Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Guest Post—Stereotype Threat

On Monday night, I had the good fortune to hear Dr. Claude Steele speak about his research which focused on Stereotype Threat. My colleague also attended and put these thoughts together. He captured the talk so well, so with his permission, I'm sharing. Thanks, David.

Dr. Claude Steele gave a talk last night at ETHS on the concept of Stereotype Threat that was as personal as it was informative. He examined the question of stereotype itself, gave a series of examples where it happens, and then provided some solutions as to how it can be mitigated or even eliminated.

As part of his story, Dr. Steele shared his own early days in grad school, where white professors down the hall would freely use the "N" word, and there were regular open discussions on campus that explored the inferiority of black people's innate intellect. In this environment, as the only black man in the program, Claude Steele was not himself, he said. He was cautious and afraid to say anything for fear of promoting a negative stereotype. He was experiencing then what he would later go on to research extensively and define as stereotype threat.

During his talk, Dr. Steele shared many stories and ideas that resonated deeply. Here are just a few:
  • When black students took a non-verbal IQ test, they performed a full standard deviation lower than their
    white peers. When they took the same test, but where told before hand that it was "just a puzzle" and not any measure of anything, they performed at the same level... "Puzzles are fun," he said. "The frustration is part of the puzzle so it's OK".. but when you are feeling measured, he said, performance can drop, particularly if you are part of a group for whom there are negative stereotypes in our society.
  • "What makes you subject to stereotype threat is not anything about a lack of skills. It is when you care about your performance...It's the best math student that experiences the greatest stereotype threat."
  • "What creates stereotype threat is not anything about you," he said. "It is about context."  And thus there are remedies to eliminating stereotype threat. He provided these:
    • Teachers need to learn about stereotype threat and be constantly conscious of the cues they may be creating both personally and systemically
    • Teachers must take on, and teach, a growth mindset.
    • Identify less with the student, but rather with what he is dealing with. 
    • Schools should provide role models ("existence proof of what is possible")
As a continuation of his story of grad school, Dr. Steele went on to talk about his own advisor, a white man who, with time, demonstrated a true faith in the young Dr. Steele. "I began to realize he believed in me," he said. They had a strong relationship. "He'd ask me my opinions, and he cared what I had to say." They published a paper together. "Pretty soon I realized Shh... I can do this. I'm good."

Dr. Steele emphasized the explicit belief that someone had in his abilities. And then the authentic feeling of genuine success. He gives credit to these two things as propelling him forward early on to the success he has seen since.

Dr. Steele is now Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of California, Berkeley

"We need to treat our students," Dr. Steele said during the Q&A, "like they are our own children. We need to treat them with love. We have to start with that. We need to start with love and with appreciation. Students need to be met with that first."

"If I could summarize my own work in one word," Dr. Steele said as he closed. "It would be 'perspective'. I need to take the perspective of the student. I need to be in their shoes. When I take the perspective of the student, I don't see the student at all. I just see the circumstances they face and I begin to think about how to address them."

~David Wartowski, Director of Mathematics, Niles North

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Teacher Evaluations

What's the point? My district is spending a significant (rather exorbitant) amount of time discussing the evaluation process. Yes, we've adopted the Danielson Framework. Many of the conversations help me to learn the lingo, understand the mechanics, recognize the legalities and brainstorm potential standard operating procedures. This is all necessary for me. And others. But it's a rare occasion when we set aside the same significant amount of time to have in depth conversations about why we evaluate teachers, what we sincerely hope to gain, and—most of all—how we use best practice pedagogy as a part of our evaluative process to help teachers grow. I don't think any district does enough of this.

The majority of my teaching colleagues would tell you that being evaluated is a hoop to jump through, an annoyance, paperwork that needs to get done. And now, they would add one new twist. It helps districts end up with rankings. A condition that nurtures competition and isolation. How do I know? Because I've asked all of my former colleagues. And I was one of them...So we need to do better than these experiences.

The mechanical pieces of evaluations are necessary. I know that. However, there are so many parallels between teacher evaluations and student assessments that I hope we capitalize on them; I think they can help guide this journey. Concerned and effective teachers spend the majority of their careers trying to tip the balance for students from thinking about "points" to focusing on "learning." If students spend their time concentrating on points, they open the door to a number of educational traps—anxiety, ignorance, missed opportunities, and creative suffocation. But if they concentrate on learning, the appropriate grade follows and an unexpected world of adventure and connection surfaces along the way. The same is true for how we evaluate teachers. We need to tip the balance of focus for teachers from evaluations (ranks) to true professional development (pushing practice).

So as an administrator, I feel a self-prescribed, appropriate level of responsibility to help teachers do this. To grow, not just exist or survive. This requires experience, differentiation, risk-taking, presence, intelligence, time, joy and support. (That's all!) So I need to develop an "SOP" that uses what I want teachers to gain from the evaluative process as the foundation of the mechanics. Here's what I want for them:
  • To Enjoy Teaching
  • To Push Practice
  • To Stay Current
  • To Remain (or learn to be) Creative
  • To Nurture Connections
  • To Balance Personal and Professional Worlds
  • I want them to want to come to work and play...
If teachers focus on the above, any rubric used to assess their practice will lead to an appropriate evaluation. But if they focus on the rubric (grade), the prescribed outcomes (rewards) may surface, but all of the above will slowly die out.

So as I try to develop a means to tip this balance, I know for certain that one way to tap into the language of the above is to model the joy of being an educator. And I really do love this arena. I see the weight lifted from the shoulders of teachers who spend every daylight hour trying to nurture student growth when I simply smile.

So here's a suggestion. We want teachers to practice all of the above. Because in the end, if they do, what a singularly exceptional experience our students will have in their classrooms. So let go of the mechanics a bit. Practice the above as a leader. Let your hair down, so to speak. Vulnerability permits honesty to surface. And growth follows.

Develop a lesson plan. Together.
Make mistakes. Together.
Have a serious discussion. Together.
Write on the wall. Together.
Dance. Together.
Sing. Together.
Play music. Together. (I mean seriously...if you can sing or play an instrument, how are you NOT using this as a means to connect or create. Coming from someone who would give her right arm to be able to do this...)
Create an artistic piece. Together.
Perform. Together.
Get laughed at. Together.
Get yelled at. Together.
Share stories. Together.
Challenge each other's positions. Together.
Fall. And Rise. Together.
Protest. And Fundraise. Together.
Forgive. And Celebrate. Together.
More than anything else, break bread together. Often.

Then, and only then, will teachers feel the freedom to let go. And fly. (And yes, I'm still searching for the time to do a lot of the above. But I am doing as much of it as I can.)

We all know that every child deserves a champion to advocate on their behalf. We have those aplenty at my district. That's a given.

I contend every teacher deserves a champion too.