11 Priorities For The Modern Public School Teacher

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11 Priorities For The Modern Public School Teacher

by Heather Edick

Teachers have so much to worry about today, as they always have. This week, I listened to some recordings of training provided to those who are going to help K-12 teachers manage the deluge of information that they encounter every day. One of the challenges for these folks is that they are not teachers, so they are not aware of their struggles. I thought I would write about some of them from a teacher’s perspective. Perhaps they will read this post and gain some insight. I certainly hope they do, as it may help them help teachers.

1. Students

First, teachers are concerned for the welfare and education of their students. Most teachers enter the profession because they want to help students learn and become healthy, happy adults. While their primary concern is education, teachers often find that they are assuming other roles as well, such as counselor, disciplinarian, and advocate.

Each student that comes to a classroom is unique and many of them have challenges that teachers try to help them overcome. Some challenges are not within the purview of teachers, such as home situations, even though they find themselves trying to help. Thank goodness for guidance counselors and school psychologists; they are the right people for that job. Others, specifically related to learning, are a teacher’s concern. For this reason, many teachers use differentiated instruction and culturally responsive teaching methods and strive to reach all students using multiple methods of delivery.

2. Teaching

Teachers spend most of their day delivering lessons and working with students, of course. If I were reading this and didn’t see a section for teaching, I would think it had slipped the writer’s mind. However, this post is about everything else that teachers have to worry about, before they call class to order and after class is dismissed.

3. Assessment

Assessment is a big topic today, especially since the onset of standardized testing. There are four types of assessment:

Formative – This includes observations, quizzes during a unit, review of homework and classwork, and feedback to and from the student.

Summative – This type of assessment occurs at the end of a unit or lesson. Think chapter tests. This type of assessment also includes standardized testing.

Diagnostic – Tests that are diagnostic attempt to ascertain a student’s strengths and weaknesses before instruction has begun. An example is the GRADE test available from Pearson.

Benchmark – In Pennsylvania, many districts use the 4Sight tests to gauge how well students will do at a certain grade level and how they have done during the year. They are given at the beginning of the school year, at the end of each quarter (in some cases), and at the end of the year. This is in addition to the PSSAs, which are summative, so testing takes up a great deal of time in classrooms today.

4. Classroom Management & Daily Housekeeping

When it comes to daily housekeeping, elementary and middle school teachers have it much harder than those at the high school level. They have to worry about things like lunch counts, daily agendas, homework for multiple subjects, a ton of permission slips, etc. HS teachers have daily things that concern them, too, but I found in my experiences at both levels that daily housekeeping items and classroom management take up a lot more of the teacher’s time at the elementary and middle school level.

5. Lesson Planning and Curriculum

No matter what method teachers choose to plan lessons, they all have to plan them. Some have to prep multiple subjects and others have to prep for classes in the same content area that have different agendas (such as College Prep English and Applied Communications). Some teachers adhere to the standards set forth by their State and others don’t. I tended toward letting the standards guide me as I created lesson plans, so I knew that the content would help students master the standard. Other teachers have other ideas. In recent years, however, there has been pressure to create a standards-aligned curriculum and to plan lessons that others can review at any time. That brings me to the Common Core.

6. Common Core

The literature – peer-reviewed or not – shows that the Common Core standards are high on the list of worries for teachers today. They are new and they can seem daunting. These standards ask teachers to change their focus and attempt to aid teachers by narrowing down the standards and providing more guidance. Personally, I find them a lot easier to navigate than the standards I learned while student teaching, if only because there were so many State standards that I quickly lost my way as I waded through them.

The focus of these standards is on literacy/competency in English Language Arts and Mathematics. All teachers are now asked to support efforts regarding these two areas, especially literacy. The goal is to graduate a generation of students who are prepared to enter the workforce or go to college because they are literate and to prepare students to enter STEM professions, such as science, technology, and engineering. All stakeholders in education should now know what is required of them in order to graduate a successful student. That includes the student, of course.

There are many controversies surrounding this initiative and Pinterest boards dedicated to issues regarding the Common Core. One of the boards I found was Debbie Kapper Dodson’s board; from this board, I found a ScoopIt! magazine dedicated to CCSS controversies. These might be helpful resources to investigate.

If you are interested in looking at the standards for Pennsylvania, the best place to go is the Standards Aligned System website.

7. AYP and NCLB

Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) have been concerns ever since the NCLB came into law in 2001. By 2014, all students are expected to meet or exceed state standards, as determined by state assessments.

Since I live in Pennsylvania, I can only speak to how AYP and NCLB has affected us in this Commonwealth. In Pennsylvania, the assessments are called the PSSAs. Students are tested in Reading, Writing, Math, and Science starting in third grade. They are not tested in each area every year; for example, students are tested in science in fourth, eighth and eleventh grade only and are tested in writing in grades 5, 8, and 11. Schools and districts are then assessed for AYP based on the results.

It is unfortunate but true that rural and urban districts often find themselves unable to make AYP. Why this is so is a subject rife with controversy.

It is also unfortunate but true that it is difficult to compare one state to another in terms of academic progress. The data gleaned from each state is not consistent, specifically because they do not administer the same assessments. One state could make AYP while another does not because the former’s assessment is not as rigorous as the latter’s. That hardly seems fair. In addition, the standards in each state (until recently) are all different. Again, some standards are more rigorous than others. These are the main reasons why the Common Core has come into existence. Along with standardizing the standards, the CCSS will allow states to administer the same assessments, thereby gauging student progress in ways that will allow for comparisons state-on-state and reports on a national scale. In my opinion, that only seems fair.

Many teachers are evaluated, in part, based on the test scores of their students. Teachers have a right to complain about this, especially in districts where transience is a problem. I know of one district in particular in which quite a few students move from school to school multiple times in one school year. As their living arrangements change, students must transfer. Teachers then find themselves with students they have not taught before or are teaching again after they move back into the school. How is it fair to evaluate a teacher’s performance based on a student who is either brand new or just returned? It’s not.

Standardized testing is a topic of conversation not only from a teacher evaluation standpoint, but from a student evaluation standpoint. Are standardized tests fair? Do they accurately judge a student’s progress if socioeconomic circumstances vary? There are experts on both sides of the aisle on those questions. The tests are here to stay, however, since it is the most efficient way for administrators and government officials to analyze data. Since I am not a fan of standardized tests, I sighed as I typed that last sentence.

8. RTI, IEP, and IDEA

RTI stands for Response to Intervention and its focus is on all students. Special Education students can benefit from RTI as it can be used as one way to assess a student’s need for special education services (this has generated controversies, however, because some believe it is not comprehensive enough to suit this purpose (Kovaleski, 2007). RTI can lead to a student’s reclassification as qualified for these services, which would then require teachers to create an IEP (Individual Education Plan) for that student. Under the requirements of IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), people with disabilities are legally protected and schools are required to provide them with special education services if they need them.

RTI is a pedagogical method that has become quite popular today as it is student-centered and proactive. There are three tiers to RTI in most models and students are placed into one of them based on their abilities in a particular subject area. Level one is a Universal Level, which includes most of the students in the population. Level Two is the Targeted Level, which includes students at-risk. Level Three is the Intensive Level, which includes students who require extensive support (Gonzalez, n.d.).

Student progress is continuously monitored and screened; when necessary, interventions are imposed to help students make progress. Interventions could include tutoring, a remedial class, a consultation period with a learning support specialist, and other ideas. Parental and student involvement is a critical part of the process, as is student-ownership of their learning and progress. The goal of an RTI is to get the student back on track by teaching appropriate learning strategies and using research-based instructional methods to help struggling students.

RTI is not as easy as it sounds. It is a differentiated-instruction pedagogical method in my opinion, one of many teachers can try. It’s not something that teachers can immediately incorporate into their classrooms, however, and training is required to make the programs work.

The benefit of RTI is that involves so many more people than the teacher and student. RTI requires commitment from the student, the teachers, the parents, the administration, and the community. I found a good primer on the subject from the National Association of School Psychologists.

9. ESL or ESOL

Our demographics have changed dramatically and now teachers will tell you that the number of students in their classes that qualify for ESL services is much higher than it has been in the past. ESL (or ESOL) stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages. Teaching ESL students requires a great deal of sensitivity regarding their proficiency with English. Their success depends much upon the teacher’s ability to create “comprehensible input” – to explain or present content in a way that makes sense to the learner at their current level of understanding.

10. Data to Improve Teaching and Learning

Teachers are swamped with data and always have been. There is quantitative data (statistics, for example) and qualitative data (such as what teachers can glean from grading essays or reviewing and “coding” surveys). Both types of data can be chopped, sliced-and-diced, and served in a salad called a report. Data is, simply put, information that can be used for analysis. Some say that data becomes information after it is analyzed, but I think that’s splitting hairs.

The term “learning analytics” has become popular these days. Basically, my research revealed that learning analytics is the gathering of data from many areas of a person’s social environment (not just school) which is then analyzed to determine teaching and learning effectiveness and create interventions. Eventually, learning becomes more personalized based on this data; think of the Google ads that are personalized based on your interests, which are determined by your “clicks.” Well, the same thing is happening in education, especially in online education because those clicks can be captured and analyzed relatively easily.

11. Data for Evaluation

In my opinion, not all data becomes accurate information after it is analyzed. Consider the following.

For example, consider the project by the LA Times that published the names of every teacher and rated their effectiveness based on students’ standardized test scores. “In essence, it projects a child’s future performance by using past scores — in this case, on math and English tests. That projection is then compared to the student’s actual results. The difference is the ‘value’ that the teacher added or subtracted” (LA Times citation here). The Times goes on to say that comparing past and present scores for the same student “controls for differences in students’ backgrounds.” My response: That is hardly true. Students do not learn in a vacuum; they learn in a social environment. That environment is constantly fluctuating.

For instance, a child can take a standardized test one year while being alert, attentive, and happy. The next year, the child can be depressed, despondent, and tired. My son takes these tests once a year; how he’s feeling the day he takes the test greatly affects his performance. The students I know tell me that despite all the pressure from teachers and administrators regarding the test, they couldn’t really care less how they score. Is it fair to judge the teacher based on those scores?

Consider another scenario based on reality. Perhaps a child has moved around the year that test scores were poor and is a new student the day he or she took the test. Now that score is linked to that teacher and that teacher’s performance score is based on that student’s score. Alternatively, consider another scenario presented in comments on the project. One teacher took over a class shortly before the tests after their former teacher passed away. Now that teacher has been rated based on the performance of the other teacher. Is that fair? Neither scenario is fair.

Finally, in my analysis of schools that made AYP in Pennsylvania, I took a look at my alma mater. I knew they would make AYP and they did. How did I know? Students apply for admission to that school and are tested. Many of them are gifted. Of course the school is going to make AYP. A neighborhood school does not have the luxury of testing every student and the chances of that school making AYP are less than my alma mater. Does that mean the teachers at the latter school are not as good as the former? I don’t think so.

Now other school systems are going to follow the LA Times lead, such as New York City. The Huffington Post’s Mihir Zaveri (2012) released an article about it in April and I think it is a good read. It reiterates many of the scenarios that I write about here, but I promise I made them up as I went along based on my experiences as a teacher and a parent.

I’ve only scratched the surface here. I’d love to hear other teacher’s thoughts. Please comment below!