The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Supporting and Freeing Teachers to Do the Work They Know How to Do

Today I will elaborate on something I mentioned in a recent post: the reduction of commercial teaching materials at all grade levels. To begin with I admit that I am biased because of my own experience, and I realize that the times have changed. Both teachers and principals have less freedom than we did. But that still doesn’t justify having so little faith in teachers that we must give them new textbooks and detailed teaching programs in order to do their job.

As the English department chair in a Wisconsin high School before I became an elementary school principal, I enabled teachers to avoid ordering new English textbooks and to buy modern literature instead. While not all of today’s fiction is of the same quality as many of the traditional pieces, it is far more appealing and meaningful to students today and more often produces deep thinking and good discussions. Moreover, since schools often have old textbooks still on hand or copies in the school library, they can be used when appropriate.

Later, as an elementary principal I found that teachers at that level were also eager to avoid commercial textbooks and workbooks and to buy modern literature. The problem with many commercial reading textbooks was—and still is– that they focus too much on skills and not enough on interesting stories and realistic characters.

What I came to realize at both my high school and elementary school positions was that our teachers knew how to teach reading and writing; they did not need authors or their publishers to tell them what to teach, when, or how. Moreover, they did not need school “coaches” to observe and critique them or professional speakers to present workshops. Taking an occasional college course or attending a state or national education conference, provided by school professional development funds, was always better.

If our teachers were weak in any area, it was in science. But we found help in state resources that would provide us with animals or plants when we needed them and teach us how to study them in the classroom. At the elementary level the best approach to science is growing plants, raising small animals, and hatching larvae. Such activities are appropriate and meaningful for young children,

One thing that continued to impress me as a principal was that many teachers had special knowledge and abilities that they could share with their colleagues. At our Oregon school we also had a custodian who was an expert on school recycling and enjoyed showing teachers and students how to prepare used materials. For example, she showed kids how to drain and clean used milk cartons so they could be recycled rather than thrown in a trash bin. The custodian also kept a record of our progress in recycling and designed a large chart to illustrate it.

At times we also found ways to use the skills and knowledge of parents in classrooms. In Oregon we had some parents who earned new books for their children by volunteering to help in classrooms. In Wisconsin a group of parents designed a program to make children aware of professional artwork. Although we also had an art teacher, those parents supplemented her work by bringing examples of classic art into classrooms, explaining their specials qualities, and describing the lives of famous artists.

One big advantage we had in both elementary schools where I was principal was the power to adjust school budgets to our needs. In neither place did district or state officials mandate which materials we had to buy –although they often recommended them.  I was able to manipulate the budget to get what teachers wanted and needed.

Although I recognize that school principals today have much less freedom than I had, I urge them to use whatever loopholes they can find to support and emancipate teachers,   give them opportunities to work together and try out new ideas.  Principals should also bring parents into school operations so they better understand what teachers are doing and how students are learning.  There is nothing to be ashamed of in an active,  adventurous school. It exemplifies what education is meant to be.

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Having Better Schools Without Suspensions or Expulsions

Today’s topic is one I feel strongly about and have dealt with before: the effects of School suspension and its alternatives. An article in NPR Ed titled “School Suspensions Have Plunged: We Don’t Know Yet if That’s Good News” authored by Anya Kametz triggered my response.

 Over the past five years 27 states have passed laws intended to reduce the numbers of school suspensions and expulsions by making minor offenses and first-time offenders ineligible. Also, many of America’s largest school districts have changed their polices with the same goal and standards.

What many schools have done along with raising the bar for suspensions is to institute a practice known as “restorative justice” (RJ). What that entails is bringing an offender before a circle of other students and a teacher mediator to discuss the offence and suggest ways for him or her to repair the damage done.

In New York City former Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned suspensions for first-time and minor offenders and instituted RJ in 2012. Later, his successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio made it even more difficult for students to be suspended and expanded the RJ program. He even added $1.2 million dollars to the city budget to train teachers in using that program.

Although the number of suspensions dropped dramatically in the following school years, New York’s annual school climate surveys showed that students perceived less mutual respect among their classmates and experienced more unpleasant physical encounters. On the other hand, the teachers felt that order and discipline had stayed the same or even improved.

To confuse matters more, a recently released paper by Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute argues that such actions have been harmful to schools and students, making the school climate worse than before and endangering the safety of students and teachers.

Eden’s teacher surveys done in other cities reported no improvement in school safety or student respect after they adopted policies similar to those in New York.

Like those responders who disagree with Eden, I feel that he has not provided nearly enough evidence to support his opinions. At the same time I think that Implementing RJ programs is only one small step in changing the climate of a school or eliminating bad student behavior. I believe that much more could and should be done.

Basically, I see the heart of the problem as the fact that many schools, especially high schools, are too large and, as a result, too impersonal. As I have asserted in earlier posts, teachers with a hundred or more students do not know most of them personally and students do not know their classmates as work partners and friends. In addition, in large schools there are not enough structures outside the classrooms for students to meet and work or play together.

One change I have suggested for large schools is to divide themselves into two or three separate schools without grouping students by ability. Along with creating the possibility of personal attachments within schools, that would allow the creation of mixed school intramural sports, drama and musical groups; not only giving many more students the opportunity to participate in school activities than is now possible, but also to letting them mix with people from the other schools within their building.

Another change I have stressed before is to give more power to students in such areas as making rules for student behavior, becoming partners for other students who have academic or social problems, and working with teachers to plan activities and select materials.

Clearly, I have not covered all the possibilities for schools within a school and students across a building. But I believe strongly that creating and sustaining the types of structures I have mentioned is the key to making all students academically and socially successful. The only thing I would add is to provide the same kinds of opportunities for teachers to lead and learn from each other and to become recognized as the experts in their field.

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What Is a School Principal’s Job?

During the past four weeks when my husband’s recovery from surgery was my main point of attention, I did no writing but plenty of reading. As I read the letters to the editor in the New York Times this morning, I was drawn back to an article that appeared about a week ago: “Want to Fix Schools? Go to the Principal’s Office“, read it again and decided to write about it and my own views of being a principal today.

 The focus of the article was the role of high school principals in helping students to be successful learners, graduate, and be ready for college. In the city of Chicago high school graduation rates have increased rapidly and younger students have made more progress in reading and math than those in almost every other major city.

In Chicago principals are seen as the key people in determining the success or failure of a school. According to mayor Rahm Emanual,”Principals create the environment. They create a culture of accountability. They create a sense of community.” The city’s chief education officer, Janice Jackson, added that “Our principals are the most accountable people in this system.”

In the view of many other officials principals make or break the success of teachers and students. Their ability to attract, improve, and retain good teachers is the key action in developing and maintaining high quality schools and educating students successfully.

The most significant part of the article for me, however, was the emphasis on the work of a particular high school principal, Gregory Jones who seems to be much more than efficient in managing teachers. He is pictured as making contact with individual students and responding to the needs of teachers. In addition, he has worked hard to make his school a place where students would “enjoy coming to school.” To do that he added a full orchestra and a sculpture program the school’s offerings and gave more attention the school’s sports’ teams.

As a former school principal I am impressed with what Jones has done and strives to do in the future. I also wish for similar actions from other principals everywhere. To my mind it isn’t enough to raise a school’s graduation rate and test scores and decrease misbehavior if students do not find pleasure, purpose and meaning there. Although it is impossible for a principal to know all students personally, he or she should know many and have am understanding of their home lives, ethnic backgrounds, and the ways of their communities. A principal should also know many parents and try to bring them into the school’s operations in some way.

Let me expand my view of a good school by quoting from an article I wrote for “The Elementary School Journal” in 1986 when I was an elementary school principal in Madison Wisconsin:

A good school creates a sense of community that permits personal expression within a framework of social responsibility. It operates as an organic entity—not a machine—moving always to expand its basic nature rather than to tack on artificial appendages. A good school is like a healthy tree. As it grows it sinks its roots deep into its native soil; it adapts to the surrounding climate and vegetation; its branches thicken for support and spread for maximum exposure to the sun; it makes its own food; it heals its own wounds; and, in its season, it puts forth fresh leaves, blossoms, and fruit.

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All is well

Just an update to let you know that my husband’s surgery went well and he is on the mend.  However, much to do, so this blog will probably stay dormant for another week.  Thanks to all those who checked in to see how we were doing.  Joanne

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