Teachers have an undying thirst for time, clear communication, resources, professional freedom, and higher salary.  Amidst these desires, there is often a feeling of, “If I could just be left alone to do this the way I feel it should be done, everything would be better.” But, teaching is an extremely difficult job. Individual students have individual learning needs and styles, which then demand individual teaching accommodations. Those accommodations also vary by subject. So, teachers must make endless decisions on delivery and preparation in every hour of the teaching day to compensate for the differentiated environment they work in.  This requires an intelligent, flexible, and highly skilled individual.

Unfortunately, with the myriad of subjects to teach, and a vast array of curricular tools, teachers are often presented with a room full of children at the start of the school year with only basic directions pertaining to “how” and “what” to teach (http://prospect.org/article/teacher-autonomy-paradox). While some teachers thrive in the “ultimately malleable” gray area, other teachers carve out a unique path that may not align with their co-teachers or the following year’s instructional plan.

So, while there are certainly identifiable pieces in the core subjects that are necessary for completing a grade, in systems with unchecked autonomy, how subjects are taught can vary greatly from teacher to teacher. When this is the case, the actual student learning is in danger of becoming too random. Compounding that idea is the idea of autonomy in assessment. Freedom to assess, or freedom to choose what needs assessed is a great liberty for a teacher, but a great curse on a student body if left too subjective.

So, how does a teacher maintain autonomy and a sense of creativity, while still allowing for a cohesive standards-driven educational system? This paradoxical question can cripple the effectiveness of a school if not answered in a way that the entire teaching staff can comprehend. First off, the school should have a curriculum map tied to standards, that clearly outline the specific content areas to be taught, length of time for each content area, and calendared schedule for each area of content. This helps establish boundaries around the “what and when” in a classroom. Additionally, grade level teams should be lesson planning in tandem.  This allows teachers within a grade level to share ideas and coordinate plans so that their classroom instruction is relative across their grade level.

But, how do we ensure that teachers will assess in a way that measures true student mastery or conceptual fluency of the instruction? The answer to this question involves backwards design (Wiggins & McTighe (1998). Understanding by Design.). With backwards design, the goal of the instruction and assessment always comes before the lesson plan.  In this fashion it is important for teachers to understand the state standard that their content supports. If the standard is “Math: Numerical Operations”, then the content should represent the standard, AND the classroom assessment should measure capacity against the requirement of that standard. In order for this to work, the teacher must work backwards by starting with the standard, understanding the assessment, determining the appropriate content, and finally, getting creative with writing the lesson (http://www.carla.umn.edu/assessment/vac/CreateUnit/p_1.html).

Too often, the “cool classroom idea” is the driving force behind a lesson or unit. In these cases, the state standards needing taught, or qualities of assessment to measure capacity or growth can become afterthoughts in the educational process. And, when standards and assessments are afterthoughts in your educational program, so is your overall school performance! In other words, autonomy will represent a problem if standards and assessments are allowed to become a low priority.

To sum up, teachers crave autonomy, but ground rules must be set to ensure that both curriculum mapping and skillful standards-based lesson planning are happening within the creative autonomous environment. Administrators and lead teachers must ensure that these processes are in check by regularly reviewing detailed lesson plans and cross checking curriculum maps against day-to-day classroom instruction. And, while the term “micromanaging” gets abused as a negative verb in education, it is a necessary component when ensuring that your school systems are setup in a way that allows for creativity and autonomy. In other words, one must micromanage in order maintain autonomy.

Paradox? Perhaps.

But, the micromanagement is in the setup and maintenance of a creative, high-functioning, autonomous system.

Tommy Reddicks
Indianapolis, IN

“Children’s natural curiosity and desire to discover the world are integrated with philosophy” Prof. Mathew Lipmam. As a philosophy major in college and an intern at the Mayor’s office I took a unique interest in charter schools, specifically their ability to be innovative in education. As I sat in an ancient philosophy class, I was struck by a philosophical dilemma: if philosophy was the root of knowledge, why is it that we don’t teach it more in primary and secondary education? To be fair, we do touch on concepts such as the Pythagorean theorem or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. However, this question was normally answered by concerns that children were just not capable of understanding philosophy. I would argue that this is in fact far from the truth.

Consider for a moment the child’s ability to learn a foreign language at a young age. Here at PSOE we are already taking advantage of teaching Spanish to children at a young age to increase comprehension. If this concept applies to the teaching of something as complicated as a new language, why should it not apply to philosophy? In fact, research over the past 40 years has concluded that even as a first year undergraduate in college it is too late to effectively develop reasoning skills (Marashi, 2007). This isn’t to say that without philosophy we don’t develop the ability to reason, but we will develop poor reasoning skills the same way native English speakers develop poor writing or speaking skills.

It is also important to take into consideration that there are two methods to the proper utilization of philosophy. The first (what you would expect from your undergraduate philosophy class) teaches who the philosophers are and explores their theories. The second method is more comprehensive, and something children do on a daily basis whether we want them to or not. Think of anytime that you have made a decision about the world. At one point you may have believed in a monster that lived under your bed, and you acted accordingly when you had to get out of bed at night to go to the bathroom. Through experience we grew out of these fears, but our experiences shape our philosophy of the world, even if we don’t realize it’s happening. A child who performs poorly at math isn’t bad at math or pre-disposed to be poor at math; they just don’t understand it yet. That being said, the child only has experience with not understanding math, and over the years this experience continues causing the child to believe that they are poor at math and that nothing can change it.

Findings in 50 countries indicate that teaching philosophy to children in school improves thinking skills and critical thinking. “Children should be taught how to try out, analyze and experience the subject matter rather than being taught how to memorize and recall the content” (Marashi, 2007).  This form of doing philosophy would take advantage of short stories and books to develop philosophical questions and cognitive skills. This educational philosophy is being supported by www.teachingchildrenphilosophy.org, which suggests using books already found in the classroom (such as The Giving Tree or Dr. Seuss). The site also provides modules and resources to help teachers develop constructive methods for teaching philosophy in the classroom. Teaching philosophy transforms the classroom and the role of the teacher and student. Instead of information being transmitted from the teacher to the student, information is received in a collaborative discussion. In this manner, the teacher only facilitates ideas, rather than trying to convince children or bring them to a specific conclusion.

In a study done by Keith Topping and Steve Trickery in 2007 a group of 105 students (age ten) were taught philosophy for one hour a week for 16 months. Compared with the control group of 72 students, the experiment group showed signs of improvement on tests of verbal, numerical, and spatial abilities after 16 months. Two years later the children were tested again and despite changing schools or moving from primary to secondary, the experimental group showed continued improvement while the control group continued to fall behind (Topping and Tickery, 2007).

The Greek translation of philosophy “love of wisdom”, is the goal of education. In other words, the goal is not to teach children to recall facts, but to teach children how to analyze material and critically evaluate it. It was the teachings of Aristotle that helped lead Alexander the Great to conquer most of the known world; or what about the ideas of John Locke that lead to the writing of the United States Constitution. If the “love of wisdom” has lead to some of the greatest achievements in the history of man, why are we not teaching philosophy more?

Jacob Asbury
Guest Blogger
Indianapolis, IN

Change is difficult for us all, but when you are dealing with children between the ages of 12 and 15, it just seems to have a higher rate of difficulty.  When students move from an elementary setting into a middle school setting, so many changes take place that it is difficult to determine which end is up.  While in elementary schools, students are typically taught by one teacher, walked to the restroom and cafeteria each day, and are with the same 25-35 other students all day long. This all changes once they reach middle school.  The students are now expected to manage a locker, visit seven or more classrooms and teachers each day, learn the “ins and outs” of each teacher’s personality and expectations, and organize themselves enough to get everything completed and to the right destination each day. Add to that challenges involved with the physical, mental, social, and emotional changes happening to this age-group, and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

As a middle school administrator and having worked closely with administrators at the elementary level, I understand the differences between the two environments and how it affects students (and parents). The first week of school is filled with silence, wide eyes, and multiple questions.  No one knows where to sit in the cafeteria because they are not assigned seats and there are six lines available to visit for a variety of types of food.  Now, granted, this wonderful silence does not last long and it only takes a few days for students to relish in the thought that they can sit wherever they want and run up their lunch bill by purchasing pizza, breadsticks, ice cream, and Gatorade each day, but the silence does exist in the beginning.

Helping students manage their newfound freedom takes many people.  Informing the parents early in the journey is a must. Conducting a parent meeting in the spring prior to students entering the middle school allows staff to fully inform parents of day-to-day operations, scheduling, communication techniques, and what their child will experience when coming to the middle school.  We have received great praise from parents following these meetings as their pre-conceived notions or “word on the street” has been clarified with true information. The parents feel more at ease and have had their nagging questions answered which, in turn, can help to calm the nerves of their children as well. Once the parents know what to expect, they are much more likely to ease the minds of the children and prepare them over the summer for the transition.

Another benefit for students is to have them visit the middle school during the last few weeks of their elementary experience. During a school day in May, we invite all of our 6th graders in the district to come to the middle school for a couple of hours.  This is treated as a field trip and students and teachers board buses and fill the gymnasium to hear staff speak, students perform, and tour the building. This allows the students to get a feel for the school while in session – a big difference from coming to a parent meeting in the evening! They experience passing period with 800 students crowding the halls, see the cafeteria (and the 6 lines they have to choose from), and meet multiple staff members in hopes of seeing a friendly face on the first day of school in August.

Summer registration is another opportunity for students and their families to, once again, come to the school prior to their first instructional day. This event brings families in to complete all necessary paperwork, order yearbooks, add lunch money to student accounts, provide students with their IDs and laptops, assign students lockers and locks (which they can “try out” to ease nerves on the first day), and pay any necessary textbook rentals and fees. This day tends to be more of a task-oriented experience, but has proven to be greatly beneficial to staff and parents – we are able to get the information we need and families have another chance to visit the building and get their questions answered.

The transition from elementary to middle school is daunting. By providing multiple opportunities for families and students to visit the school and communicate with staff, a comfort level can be reached.  So many of us have a fear of the unknown; once we know what to expect, everything seems to be much easier to handle.

Holly Frye 

Guest Blogger
Mooresville, IN

It’s been mumbled in the halls, whispered behind closed doors, and exaggerated by a younger, less patient teaching corps. “Older teachers just can’t handle new technology”. It’s simply too complicated, and too hard to grasp for those who came before the Internet generation. Well, research may argue a different point.

In an attempt to address how new technologies are affecting an aging teaching corps (who may not have had exposure to technology during their collegiate training or early formative teaching years), Eshet-Alkalai and Chajut's review of personal research followed age-related differences with three groups of twenty participants. Groups ranged from late high school to 40 years old with equal pairs of males and females. The main focus of the research was to measure functional ability with modern technologies through tests of photo-visual thinking skill, reproduction thinking skill, branching thinking skill, and informational thinking. They found that the younger participants performed significantly better than the older participants in skills that required mastery and experience with computer programs. On the other hand, the older adult participants performed significantly better in tasks that required critical and creative usage of technology. In other words, it’s a draw. There seem to be equal advantages to both age groups, which neutralize the theory that younger learners are more apt to be successful in the use and integration of new technologies.

Based on the results from this research, it is evident that experience with technology, and not age-related development accounts for the observed changes in digital literacy skills. Results also show that the ability to find information using technology or digital tools does not guarantee an educated or smart use of the information or digital tools. Or, in simple terms, provided adequate time for experience and learning, you “can” teach an old dog new tricks.

Tommy Reddicks
Indianapolis, IN

A charter is written.  The ground is broken.  A new charter school is opened.  Eyes gleam with the promise of school reform and the goal of student success.  But will the school succeed without highly effective teachers?  Research would suggest that the answer is no.  So, how then do schools retain and develop teachers of quality? 

To find some clarity on this topic, I read ASCD’s infobrief “Understanding and Responding to the Teacher Shortage” by Heather Voke, 2002.  In this article, I found that sadly the teaching profession is compared to a revolving door.  In high-poverty areas, the teacher turnover rate is often as high as 50 percent.  Alarmingly, the most intelligent and effective teachers are often most likely to leave.

So what reasons do teachers cite for leaving their positions?  According to this article, the majority do so because of job dissatisfaction, personal/family matters, and improved career opportunities elsewhere.  Those dissatisfied with their jobs cited low salaries, lack of administrative support, poor student discipline and motivation, and lack of classroom autonomy as reasons to leave.  Often new teachers are overwhelmed and do not receive the guidance and encouragement that they need.  Although most teachers enter the profession for its intrinsic rewards-- helping children, making a difference, etc.—these seem not to be enough when they do not feel rewarded and appreciated by students, administration, and society in general.

Why is teacher turnover a problem?  Every time new staff is added, they must be trained.  For a school to be effective, a common goal must be established, and in order to get new staff “on board”, there is a cost—time and resources.  Most importantly, though, student learning is directly affected.  Many children need the consistency of a committed, effective teacher. 

What can schools do then to retain teachers of quality?  Here are some research-based strategies suggested by the article that I read.

1.   Increase salaries for all teachers and develop differentiated pay scales that reward expert teachers and those who take on specialized roles and responsibilities (Johnson, 2000; Grissmer & Kirby, 1997).

2.  Create high-quality induction programs for new teachers, require districts to offer these programs, and provide funding to support the programs. 

3.  Develop regulations prohibiting out-of-field teaching, implement practices that place experienced rather than novice teachers with the students with greatest need, provide new teachers with additional release time, and limit their extracurricular responsibilities (Goodwin, 1999).

4.   Adopt policies that include teachers in school-based decision making. Increased faculty control over school policymaking, as well as greater teacher autonomy in the classroom, are associated with increased teacher commitment (Ingersoll, Alsalam, Quinn, & Bobbitt, 1997; Grant & Murray, 1999).

5.  Grow your own teachers. Rural and high-poverty districts and schools should encourage graduates and paraprofessionals already familiar with the culture and challenges associated with those environments to become certified (Collins, 1999).

6.  Encourage or require universities to develop teacher education programs that focus on providing potential teachers with the specific skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in schools with high turnover rates (NASBE, 1998). For example, require schools of education to develop teacher education programs that focus on the challenges associated with teaching in urban schools (Claycomb, 2000).

7.  Implement policies that support reduction of class size and increase funding for quality resources, facilities, and materials in high-poverty schools. Teachers in such schools might be given additional preparation time, as well as access to additional professional development that focuses on the particular challenges associated with teaching in a high-poverty, urban environment (NASBE, 1998; Claycomb, 2000).

A school is only as strong as its teachers.  It is vital that schools retain teachers of the highest quality so that true reform may take place and the ultimate goal of student success is achieved.

Krista Bridenthal

Indianapolis, IN

While practical experience can be invaluable for the US educator, it is important for teachers and teacher leaders to utilize tools and techniques proven to be successful through research. In their article, “How Teachers Can Use Scientifically Based Research to Make Curricular and Instructional Decisions”, Paula and Keith Stanovich (2003) point out that teachers are just like research scientists. Consider the following scenario presented in their article:

“…they (teachers) evaluate their students’ previous knowledge, develop hypotheses about the best methods for attaining lesson objectives, develop a teaching plan based on those hypotheses, observe the results, and base further instruction on the evidence collected.”

This cycle very closely resembles the scientific method. Moreover, when laid out in this manner, it should seem very familiar to most classroom teachers. Therefore, if teachers and research scientists share a similar scientific process, it would seem a probable conclusion that both would rely on the latest research to guide their process. This however is often not the case in the classroom. With the pace and demand of a classroom, teachers find it hard to manage time in a way that allows for their own education.

In a 2006 survey* including 21,000 teachers in the state of Kansas, 61% of the teachers didn’t think they had enough non-instructional time to do their jobs, let alone consider spending time researching best practices. 98% percent of teachers surveyed also said they spent time on school-related activities outside their regular workday. Thirty-seven percent of those said they spent more than 10 hours a week outside their regular workday. Given those statistics, one can easily see how our teachers struggle with time. It is also easier to understand why teachers struggle with keeping current on educational research. There is clearly very little time available for more than their own instructional process.

So, how do we help our educators apply the latest research to their classroom instruction when time limits their ability to do more than teach? This question does not come with a package answer, but there are many ways to address the issue. Consider the following strategies:

1.     Utilize school administration and staff leadership to source and present “relevant” educational research to the teaching staff.

2.     Ensure a percentage of all staff professional development is dedicated to the study and discussion of the latest educational research.

3.     Establish a Professional Learning Community (PLC) utilizing goals for learning established by the learning community. (Rotate PLC responsibilities so that the study and  
learning is done by rotating groups, and then shared out for discussion.)

4.     Build connections in the greater educational community so that educational research can be presented by outside experts to the teaching staff as a service to the school.

5.     Create a staff newsletter designed to highlight the latest research in education.

6.     Create partnerships with local colleges or universities, offering up classrooms for potential educational research projects.

7.     Encourage staff members pursuing a masters or doctoral degree to conduct their research at their own school site.

While it may never be possible to create a system where educators have extra time to spare, it is important to ensure our educators still have access to current information revealed by the scientific research community. Likewise, it is also important to find ways for our true field-researchers in education (our teachers) to share their work and discoveries with those in the more traditional scientific realm.

Tommy Reddicks
Indianapolis, IN

* 2006 Kansas Teacher Working Conditions Survey

I remember when I was first told I was going to be someone’s mentor. I thought to myself, “How can I be a mentor to someone when I’m so early on in my own career?”  I also wondered how other people with more experience would respond to hearing I was THEIR mentor. However, I soon realized that being a mentor didn’t have anything to do with age or the amount of experience one has.  Instead, it’s about being there for someone when they need advice, guidance, or support.  Everyone has something he/she can bring to the table. 

In the past few years I’ve grown curious about whether other people had similar mentoring misconceptions.  I began reviewing prominent articles on mentoring and came across an article from the Harvard Business Review that discussed common myths about mentorship.  I found the article very interesting, and very applicable in education. I have highlighted the key myths from the article below. 


Myths about mentoring: Posted on Harvard Business Review: February 1, 2011

Myth #1: You have to find one perfect mentor

            Many people think a mentor is one person you turn to for advise.  In reality, you may seek out many people for advice. You are more likely going to benefit from having multiple advisors to give you input.  This helps give multiple perspectives on topics, which allows you to see more of the whole picture.

Myth #2: Mentoring is a formal long-term relationship

            Because things are constantly changing and people change jobs more often today, it is unrealistic to have a long-term mentoring relationship.  Rather than thinking of mentorship as something long-term, you should think of it as something you acquire when you need it. A mentor is someone who you go to when you have questions, not only when there is something big going on in your career. However, you should still build relationships.  Advice is going to be more relevant when it comes from someone you trust and who knows you well. 

Myth #3: Mentoring is for junior people

            It is very common to think that you only need a mentor when you’re starting out in your career.  However, people from every stage in his/her career benefit from having someone (or multiple people) to go to for guidance.  Whether you are adding responsibilities to your job, changing positions, or thinking about leaving, seeking advice and guidance from a mentor can be very beneficial.  

Myth #4: Mentoring is something more experienced people do out of the goodness of their hearts

            Mentoring should be useful to every person involved.  Before seeking out a mentor (or mentees) ask yourself what you can bring to the table.  Make sure you present your prospective to your mentor and make it very clear that you are bringing valuable resources to the table as well.  Even if your resources aren’t needed at the present time, a promise for future help is very valuable. 

These myths help structure the viewpoint of what a mentor truly is. Everyone can be a mentor to someone, regardless if they are in the 10th year of their career or in the first. We all have valuable insights that can be beneficial to others; we just need to have the confidence to share them when the opportunity arises, and not be afraid to seek collaboration and feedback in the workplace.  Once we get rid of any preconceived notions of what a mentor should be, we start to realize that we can all be a mentor, and that can be a very powerful thing. 

Samantha Lingeman
Indianapolis, IN    

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