Monday, January 25, 2016

Aspirations and Ideals...

I am sitting in the living room of my home on Saturday evening looking at what is left of the snow that fell last night.  This coming Monday will be the first day of student teaching for the 2015/16 class.  A few years back, one of our student teachers came to my office several months before her student teaching began, and asked, “Dr. Simpson, when I think about student teaching, I am scared out of my mind.  Is that normal?”  My response was, “Everyone is scared; you are willing to admit it.”  By the way, this student teacher was chosen Outstanding Secondary Student Teacher of the Year.

I understand the pressure placed on our student teachers and their fear of failure.  Maybe we expect them to be too perfect.  The past Tuesday afternoon I shared with this class of student teachers and many of their public school cooperating classroom teachers three ideals we expect them to demonstrate.  However, it is important to make the distinction between being idealistic and holding well-defined ideals.  If I am idealistic, it usually means I have little to no understanding of the real world.  However, idealism relates to those ideals we aspire to as a people.  If idealism dies, we will never reach beyond the status quo.

The first ideal I shared was efficacy.  We want our student teachers to believe they understand teaching and learning, and their students will learn.  They can and will make a difference in the lives of their students.  We believe in them and we want them to believe in themselves.  They understand state standards and the connection of these standards to daily instructional objectives, instruction, formative assessment, and summative assessment.  Now is the time to just do it.

The second ideal was compassion, and by compassion, I do not mean pity.  Each semester most of our student teachers are shocked by the home situations of so many of their students.  If they have pity for these students, they will not expect them to excel in their classes.  But, if I have compassion, I will meet my students at their current academic and social level and push them to achieve higher because it is the only way I can help them rise out of their current state of existence.

The third ideal I shared was enthusiasm.  By enthusiasm I mean the satisfaction I feel by being a teacher.  Teaching is my niche, my calling, and I could never imagine doing anything else in my life.  With enthusiasm the teacher plans lessons that come alive, and the students realize they are special in the eyes of their teacher.

I have just finished teaching the January Term course, Philosophical and Theological Foundations of Ethical Thought, in a class filled with our senior teacher licensure students.  One of my students, K.F., described the struggle her parents went through before she was finally conceived.  They experienced two miscarriages over a two-year span and decided to try one more time before they finally gave up.  It worked!  K.F. wrote…

              “I almost was a “was not”….I am meant to be alive.  It might have been difficult for me to get here.  I might have been a last try, but I know I am here for a purpose.  I fully believe that my purpose is to be a teacher and love every student, but especially the ones who seem toughest around the edges.”

Yes, K.F. will make a difference in the lives of her students.

Bless you my children...

Friday, January 1, 2016

Preparing for 2016

As we approach the end of this calendar year and look to 2016 and the presidential election, I am keenly aware of the coming political change. A 
new president means a new secretary of education and new ideas concerning the role of the federal government in education. However, change at the federal level is already well underway, and our own Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander has provided leadership in this rewrite of the federal role in education. 

This legislation eliminates the federal mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on statewide tests, although states will be able to link these scores to teacher performance reviews. Second, the rewrite also says the federal government may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt any particular set of academic standards, such as the Common Core. Third, states and districts will now be responsible for coming up with their own goals for schools, designing their own measures of achievement and progress, and deciding independently how to turn around struggling schools (Jennifer C. Kerr, The Associated Press, 2015). This is a fundamental shift from a broad constructionist view of the United States Constitution regarding education to a strict constructionist view, which leaves the governance of education solely to the states. 

The death of a federally mandated Common Core has not come as a surprise to those invested in educational policy. These standards have been attacked by those on the political right and left. False statements about the Common Core Standards, which range from their origin to their relationship to the Obama Administration, have trended regularly on social media. 

As a result of the rewrite of this educational legislation, the states and local school districts must step up and maintain rigorous standards for our schools and students. We must not return to the previous system where the state-determined proficiency levels on state tests were so low that being proficient was a joke--our own state of TN was part of that system. I am afraid the real losers in this retreat to the previous state of affairs may be our children and the future competitiveness of our nation. 

As these coming changes swirl around in my mind, three issues come to the forefront. First, the one emphasis we must keep is the essential importance of formative assessment. During the past several years, school districts trained data coaches, and teachers built data walls to visualize the academic achievement of their students and identified the standards to be addressed during instruction. This process has opened the eyes of many teachers and given them the clear direction on where to direct subsequent instruction. 

Second, we must devote more of our energy and time on the top performing students. We have bored these students to death with the endless practice of taking standardized tests and by the constant drill in basic skills. No Child Left Behind focused on the students in the bottom half of the achievement range. I n 2008-2012, I directed a NSF Math and Science Partnership Grant during which we worked with three school districts on math and science instruction. Some of the highest growth in achievement was seen in students who were in the top third of the academic achievement range, but no one at the Tennessee State Department of Education seemed to be interested. All the pressure was on the improvement of students in the lower third of the achievement range. As my current and former students will confirm, my heart is with students living in poverty in our region of Southern Appalachia. However, the next generation of engineers, scientists, inventors, and leaders will come from the top performing students. We continue to neglect them at our own peril. 

Third, I want to address my colleagues in teacher education. We sat back and let individuals in other fields (politicians, business leaders, and philanthropists), who may or may not understand the complexity of teaching and learning, take control of education. We go to our conferences and write journal articles for each other, but we need to be communicating with the shoppers at Walmart. Furthermore, we must change the reputation of “education courses” as fluff. Robert Munday, the chair of my doctoral committee at Texas A&M University- Commerce, told me that as teacher educators we have brought this criticism on ourselves. Our courses have lacked substance, been void of rigor, and are seen as not applicable to the public school classroom. Our courses should always be relevant to the public school classroom, and we should have the reputation as some of the best teachers on campus. 

We are entering a new day in education. As teacher educators we must seize the initiative.

Bless You My Children,
Terry L. Simpson

Jennifer C, Kerr, The Associated Press, December 10, 2015

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