Snow Days As Data #phled

(Last week, a certain education-themed extension of the financial secotor1 wrote a piece for the Philadelphia media touting some gains at their pet schools.  While we love hearing success stories at public schools, the authors didn’t tell the whole story.  I suppose and their ilk were already awash with real teachers telling their stories, so they decided not to publish our response. 

This piece is co-authored by Larissa Pahomov.  You should read her blog and follow her on Twitter)

With six snow days so far this year, the routine has become familiar to all students and their families in Philadelphia. There’s wild speculation in the days leading up to the storm, constant checking and refreshing of news sources for updates, and a celebration when the day off gets called.

Unfortunately, the snow day routine reveals something else about students in our city: a lot them hate going to school.

We’re not talking about the appreciation of a day off. Students (and educators, too) like a break from routine as much as anybody. But a winter like this reveals the wide gap between school’s missions and the students they seek to serve. Administrators fret about lost “instructional time,” but students literally jump for joy because they have been freed from their desks. Book bags stay closed on snow days. The last thing students want to do on their holiday is learn.

How did things get this bad? Unfortunately, a part of the problem is the increased emphasis on “proficiency,” as measured by standardized tests. Too many schools are telling their students the only knowledge that matters is what can be bubbled in on an exam. When Mother Nature disrupts the schedule, she brings some uncomfortable questions with her. When the tests end, does that mean our children stop learning?  Do we have to keep them locked in the classroom to stop their brains from melting?

The good news:  There’s a better way.

At Franklin Learning Center, teacher Ann Leaness inspires her students to read and become readers.  The method?  Stop grading reading and start encouraging students to see themselves as readers. For a snowbound teenager (and their parents), the ability to curl up with a good book is invaluable – for their sanity and continued learning.

Leaness’ class is just one example of a growing movement. All over the District, teachers are realizing that when kids are given the chance to pursue their passions, we don’t need to obsess over “proficiency.” At Science Leadership Academy, Seniors work overtime on Capstone projects, from designing machinery to crafting screenplays to producing their own hip hop album.  At Central, teacher Dan Ueda and the Robolancers teach students to build technology instead of merely playing with it.  So-called “Makespaces” at The Workshop School and Chester A. Arthur encourage kids to make things because it is something worthwhile to do, rather than because it will show up on their report card.

The education discussion in Philadelphia is obsessed with numbers, data, and the assessments that drive them.  This Winter reminds us that we can do better.  If students, guided by caring and passionate adults, are owners of learning instead of consumers, snow days become a day to work on a project, finish a book, or collaborate with a teacher. Authentic learning cannot be gridlocked.  We should stop looking at what kids do on a bubble test, and start looking at what they do on a snow day.

Larissa Pahomov and Andrew Saltz are public school teachers and members of the Philadelphia Teacher’s Action Group

  1. I’m trying Larissa, I’m really trying 

Mutual Consent, Priorities, and Nonsense

This is not a post about policy.  It’s about priorities

Over the summer a chief selling points by the various advocacy groups was the idea of “mutual consent”.  In any hiring, the Teacher and Principal would agree on the final decision.   This would replace the current system of Seniority and transfers.

According to groups like PennCan, The Philadelphia School Partnership, and the Coaltion for Effective Teaching [sic], mutual consent should be the major change in the next teacher’s contract.  You can read there logic here, here, and here.

From “A Way Forward for the District”

Ensuring mutual consent – meaning both principal and teacher must agree in all hiring and transfer decisions – while not a silver bullet, is the best way to recruit and keep great leaders, and to ensure that teachers work in jobs where each can have the greatest impact.

OK, I follow.  Clearly, we need some sort of new hiring process that allows Principals a greater ability to choose their staff.  This must be something brand new, right?  Innovative enough to propel our schools to success?

For your consideration:  Here’s the text from page 72 of the “current” PFT/SDP contract:

The Principal, in consultation with the Staff Selection Committee, shall
establish appropriate, objective criteria and procedures to identify candidates
for filling vacancies.
The Staff Selection Committee will follow the established procedures
to screen candidates. The Principal and the Staff Selection Committee will reach
consensus on the most qualified candidate for each available position. In the
event that the Committee fails to reach consensus, the Principal shall make the
selection from among the three (3) most qualified applicants as ranked by the

So the teacher must consent to meet with the committee and the Principal, advised but not terribly constrained by a committee of stakeholders, must consent.  It’s almost as if we already have a system where parties must mutually consent to hiring of teachers.  On paper.  From 2009.

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The Worst Teacher I’ve Ever Met

Mrs. Herring1 came to us from a neighborhood High School, where she taught various forms of social studies for almost two decades.  She was given the large room near our primary staircase.  I didn’t take much notice of her during that summer’s professional development, which may damn me as a jaded teacher who has seen so many teachers come and go that he no longer notices, or vindicate me as a savvy veteran who has finally learned that to survive the usual summer professional development is to furiously work on things that matter or quietly, peaceful leave one’s body to enter a happy place.  No matter.  Mrs. Herring was the worst teacher I have ever met, and this is the story of our brief interaction.

I’ve seen three teachers in my career (8 years and two schools) who I can say, with zero reservations, have no place in a school.  Two of them, one young and one old, aggressively picked fights with students.  Either the student would be put out or they could take a vacation on leave. Or both. 2 Mrs. Herring was another breed.

My first doubts about Mrs. Herring surfaced when 3 of my Juniors reported she spent the first 3 days of class doing nothing but taking roll and talking about “Indiana Jones”.  Even more curious was this conversation, which I initially chalked up to exaggeration, was taking place during Mrs. Herring’s class.  This continued.  There were lectures about vacations, projects that didn’t make sense, and lot of mid-class trips to the copier.  The “aha” moment for me was 3 conversations we had in the space of 2 weeks on “which stairwell leads to the office”.  There are two stairwells in Robeson.  One of them is 7 feet from Mrs. Herring’s classroom and it leads directly to the office.

And, look:  I don’t know this woman.  I don’t know what she’s been through or how she got here or anything significant about her other than she had a superhuman ability to be terrible at her job.  I want to empathize, I do.  But, reflecting on that school year, I didn’t really want to empathize.  I wanted a good teacher to help with my 11th graders or, at best, someone competent who wouldn’t have them bouncing off the walls.  I wanted Mrs. Herring out.  Now.

Being a considerate soul, Mrs. Herring managed to break her foot come October.  And, in the recovery and cleaning that followed, we made a discovery.  Mrs. Herring’s lesson plans, gradebook, and essentials turned out to be impeccable.  She dotted her “i”s and crossed her “t”s; her ducks were in an unshakable row and her bases were meticulously covered.  The kicker?  Mrs. Herring had a long, storied history of breaking her foot during the school year.

We debated whether she was crazy or brilliant.  No matter.  Chris Lehman wrote something that sticks with me:

“Our schools are structurally dysfunctional places which, therefore, makes teaching and learning much harder than it needs to be, so that teachers — and students — have to succeed despite the system, rather than because of it.”

In a dysfunctional system, the survivors will be people who thrive in dysfunction.  Mrs. Herring was nice enough where kids wouldn’t swing at her, competent enough where there would be an activity on the board, strange enough where you didn’t want to see her explode because she might actually have a bomb strapped to her chest.

What’s the next part of this story?  A young teacher gets fired, Herring stays on, seniority destroys another generation of children.  Click the button here to donate.

Except, in the real world, something very different happened.  The staff at Robeson was strong and professional3. Upon her December return, Mrs. Herring was at the top of everyone’s enemy list.  For most of us, that meant avoiding any contact with her.  One teacher  told her, point blank, she was not carrying her weight and was not welcome.  My Principal started the process to host a formal hearing and, despite Mrs. Herring’s best efforts, launched the required formal observations.  Mrs. Herring was on her way out the door.

There was a lot more low level drama, culminating in a 700 word letter to my regional union representative4.  She arrived for Mrs. Herring’s formal hearing which, dramatically enough, took place in the midst of another round of layoffs.  I clearly remember our conversation:  “Everyone gets a hearing.  I don’t have to talk, I don’t have to play defense.  But everyone gets a hearing.”  Mrs. Herring had her hearing. She was out before Valentine’s Day.5

There’s been a well funded and well executed campaign to convince people that schools are propagated with intractable parasites.  The spearhead has always been horror stories of unionized cronies, their shenanigans, and the poor teachers who have to pick up the slack.  It’s a small sample size, but in eight years, two schools, and a lot of conversations, I’ve never known this storyline to be true.  It’s dramatic.  It turns heads.  It raises money and reinforces this notion that schools are really easy to “fix”.  And these stories always seem to have a sample size of 1.

So here’s my n=1 “terrible teacher story”:  When you give administrators enough time, when you give teachers6 agency and purpose, the problem of The Worst Teacher I Ever Met is a self correcting one.  If the whole debate could move onto bigger things, we would be much better off.

  1. I got jokes 

  2. And…I swear the younger one, had he been in a school with more mentors and less insanity, had potential. The older one was fired. 

  3. to define:  We were there to do our job, and we took pride in doing it 

  4. and was somehow rewarded with a spiffy PFT polo.  And if you are reading this and wondering “Wait, you can really appease a teacher with a nice shirt?”  The answer is yes, yes you can. 

  5. And was replaced by a very hardworking and well meaning substitute.  He was run out a month later by the same administrator – so yes, this is complicated 

  6. even by accident