Are Great Teachers Born or Made?

One of the best teachers in Elizabeth Green’s new book, Building a Better Teacher, uses an analogy to convey the intricacy and difficulty of her craft. “Every single time I get on a plane,” she says, “I’m really glad that the plane is not being flown by someone who just always loved planes … But that’s what we do in this country. We take people who are committed to children, and we say … work on it, figure it out.”

This is just one of many comparisons that teachers make in Green’s book. They also liken their profession to surgery, general medicine, nursing, professional athletics, and even chamber music. The metaphors converge on the same point: Not only is teaching technically demanding, its complex component skills can be studied, isolated, practiced, and ultimately improved. Teaching, in short, can be taught.

Everything You Need to Know About Giving Negative Feedback
by Sarah Green  

There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there on giving corrective feedback. If you really need to criticize someone’s work, how should you do it? I dug into our archives for our best, research- and experience-based advice on what to do, and what to avoid.

Never, ever, ever feed someone a “sandwich.” Don’t bookend your critique with compliments. It sounds insincere and risks diluting your message. Instead, separate your negative commentary from your praise, and don’t hedge.

Schedule regular check-ins with your direct reports, so that giving feedback — both negative and positive — becomes a normal part of the weekly routine.

Don’t lump your critical feedback together with discussions of pay and promotion — as in typical year-end evaluation. This creates a toxic cocktail of emotions even the most mellow employee will have trouble managing. Instead, make these separate conversations.

The adage “praise in public, criticize in private” is an old management mantra. But sometimes, you have to be critical in public. Holding people accountable sometimes means discussing performance issues with the group, even if it feels uncomfortable.

Ask permission. This may sound odd — especially if you’re the boss — but you can tip people off that a critique is coming (making them more receptive to hearing it) if you start the conversation with, “Can I give you some feedback?”

Avoid jumping to conclusions or seeming like a bully by sticking to the facts. For instance, if employees are leaving early and showing up late, they could be having a family emergency or a health issue. Simply state the behavior you’ve observed and let them explain what’s going on.

Try framing your critique in terms of the positive result you want to achieve, rather than as what’s wrong with the person. Make it about the impact the employee could achieve by working differently.Ask “What are your goals?”

Be specific about the new behavior you’d like to see.

If you’re delivering some particularly hard-to-hear news, consider giving the person the rest of the afternoon off. Studies have shown that top performers are especially vulnerable to major setbacks. Show compassion not by softening the blow with false praise, but by giving bad news straight and then offering some breathing room.

If the person you’re giving feedback to gets defensive or lashes out, keep your preferred outcome and preferred working relationship in mind. You can’t prepare for every possible thwarting mechanism someone might throw at you, but you can control your reactions.

Recognize that everyone wants corrective feedback — yes, even Millennials and even experienced, expert workers. Consulting firm Zenger Folkman found that while managers dislike giving critical feedback, all employees value hearing it — and often find it even more useful than praise.

There’s one important caveat here, however, and that’s the ideal praise-to-criticism ratio. While we may not be willing to admit it to ourselves, we do need to hear praise. And studies of both the most effective teams and the most happily married couples have shown that the ideal ratio is about five compliments to every criticism. So do shower your team with kudos — just don’t do it at the same time you’re critiquing them.

And when you do offer plaudits, praise effort — not ability. Carol Dweck’s well-known research has shown that’s the best way to keep people motivated and it makes criticism feel less threatening and personal. After all, if you’ve been told your whole life, “You’re so smart!” a rebuke might make you wonder, Am I dumb now? Focusing your praise on behaviors — “You guys really put a lot of attention to detail into this” or “I’m so impressed with how hard you worked to get this done on time and under budget” — means that when you have to deliver some corrective feedback, people are more likely to take it in the same vein rather than as a personal attack.

Sarah Green is a senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter at @skgreen.


2 in 2000

So here’s a little state of the world update from my recent trip to Wisconsin to speak at the state school board association conference there.

First, let me say there are a lot of folks who are beginning to talk with more relevance around change when it comes to education. The rhetoric, at least, around inquiry and problem based, student-centered classrooms seems to be expanding despite the frequent references to “higher student achievement” and “college readiness” that at the end of the day still drives the conversation around reform. As most know, Wisconsin is at the center of the firestorm when it comes to rethinking education, and not much of that rethink resonates with the real world, to be honest. But I met a lot of people who seem at least to be waking up to the realities of the moment and who seem willing to engage deeply in the big questions that all of us have to be asking when it comes to what best serves our students and their learning lives.

Two moments of zen…

First, as I normally do, I asked the 2,000 or so folks in attendance to raise their hands if I could go onto Google and find examples of their best practice or thinking around how to meet the educational challenges of the day and learn from their experiences or connect with them for a conversation. Two hands went up. Two. I know that most of these folks were school board members, but the silence that followed really struck me. How can they make policy and advocate for meaningful changes in what happens in schools without any practical sense of the connected, transparent world in which we now exist?

Second, US Senator Herb Kohl was in attendance (at least until I got up to speak…maybe someone warned him.) Twenty-four years in the senate, a man respected in Wisconsin and obviously well-liked. He helped present some awards to teachers and gave a short, very supportive speech to the audience thanking them for their work with kids in their state. Seemed like a very nice, thoughtful person.

But I couldn’t help thinking as I watched him amble out of the hall that there’s no way he has any clue about what’s really happening with education right now. In fact, in this country run by primarily old white guys who probably don’t know the difference between a Blackberry and a strawberry, guys who pretty much get their talking points from aides and advisors, I can’t imagine many if any of them have a clue. I think some of them probably woke up a bit with the whole SOPA protest, but by and large, I wonder to what extent our leaders can even hold a conversation around the ways in which the Web is impacting education. And the money to keep things status quo is flowing on Capitol Hill.

Sigh. Sigh.

Don't tell me that you think I'm "too smart to be a teacher."

You may think that’s a compliment but it’s not. When I tell people that my long term plan is to go into education policy and advocacy, and they look relieved, I get offended. I’m not “too smart to be a teacher.” No one is. And if that’s your views on the intelligence of the average teacher, you can just stop talking to me now. I’m becoming a teacher because I want to teach. If I only wanted to do education policy work, I could have done that. But I’m choosing to teach, and it’s going to be challenging and exciting and I’m looking forward to it. I’m not too smart to be a teacher, and neither are you.

You often hear people talk about how technology is so “engaging” for kids. But that misses the point. It’s not the technology that’s engaging, it’s the opportunity to use technology to create something that is valued by the community and by yourself. Yes, a new device can be entertaining for a while, but when the novelty value wears off, what are you left with?

Engagement is not a goal, it’s an outcome of students (or anyone) doing meaningful work. Meaningful to themselves AND to the community they are in. Meaningful because someone trusted them to do something good, and they shouldered the responsibility. This is not something you DO to kids or you GIVE kids, it’s the outcome of this cycle of experiences.


Sylvia Martinez,

Engagement Responsibility and Trust - Generation Yes Blog

Disgusting. Via the Washington Post So many things going wrong.

"Talk about corporate-based school reform. New high-stakes standardized tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards are featuring plugs for commercial products. And the companies didn’t have to pay a penny.

Yes, New York state students who this past week took Pearson-designed exams were just treated to plugs for LEGO, Mug Root Beer and more products from at least half a dozen companies, according to  the New York Post.”


It’s Time to Get Rid of History, Biology, and Chemistry Classes

Let’s do away with History, Biology, Chemistry, and whatever other courses contain content not taught in Math or English. Let’s take each subject, rip it apart, and sew it into new classes built on themes that hold some of the keys to succeeding in modern society. (Even most of the novels students read in English class may be better off in classes organized around their main theme. Why not teach To Kill a Mockingbird in a class all about justice?)

None of this is to say that our conservative subject divisions don’t serve some purpose. At the university level, boundaries between fields create important specialization that fosters the development of new knowledge and trains people for specific careers. But it would be naïve to think that in the absence of courses specifically called Chemistry and Biology high school students won’t learn enough about the fields to choose a path when they get to college. And even universities are developing more interdisciplinary areas of study that would have confused hiring managers in the 1990s. Surely, high school students have no need to worry that “interdisciplinary knowledge of evolution” is not a term you can put on a resume.

image via flickr:CC | NASA Goddard Photo & Videonet_efekt | siraf72

0194: Why I don't "just find another job"

#education #occupyedu #revolution #teaching #surveillance

I have a bit of venom toward the system that employs me. It has been suggested that “if [I] don’t like it, then leave.” That suggestion discounts my reasons for staying, and indicates that I’m concerned namely with/for my own well-being. I can see how an outsider might see it that way. Alas, I am a teacher—misunderstood, angry, and often misinterpreted. Those things are constant, but I’d like to speak to ye naysayers and support those who understand because they’ve stood where I have.

To the common comment “if you don’t like it, then leave/find a new job/go to a better school/etc.” Statements such as this one seem to assume that I have dissatisfaction with the work I’m doing. Which would be true to an extent. I’m bothered greatly by the structure of the system, and the way it presents itself. School, public school, presents itself as a benevolent system aimed at making lives and communities better. This also is true to an extent. Certainly, we teachers strive for that goal. However, actions are being taken to measure our effectiveness. Also a good thing, but no one is sitting down and looking at the qualitative data to see how a child is succeeding because of her interactions throughout her schooling. The way she has developed as a human being is given no credence. The way she can read and comprehend and understand and then apply to make her world better is never considered. She is a piece of data presented by a 3rd party testing corporation that measures arbitrary bits of information to compare data set to data set. Legislation has been passed to ensure this practice continues. The data collected is required and the companies that have lobbied for such mandates profit and profit and profit. The statement that I began with assumes that what is being done with public education is actually for the benefit of the children. “If they score better on these tests, then their lives will be better, we’ll have proof.” Of course, there is no real concern for such trivial things as well being.

Yes we live in a world that equates everyone with a certain group of numbers and data. Our existence can be summed up in numbers, if we allow that to be. As teachers we must resist the pressure to dehumanize those with whom we share this world. As humans we must strive to interact as humans and not as divided beings. I will continue teaching in such a way that values the human above the test score. I cannot allow myself to see data instead of kids. This continued belief will be my professional undoing. I refuse the newly prescribed definition of teacher. Perhaps partner in humanity would be better. I’ll be a wrench in the cogs until I’m plucked from the machine.

15 WRONG ways to implement the Common Core
guest post by Johnna Weller, Ed D. Note from Vicki: As I was talking to Johnna from Discovery Education about this post, I started hearing her talk about districts who are struggling with Common Core. We thought that it would be helpful to know what people are doing to cause their districts to fail in implementation. Of course, if we learn from failure, we can fail forward into success. Thanks Johnna for this guest post. (See disclosures at the bottom.)

Answers to complex questions never
come in a box. A seal on a box does not
guarantee success.


We’ve all seen the labels on the cover of teacher’s manuals that say (in bold print), “Aligned to CCSS.”  And, although the lessons might be matched to specific CC standards, and include quality examples of “close reading” or “text-based questions,” there is no program that can cause our students to be deep and critical thinkers.   Of course, materials can be a helpful resource to teachers, but they are only as good as the teacher who uses them.   This is my mantra:

“Programs don’t teach kids, teachers teach kids.”  

So, read the labels, and be a judicious consumer of what’s out there, but know that you can’t buy CCSS implementation in a box.


Despite what you may have seen or heard, there is no simple solution to implementing the Common Core.  Meaningful implementation is a process…a process of refining and reflecting instructional practice.  That process takes time, and various strategies (just like the way we want students to problem-solve).   No single product, event, or experience — no matter how powerful — will single-handedly flip the switch to Common Core.  Educators should be strategic in their implementation by designing a plan that includes a variety of high-quality ways to move toward  transforming their classrooms.  Such an implementation plan needs to address curriculum, assessment, and instruction.

Technology is mentioned in the Common Core
State standards 40 times! It is important but teachers
are still important.

13.  Put all your eggs in the technology basket. There is no doubt that technology has the power to transform teaching and learning.  Plus, it is mentioned in the CCSS no less than 40 times.  But, unto itself, technology/media/digital, etc will not guarantee that students question, connect, infer, analyze, and think.  That’s where teachers come in.  (Remember, there’s no magic bullet.)   The most powerful way to leverage technology, is to engage in ongoing professional development and collaboration to learn, practice, and infuse it meaningfully into instruction. (These ideas are evident in Discovery Education’s design of professional development that puts amazing technology in teachers’ hands, but recognizes that the power of its effectiveness is through instruction.)   12.  Remove everything from your curriculum that isn’t attached to a Common Core standard. Even the CCSS documents themselves say that the standards “…do not—indeed, cannot—enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.”   So, don’t forget about health.  And the arts.  And more. (See If Common Core Standards Become our Straight Jacket, we’ll hate what education becomes for how this is happening in some schools already.)

Creativity" is listed in the Common Core
State Standards - even in math! How do you
get creative with math? 

11.  Don’t empower the creative genius of students and teachers. You might be surprised to know that the word “creativity” appears in the Math CCSS (yes, math!).  We can value and nurture creativity by producing, not only consuming, a variety of information, ideas, texts, and media.  

You need a network. These Discovery Educator Network (DEN)
teachers are meeting to collaborate and learn from each
other. You can collaborate and connect for
mutual learning experiences wherever teachers
connect… on Twitter, Facebook, and face to face.
They are all vital parts of the savvy educator’s PLN.

10.  Go it alone. The positive impact of collaboration has been validated by researchers and practitioners.  As a profession, we must tap into and share our collective expertise to support our individual efforts. Teachers might be superheroes — but even superheroes accomplish more when they work together.   (An example of a powerful electronic community of practice is Discovery Educator Network (DEN), where teachers from across the country share ideas.  Discovery also holds a variety of opportunities for teachers to come together live and in person to learn and share with each other.)   9. Focus only on outcomes and not processes. Student learning, aka deep thinking, is the goal of the Common Core.  Remember that learning is a process.  So, even though we look to our outcomes and data as measures of learning, we can’t ignore the process.  The same idea applies to teachers.  Teachers need opportunities to learn, plan, act, and reflect.    

Beware of how you define rigor!
Giving kids harder math problems or more difficult books
to read doesn’t increase the rigor. It only increases frustration.
Talk to your staff about what rigor is! 8.  Equate complexity with difficulty. Webster defines complex as

“having many parts, details, ideas, or functions.”  

In our information-driven world, our students will need the ability to process, filter, and ponder many sources of information.  For this reason, the Common Core standards promote critical and complex thinking. That means that students need opportunities to learn, practice, and apply these skills.  So teachers need to demonstrate, model, and support students in these tasks.  That’s not the same as assigning difficult tasks.   Giving kids harder math problems and more difficult books to read doesn’t increase the rigor.  It only increases frustration — for the student and the teacher.  This takes us back to the importance of time for teachers to learn, plan, act, and reflect on ways to engage students in complex thinking. 7.  Make it more about curriculum-alignment than instructional practice. Obviously, a well-designed and cohesive curriculum is a part of CCSS implementation.  However, even the best curriculum delivered poorly is doomed.  Instructional practice is the key to creating classrooms where students are deep readers and writers who inquire, question, critique, and synthesize.   Research continually points to the impact of the teacher as the most powerful factor in student learning.  To continue that thought… 6.  Ignore the need for professional development. High-quality professional development is the best way to make the transition to the Common Core.  Consider a variety of options to include follow-up and collaboration. 5. Don’t communicate with parents and the community. As we move forward into a model of school that looks different than sit and get (finally), parents need to understand that rote memorization will be lessened, whileinquiry and problem-solving will be increased. It’s true…this is not your grandmother’s classroom.  Technology allows the world to be our classroom.  To be successful, this shift will require the mutual support of school, home, community.    

Classrooms should always be improving and leveling up learning.
As a profession, we should be the premier learning organization.

  4. Say, “We do this already.” No matter what you’ve “done” regarding Common Core, there is plenty more to learn and apply.  As a profession, we should be the premier learning organization.  Unfortunately, sometimes we are not.  The type of thinking that keeps us static will not help us get better.  Remember, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. 3. Don’t network outside of your school. In the same line of thinking as #10, schools can’t thrive in a cocoon.  The CCSS are a fabulous opportunity for educators across the country to be talking the same language, sharing ideas and generating synergy.  None of us is a smart as all of us.  It’s evident by the ideas on pinterest and the discussions on #ccchat that we can be collective thought-partners. 2. Be afraid. Fear of change.  Fear of the unknown.  Why be afraid?  We could learn from NASA — which accomplishes historic feats by being open to change, curious about the unknown, and enticed by challenge.  This is an exciting time for society and education — and most importantly, our students.  Let’s embrace the challenge and stretch ourselves.  The most powerful practices begin in the classrooms ofteacherpreneurs who study, apply, and reflect on their practice. 1.  Don’t focus on kids. Always remember why we do what we do.  Implementation of the Common Core with flying colors — shiny curriculum, top-notch assessments, and even stellar instructional practices — won’t mean anything if it’s not connected to your students.  

Act to improve your classrooms.

  What you can do So, now that you know what NOT to do to implement the Common Core, here’s something that you can do: tap into the variety of options that Discovery Education offers.  We don’t claim to be the magic bullet (there isn’t one, remember?).  But, they can provide a variety of tools to add to your implementation plan.   To help teachers and administrators implement Common Core well (and avoid pitfalls listed above), Discovery Education is providing professional development academies in various location across the US this summer. Regardless of whether your school has access to Discovery products, these academies provide proven practices in instruction, curriculum, and assessment into classroom applications that support long-term planning and immediate classroom application.   As a trusted educational partner, Discovery Education has worked with thousands of educators to transform teaching and learning.  They understand that successful implementation requires a focus on fundamentals: curriculum, instruction, assessment, and leadership. You can learn about the four academies at: http://www.discoveryeducation.com/Common-Core-Academy/index.cfm  Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored post.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via a cash payment, gift, or something else of value to write it. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I have used personally. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
For education to change, we need to refocus from what we teach to how we educate. You can teach kids whatever you want, but they will learn what they do.

Colleges and employers complain that schools are graduating students who can’t write. Will standards and tests help them to write better? No. It’s about ownership and practice. Kids need to write a lot, about something meaningful and get a lot of feedback. We learn what we do.

I love activism. If you read this site you know that. I openly advocate for people to get involved and on a basic level that begins with putting your name on a petition. Change.org and Care2.com encompass a progressive network of petitions allowing grassroots activists and organization access to millions of people to create positive change. I have come to rely upon them and placed a fair amount of trust into both organizations.

I may have placed my trust in the wrong place. Change.org and Care2.com have provided Michelle Rhee and her Students First organization a progressive platform despite it’s anti-union, anti-teacher, pro-corporate agenda. This is not progressive. I am calling upon both sites to take down Rhee’s misleading petitions and restore their progressive ideals.

This man, Aaron Krager, speaks the truth.

1:1 ipad implementations- this is your nightmare. This comment from a student is going viral on reddit with more than 1,000 comments. Basically, the school bought ipads, required students to pay $50 for insurance, set up a wiki for teachers to post assignments (but the teachers don’t.) The student actually posted this post from his/her ipad. Likely this experience on Reddit is going to be one of the best learning experiences of the year. Read this and share it with your 1:1 implementation team. iPads without a fundamental change in how you teach are just expensive toys. We need to change all of how school operates, not just what is in the kids’ backpacks.

A report last month from a pair of advocacy organizations, the Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years, argued that “there is a widespread belief that teaching children to read early will help them be better readers in the long-run,” but that there is “no scientific evidence that this is so.” The Washington Post and its Common Core-averse education blogger, Valerie Strauss, have been particularly aggressive in highlighting this report and running pieces from both parents and teachers arguing that “forcing some kids to read before they are ready could be harmful.”

The report, titled Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose sounds an alarm over a perceived shift “from play-based, experiential approaches to more academic approaches” in early-childhood classrooms starting in the 1980s. “Under the Common Core State Standards (CCSS),” the authors claim, “the snowball has escalated into an avalanche which threatens to destroy appropriate and effective approaches to early education.”

The authors make much of the fact that no one involved with writing the standards was a K–3 teacher or early-childhood professional. The more important issue, however, isn’t who wrote it, but whether Common Core is beyond the abilities of five-year-olds or the expectations we should have for them. The short answer, I think, is “no.” But let’s look at some of the report’s specific complaints.