By: Guest Blogger
One of my favorite pastimes — both personally and professionally — is reflecting on my experiences. In many ways, the 2016-2017 school year was like all the others throughout my teaching career — incredibly fulfilling and extremely challenging.
But last year also was quite different. Serving as Ohio’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, I experienced opportunities that I had never dreamed of. I traveled to Dallas; Washington, D.C.; Coronado, California; and Huntsville, Alabama for amazing professional development seminars. I stood in the Oval Office and met the president of the United States. I also met 55 other Teachers of the Year who are just like you and me: they love teaching and, above all, they love serving young people and making a difference in their lives.
Throughout my time with these educators, I have learned — over and over again — the value of educators; an understanding that takes me all the way back to my student teaching internship. A little more than a decade ago, my mentor teacher asked me, “Do you value what you do?” I have no idea what prompted her inquiry. I do know that my answer was, and is, overwhelmingly yes!
I value teachers because educator quality matters. A formidable amount of research has conclusively determined that teacher effectiveness is the number one variable that influences student learning outcomes. Because of this, we must continually increase the intentionality of our instructional practices, striving to become better teachers every period of every day. In other words, we must be the growth mindset we wish to see in the world.
I value teachers because of the ways in which they can and do impact the whole child. Almost without exception, our students are hurting. Many have encountered poverty, drugs, homelessness and abuse, and even our best and brightest often lack self-confidence. Thus, teachers must be extremely intentional not only in terms of their instructional practices but also in building strong relationships with their students.
While in Huntsville, I attended a dinner event at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. A few of the town’s residents had graciously prepared some delectable desserts for the Teachers of the Year. To be honest, I was exhausted from a long day of activities, and I hoped to mingle for just a couple minutes and then return to the dorm promptly to rest. However, after hearing I was from Ohio, one woman told me that I simply had to meet her husband. So, I did.
Mr. Saunders was from Ironton, not far from my hometown of Chillicothe. Like virtually everyone else in the room of several hundred people, he had served as an engineer for NASA. His travels had taken him from southern Ohio to New Orleans to Huntsville. I enjoyed listening to the stories of his engineering career, which he retired from at the age of 55. On a whim, I asked him what he had done since his retirement.
It turns out that, after a few years, he was offered a job as an engineering instructor at a local college. I asked him if he had any teacher stories. He proceeded to tell me of the time one of his students brought his father to meet him after graduation. The student proudly held out his degree and said, “Dad, you told me I couldn’t achieve this, but Mr. Saunders? He told me I could.” Throughout his story, he could not help but cry — and he was not alone. Mr. Saunders went on to tell me that, through all his incredible life events and accomplishments, he never experienced fulfillment that surpassed that which he felt as a teacher.
This event resonated deeply with me, and I struggled to understand why. Then, during a moment of reflection, it hit me. A few days earlier, I had watched “Moana” with my daughter. One of the recurring topics in “Moana” is the search for identity and the desire to know who you are and your place in the world.
As you begin the 2017-2018 school year, whether it’s your first or your 30th year in the classroom, do not lose sight of who YOU are. YOU are a teacher. YOU matter. YOU make a difference in students’ lives. Through your efforts, YOU can change your students’ life trajectories.
Best wishes for an outstanding school year!
Dustin Weaver was an English teacher at Chillicothe High School when he was named the 2017 Ohio Teacher of the Year. In the 2017-2018 school year, he stepped out of the classroom to become the principal of Chillicothe High School. To contact him, click here.
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By: Steve Gratz
My wife is a school counselor at Worthington Kilbourne High School, and we have interesting discussions on preparing students for their transition from high school. I’ve been an advocate for graduating students to something (i.e., college remediation-free, in-demand jobs, apprenticeship programs or the military) rather than simply graduating students from high school. In addition to both being employed in education, my wife and I enjoy riding our tandem bicycle. A couple of weeks ago, we spent several days riding our tandem in the Lake Tahoe Region on the California side. If you’ve never been to Lake Tahoe, you’re missing out.
During one of our tandem rides several years ago, we were discussing graduation options for students. The context for the discussion pertained to the state changing the school year from days to hours. Because of this change, many districts were struggling to add electives so students had more options for courses during their junior and senior years. I remember asking my wife how she would counsel a student on her caseload who has interest in becoming a registered nurse. Aside from the graduation requirements, she would recommend that the student take additional math and science credits and take advantage of Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) — this was prior to the days of College Credit Plus. I remember following up with questions about encouraging students to attend the Delaware Area Career Center, and she responded with the all too familiar response how students didn’t see the career center as a pathway of their choosing. Our discussion focused on establishing courses at Worthington Kilbourne High School that allowed students to earn industry-recognized credentials in in-demand pathways.
When I came to the office the next Monday, I suggested to Jamie Nash, the associate director in the Office of Career-Technical Education, that we needed to design courses for seniors only, where they could earn industry-recognized credentials in in-demand pathways. Jamie worked with other staff in the office and created a new program that grew into the Senior Only Credential Program. The Senior Only Credential Program was designed to complement, and not compete with, our traditional two-year programs at our area career centers. The Senior Only Credential Program can be offered as a career-technical education (CTE) program where the course can receive supplemental funds to operate the program or outside of CTE. If it is conducted outside of CTE, the school would not receive supplemental funds, but the credentialing program could be offered earlier then the senior year. Regardless of which funding structure is utilized, the course can be taught by a professional under the 12-hour temporary teaching permit. The 12-hour temporary teaching permit can be issued to a non-licensed individual who holds at least a baccalaureate degree with a major in the subject to be taught or has significant experience in the industry sector.
Since the inception of the Senior Only Credential Program, its utility has continued to evolve. Days to hours has come and gone, and the original demand for the program has changed to where today, the Senior Only Credential Program is a viable option for students to graduate and serves to mitigate risk as students enroll in postsecondary education.
Research indicates that 36 percent of students attending public colleges or universities graduate in four years. While the number does increase to nearly 58 percent after six years, the completion rate for students attending Ohio public colleges or universities isn’t stellar. Today, students who earn industry-recognized credentials prior to graduating from high school can use the credentials to earn college credit and for gainful employment while they pursue additional postsecondary credentials and degrees. Furthermore, earning industry-recognized credentials in in-demand pathways can serve to mitigate the risks associated with pursuing additional postsecondary credentials and degrees. We know that sometimes life gets in the way, and if postsecondary students need to take some time off from their studies, they know they can use the credentials they earned in high school to help them get in-demand jobs in Ohio until they can return to their studies. Additionally, those students who are successful and graduate on time can use the credentials to help pay for their postsecondary education.
Just last week, I visited with Tom Johnson, mayor of Somerset, Ohio, and with Randy Leite, dean of the College of Health Sciences and Professions at Ohio University, about opportunities in health sciences in southeastern Ohio. I shared with them how school districts could implement a credentialing program in the health sciences for several credentials including, but not limited to, phlebotomy, medical assistant, and state-tested nursing assistant for high school students. Randy immediately added that students graduating with these credentials could continue and become registered nurses with one additional year at Ohio University and preferably continue to earn bachelor of science degrees in nursing.
Today, students have many options where they can earn industry credentials — a pathway that was typically completed at the career center. Students can earn credentials not only at their area career centers, but also at their local high schools through credential only programs, at area community colleges through College Credit Plus (see Stark State’s Learn to Earn Program) or even through work-based learning using Credit Flex.
Redesigning the senior year, or even the entire high school experience, takes major commitment from school leaders, faculty and staff. Fortunately, there are great examples of this work taking place throughout Ohio. I am familiar with the work at Fairport Harbor, Perry Local, Marion City, Akron City and Cleveland to name just a few. On Oct. 24, 2017, the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Educational Service Center Association are holding another career pathway network meeting to help school districts learn how to develop enhanced career pathways and more meaningful partnerships with business and industry leaders in their communities. This will be a great opportunity for school leaders to learn from their colleagues about redesigning the senior year or even the entire high school experience.
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By: Virginia Ressa
Happy New School Year! My colleague and friend, Stephanie Donofe, ended her blog last week by wishing everyone a happy new year. I thought it was perfect — that’s exactly how I feel at the start of a new school year. It may not be Jan. 1, but you’re starting anew: redecorating, buying supplies, planning lessons, organizing resources. It is a fun time of year, as long as the weather doesn’t turn too hot.
One of the most interesting aspects of a new school year is meeting your new students. They may not be new to the school, you may know of them from your colleagues or even have data in a file, but you don’t truly know your students until you spend time with them. There are lots of “interest inventory” tools out there to ask the students about themselves. Some of these are probably a lot more useful than others. Do you really need to know Johnny’s favorite food? Maybe, but I bet there are questions you could ask that would reveal a whole lot more about your students and their lives than asking for their favorite foods. Maybe it would help to ask students about what comes “easy” to them and what things they consider “challenges.” I saw a set of writing prompts that asked “would you rather” questions like, “Would you rather be really tall or really short?” or “Would you rather live in the city or the country?” These types of writing prompts also are great conversation prompts and could elicit important details about students’ lives, their interests, fears and more.
In Ohio, we have a very diverse student population. Almost 3 percent of our students are learning English as a second language. That might not seem like a lot statewide, but it is significant if those students live in your district. Students with disabilities make up 14.5 percent of our population and are learners in classrooms across the state. The most startling of the statistics I looked at today is the percent of our students who are economically disadvantaged: 49.9 percent. That’s half of our 1.7 million students living in households struggling to meet their financial needs, which we know has many repercussions. Part of those students who are economically disadvantaged are the 1.2 percent who are homeless; that is 20,185 homeless students in Ohio. Right now, Ohio is experiencing a record number of students needing stable, out-of-home care as a result of the current opioid epidemic.
When we meet our new students, especially those new to the district, they don’t come with signs on their foreheads that tell us what their needs are. We have to work hard to identify their strengths and weaknesses and to understand what their environments are like when they leave our schools. I don’t say that to sound depressing — I promise, I’m not here to spoil your new year. I bring up these issues because it is essential for teachers to learn about their students so they can better meet students’ needs. This is not an easy task, and we often unintentionally revert to applying stereotypes and making assumptions. In such a diverse state, making assumptions about who our students are is definitely not best practice and reminds me of my mother’s admonition about the result of making assumptions (do you know that one?).
I’d like to share with you a personal story that isn’t all that pretty. When I began teaching, I was working in an urban alternative school with “at-risk” students. As a history teacher, I thought it would be fun to start the year off by making timelines of our own lives. I created a sample on the board with details of my life, then I asked my seventh-graders to draw a timeline of their lives. I wanted them to go back before they were born and include their parents and other family members on their timelines. There was one student who just would not get to work. As a new teacher, I felt that if I let him “get away” with that, it would set a precedent for the year. So, I urged him to get to work a couple of times. I tried changing my tone from friendly to stern. Still nothing on his paper. I set a consequence, threatening to send him out of the room if he wasn’t going to participate. He made the decision to leave the room himself and cursed at me on the way out. What I found out when I talked with him later was that he didn’t know much about his family or when or where his parents and grandparents were born. Because I never asked him why he wasn’t working, I didn’t understand his behavior or his learning needs. I was naïve in assuming this would be a “fun” activity for all my students. I hadn’t considered the complicated emotions it might elicit because I didn’t yet know my students.
That’s a hard story to share so publicly. I have to remind myself that it was many years ago, and I was very young. But that’s not an excuse and doesn’t make my naïveté okay. What helped to make things right was the frank and honest discussion my student had with me about his life and the apologies we exchanged as we both pledged to ask rather than assume.
As you meet your new students, remember that there are many things you don’t yet know about them. Ask lots of questions, provide opportunities for them to share their experiences and lives with you and their classmates. Share some of your own personal stories, even your strengths and weaknesses. Take the time to stop and think before you assume anything about a student. A student may be learning English for the first time, but she also may be proficient in reading and writing one or more other languages — she already has strong literacy complex thinking skills that you can foster. A student receiving free lunch may have a more stable home than the student who comes in with a full lunch box every day. The student identified as having a learning disability is likely able to achieve at the same rate as his peers if provided the right supports.
I encourage you to embrace the diversity of your classroom by getting to know your students and avoiding making assumptions about them. This is a lesson I learned the hard way — I hope this is a time when you can learn from another teacher’s mistake.
Have a very Happy New Year!
Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.
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By: Stephanie Donofe Meeks
Hello, everyone! You last heard from me more than a year ago, as I was in a car accident last summer. It was of the lucky-to-be-alive magnitude kind of car accident, and I am so grateful to be back at work now. This year on pause gave me time for some deep reflection during my recovery process.
In particular, I was struck by the parallels between personalized learning and my recovery. At the hospital, the trauma team used a set of protocols for unconscious victims to establish and triage my injuries. Based on this thorough assessment, the team determined I had broken both legs, among other damages. The assessment was extensive, and the trauma surgeons began treating the breaks immediately, using typical treatments for typical fractures. My right leg, however, was not a standard break, so alternative methods were used for my situation. If the team had done what it usually does for a fracture, I would not be walking today.
Lying in bed healing for two months and then recovering for another eight, I had a lot of time to think. The idea of my personalized treatment had me thinking about personalized learning and what it really means. I could overlay my situation to exactly how personalized learning can help students succeed. Some students respond to the typical and usual methods of instruction and succeed. Some students do not and need other strategies to achieve success. Most students have areas of strength and areas of challenge in learning. For example, standard teaching methods may work with them in social studies but not in science. I think too many times we look for a single-point solution in education…one tool or resource that will work for everyone…and that just is not the case.
Digital tools can assist, but they are not the only solution. Multiple solutions can be used to support multiple needs. In addition, a small set of tools can be applied differently to personalize learning for students. Perhaps you utilize online resources; do all students use them the same way? If you think of your resources as currencies, how will you spend them? This could include time and space—something as simple as a different room arrangement or a different structure for in-class time can help personalize learning for students. What are resources you have that can be used differently? How can standard assessment protocols be used to personalize a learning plan?
I did not recover alone. I had a team of support, from the initial trauma team to the physical therapy team, as well as an alternative therapies team. They were so willing to look for solutions for me to walk again; they never gave up looking for solutions, even ones they had not tried in the past. In education, we have many kinds of teams. How do we best utilize our support systems to personalize learning for all? What are the first steps that you can take to help personalize learning for students?
With the start of a new school year, we have the opportunity for a new beginning, new thinking and new planning. NONE of us can predict the future—but with the right tools and planning, we can be ready when it comes. HAPPY NEW YEAR—make it awesome!
Next up in the series…using a framework with a team approach to personalize learning.
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