be that these beliefs have been projected onto the students by the teachers.

Monday, April 27, 2009

More Questions on Race

1. Do White students learn better from White teachers? Do Latino students learn better from Latino teachers? Do Black students learn better from Black teachers?
2. Should a White teacher in a school with a high Spanish speaking population learn to speak Spanish fluently? Should a White teacher in a school with a high Ebonics speaking population learn to speak Ebonics fluently?
3. Is teaching middle class values racist or culturally insensitive?
4. What does it mean to be "culturally responsive?"
5. If an ELL student struggles, and the teacher points to language as a factor for the student's struggles, is that teacher culturally unresponsive?
6. If a poor White student struggles, and the teacher points to poverty as a factor for the student's struggles, is that teacher culturally unresponsive?
7. If a poor Black student struggles, and a White teacher points to poverty as a factor for the student's struggles, is that teacher culturally unresponsive? Racist?
8. Is it acceptable to tell White teachers to be culturally responsive to Latino students? Is it acceptable to tell Black teachers to be culturally responsive to White students?
9. When "researchers" study student failure, why is it that they always focus on teachers and rarely put blame on the students?
10. Will we ever get past blaming student race or teacher race when discussing student and teacher failure?

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Teachers tend to view formal observations as nothing more than a dog-and-pony show. Adminstrators set up a time to come watch a teacher put into practice a number of skill sets and behaviors. If the teacher is not tenured, she will be formally observed three to four times during the year. If the teacher is tenured, she might not be formally observed at all depending on the cycle.
The current observation process in most schools lacks any real value. The administrators come, check of the list, and give the teacher a summary to sign. Very little professional dialogue happens, and very little professional growth happens.
Though the observation process ought to evolve, perhaps moving away from the format which has come to dominate our schools' culture, all teachers should be treated the same. There are some within our profession who believe that once a teacher achieves tenure, she should not have to go through a yearly formal observation. The argument goes that based on tenure, a teacher has determined efficacy and should be given professional courtesy.
Yet our non-tenured teachers, many of whom could outperform their peers, are not given any "professional courtesy." And, they shouldn't be. But neither should a teacher who has been in the classroom for fifteen years.
Annual performance reviews are necessary to maintain the integrity of our profession. In part, our profession loses credibility when those among us demand to rest on our laurels. More importantly, teachers who have attained tenure should be leading the new teachers towards a more professional path. The best way to accomplish this is to welcome a yearly formal observation process. When a second year teacher who has just had his third observation of the year looks across the hall and sees poor teaching from a tenured teacher who will not be formally observed at all, he feels discouraged.
In the end, the observation process needs to change. The dog-and-pony shows need to end, and meaningful dialogue needs to happen. If administrators were able to complete far more walk-throughs than the current system allows, they would have a much better sense of the teaching taking place in their buildings.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

You Subtle Racists

Our recent professional development informed our staff that we hold to some "negative" views towards our Latino/a students. A staff survey question asked: Why do you think so many Latino/a students struggle to complete high school in four years?
The presenter then listed 77 "negatively" coded responses, or "Deficit thinking"--whatever those mean. He never defined what constituted a "negative" response, but that's okay. Here are few of the "negative" responses:
  • not enough good role models outside of school
  • need more support at home
  • no culture of learning at home--students won't value education if parents don't
  • education level of parents

We were informed that none of the responses put blame on the teachers--a valid point--though the question seems constructed in a way that would create student centered answers.

I remember answering the question, and remember including a few thoughts about the challenge in answering that question in such a limited time frame. Latino/a failure rates deserve much more attention than such a survey could provide.

A few thougths:

1. The absence of teacher or system centered responses does cause me to pause. We certainly have an obligation to question our pedagogy and relationships. I do think that there are those of us who too quickly blame the family structure or the poverty for student failure. I do think that we allow ourselves to coddle too much and lower our expectations because we focus on the potential roadblocks facing our students.

2. In the presentation, the speaker said we should have more culturally relevant content. Yet, I can't help but wonder if we constantly need to address culture in our teaching of a college preparedness curriculum. Shouldn't we first ensure that our students have the Core Knowledge first? I mean, does it really benefit my students to study rap as poetry instead of studying Byron, Whitman, Hughes? I don't know the answer, I just wonder.

3. We never received any concrete pedagogy for teaching Puerto Rican students. We heard a lot of his thoughts about how we are messing up, how we shouldn't be so "white"--which wasn't explicitly said other than his mention of a study by someone who found that teacher race plays a role in student success, or how we shouldn't eliminate bilingual education. What he wasn't too concerned with were truly concrete, classroom examples. This is obnoxious to me.

In the end, I enjoyed the creating of thought and dialogue. However, it shouldn't be an outsider with a personal agenda (research to further his own career) to infer we are incompetent, rascist teachers. Instead, we should have self-identified our need for improvement in teaching Latino/a students and then searched out the solutions. Because awareness without an action plan doesn't eliminate the problem.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Twenty Questions for Teachers
The meme has been around a while, so I'm going to stab at it.
1. Teaching assignments, how long? I'm in my 5th contracted year but sixth overall (1 year long term sub). I've taught 12th Grade Pre-College English; 9th grade English; Read 180--9th/10th grade; 11th grade Special Education English; 9th/10th Special Education study skills; 10th grade English; currently teaching Corrective Reading--the Direct Instruction scripted program.
2. Favorite Class Taught and Why? Pre-College English. I'll even give the period: 6th.
3. Worst Class Taught and Why? 12th grade, non-college bound senior English--absolutely pointless.
4. Favorite Class Taken? I've got a few: Structure of English with Ms. Julia Young; Faith in Literature with Ms. Debbie Pope; Mainstreaming and Exepionality with Dr. Paul Kress

5. Favorite Education Book? Influencer, which is not so much about education, but certainly effective in the classroom.
6. Best Teacher Buddy? hmmmm.....ever?: Stence; D-Rob; Cory Ray. Currently? I'm a loner. Don't have one so I keep texting The Posse.
7. Best Administrator? This is a public blog--you do the math.
8. Most Disappointing Experience? Being forced to teach reading this year because I am the low man on the pole.
9. Most Thrilling Moment? Watching my student-teaching class graduate. I was lucky enough to student-teach the class of '06 as freshmen and again as a "real" teacher during their senior year.
10. Funniest Incident in Your Classroom? Watching a certain cheerleader try to catch a book I tossed to her--it left a mark.
11. Most memorable student? There are two: JK who I remember every time I want to give up; and BK who I believe in more than any other student.

12. What about unions? A great and regrettably necessary evil. If their weren't incompetent administrators, teacher unions would be obsolete. I'd like to see them go that route and reemerge looking like the NFL's player union.

13. What about charter schools? A solution in urban districts. I am fully enjoying being a part of the process of Inwood Academy for Leadership in New York.
14. What about merit pay? Bring it on.
15. What does "21st century learning" mean? It should mean the combination of learning content and applicable skill. YOU know, what education is really about.
16. What makes a teacher "effective?" The ability to impart knowledge while simultaneously imparting the skills to process the meaning of that knowledge on one's own.

17. Most overrated "reform?" CALI

18. Best professional development? Yet to experience one.

19. Personal education hero? Jesus. The man taught theology by telling stories which we still tell today. Yep, that's effective.
20. Priorities, if you could spend $5 billion on education? (1) Hiring the right people. (2) Books

The Right People

It's good to be back to posting something related to education. This afternoon, while reading Good to Great, an important message stood out: great companies get the right people on board and then move in the right direction.
Part of what allows charter schools to make great strides in educating our urban students is their ability to get the right people on board. Meaning, a specific type of person seeks out the charter school. This person knows that extra hours will be asked for. This person knows that teacher accountability will be demanded. This person knows that student success is their sole responsibility.
The thought made me wonder two things: (1) Am I the right type of person for urban schools? (2) How many of my colleagues are the right type of person for an urban school?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Go Shawty; it's your birthday...

...and we gonna party like it's your birthday.

This weekend is busy around my place. ToddlerTate turns three today, and Mrs. McNamar turns @!#% tomorrow. With our second child due in October, I'm realizing that I will have to somehow spread my love and attention beyond ToddlerTate. For three years, my Baby Girl has been, well, my Baby Girl.

A few posts back, I wrote about pioneer women. There is nothing greater for ToddlerTate to achieve than absolute independence. I want her to know that she does not need to rely on others for her self-esteem, her success, or her sense of self. I want her to know that, despite the pain it will cause me, she must eventually leave me. She must stake her claim and then make it happen.

A few years back I taught a student who is a pioneer woman to this day. I regularly reminded her that I believed in her. Today, I say those words to ToddlerTate: I believe in you.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Walking up the steps at Fordham station, I entered the bustling world of the north Bronx. School is out and the streets were filled with young men and women making their way from one place to another. Drive a few miles west on E/W Fordham and cross the bridge, which just celebrated 100 years of service, and land on W 207th. Maybe move your way through a few lesser streets until you reach the famous basketball hoops of Dyckman Park.
The tenement buildings surround the area and there is a clear city feel. Latin American culture, from the music to the store fronts, mark Inwood or University Heights. From the stories told, Inwood needs schools of influence. Recognizing the need, charter schools are starting up and being formed. I am privileged to be helping a planning team write their charter.
After spending some time writing, the group took me, an outsider of the city and even state, for a tour of the neighborhood. I was struck by the dichotomy. As we moved north towards Columbia University's athletic fields, a marked change in landscape becomes evident. The tenement buildings become apartments which sell for a pretty penny, even in today's market. The street vendors disappear and internet cafes pop up. A true economic dichotomy.
Following the tour and before getting dropped off back at the Fordham station, the principle charter developer said something to this effect:
I love kids. They all put up the front at first. They can be real disrespectful. But I love 'em.

It struck a nerve in me. My own experiences with inner-city students--who aren't really living in an inner-city, just a poverty stricken town--have created a similar dichotomy in my own attitude. Like the charter's founder, I love students. And yet, I find myself less willing to endure the disrespect. So in a sense, I move emotionally. I moved north, to Columbia's athletic fields where I can be a part of the cvlture but sip my latte in the comfort of a well appointed internet cafe. It's a dichotomy of no less significance, if I'm being honest.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Eliminate High School Sports?

A while back I questioned the continuance of high school sports. At the time of that post, I was In the middle of coaching JV Baseball. I don't know that I ever really believed we should eliminate high school sports. And now a former JV player of mine has given me more reasons than ever to keep high school sports around.
Brian McPartland, as Coach Stencil tells, has worked harder and deserves his success more than anyone else. It's true. And McPartland is also one of the nicest kids you could ever meet. On one very cold and snowy tryout day, I could barely grip the ball to throw batting practice. Nothing I threw would come close to crossing the plate as a strike. I was embarrassed. Brian, who happened to be the last player I tried to throw to, helped me pick up the balls and said, "It's okay coach. Don't worry about it."
Good luck to Brian and his teammates as they compete in the second half of a great season.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pioneer Women

After my daughter was born, I spent a great deal of time reading about fatherhood in general and fathering a daughter. What the experts taught me was the important role a father has in shaping the self-esteem and world outlook of his baby girl. One book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, by Meg Meeker, taught me the importance of raising a pioneer woman and not a princess.
A princess believes the world revolves around her, that others exist to carry out her demands, and thus needs constant affirmation and attention. A pioneer woman believes the world exists for her to create in, and thus develops an independent mind and healthy confidence. I refuse to allow toddler Tate to become a princess.
A recent op-ed piece by former UConn great Rebecca Lobo, reminded me of my goal for fathering Tate. Lobo examines the importance of the UConn Womens' basketball program in defining the world for this generation of pioneer women.
Lobo finishes the piece, "During the NCAA tournament, Siobhan walked into the living room while my husband was watching the UConn men play. 'Are those boys?' she asked. 'Yes,' he said. Siobhan said: 'I didn't know boys played basketball too.'"

Friday, April 10, 2009

Getting Help

At what point does helping a student become hurtful to the student? Here are two scenarios:

1. An elementary aged student turns in an English Language Arts assignment on verbs but gets none of the answers correct. She's having trouble identifying the verbs. Nouns and pronouns are not a problem, just those pesky verbs. The student stays after school for the afternoon homework club where she will get some extra help from one of the other teachers on your team. The following day, the student hands in the completed assignment with all of the answers correct.
When you ask the student a few follow-up questions about verbs, you quickly realize they still can't identify them. "I don't understand," you say. "How did you get all of the answers correct on the assignment?"
"Mr. X helped me," she says. "He told me the answers because I needed help."

2. A high school aged student disrupts class on a regular basis. He doesn't want to participate and often derails the class with his antics. You have to kick him out of class regularly in order to keep the progress moving for the other students. When he actually stays in class, his skill level is near or at standard.
One day, near the end of the quarter, he is acting up and refusing to do the assignment. "It doesn't matter anyway," he laments. "I'm going to fail no matter what."
"That's not true," you tell him. "Listen, you have shown that you are capable, so let's make a deal. If you can come to class, participate, and complete assignments during fourth quarter, I will not count all of the missing assignments from third quarter. You will pass for the semester."

Are either of these two scenarios good examples of helping a student?

Monday, April 06, 2009


In a tough economy school districts which rely on town property taxes for revenue face the daunting task of trying to save positions. If positions get cut, those families suffer and so do the the students we serve. So when the union and the board of education sit down to discuss the financial status, tough questions must be asked and answered.
My question is what is a reasonable sacrifice on the part of the union membership in order to save positions?
For instance, let's say your union bargained a 3% raise for next year. Is it reasonable to ask your membership to defer 1.5% of that raise to the following year?
If doing so would save the positions projected to get cut, isn't it in the best interest of the group to defer the raises?

On a separate note, why is it that so many long-term teachers say things like, "I've paid my dues; you young people have to pay yours?" Really? That's why you are a teacher? To pay your dues and sit comfortably earning $75,000 while excellent second year teachers earning $35,000 gets axed because she hasn't done her time?
I HATE this mind-set. And if I ever get this mind-set, you are welcome to call me out on it and find a way to fire my ass.
So here it is old-timer: As long as you use time served as your footing for all things economic or otherwise, I absolutely will look down on you and treat you with disdain. And if you are willing, or professional enough, to act in the best interest of students--read: results matter most--then I will cease to treat you with disdain.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Whaddya Wanna Bet...

It's time for another installment of this stolen idea. As a side-note, this post is being written on the day the UConn Huskies play in the Final Four. So, to start us out...

Whaddya Wanna bet...

That UConn beats Michigan State in a close thriller?
That Coach Calhoun and UConn are not done dodging the NCAA violations debacle?
That educators at UConn can be proud of their women's team?
That I would love to do a Teacher Tournament Bracket in which my building colleagues were given seedings and then voted on until a winner was determined?
That I would be out before the Sweet 16?
That President Obama should believe in trickle down economics for public education and get some more of that stimulus money to local school districts?
That many districts are beginning to pull apart at the seams because of the financial stress?
That working in a poor district means we won't feel the pinch as much? (We're used to the pinch)
That the urban poor receive much more attention than the rural poor?
That Good to Great by Jim Collins should be required reading for all administrators?
That despite moving too strongly too quickly, Michelle Rhee is still right?
That no one is surprised by Boston Teacher's Union getting angry at the district for eliminating current teachers and then hiring Teach for America members?
That a union should not protect incompetency?
That the NEA and AFT should be the ones leading the change to eliminate the current seniority based layoffs?
That it will never happen because unions don't have the best interest of the group or the students in mind?
That I am despondent over the news that Starbucks will be closing my after-school (and sometimes before-school) location?

Thursday, April 02, 2009


After missing the football for the umpteenth time, Charlie Brown inevitably exclaimed, "AARGH!" It sums up nicely how I felt this afternoon after reading the thoughts of a colleague pertaining to our teacher evaluation survey.
We are in the process of revamping and updating our evaluation plan, so we asked our peers about their feelings on walk-throughs. Our district has commenced with both principal walk-throughs and central office walk-throughs.
One person responded to the question by saying that he/she believed that only non-tenured teachers should have walk-throughs as part of their formal evaluation process.
Had I continued to teach in Washington, I would be tenured. I am eligible for tenure after this school year. But, if I ever get to the point where my arrogance, and yes it exists, causes me to think that my tenure should protect me from being evaluated by different measures than non-tenured teachers, please force me to retire.
I believe that new teachers and tenured teachers should be evaluated in the same way: competency. They should be evaluated equally--the same number of times and in the same manner: PUT UP OR SHUT UP.