First Person

Voices: Listening to teachers on licensure reform, part one

As part of an ongoing series on recruiting, training and supporting teachers, Donnell-Kay fellow Sarah Jenkins interviews veteran teacher Mark Sass about his work with the LEAD Compact. 

ClassroomI’m grateful that my fellowship at The Donnell-Kay Foundation allows me to nurture my obsession with policy’s impact on teachers. The Licensing Educators for Academic Development (LEAD) Compact  is looking at how to reform the licensing element of the profession, discussing teacher recruitment, training, induction, ongoing professional development, and retention. Given my fixation on teacher perspective, what better way to understand the process than by talking with the two teachers in the group? Mark Sass and Sarah Casaletto agreed to share the unique perspectives they are bringing to the licensure conversation.

The following includes excerpts from my recent conversation with Mark. Mark  has been teaching high school social sciences for 18 years, for the past 14 years at Legacy High School in Broomfield. He is a member of the Aspen Teacher Leader Fellows and of the Denver New Millennium Initiative, an initiative of the Center for Teaching Quality. Stay tuned for my conversation with Sarah, which will be posted tomorrow.

Why did you want to be part of the LEAD Compact?

Throughout my career as a teacher, a lot of my focus has been on the profession of teaching. I think we have a crisis within the profession as to whether or not it actually is a profession; this, in part, is based upon how our community views teachers and how teachers view themselves. I want to look at ways, through licensure and renewal, that we can professionalize the occupation. That’s my driving force.

As a teacher, what are your core values that guide your participation in the LEAD Compact? How is your perspective unique during licensure conversations?

I’m looking at the profession in general terms, in much broader terms. What are our core beliefs about teaching? Is it something you’re born with, learn with practice, or master with simple techniques? Is it a precise science, a completely data-driven practice, an art, or a sacred calling? Those stereotypes drive people’s views, which, in turn,  drive policy. What Sen. Johnston floated last year was that as long as you pass a background check, have a bachelors’ degree, and pass a generic placement exam, you can teach. That approach negates the idea that there is a certain set of competencies and training that monitor entry to the profession; it’s based on the stereotype that teaching is a profession in which you put someone in the classroom and mold them. We need a bigger, broader conversation.

What were your main concerns around licensure before joining the LEAD Compact?

My main concern was the recruitment piece, where a lot of attention is right now. I think that is the wrong approach. If you take care of retention, recruitment will follow. Make teaching so it’s not a profession that people want to leave quickly. Research supports that teacher turnover has a negative impact on schools themselves. I think it also has a negative impact on the profession.

How has your perspective changed since participating?

I’ve gone into this open minded. I’ve learned what to stand firm on and what not to. For example, I’ve been made aware of the concerns with rural districts. What we continue to hear at the LEAD Compact is that we have districts struggling to recruit teachers, and I get that, but it’s geographically specific. I don’t want to change the entire way in which a teacher enters the profession just because of those situations taking place. What can we do to help them? I’ve opened up to look at what’s really going on in those rural districts and their needs.

Thinking three years into the future, if you could choose one thing that would be different about licensure, what would that be?

What I’d like to see different is the re-licensure piece and opportunities for teachers to attain different levels of licenses. We treat teachers very much the same; we all get the same license, with some exceptions for specific subjects. I would like to see multiple licenses that recognize different abilities: master teacher, mentor teacher, teacher leader, etc. Some teacher unions push back on any way that you would differentiate teachers; they’re very sensitive to that, not wanting to recognize any teacher as different. I’d like to see us get over that. There are teachers who can mentor and teachers who are interested in policy. Many professions recognize people with differing abilities, and we want to take advantage of those. I don’t know if policy can do that or if that’s something the profession has to take on.

Thank you, Mark, for your willingness to share your thoughtful and constructive perspective as someone who regularly inhabits the teaching and policy world.  Tomorrow, we will check out the LEAD process from Sarah Casaletto’s perspective. 

*The Donnell-Kay Foundation is among several funders supporting the work of the LEAD Compact.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.