Everybody in Almost Every Language Says “Huh”? HUH?!

Everybody in Almost Every Language Says “Huh”? HUH?!

By Arika Okrent

What makes this utterance the “universal word”?

Listen to one end of a phone conversation, and you’ll probably hear a rattle of ah’s, um’s and mm-hm’s. Our speech is brimming with these fillers, yet linguistic researchers haven’t paid much attention to them until now. New research by Mark Dingemanse and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, has uncovered a surprisingly important role for an interjection long dismissed as one of language’s second-class citizens: the humble huh?, a sort of voiced question mark slipped in when you don’t understand something. In fact, they’ve found, huh? is a “universal word,” the first studied by modern linguists.

Dingemanse’s team analyzed recordings of people speaking ten different languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Icelandic, as well as indigenous languages from Ecuador, Australia and Ghana. Not only did all of the languages have a word intended to initiate a quick clarification, but its form always resembled huh? The utterance, they argue, isn’t a mere grunt of stupefaction but a remarkable linguistic invention.

In each of the languages investigated, the vowel is produced with a relatively relaxed tongue (never a vowel that requires you to lift your tongue, like “ee,” or pull the tongue back, like “oo”). And if any sound comes before the vowel, it is either an “h” sound or what’s called a glottal stop, a consonant sound formed by a complete closure of the glottis, the thin space between the vocal folds. (You use a glottal stop between the two parts of “uh oh” or the two syllables of “better,” if you say it with an extreme cockney accent.)

It’s not unusual, of course, for languages to have words or sounds in common: The English “number” and Spanish numero, for instance, share a Latin ancestor. And languages may adopt words from other languages (which is how words such as the slang OK spread widely). But it’s a basic linguistic principle that when there is no shared origin or word swapping, the word for a given thing will be arbitrarily different in different languages: So there’s “house” in English, maison (French), fángzi (Chinese) and huan (Lao).

Huh? appears to be anything but arbitrary. Dingemanse’s team has already confirmed the similarities with speech transcripts from 21 additional languages, many of them unrelated. Are the researchers sure that huh? will turn up in every language in the world? “No,” Dingemanse says. “But we are ready to place bets.”

What makes huh a word—and not, alternatively, the equivalent of a yelp? A laugh, cry or growl, however meaningful, isn’t considered language; even a dog communicates sadness with a whimper. A true word is learned, and follows certain linguistic rules, depending on the language spoken. Huh? fits this definition: For one thing, huh has no counterpart in the animal kingdom; for another, unlike innate vocalizations, children don’t use it until they start speaking. Moreover, in Russian, which doesn’t have an “h” sound, huh? sounds more like ah? In languages using a falling intonation for questions, like Icelandic, huh? also falls. All in all, Dingemanse concludes that huh? is a bona fide word with a specific purpose “crucial to our everyday language.”

But why would huh? sound similar in every language? To explain that, Dingemanse draws on evolutionary theory, saying the word is the result of “selective pressures in its conversational environment.” In a sense, huh? is such a highly efficient utterance for serving its particular narrow function that it has emerged in different languages independently again and again—what’s known as convergent evolution, or the appearance of a feature in different, often unrelated organisms presumably because it works so well. Sharks and dolphins, Dinge­manse says, “arrived at the same body plan not because they share certain genes, but because they share an environment.”

The dynamic, often fraught environment of human conversation, in which grave misunderstanding or a hurt feeling or an embarrassing gaffe is never more than a syllable away, calls for a word that instantly signals a need for clarification, is as brief as possible and is easy to produce, without complicated tongue coordination or lip movement. Without much planning—no searching one’s memory for the “right” word—a listener can interject a sleek, streamlined, wonderfully unambiguous word to keep the dialogue going. Huh?

Other interjections probably play a similar role, greasing the wheels of conversation, and they too may turn out to be universal. We won’t know for sure until linguists take a listen.

What we do know is that huh? has a rightful place in dialogue. And it has the added virtue of being nonthreatening. In that sense it definitely beats what?

How to boost literacy access, interest, engagement

Connected Teaching and Learning, Literacy

Q-and-A: How to boost literacy access, interest, engagement

By Melissa Greenwood 

You’re an advocate for personalized literacy. What is “personalized literacy” and how can this approach revitalize the conversation around literacy education?

To me, “personalized literacy” is the ability to match every unique reader with content at his or her ability level and within his or her interests. Providing the right supports to students who need help and providing educators with tools to truly personalize the literacy experience for every student in every classroom in every school will not only change the way we view literacy education, but education in general.

When students are learning to read in a personalized way — having content recommended to their levels and interests — and when teachers are receiving personalized data on each individual student’s reading activity, they have the capacity to make unprecedented progress in literacy. The ability to personalize literacy will help students, teachers and parents immediately identify struggling readers as well as the need for intervention or differentiated instruction. When the educator is armed with actionable data in reading for every student’s personalized needs, we can enhance literacy education — and education in general — by meeting each student exactly where they are to optimize their learning potential.

In turn, personalizing literacy will allow us to personalize all areas of education: the skills established through personalized literacy — ensuring that every student is reading and writing at grade level — will allow them to achieve greater success across all disciplines since every discipline requires a strong foundation in literacy.

How do digital books and access to personalized literacy environments support 21st-century skills?

A personalized literacy environment characterized by enhanced digital books supports 21st-century skills because we’re allowing students to access books when, where and how they want to read. Our 21st-century students, most of all, must be capable of adapting to constant change. Thus, we must change the way we teach literacy, including providing students with the ability to control and change their reading environment. This reading environment also must be changeable: It must change as the student changes and grows, which is why it is so important to provide students with a platform whose scaffolds expand and contract based on the student’s individual needs. In addition, the ability to personalize the reading and writing experiences of every student — rather than providing “one size fits all” assignments — will provide students with the foundation to read and write across the curriculum, as new educational standards and 21st-century careers require. Finally, access to new data about literacy will impact the information teachers share with parents.

Looking ahead, what does literacy education look like five or 10 years from now?

In the near future, I believe that literacy education will move to the forefront as the foundation of education. As national educational standards change, whether CCSS or STEM initiatives or others, the ability to read and write at grade level across the curriculum will grow ever more important. The ability to provide students with immediate access to a broad range of content will allow educators and administrators to support students as they learn to read and write in unique ways in every discipline. Literacy education will require the ability for students to move effortlessly between various discourse communities, and so we must teach them how to access and utilize different genres of literature outside of traditional language arts. Our students also must be able to write in response to any rhetorical situation, and I believe that literacy education must focus on providing engaging and diverse writing assignments to a broad range of content so that our students are prepared to write under a variety of circumstances.

Todd Brekhus has been a leader in technology-enhanced literacy solutions for more than two decades. He spent eight years in the classroom as a teacher, department chair and technology director. Brekhus serves as president and creator of myON, a business unit of Capstone. Before joining myON, he held a variety of executive positions within the education industry, including vice president and CMO of PLATO Learning, president and COO of Learning Elements and education program director for MCI WorldCom, where he led the launch of the Marco Polo program. Brekhus was recently named 2013 Visionary of the Year by EdTech Digest.

The Highly Illogical Claim That Teachers Work Part Time

The Highly Illogical Claim That Teachers Work Part Time

by Greg Mild

It is common for those critical of education in America to link a teacher’s contractual schedule to their actual work and claim that teaching is a part-time job.  In Ohio, the right-wing think tank Buckeye Institute has been doing this as they miscalculate the pay of teachers and post it online, and they reiterated their stance as part of their 15 Myths about Collective Bargaining Reform and Senate Bill 5 (myth #14).  Let’s spend a little time discussing the absurd notion that teachers don’t put in considerably more hours than their contract requires.

The myth as the Buckeye Institute presented it reads:

Myth #14: A majority of teachers work large numbers of uncompensated time.

They proceed to claim that teachers only work 1350-1450 hours per year and that teachers couldn’t possibly work more because “it would mean that a majority of Ohio’s K-12 teachers are working hundreds, if not thousands, of hours without being compensated.”

Umm, yea, that’s what happens, except teachers ARE compensated – it’s called salary, not hourly.  Just because the president of this right-wing organization has low personal expectations for himself and his own co-workers does not mean that he should project those ideas onto hard-working educators.  To back his opinion up, he can only offer more personal opinion based on his misconceptions about the Ohio Education Association’s relationship with its members (teachers run their own organization, BTW).  No data from this research giant, only his opinion.

This conservative outfit has been promoting this fallacy of “hours worked” since they first began posting teacher salaries on their website:

Whenever someone goes to their website to look up a salary, they can access this “helpful” pop-up that shamefully promotes the myth that teachers are paid on an hourly rate (instead of salary) and only work when students are in school, which is merely the framework for the hours that appear in a teacher’s contract.

Lest you think this is an isolated incident, Tea Party and 9-12 Project proponent Tom Zawistowski spread the tale back in 2011 as he, too, tried to drum up support for Senate Bill 5:

“Now in exchange for that, their contract requires them to teach 184 days per year for 7 hours per day.  That is a total of 1,288 hours per year.”

At this point I feel it only fitting to quote Mr. Spock: “May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.”

Seriously.  How can anyone who has ever been in any way associated with a teacher believe that their day begins and ends with the students?

Let’s try and put this in terms of a business example by way of a job description:

Communications Director wanted for JobsOhio program. Primary role will be to present new information daily during full-day sessions (8:30 am – 4:00 pm) using a variety of presentation formats, including handouts, PowerPoint, and other innovative techniques to interested investors. Director will be required to conduct 185 unique presentations on consecutive working days to the same audience of investors and cover all material as prescribed by JobsOhio. Manuals containing details will be provided to explain the required content for each of the 185 unique 6.5-hour sessions. Sessions will promptly begin at 8:45 am and end precisely at 3:45 pm.

Other responsibilities shall include:

  • Promptly communicate with investors via email and/or telephone*
  • Provide JobsOhio board with weekly update* of information presented
  • Routinely create* and collect surveys and evaluations from investors to gauge their understanding of JobsOhio; adjust presentations as needed
  • Create* standout presentations that deeply involve investors in the JobsOhio process
  • Create* exceptional handouts to promote the JobsOhio brand and retain interest of investors

*The Communications Director will have no direct reports and will be solely responsibly for creating and duplicating all materials each day, and responding to all phone calls and emails.

Starting salary: $40,000

One-year position evaluated annually.

Do you think that this Communications Director could both prepare each day’s presentation and actually present simultaneously? Then why would anyone think a teacher does that?

And that’s the easy version of a teacher’s work.  Imagine that group of investors getting squirrelly and disruptive, belligerent and frustrated, hungry and thirsty.  That investor needs something to write with, those two investors are touching each other, and, wait, whose phone is ringing? Turn that off!

It is both irrational and insulting to promote the idea that teachers only work their “contractually required” hours.  Planning, creating, grading, duplicating, researching, learning . . . these are all things that a teacher does “off the clock”.

And why don’t teachers record these additional hours and scream to get them included in their contracts? Because they already are – it’s called salary.  And teachers know something that these far-right entities do not – teaching isn’t a job, it’s a profession, a career, a way of life.

What time would I put on a teacher’s day?

Every minute they are awake (and about half that they are asleep).

Why School? TED ebook author rethinks education when information is everywhere.

Why School? TED ebook author rethinks
education when information is everywhere.

by Jim Daly

The Internet has delivered an explosion of learning opportunities for today’s students, creating an abundance of information, knowledge, and teachers as well as a starkly different landscape from the one in which our ideas about school were born. Traditional educators, classrooms, and brick-and-mortar schools are no longer necessary to access information. Instead, things like blogs and wikis, as well as remote collaborations and an emphasis on critical thinking skills are the coins of the realm in this new kingdom. Yet the national dialogue on education reform focuses on using technology to update the traditional education model, failing to reassess the fundamental model on which it is built.

In Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere, educator, parent and blogger Will Richardson challenges traditional thinking about education— questioning whether it still holds value in its current form. How can schools adjust to this new age? Or students? Or parents? In this provocative read, Richardson provides an in-depth look at how connected educators are beginning to change their classroom practice. Ultimately, Why School? serves as a starting point for the important conversations around real school reforms that must ensue, offering a bold plan for rethinking how we teach our kids, and the consequences if we don’t.

Why must schools change how they teach? What’s at stake?
Schools were built upon the fundamental premise that teachers and knowledge and information were scarce. That is no longer the reality. Now, as so many more of us gain faster and broader access to the Web, all of those things are suddenly abundant. That means that the traditional role of school, to deliver an education, is quickly becoming less and less relevant. If we continue to see schools as the place where our children go to master a narrow list of content, knowledge and skills that were originally defined almost 150 years ago, we risk putting those kids out into the world with little idea of how to take advantage of the explosion of learning opportunities that now exist. The problem, however, is that most “reform” efforts are aimed at simply doing what we’ve been doing better, almost exclusively in the form of raising test scores. But doing “better” on measures that don’t account for this huge shift we’re in the midst of is the absolute wrong emphasis. Instead, we need to think very differently about the experiences, outcomes, skills and literacies we desire for our kids when they come to school.

Every generation seems to think its students are different. How are today’s youth different in terms of how they gather and absorb information?

Students in the K-12 system have never known a world without the Internet. No question, some kids have had more access than others, and that digital divide is something that we must address with more focus. But for the vast majority who have access, information and answers are a Google search away. They expect to use their technology to get their answers…except in school. In school, we ask them all sorts of questions that they could answer with their phones or laptops, but we don’t let them. So, I think the biggest difference is that our children are connected to people and to knowledge in ways that no other generation before them has been. We have not fully realized all of the ramifications of that, and in large measure, those who oversee our education systems have not yet begun to understand that this is a much different time for learning.

With so much information out there, it seems that finding information is easy but assessing it is tricky. How important are critical thinking skills?
Critical thinking skills around information have never been more important. For all of the value that comes with individuals being able to publish freely and widely to the Web, the huge potential downside is that we haven’t developed the literacies that are required to make sense of all that unedited content that’s out there now. In the scarce world, almost everything we consumed was edited or checked by someone else. Now, each one of us has to have the dispositions and skills to edit the world as it comes to us. Again, this is a huge problem for school systems that were designed for a different time, and it’s an even greater challenge since few if any assessments that we give kids ask them to make sense of an abundance of unedited media and information.

What can schools do to implement some of your ideas?
It’s a difficult moment for schools and the administrators and teachers who  in large measure care deeply about kids but haven’t fully understood or acclimated to this moment of abundance we find ourselves in. Most policy makers and businesspeople are focused on finding more and more efficiencies in the system, and they see technology as a way to “deliver” that traditional education to get “better” results needing fewer and fewer teachers while making greater and greater profits in the process. The next 10 years are going to be exceedingly difficult for schools to navigate the gap between maintaining the traditional curriculum that reformers want and providing the learning opportunities and literacies that kids desperately need today, opportunities that few outside of education are asking for. I think the first step is that educators have to reexamine their own learning practice and move toward becoming more networked and connected themselves. It’s hard to have meaningful conversations around change in a 21st Century sense if you’re coming at it from a 20th (or even 19th) Century lens.

The educational process is pretty slow-moving and sclerotic. Do you have hope that these changes will be made?
I have hope because I see more and more individual classrooms that are beginning to understand what abundance means, places where teachers and kids are getting connected, doing real, meaningful, beautiful work for real audiences that help students become true modern learners in the process. I have hope because every one of us knows that amazing relationships and amazing learning happens in those real life places we call school, that they are an important part of our communities and histories. And I have hope because, at the end of the day, just as we’ve seen with many other institutions, old thinking simply cannot prevail. This isn’t optional. The fact is that schools are not going to go away in the near term for a host of reasons. But what we do in schools, the way we answer the “Why School?” question will change. It has to. The more that each one of us begins to get involved in the process of answering that question, the sooner and more effectively we’ll make the changes our kids are waiting for us to make.

Swearing: The Fascinating History of Our Favorite Four-Letter Words

Swearing: The Fascinating History of Our Favorite Four-Letter Words

By Kate Wiles

Fuck. Shit. Cunt. Our favourite four-letter words have a fascinating history. Rather than being written in manuscripts by monks, we find them used by normal people and preserved in surprising places like place names, personal names, and animal names and they reveal more about our medieval past than just attitudes towards sex and body parts.


Fuck isn’t thought to have existed in English before the fifteenth century and possibly arrived later from German or Dutch. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary says it wasn’t used until 1500. Using place names though, we can trace it back a bit earlier.

Many early instances of fuck were actually used to mean “to strike” rather than being anything to do with actual fucking. The more common Middle English word for sex was swive, which has developed nicely into the Modern English word swivel, as in: go swivel on it. Some of the earliest instances of fuck then, turn out to mean “hitting” or “striking,” such as Simon Fuckebotere (recorded in 1290), who was disappointingly probably in the milk industry, hitting butter rather than doing anything else with it, or Henry Fuckebeggar (1286/7) who may have, unfortunately, hit the poor.

The earliest examples of fuck in English appear in place names. The first is found near Sherwood in 1287: Ric Wyndfuk and Ric Wyndfuck de Wodehous. These both feature a kestrel known as the Windfucker which, we must assume, went at the wind. The next definite example comes from Bristol 1373 in Fockynggroue, which may have been named for a grove where couples went for some quiet alone time.


Like fuck, shit has a rich history, being used across the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, making it one of our oldest words. It originally had a technical usage, meaning diarrhoea in cattle, and it crops up in lots of place names from a time when people were herding cattle and naming things, such as Schitebroc—now Skidbrook—which literally means “shit-stream,” found in the Domesday Book for Lincolnshire.

Shit did not just happen in the countryside though. Street-names, for example, reflect the grotty state of urban living in graphic detail. Schiteburne Lane—now Sherbourn Lane in London—means “shit-stream lane,” and Schiteburglane in Romford uses borough in the middle, meaning a fortress, to paint a vivid picture of a privy, standing proud as a mockery of a palace in the middle of town.


This too is an old word, appearing across the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, although any connection to the Latin cunnus is unlikely, despite the apparent similarity. Originally, rather than being a taboo word, it was the general descriptive term for the vagina. Cunt is, etymologically, more feminist than vagina, which is dependent on the penis for its definition, coming from the Latin for “sword sheath.”

Records of cunt start comparatively early. There’s a runic inscription which reads ‘kunt,’ but that was probably a spelling mistake. Nearly all of the early evidence comes from place names and even personal names—pity, or perhaps applaud, Bele Wydecunthe in 1328, for example.

The most famous of the place names is Gropecuntlane which at one point appeared in twenty places, generally describing—with pleasing matter-of-factness—a red light district. These have all since been lost, or have been changed to Grape Lane, but all are still easily traced.

But other place names are no less revealing.

Shavecuntewelle in Kent in 1275, for example, could describe a nearby valley with a narrow wooded area—a literal lady-garden, if you will—or it could be a site where women were punished. Cuntewellewang in Lincolnshire (1317) seems to describe a similar type of landscape.

And the thirteenth-century Hardecunt? Who knows, it’s just a great name.

Perhaps the most glorious example of cunt in a place name is Hungery Cunt, found in a 1750 military map of Kinross-shire, Scotland. Disappointingly, though, this is probably just a mistake: a misreading of Hungeremout.

These early instances of now heavily taboo words open up the world of normal people in medieval England and a different—and more vibrant—picture of the history of our language. They allow us to meet a very literal and pragmatic people with a healthy sense of (toilet) humour about their bodies and their environment.

That is not to say that monks themselves weren’t interested in bodily matters. They were, and they wrote their fare share of smut to prove it. Take the following example, which, more than anything else, shows that dick-jokes are universal:

A curious thing hangs by a man’s thigh

Under his coat. It has a hole in the front

It is stiff and hard, it has a good standing place;

When the man pulls his clothing up

Above his knee, he wants to touch that hole

With the head of his hanging thing.

It is the same length as that which it has filled before.

It’s a key, in case you were wondering. A KEY.

Inequality on Campus

Inequality on Campus

by Lawrence Wittner

As the United States begins to grapple with the issue of growing economic inequality, it should not ignore the widening income gap on American college campuses.

Some of the nation’s poorest people work at higher educational institutions, and many of them are members of the faculty. Oh, yes, there are still faculty members who receive comfortable middle class salaries. But most faculty do not. These underpaid educators are adjunct faculty, who now comprise an estimated 74 percent of America’s college teachers. Despite advanced degrees, scholarly research experience and teaching credentials, they are employed at an average of $2,700 per course. Even when they manage to cobble together enough courses to constitute a full-time teaching load, that usually adds up to roughly $20,000 per year — an income that leaves many of them and their families officially classified as living in poverty. Some apply for and receive food stamps.

Adjunct faculty face other job-related difficulties as well. Lacking employment security of any kind, they can be hired to teach courses the day before classes begin — or, for that matter, not hired at all. They often receive no healthcare or other benefits, have no office space, mailboxes or email addresses at colleges where they teach and drive long distances between their jobs on different campuses. As the impoverished migrant labor force of its day, this new faculty majority deserves its own Grapes of Wrath.

By contrast, others on campus are doing quite well. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 42 presidents of private colleges and universities were paid more than a million dollars each in 2011 — up from 36 the previous year. The highest earners were Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago ($3.4 million), Joseph Aoun of Northeastern University ($3.1 million) and Dennis Murray of Marist College ($2.7 million). Unlike adjunct faculty, whose income, when adjusted for inflation, has dropped by 49 percent over the past four decades, these campus presidents increased their income substantially. Zimmer’s pay doubled, Aoun’s pay nearly tripled and Murray’s pay nearly quadrupled from the previous year. The yearly compensation packages for 11 of the 42 million-dollar-or-more private college presidents nearly doubled.

Furthermore, high-level administrative positions often come with some very substantial perks. At the University of Nebraska, top administrators are given free memberships in country clubs, as well as very expensive cars, like the Porsche driven by the chancellor of its medical center. At New York University, the trustees gave president John Sexton — whose university compensation in 2011 was $1.5 million — a $1 million loan to help him purchase a vacation home on Fire Island. According to a New York Times article, Gordon Gee — the Ohio State University president who received university compensation in 2011-2012 of $1.9 million — was known for “the lavish lifestyle his job supports, including a rent-free mansion with an elevator, a pool and a tennis court and flights on private jets.”

Some have argued, of course, that top campus administrators genuinely deserve these kinds of incomes and lifestyles. But faculty and others are not so sure. At NYU, after the faculty voted no confidence in President Sexton’s leadership, the trustees convinced him to retire at the end of his contract, in 2016. At Penn State, where President Graham Spanier was the highest-paid public university president in the United States in 2011-2012 (at $2.9 million), he was dismissed in connection with the crimes of the former assistant football coach who was convicted in 2012 on 45 counts of sexual abuse. Spanier is expected to stand trial on charges that he failed to report the crimes and tried to cover up what he knew. On other campuses, top administrators have been convicted of extensive fraud and embezzlement.

But even if one assumes that most campus administrators do a good job, why should there be a widening gap between their incomes and the incomes of those who do the central work of the university: the faculty?

Furthermore, why should there be an ever-growing number of administrators — presidents, vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, deans, associate deans, assistant deans and a myriad of other campus officials? Between 1993 and 2009, the ranks of campus administrators expanded to 230,000 — a growth of 60 percent, 10 times that of the tenured faculty. Not surprisingly, a recent report by the American Institutes for Research revealed that, in 2012, there remained only 2.5 instructional or nonprofessional support employees for every administrator. As colleges and universities are flooded with administrative officials, is there no longer a role for those who do the teaching and research?

Perhaps the time has come to redress the balance on campus by cutting the outlandish income and number of administrators and providing faculty members with the salaries and respect they deserve.

You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong.


You think you know what teachers do. Right? Wrong.

The Teachers

By Sarah Blaine

We all know what teachers do, right? After all, we were all students. Each one of us, each product of public education, we each sat through class after class for thirteen years. We encountered dozens of teachers. We had our kindergarten teachers and our first grade teachers and our fifth grade teachers and our gym teachers and our art teachers and our music teachers. We had our science teachers and our social studies teachers and our English teachers and our math teachers. If we were lucky, we might even have had our Latin teachers or our Spanish teachers or our physics teachers or our psychology teachers. Heck, I even had a seventh grade “Communications Skills” teacher. We had our guidance counselors and our principals and some of us had our special education teachers and our study hall monitors.

So we know teachers. We get teachers. We know what happens in classrooms, and we know what teachers do. We know which teachers are effective, we know which teachers left lasting impressions, we know which teachers changed our lives, and we know which teachers sucked.

We know. We know which teachers changed lives for the better. We know which teachers changed lives for the worse.

Teaching as a profession has no mystery. It has no mystique. It has no respect.

We were students, and therefore we know teachers. We denigrate teachers. We criticize teachers. We can do better than teachers. After all: We do. They teach.

We are wrong.

We need to honor teachers. We need to respect teachers. We need to listen to teachers. We need to stop reducing teachers to arbitrary measurements of student growth on so-called objective exams.

Most of all, we need to stop thinking that we know anything about teaching merely by virtue of having once been students.

We don’t know.

I spent a little over a year earning a master of arts in teaching degree. Then I spent two years teaching English Language Arts in a rural public high school. And I learned that my 13 years as a public school student, my 4 years as a college student at a highly selective college, and even a great deal of my year as a masters degree student in the education school of a flagship public university hadn’t taught me how to manage a classroom, how to reach students, how to inspire a love of learning, how to teach. Eighteen years as a student (and a year of preschool before that), and I didn’t know shit about teaching. Only years of practicing my skills and honing my skills would have rendered me a true professional. An expert. Someone who knows about the business of inspiring children. Of reaching students. Of making a difference. Of teaching.

I didn’t stay. I copped out. I left. I went home to suburban New Jersey, and a year later I enrolled in law school.

I passed the bar. I began to practice law at a prestigious large law firm. Three years as a law student had no more prepared me for the practice of law than 18 years of experience as a student had previously prepared me to teach. But even in my first year as a practicing attorney, I earned five times what a first year teacher made in the district where I’d taught.

I worked hard in my first year of practicing law. But I didn’t work five times harder than I’d worked in my first year of teaching. In fact, I didn’t work any harder. Maybe I worked a little less.

But I continued to practice. I continued to learn. Nine years after my law school graduation, I think I have some idea of how to litigate a case. But I am not a perfect lawyer. There is still more I could learn, more I could do, better legal instincts I could develop over time. I could hone my strategic sense. I could do better, be better. Learn more law. Learn more procedure. But law is a practice, law is a profession. Lawyers are expected to evolve over the course of their careers. Lawyers are given more responsibility as they earn it.

New teachers take on full responsibility the day they set foot in their first classrooms.

The people I encounter out in the world now respect me as a lawyer, as a professional, in part because the vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what I really do.

All of you former students who are not teachers and not lawyers, you have no more idea of what it is to teach than you do of what it is to practice law.

All of you former students: you did not design curricula, plan lessons, attend faculty meetings, assess papers, design rubrics, create exams, prepare report cards, and monitor attendance. You did not tutor students, review rough drafts, and create study questions. You did not assign homework. You did not write daily lesson objectives on the white board. You did not write poems of the week on the white board. You did not write homework on the white board. You did not learn to write legibly on the white board while simultaneously making sure that none of your students threw a chair out a window.

You did not design lessons that succeeded. You did not design lessons that failed.

You did not learn to keep your students quiet during lock down drills.

You did not learn that your 15 year old students were pregnant from their answers to vocabulary quizzes. You did not learn how to teach functionally illiterate high school students to appreciate Shakespeare. You did not design lessons to teach students close reading skills by starting with the lyrics to pop songs. You did not miserably fail your honors level students at least in part because you had no books to give them. You did not struggle to teach your students how to develop a thesis for their essays, and bask in the joy of having taught a successful lesson, of having gotten through to them, even for five minutes. You did not struggle with trying to make SAT-level vocabulary relevant to students who did not have a single college in their county. You did not laugh — because you so desperately wanted to cry — when you read some of the absurdities on their final exams. You did not struggle to reach students who proudly announced that they only came to school so that their mom’s food stamps didn’t get reduced.

You did not spend all of New Years’ Day crying five years after you’d left the classroom because you reviewed the New York Times’ graphic of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and learned that one of your very favorite students had been killed in Iraq two years before. And you didn’t know. Because you copped out and left. So you cried, helplessly, and the next day you returned to the practice of law.

You did not. And you don’t know. You observed. Maybe you learned. But you didn’t teach.

The problem with teaching as a profession is that every single adult citizen of this country thinks that they know what teachers do. And they don’t. So they prescribe solutions, and they develop public policy, and they editorialize, and they politicize. And they don’t listen to those who do know. Those who could teach. The teachers.

No easy fix for California’s teacher pension crisis

No easy fix for California’s teacher pension crisis

By Chris Megerian

The state teachers pension fund faces a $71-billion shortfall,
but Gov. Brown is willing to wait until next year to craft a remedy.

WEST SACRAMENTO — When the glass-sheathed headquarters of the California teachers’ pension fund opened five years ago, it was supposed to help anchor developments along the blighted riverfront on the capital’s outskirts.

But as Jack Ehnes, the fund’s chief executive, looked out from a top-floor conference room on a recent afternoon, he could see patches of empty land where nothing had been built.

Construction plans, he said, took a huge blow from the recession.

The same could be said of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or CalSTRS, which Ehnes has run for more than a decade. Today, the pension fund is one of the biggest financial problems in a state with more than its share of money woes.

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders are pledging to repair and replenish the $181.1-billion retirement system that is supposed to finance more than 800,000 retirements for public school teachers, administrators and community college instructors. Hearings on possible solutions began in the Capitol on Wednesday.

The second-largest public pension fund in the country, after California’s primary pension system for public employees, it faces a $71-billion shortfall that worsens by $22 million every day, according to pension officials.

Ehnes said stock market gains won’t fix things, that more money must come from the state, school districts, school employees, or all three.

Without corrective action, he said, “this plan will be insolvent in 30 years,” when a young teacher hired today would probably retire. At that point, the full cost of teachers’ pensions would fall squarely on taxpayers’ shoulders, raising the specter of tax hikes or cuts in government services to compensate.

The Legislature and governor must approve any increases in contribution rates, but negotiations will be fraught with political peril, especially in an election year.

Pension officials fault the recent recession for much of the shortfall, but lawmakers and governors — many of whom benefited from teachers’ union campaign contributions — took actions over the years that helped set the stage for today’s problems.

In particular, when the pension fund was bursting with money 15 years ago, they boosted teachers’ pension benefits while simultaneously reducing the state’s contributions.

David Crane, who was appointed to the fund’s board by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 but never confirmed by Democratic lawmakers, blamed the state’s leaders.

“These problems at CalSTRS are caused entirely by politicians making promises and not setting aside money to meet those promises,” Crane said.

Teachers do not receive Social Security, and the average retiree last year left his or her job at age 62 with a monthly pension of $3,980 after working 25 years. In the fiscal year that ended in June, payments into the pension fund were far short of what’s needed to keep the system healthy, according to state reports.

School employees, school districts and the state put in $6 billion; the fund needed $4.5 billion on top of that and will require more if investment returns don’t meet expectations.

That’s a steep fall from 1998, when the teacher retirement system was fully funded for the first time in its history. The state’s contributions had been hiked in 1990, and California was riding high on its roaring dot-com industry. The stock market was booming.

The Legislature began enriching retirement benefits for teachers, whose pension calculations are not as generous as those of many other public employees. The California Teachers Assn., one of the state’s biggest campaign donors, had recently flexed its political muscle, spending $1.3 million helping Gray Davis, a Democrat, be elected governor in 1998.

Some of the most generous proposals were approved in 2000. Teachers who worked at least 25 years could count on bigger retirement checks because their pensions would be calculated on their highest single year of salary, rather than on an average of the top three.

They would also receive longevity bonuses if they crossed the 30-year employment threshold over the following 10 years.

Those measures, which received bipartisan support, were viewed as a key way to boost teacher recruitment and retention.

“We didn’t have as many new teachers coming into the fold, and we had a lot of older teachers getting ready to retire,” said John Hein, then a CTA lobbyist.

Lawmakers also created a new, supplemental retirement account for teachers that lasted 10 years. To fund it, they diverted some contributions from the main account — without reducing payouts from it — for 10 years.

A bare-bones legislative analysis said stock market gains would “absorb the cost” of the change.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), an assemblyman when the bill was approved, voted against the change, which he called “cheap political gain at enormous long-term expense.”

“It was an easy vote to promise benefits without having to pay for them,” he said.

Lawmakers also reduced what the state paid into the main pension fund. The contribution dropped from 2.6% of the statewide teacher payroll in the 2000-01 fiscal year to 2% in 2003-04.

Teachers continued to pay in 8% of their salaries, as they have since 1972. Schools have contributed 8.25% of their payrolls since 1990.

Soon after benefits were expanded, the dot-com bubble deflated in 2001, sapping the pension fund’s earnings. Within a few years, the shortfall was $20 billion.

At that point, Ehnes said, there was a 40% possibility that returns on investments, rather than more contributions, would fix things. Lawmakers took those odds.

But the market crashed in 2008, and the pension fund lost a quarter of its assets in one year, dropping to what is considered an unhealthy level of funding.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who voted for expanded benefits as a Democratic assemblyman, said there was no reason to anticipate such a catastrophe.

“Crystal balls work some of the time, but not most of the time,” he said. “We didn’t predict the incredible stock market crash and the real estate crunch.”

In January, when Brown unveiled his latest budget proposal, he said there would be “disaster ahead” if the pension shortfall is not addressed. But the governor, who has benefited from union support and faces reelection this year, says in the spending blueprint that he’s willing to wait until next year to put a plan in place.

He wants to repay debts incurred during past budget crises and supports a proposal to stockpile cash to protect the state against future economic turbulence.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), who is running for state controller, said the state must begin making changes this year: “Further delays only mean further costs.”

A tax surplus is expected this year, but Democratic lawmakers have a long spending list, and several of their proposals could be popular with voters. They want more money devoted to preschool programs, social services and healthcare for the poor, for example.

Schools, for their part, are wary of paying more for pensions after suffering budget cuts during the recession.

“There is some concern about having an additional bill being laid on us,” said Megan Reilly, chief financial officer at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Lobbyist Jennifer Baker said the teachers union is willing to have members pay more for their pensions, but the state is required to provide them with an equivalent benefit. She said that could be as simple as guaranteeing cost-of-living increases for pension payments, which the state now provides voluntarily.

A guarantee would boost retirement security for teachers without raising costs, Baker said.

Dave Elder, a Democratic assemblyman from the Los Angeles area who successfully pushed to raise state funding for pensions in 1990, said the best idea is to do again what he did then: slowly ramp up the state’s payments.

“It’s not brain surgery,” he said.

EAA Teacher Of The Year On Why She Quit

EAA Teacher of the Year on why she quit:
I was compromising my moral integrity and I couldn’t live with myself

by Chris Savage

As much as my previous interviews with Education Achievement Authority teachers have left me sad and outraged, today’s interview blew my mind. The interview is with Kim Jurczak. Kim was a teacher at Nolan elementary and middle school and by all accounts, perhaps the most talented teacher there. In yesterday’s interview, the teacher had this to say about Kim:

She is one of the most… she left a career in educational technology to work for the EAA. She moved home from another state for this and they shit on her so much…She brought in her own Promethean Smart Board. She brought in her own clickers. Her class was amazing, the way she organized everything. And she did this all on her own. She wrote her own curriculum in BUZZ because BUZZ is such a joke.

Kim was so well-respected, in fact, that she was elected by the other teachers in her school as Teacher of the Year in a landslide.

However, the story that she tells is of an administration, starting with EAA Chancellor John Covington all the way down to her principal Angela Underwood, who had complete and utter disdain for their teachers. While Covington was creating an environment of fear and intimidation among his staff, including the school principals, Underwood — who came to the EAA with Covington from their failure in the Kansas City schools — was creating an identical environment at Nolan. In the end, despite how much it broke her heart to do so, Kim Jurczak quit her teaching job at Nolan where she had been chosen as Teacher of the Year by her peers.

It’s worth noting that, like other teachers that have left EAA schools, Kim was initially reluctant to let me use her name for this interview. The culture of fear and intimidation that Covington has created in the EAA extends beyond the walls of its school buildings and beyond the borders of its district. Even teachers who now work in other non-EAA schools fear punishment and retribution from Covington and his team.

I’ve said before that one element you would expect in a “turnaround” district tasked with rapidly improving struggling schools is its leadership would hire the best, most experienced teachers they could find, compensate them well, and support them with whatever resources they need. When they hired Kim Jurczak, EAA administrators definitely found one of the best. And then, by treating her with no respect, as if she were just a useful trophy to show off to their financial benefactors when they toured the building to check on their investment, someone to be seen but not heard from, EAA administrators drove her away. Her new students are truly fortunate. But, like with so much else that is happening to them in their district, the EAA students are the losers in this situation. That’s not the fault of Kim Jurczak. That’s entirely the fault of the administration of the EAA from John Covington and Mary Essleman down to Angela Underwood and their damaging and offensive management style, a management style that has no place in Michigan public schools.

In the end, this is less a story about teachers being treated like dirt and more a story of kids losing out once again due to the failed model of the EAA.

Did you teach in the EAA from the beginning?

Yeah, I worked there from when school opened in the fall of 2012.

Did you work at Nolan the entire time?

Yes but last summer I was offered a job as a coach at another school and I was eager to take it.

To get out of the classroom?

No, not to get out of the classroom. To get out of Nolan.

That’s one of the interesting parts of the situation. The principal at Nolan, Angela Underwood, she came from Kansas City with Dr. Covington and she was kind of their “star child”. She seemed to be given unfair advantage in my eyes in terms of the resources that she had. She had all of these people that had come over from Kansas City who had already done things the way Covington wanted them to.

I learned a lot by talking to people at the other schools. The principals at other schools, they didn’t even know what they were supposed to be doing. The higher level, Dr. Covington’s team, wasn’t even helping the principals learn what was supposed to be going on in their schools.

How can you lead and help teachers to do things the right way if you’re never shown yourself?

But, at Nolan, there was no respect of the teachers from the administration. It was very much a dictatorship. Never in my life have I worked for someone who I couldn’t respect. Probably in the first month and a half I lost all respect for, first, my principal and then everyone in the hierarchy of the EAA organization — Covington, Esselman — I couldn’t respect them because they didn’t know what they were doing.

I couldn’t work for Angela Underwood for another year because I was afraid I’d be fired. I was having a harder and harder time as time went on keeping quiet and not challenging her every time she did something that just didn’t make sense.

The style of my principal was… well, we were cursed at, we were yelled at, we were belittled. And that seems to be the same way that Covington spoke to his principals and his administrative staff at his meetings. It was very much “my way or the highway” type of leadership. Even if principals had good intentions, they were being forced or coerced into doing things a certain way even if they didn’t think it was the best way.

So this — I’ve been referring to it as a culture of fear and intimidation as it relates to the teachers — but is sounds like that might have extended to some of these administrators, as well, and they were just sort of emulating what was happening to them when they dealt with their own staff.

Yes. That’s what I heard. For some people, if this job is your financial security and you’re using it to pay for your children, because a lot of the administrators are parents, as well, so they can’t just lose their jobs. So, they’re kind of forced into situations that, unfortunately, you personally don’t always agree with.


You know, I talked to another teacher at Nolan and she said that the teachers there loved you and that they encouraged you to — she explained to me that you had to nominate YOURSELF for Teacher of the Year which seems kind of weird — but, she said that they had encouraged YOU to do that and then they really came out for you big time and you won by a landslide. And I thought that was neat. It wasn’t like the administrators picked one of their pet teachers. It was actually voted on by the other teachers. Am I right about that?

Yeah. You were supposed to nominate yourself but they asked people to encourage other people to submit themselves and I had like five people that emailed me or came up to me and said, “You should submit yourself.” When I found out that not that many people were doing it, I thought, “What the hell?” and I decided to go ahead and throw my name in the hat and see what happened.

I found out later that two first year Teach for America teachers were told by the principal that they should submit themselves. I was never told that by her, despite the fact that I was obviously doing well. I mean every time they had visitors, they were coming into my classroom. I was being asked to help with curriculum writing by the district. But I wasn’t asked by the principal to consider doing Teacher of the Year because I don’t think she thought I’d be a good representation for the EAA because I was honest. I was going to do right by the kids but I wasn’t going to lie and stretch the truth. I wasn’t going to put on a dog and pony show and I think the two people she asked would. This was their first year out of college and they were trying to impress her.

I taught for five years before I came to Nolan and I also worked in the corporate world training educators. So, I’ve had lots of different bosses in my life and I’ve had lots of different jobs in my life. I have a pretty solid background in terms of going and getting another job. I didn’t need the EAA on my resumé.

Not like a TFA teacher would.

Right. For them, it’s their first job and they have nothing to compare it to. I could see myself being much like them at that age. You want your boss to like you, you want to do what your boss thinks is right. I could have seen myself being like that.

So, you were looking to leave the EAA before you actually quit?

Yeah, I would go in spurts. It broke my heart to leave. I loved my students. I had lived out of state for awhile but I had grown up in Michigan and wanted to come back. In a previous job I had trained teachers and I worked a lot with people who had worked in urban schools. I had never worked in one myself. I had worked in more suburbanish schools or lightly urban but not high poverty areas. So, I had never worked in those schools myself but I had met a lot of teachers and principals who were working in more struggling schools and it really touched me what they were doing and I wanted to go back and try to make that difference. So, when I saw what the EAA was trying to do, when I was looking online, it really fit in with my teaching style and what I’m trying to do. So, I really wanted to work for the EAA.

When I got there, I fell in love with my students as much as they drove me crazy on certain days. They needed people like us to be there for them. The thought of leaving them broke my heart. I really did struggle over the decision to actually take the job that I have now because I felt like I was giving up on the kids. As much as the frustrations that I had with the EAA made it difficult, I wanted to be there for the students. I really did care about them.

But, I got to the point where I felt like I was giving up something in myself to stay with them. By staying with the EAA I was compromising my moral integrity and I couldn’t live with myself.

The reason that I came to the decision to leave was because I tried several times to talk to them. I had a meeting in the fall with my principal about some of the things that I saw going on. I just wanted to have a talk with her, person-to-person, and just say, “Here’s what’s going on behind the scenes. Here’s how the teachers are feeling. People are frustrated, people want to leave, and this is not sustainable. We know that, if you want this to be successful, you need people to stick around and right now people are unhappy and they don’t feel supported and they don’t feel respected.”

I had that conversation with her and I felt like it went pretty well. But then, after that, I felt like I had a target on my back for the rest of the year because I spoke up. So, I felt like I tried to help them to see what they could change to make things better and they didn’t want to hear it. They only wanted to hear it from the Kansas City people. They had an idea in their heads about how it should go and, even if their way wasn’t working, they didn’t care. They were going to make their way work. It was more about “my way or the highway” than what was best for the students and how they were going to keep the teachers that are doing things the right way.

At my school, it seemed like there was a favoritism thing going on. I can admit that, during the first few months, I was favored. I was given opportunities and I was given treatment that other teachers were not given because they thought I was doing a good job. For example, I had worked for Promethean and I had my own Promethean Board which is an interactive white board. Most people know them as “smart boards”. I had one in my personal possession that I brought into my classroom. So, I already had one piece of technology in my classroom. Then my assistant principal came and asked me if I wanted a smart board. And I was like, “I already have one in my room! There are teachers who have nothing and you’re offering me a second thing to put in my classroom? You’re offering me something new when there are people who have nothing? That doesn’t make sense. Why can’t we make it fair? We can’t have it where some people have access to resources and others don’t.”

So, I was part of the favored group at the beginning. There were a few of us that were. Dr. Esselman — I’m sure you know who she is, she’s one of the higher ups — she would come to the school and whenever she was there she would stop by my classroom and see how things were going. Then, after I spoke to Angela, that all seemed to stop. She didn’t come in and talk to me at all. The only time they came into my room after that was when we had people visiting the school so they could do the dog and pony show because they knew that they could come into my room and kind of show off. That became the only time they ever asked me for anything anymore. They started having the two TFA teachers I mentioned go to present at weekend events and to speak on behalf of the EAA. They never asked me to do any of that stuff. I think it was, again, because they knew I had an opinion of my own and I think they knew I could back up my opinion because I had a little bit more experience and I know what I’m talking about a little bit more than a first-year teacher.

I think they were afraid that someone would actually not just go out there and sing the song of the EAA; that someone would go out and say, “Well, actually, here’s what’sreally going on…”

Tell me about why you chose to go to the EAA. What did you know about them and what was it that interested you in what they told.

As I told you, through my training experiences I totally fell in love with the thought of working in an urban school and working with those students who didn’t have every advantage growing up. That was part of it.

The second part was that, when I was in Florida where I lived before, I was lucky enough to teach in a district that I think was one of the leaders in the nation in terms of technology integration and project-based learning. That was one of the things that they were touting in the EAA. I don’t know how familiar you are with project-based learning…

I’m not familiar with it. Could you explain?

Project-based learning is authentic learning where you’re teaching students through real-life projects. It’s not just a project where the kids are doing something and then making a poster. They might go out to the Everglades and collect samples on a field trip because they’re trying to find out something about water pollution. It’s multi-disciplinary, multi-subject, and it’s usually a several month-long project where they solve real-world problems. They’re utilizing technology and their creating a presentation at the end to share it, like a video that they created or something like that.

So the kids are using math and writing and science and all of these different things in the course of the project.

Yeah exactly. Also, the EAA had a video up on their website that showed this. There was an example, I think it was robotics, and the idea was that they would have these project-based classrooms. To me, that was exactly what I wanted to get to, to get away from a lecture-based model.

It’s funny, when I read through some of the other interviews that you’ve done and see what they say… like about the BUZZ system. What they ended up using the technology for was not at all what they told me. The commercial that I was sold on was not what was actually happening and I felt like even the leaders of the EAA didn’t know what project-based learning really was. They were trying to do this new, innovative technology, project-based learning and that never even took place in the classroom.

So they sold you on something that never really actually existed.

No, it never existed. One of the big things with project-based learning is 21st century skills — collaboration, communication, cooperation, and students working in teams together. I thought that was really important because these kids need these skills to work together and get along. That was one of the things we really struggled with at the beginning of the year, was getting them to work together in teams. And the way that, at least my school, SCL (student centered learning) was being pushed was “each kid for himself”. Each had their own individual plan. To me that completely disregards the whole 21st century skills that we’re supposed to be instilling in these kids. They shouldn’t be just working on their own. They need to be working together.

That’s exactly what people in business want: people who can work together and collaborate and get along with others.

When did the Teacher of the Year election happen? What time frame are we talking about?

I was actually looking that up because I actually forwarded myself the email that told me I was Teacher of the Year. I missed the Teacher of the Year dinner because I had my rehearsal dinner that night and I was made to feel like there was something wrong with that because God forbid I get married. So, I missed the actual dinner and never got anything like a certificate to say I was the Teacher of the Year so, before I left, I forwarded myself the email just in case they tried to say that it didn’t happen.

That was how you found out about it? An email? That was how they awarded it to you? Are you kidding me?

Yup. I believe the voting took place around April. I got an email on Thursday, May 30th from Dr. Prince who was in charge of HR for the district congratulating me for being chosen as the Teacher of the Year for Nolan. “As such, you are now eligible to apply for the EAA District Teacher of the Year”. It was funny to me because, as I was talking to teachers in other schools, the Teachers of the Year of the school were actually informed that they got it before the email from Dr. Prince came.

I was not even informed that I was the person who won. My principal didn’t even make an effort to tell me, “Oh, by the way, we voted a month ago and you were the winner.” Which I thought was kind of funny in and of itself. I was thinking, “Was she hoping that something would happen where I wouldn’t get it anymore and so she wasn’t telling me because she didn’t want to take it back?”

But that’s how I found out, from an email from the district telling me that now I could apply for the district Teacher of the Year. There wasn’t a staff meeting, I just got this email and then after that I got an email from my principal congratulating me. She sent me an email after. And I was like, “Really? That’s kind of cold that you couldn’t even tell the school beforehand that I had won this. It shows me what you really think.”

So it was a full month after the voting that I was informed. I had almost forgotten about it because it has been so long.

Were there Teachers of the Year at other schools, too? I hadn’t heard anything about that.

Yeah, and that’s the thing, they never announced it until they picked the district Teacher of the Year. I didn’t even bother running for that because the things you would have had to do I wouldn’t be able to do with a straight face. Like representing the EAA at different meetings, I couldn’t have done that. And I knew they never would have chosen me, either. That wouldn’t have happened. I don’t think that many of the other winners did either, probably for the same reasons I didn’t.

One of the things that I suspect will happen is that once the TFA teachers’ two-year obligation is up, there is going to be a mass exodus as they head for the door. Do you think that will happen?

Yeah and that’s biggest concern with the EAA to begin with because, yes, they have these TFA teachers that are coming in. But if you look at the school were I was, if you go to the website that’s up for Nolan elementary, it lists the names of the teachers who were hired at the beginning of last year. There are even teachers on that list that never even worked at Nolan. They left before school even started because the PD [professional development] was so ridiculous. But, if you look through that list at those people, I don’t remember the number anymore but it was only like five people that weren’t TFAers that are actually still at that school. The only other ones that are still at that school are the ones from TFA.

So, I worry about, like you say, they’re going to leave. This isn’t a sustainable model. If trying to help these kids and helping the lowest five percent is what they’re trying to do, then what they are doing to support the teachers is not going to make them want to stay. There are some who will stay because they really, really want to do this. There are some that won’t stay at all because they never intended to stay. But there are some that are on the fence about it and I think if there was the right support there through professional development and mentorship and all of that, then they might have more people who would say, “Yeah, you know, maybe I’ll stick around for a few years” and maybe they’ll turn teaching into a career or at least do it for more than just the two years that they need to for TFA.

Last year, there was talk of joining a union and we talked with AFT. And, for awhile, I was thinking about it so I went around and talked to some of the other teachers. And what I found out is that the majority of them weren’t planning on staying because a lot of the teachers, even the TFAers, they have issues with what’s being done in the EAA. As much as they believe in the kids, they don’t believe in the way the organization is being run. So, what I found out was that there were so few people that were planning on staying long term that I wasn’t willing to put myself on the line if people weren’t going to stay around. I would have done it if I felt like even half of us that were wanting to stay here for five years or more. But, what it looked like to me was that there were five people who were willing to stay for that long.

What was your experience with BUZZ?

Ah, my best friend BUZZ. I stopped using BUZZ as it was supposed to be used. Before BUZZ was up and running and functional, I had started my own website. My Masters degree is in instructional technology and, as I told you, I trained teachers in integrating technology for four years so it’s somewhat of a strength of mine. So, I knew of a lot of resources I could use with the computers and I didn’t need to rely on BUZZ to be able to use the computers in ways that I thought were useful and helpful.

I did try to make it work. I did try to have BUZZ running the way it was supposed to. I was actually one of the few teachers that was using it in the way they wanted us to use it in the beginning. The way it was set up was that there were units — Unit 1, Unit 2, whatever — and the students would have access to a single unit and then, once they had mastered everything in that unit, they were supposed to be able to go on to the next unit.

What we found, those of us who had started using it early, was that, once the student had finished Unit 1, it wouldn’t bump them up to Unit 2. So we had kids who couldn’t access the next set of instructional materials. And we’re talking here about three to four weeks that that kid couldn’t move on with the computer system so we were having to fall back to other resources. And then we were, of course, yelled at because we were using worksheets or using paper and pencil and not using BUZZ. But BUZZ wasn’t functioning.

I actually found a workaround and solved that problem for the district. Of course I wasn’t really given credit for it. BUZZ is based on a platform called Brain Honey. I discovered that the kids could login through a Brain Honey link and access the same material and it would still save their progress and all of that. I found that out by accident one day as I was trying to help out a student. I realized that when I went to the homepage for Brain Honey, oh my goodness, you could still login, and now the student could access the Unit 2 materials.

So, I had started using Brain Honey at that point. It wasn’t the cutesy set up that BUZZ was but I ended up enjoying that more than BUZZ and so did my students so I actually ended up using that for the remainder of the year. I got reprimanded a time or two because, “Why aren’t you using BUZZ?” But there were so many glitches in the BUZZ system, I’m sorry, I’m not going to use a system that isn’t working just for the sake of that system when there’s another system that has the exact same materials and it actually works.

Look, I worked in the corporate world and I know about selling a product and I wasn’t there to sell BUZZ. I was there to teach my students.

The thing is that, when I thought about SCL, I never saw it as, “Okay, the kids are going to learn off the computer.” It was, to me, just one of the resources that were there for their learning. I used the computers a lot but I didn’t use them as Brain Honey or BUZZ being the focus of it. I would bookmark things and put things on my personal website and students would know how to navigate to where we were supposed to be, whether it was researching the state of Michigan which is part of the 3rd grade curriculum or whatever it would be, my students knew how to navigate a computer. So we were able to work around the technology glitches.

How would you contrast your current teaching job with your experience with the EAA? Are you in a happy place now?

I would say it’s completely different. One of the things that bothered me about the EAA was that we had a coach and a Dean at our school that were supposedly there to assist us and help us grow as teachers and we didn’t feel like that support was there. You know, I had five years experience teaching but I didn’t feel in any way, shape, or form that I was done learning. I was looking for my own mentor, somebody to help me to continue to grow. But I didn’t feel like that was happening there. I mean we helped each other out but there wasn’t, for example, a really strong reading teacher who could help me improve my reading strategies or a really strong math teacher. Everyone has their strengths. Mine was technology. I was hoping to find those other teachers so that we could all continue to help each other grow and that wasn’t happening in the EAA.

Here, where I am now, I have so many resources here and I sit in meetings here and I feel like an idiot because the teachers that I’m teaching with are so good at what they’re doing, they’re so strong and I’m learning so much here.

That’s what the teachers at the EAA needed. Instead of someone kind of going around being the SCL coach, they needed someone who was leading reading workshops and math workshops and modeling those lessons. I did not feel like that support was there.

When you talk about how a lot of the principals feel intimidated by Covington, I thought it was interesting how after my first post he went around and asked all of them if they were doing anything wrong. No surprise, nobody said they were.

Let me tell you a story about that. At the very beginning of the year, one of the other teachers had gone to Underwood and tried to have the same sort of conversation with her that I had and asked if we could have a meeting. Our intention with that meeting was to talk about what was going on and try to come to some solutions. The meeting turned out to be the principal saying, “There are problems and you guys need to speak up.” Then she went around the circle and pointed to someone and said, “Okay, what are YOUR problems. Do you have any frustrations?” and then she’d point to the next one and ask them. It was very intimidating. Nobody felt comfortable speaking up because she was putting them on the spot. People were afraid to speak up and say what was happening and there were people who were actually in tears in that meeting because they felt so uncomfortable. We wanted to have a discussion about how we could fix things and it seems like she was taking it as a personal attack on her as an administrator. But she wasn’t there to try to help us. She was trying to figure out who was speaking out against anything going on. We almost felt like it was her way of putting targets on our backs, finding out who the people were that she needed to have an eye on.

Which is exactly what Covington did at the principal level.

Exactly. Exactly. When I saw that, that he was asking them if they were doing anything wrong, well they’re too afraid to say the truth so they’re going to go ahead and lie about it. In Terry Abbott’s response where he was talking about the staff incidents, there was nothing written about how the two times at Nolan where a teacher was written up. I was one of the people who had to report it one of the times for student who said one of the teachers put his hands on them. That wasn’t in the response. He only talked about what happened this year. So, what, you’re hiding all this stuff and selecting what information you’re putting out there just to put on the dog and pony show? Trying to make things look a certain way?

And that’s what this comes down to when it comes to expanding the EAA: if you’re going to expand, do it because you’re doing great things, not because you’re lying about what’s going on.

Here’s another example: before the school year actually started, this was during our PD at the beginning of the year, a teacher had put something in a survey following up our PD that the principal found inappropriate. She told us that she had found out who it was, that she had the autonomy to hire and fire who she pleased, and she’ll gladly “hold the door open as Dr. Covington kicks their ass out of the room.” We were also called “jackasses” in that meeting. That was my first experience thinking, “Who in the world am I working for? I’ve never been spoken to like this before!”

School hadn’t even started yet, right?

Right. I guess she was trying to assert her authority. “I have the power, it’s MY decision if you have a job or not.”

Another situation I think was directed at me personally. School Improvement Network, the company that owns BUZZ and Brain Honey, had come to our school many times. Some of the times were to film lessons that were going on so that they could use them to show the ideal teaching situations. I was told they were coming into my class to film a math lesson. Of course, I was told that at lunch so I had to try to get some stuff ready. Well, we waited and waited and they didn’t show up. Then, about 20 minutes before the end of the school day, they finally showed up in my room to film this lesson that we had already finished at that point. The computers were packed up because they had to go with the tech person.

They said, “Well, we’ll just film whatever it is you were going to do.” So, I’m like, “Okay, let me pull something out of my ass now…” So, I’m trying to do a science lesson and, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t prepared for it and it was almost the end of the day, my kids and I are almost ready to pack up and leave and, by the way, you told me you were going to come in an hour and half ago.

The lesson wasn’t going well, and at one point I said, “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to leave” because I knew my students were getting anything out of it and I wasn’t going to be putting on a show.

We had a staff meeting a day or two later and during that staff meeting, Underwood brought up a situation and basically said, “If someone is coming to your room to film and you disagree, you better just grit your teeth and bear it. I was so embarrassed that you weren’t prepared…” She never said my name but it was clear that she was talking about me. She said she had a stack of resumés at her desk and that we were all replaceable.

My third story happened later in the year and this was one of my breaking points where I thought, “I might have to leave this place.” We always had visitors visiting our classroom and it was typically a disruption to the learning process. We had a group of visitors that came in on this particular day who were very loud and didn’t seem to understand that when you go into a classroom, you should probably not interrupt what is going on. The students that I was working with, and it was a small group, maybe seven or eight, I could barely hear them when they were sitting five feet from me because these adults were in my room and being so loud and disruptive.

Like they were at the zoo watching animals or something.

Yes. So, the next day we had a staff meeting for nothing related to that but I brought it up. I raised my hand and said, “Is it possible that when we have visitors come in, that we can ask them to try not to interrupt the learning process because it was really difficult to get my kids back on track after they left the classroom.”

Her response was that she couldn’t tell Dr. Covington and Dr. Esselman to have these people be quiet and if I didn’t think I could handle that, that maybe this was not the right place for me to be working. To me, I thought that was hilarious. I mean I would have had the balls, I would have stood up to him. I’m sorry but you need to ask the question. You can do it politely, in a respectful way, but say to them, “Would you please respect the learning process and try to keep your voices down when you’re in the classroom?” I didn’t think that was such a big thing but she turned it into, “You can’t do that and maybe this isn’t the right place for you to be working.” And that was, of course, in front of the entire staff that she does this stuff.

That goes along with this environment of fear that they had created. I wasn’t afraid to speak up but there were a lot of people who were.

How many times did visitors come through?

The year that I was there, it started in December and we had something like 20 visitors by the end of the spring. They didn’t usually come in the summer because in the summer there weren’t that many students there and they really didn’t want people to see that.

Another thing is that every time we had visitors, our schedule completely changed. So we had kids eating lunch at 10 in the morning or super late in the afternoon so that the visitors wouldn’t be there to see the kids at lunchtime because they were afraid that the students would be themselves.

Original article appeared at the following link:


The Leader In You

The Leader In You

by Naphtali Hoff

Those of us in education often think of leadership as the domain — if not the burden — of the privileged few. Individuals who sit on comfortable perches, such as heads of school and other organizational leaders, are tasked with the responsibility to guide and inspire their charges and advance the institutional agenda. The rest of us are simply here to teach.

In truth, whether we enjoy a large central office on the main floor or a corner classroom in the school basement, we are all leaders. Every teacher who enters a classroom is given the opportunity and privilege to lead. As teachers, we must select instructional content and determine what it is that our students need to learn. This includes the moral, ethical and social-emotional components of learning in addition to core content. We also determine how the information and skills are to be taught — whole class, cooperatively, flipped, etc. — when it will be learned, as well as numerous other considerations.

But leading in our respective domains is about more than what we teach and how we teach it. It’s about setting a tone and managing the weather.

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” — Haim G. Ginott, “Teacher and child: A book for parents and teachers” (1975)

Ginott’s message is very powerful. It expresses the opportunity that we have as teachers to create an environment where students and their ideas are respected and valued. It emphasizes the importance of protecting student safety, physical, as well as emotional. It reinforces the fact that we, as classroom leaders, set the tone in every regard.

Even more than our roles as instructional leaders, teachers have an obligation to lead by example. As a father of five school-aged children and a former teacher and principal, I can attest to the amount of learning — positive as well as less desirable — that children do by observation. Teachers must be so very careful to be exemplary role models, to set a high standard and keep to it, even when we have an “off” day or are working through personal challenges. Sometimes it is both tempting and ostensibly acceptable to lash out at a child who is misbehaving or allow ourselves to get pulled into a power struggle with a student, on the pretense that we cannot relinquish control of the class. Remember that education is often as much about what we choose not to do or say as what we actually express.

One other area that it far too often undervalued is our role as leader amongst colleagues and with parents. As a former principal, I cannot begin to estimate the power of peer influence. There is no question that so many agendas were cemented not by me and my administrative team, but by individual teachers.

One particular conversation comes to mind. We had been working for some time on instituting a PBIS program in our school to enhance student behavior. While the staff as a whole was on board, one teacher remained resistant. At a faculty meeting, he used the opportunity to loudly question something that had already been accepted by the staff. Before I could open my mouth another teacher jumped in. “Why are you challenging this? We already agreed to it! Let’s move on.” There was nothing that I could have said that would have been more impactful than her words.

We also have a tremendous opportunity to teach and inspire parents. Weekly newsletters, orientation, conferences and special events give us a soapbox on which to tout the value of communication, active parenting, healthy eating, sleep, etc. You have no idea as to how many parents seek guidance and are willing to learn from the same people who engage their children.

Leadership may not be something that we signed up for when we started taking classes in education. However, it is an unavoidable component of the job and perhaps the most rewarding. Think of yourself as a leader. Recognize the power that you have every time you plan a lesson and greet a child. Appreciate your ability to influence faculty meetings and school agendas, and help parents become the very best parents for their children. Recognize that every day brings new opportunity to engage and inspire, and the tremendous responsibility that comes with such opportunity. Be a leader, today and every day.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” — William Arthur Ward