Category Archives: Teaching Quality

Don’t Mistake Simple Sharing for Collective Action.

In a recent article titled Meeting the Challenge of Infusing Relevant PD in Schools, Lyle Hamm and Kevin Cormier argue that professional learning communities — which encourage colleagues to relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning — often fail as a professional development strategy primarily because they require peers to come together for weekly face-to-face meetings with one another:

Imagine being an educator and getting up each week during a Canadian winter and travelling into a PLC session for a 7:00 a.m. meeting prior to preparing to teach all day. Or perhaps even more exhausting for educators is attending a session for one hour each week after they have finished teaching all day. This adds minimal value to the pedagogy of the educator; instead, it potentially creates mild to major anxiety and toxicity among staff and affects the school culture negatively.

Hamm and Cormier go on to argue that the bulk of teacher learning can be done by facilitating digital interactions and experiences in online spaces — which allow participants to interact with new ideas anytime and from anywhere:

In this professional learning format, the learner is able to continuously build their educational and networking capacities by reading over professional development content and articles. They may contribute to and read discussions where many participants engaged in the topic share ideas and experiences. Key ideas can then be brought back to their own schools to share with colleagues and additional community educational stakeholders such as parents.

As a guy who has spent the better part of a decade working in a school structured as a professional learning community AND using digital spaces to facilitate my professional growth, I see two points of concern in Hamm and Cormier’s thinking:

Digital spaces facilitate sharing and networking — but sharing and networking are entry-level collaborative practices:

Hamm and Cormier are right to suggest that any teacher working in any subject area and driven by any professional interest can find information that will challenge their thinking in digital spaces.  In fact, that’s what I value the MOST about the learning that I do online.  The peers that I learn from in places like Twitter or Google+ or on the blogs that I follow in my feed reader are always sharing interesting content that I can access easily whenever I have a few free minutes and an Internet connection.

But sharing and networking are entry-level collaborative practices, y’all — akin to nothing more than knowledge-building in our classrooms.

Would we settle for learning experiences that failed to give students sustained opportunities to wrestle deeply or to test their ideas or to be intellectually challenged by their peers?  Would we be satisfied if our students were never asked to systematically reflect on who they are as learners or to back up their notions with evidence collected over time?  Then why should we settle for learning experiences that fail to give teachers the same opportunities.

Now don’t get me wrong:  Deep and meaningful learning done in partnership with thoughtful peers and sustained over long periods of time is technically doable using nothing but digital tools.  Determined colleagues really ARE joining together in regular Google Hangouts or Voxer conversations or Facebook groups to reflect around problems of practice together.

But the truth is that deep and meaningful learning in social spaces isn’t nearly as easy as simple sharing.  And as a result, simple sharing has become the most common pattern of participation for educators living and learning online. PLCs done well, on the other hand, are designed to move teacher teams beyond simple sharing and into careful reflection.

The most valuable collaborative partners are those who share deep contextual understandings and who develop trust through ongoing personal interactions:

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, introduces readers to the concept of virtual distance — defined as the social disconnect that can develop between peers who connect primarily through screens:

Today’s keyboard-tapping workers have very little context around who their counterparts are, how they feel about things, or what they hope for — in other words, what motivates them. Without a panoramic perspective, it’s difficult to form a sense of common purpose.

In fact, when a seemingly intelligent screen is the only frame in sight, people often default to decoding messages based on what they know, filling the contextual void using their own experience to color in the blank backgrounds behind their co-workers. But this can create distorted perceptions about other people’s values and beliefs, causing collaboration conundrums.

Sobol-Lojeski goes on to document the impact that virtual distance can have on collaborative efforts, noting that in organizations with high levels of virtual distance:

  • Innovative behaviors fall by over 90%
  • Trust declines by over 80%
  • Cooperative and helping behaviors go down by over 80%
  • Role and goal clarity decline by 75%
  • Project success drops by over 50%
  • Organizational commitment and satisfaction decline by more than 50%

Organizational commitment built around a common purpose is fundamental to successful collaboration in the professional learning community model.  When done well, trust and innovation and helping behaviors become the norm in PLCs because peers KNOW that they can rely on one another as they work towards a clearly defined vision of a better future for the students and school that they share.

More importantly, teachers working in PLCs receive targeted support from one another built on contextual understandings that peers in digital spaces can’t always provide.  I am uniquely suited to lend a hand to the guy working across the hall simply because I know his personal and professional strengths.  I also know the strengths of our students and the system that we work in; I know the stated and unstated expectations of the community that we serve; and I know exactly which resources that we have available to us.

Once again, don’t get me wrong:  There ARE tangible steps that can be taken to reduce the virtual distance between peers who work together primarily in digital spaces — but without careful attention, peers working together in digital spaces quickly become nothing more than fellow participants instead of collaborative partners.

The truth is that I’ll never walk away from the peers that I learn from online.

The content and resources that they share are influential, forcing me to rethink my practices.  What’s more, connections to peers in other places provide me with a valuable lens for evaluation and comparison.  It’s easier to determine if I am on the right professional path when I can get a transparent look at the paths that partners in other places are taking.

And after investing thousands of hours adding comments to blogs, starting conversations in places like Twitter, and making time for face-to-face interactions at national and international conferences, I really do have a handful of peers that I know mostly through digital spaces who add as much to my learning as the peers I work with in person.  By nurturing those relationships over time in much the same way that I nurture relationships with learning partners in my school, I’ve eliminated the collaborative struggles caused by virtual distance.

But if I am being totally honest, the learning that I do in digital spaces still remains largely serendipitious instead of systematic.

I stumble across ideas that add value to my learning almost every day — but the value that they add rarely changes the work that I am doing right now.  Like the proverbial seeds strewn in a field, some of the ideas that I find today will take root months down the road.  Others will wither away and die almost immediately.  And a rare few will sprout as soon as I write my next set of lessons.  I know that I am learning whenever I am online — but I don’t often feel like I am truly studying my practice with intentionality.  My digital interactions are an essential complement to — but not a perfect replacement for — the work that I am doing with my learning team.

And that’s why I’ll never walk away from the peers that I learn with in person.

The simple truth is that they have a unique ability to challenge me as I struggle to meet the ever-changing demands of my classroom and my community.  The support that they can provide is truly “just in time” because they are using the same resources to deliver the same curriculum at the same time to students with the same sets of strengths and weaknesses.  What’s more, we have a history of interactions and experiences that we can use to inform our actions and our decisions.

I’m not suggesting that digital tools and spaces can’t facilitate LEARNING.  I’m just suggesting that when done well, PLCs facilitate COLLECTIVE ACTION — and collective action is the REAL key to moving any school or district forward.

Does this make any sense?  


Related Radical Reads:

Five Guys that I Love Learning Alongside

So Much More than a Personal Learning Network

The Power of PLCs


My Favorite Radical Heads to Kindergarten!

Long-time members of Radical Nation probably remember the day that my wife and I welcomed Reece — my beautiful, funny, smart adopted daughter — into our lives.

Swaddled, pooping, and wrestling with a pacifier three times the size of her head, she won my heart in an instant:

That same girl has grown up, y’all — and on Tuesday, she heads to Kindergarten whether I like it or not:


I have to admit, I’m a nervous wreck.

I’m full of questions about what she will learn and who she will become and whether or not traditional classrooms in traditional schools are going to prepare her for tomorrow’s world.  I’m full of worries that her teachers may not understand that her vibrancy and energy and spirit are EXACTLY who I want her to be given that girls who are vibrant, energetic and full of spirit grow up to be strong, confident women.  And I’m full of fear that I might be a failure as a parent, forgetting that my contributions to Reece’s learning are as essential to her success as anything that schools will do on her behalf.

But I’m full of hopes, too.  I hope that she’ll never see the difference between learning and schooling.

So much of what makes Reece special is that she LOVES learning new things and she’s constantly making discoveries — about both herself and the world around her — that she’s ready to share with anyone who will listen.  Whether she’s telling Grandma about the ways that animals use camouflage to keep themselves safe or teaching Gramps the best way to snap your fingers, she’s proud of what she knows and she’s ready to learn more no matter where we are or what we are doing.

Like most kindergartners, learning is still a celebration instead of a chore for Reece — and I hope that her teachers and schools will work to keep it that way.

And I hope that she’ll keep asking amazing questions.  Just yesterday, she asked:

  • Can planets fall out of the sky?
  • Is the sun like the earth’s mother?
  • Does your spirit leave your body after you die?
  • What’s higher – Heaven or space?
  •  Why do some fish glow?
  • How do satellites work?
  • How do television shows get to our house?

Questions are the starting point of any worthwhile discovery.  More importantly, questions are the starting point of a meaningful life.  The simple truth is that wondering about the world is a thousand times more fun than waiting to take directions.  In a world where students and schools are judged by nothing more than answers, I hope Reece will find teachers who still believe in the beauty of good questions.

Finally, I hope she’ll be more than “college and career ready” by the time her journey through “the system” is done.

In fact, the first time a teacher and/or school tells me that they are committed to ensuring that their kids are “college and career ready,” I’m likely to go straight Vesuvian on ’em.  Sure, I want Reece to develop a set of skills that will help her to find a financially rewarding career — someone has to pay my nursing home fees after all — but there is SO much more to life than being prepared for college and a career.

To be honest, I want Reece to be COMMUNITY ready on the day that she graduates.  I want her to recognize that she isn’t living in an isolated little bubble of ME, but instead, we live together in a world full of WE.  I want her to make the world a better place for everyone who lives in it and to develop the skills and abilities necessary to tackle the challenges that threaten our environment and the peace and safety the people that we share our planet with.

I want her to recognize that she has power — that she CAN drive positive change with her choices and her actions — and I hope she crosses paths with teachers who constantly remind her that she is responsible for so much more than getting to college and preparing for a career.

Most importantly, I hope that Reece’s teachers and Reece’s principals and Reece’s schools and Reece’s systems remember that she’s not just another kid sitting in just another classroom waiting for the school year to end.

She’s MY kid, and she’s fixin’ to take the world by storm.



 Related Radical Reads:

Welcoming the Newest Radical

This is Who I Am

Maureen Langan and CBS Should Be Ashamed


How Are YOU Planning on Celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week?

Teacher Appreciation Week — which runs from Monday May 5th to Friday May 9th — is a time to remember that whether they are helping kids to master their multiplication tables, challenging kids to wrestle with the problems that threaten peace and prosperity in the world, or reminding kids that being a good person is just as important as being a good student, teachers really do change lives.

So how are YOU planning on raising awareness about the positive contributions that teachers are making to our communities this week?

Here’s two ideas:

#TeachingIs Project:  The Center for Teaching Quality — a group that has been working to raise teacher voice and to redefine the teaching profession  for the past 20 years — is encouraging teachers to spend the week sharing reflections about just what teaching is all about using the hashtag #TeachingIs.

Think about writing a blog post, crafting an image, or posting a Tweet or two designed to raise awareness about the complexities of the work that you do on a regular basis.  Give people a look inside your heart and your mind.  Share successes and/or struggles.  Let’s work to paint a better picture of our profession for people beyond the schoolhouse walls.

#ThankaTeacherDay Project:  My buddy John Wink — who blogs over at Lead Learner — has come up with a remarkably simple way to show appreciation this week.  He’s encouraging everyone with a stake in education — teachers, parents, students, community leaders, principals, politicians — to write a letter of thanks to a teacher this Saturday, May 10th.

John’s thinking is that the greatest reward that you can give a teacher isn’t another gift card to Starbucks.  Instead, the greatest reward that you can give a teacher is your kind words.  None of us got into this profession to build our apple-themed coffee mug collection.  We got into this profession to make a difference.  Knowing that our work mattered is the only thing that ever really matters.

I’m planning on playing along with both projects.  Will you join me?


Related Radical Reads:

Celebrating the Day of the Teacher

Standing at the Edge of My Classroom

Teaching is a Grind


Teaching is a Grind.

Blogger’s Note:  The Center for Teaching Quality is planning a major initiative for Teacher Appreciation Week (May 5-9) that is designed to raise awareness about the complexities of the teaching profession.  Called the #TeachingIs project, I’m sure that it’s bound to be a wonderful celebration of the difference that we make in our communities.

I wanted to make a contribution to the conversation.  As a glass half empty kind of guy, though, I wanted to be sure to bring a bit of pessimism to the party.  My goal isn’t to be the dark cloud to anyone’s silver lining.  My goal is to simply ensure that people realize that there’s more to teaching than shiny red apples and classrooms full of smiling children.

Hope you can appreciate that.


Teaching is a Grind.

I’m sitting in a dirty McDonald’s restaurant right now.  It’s the same dirty McDonald’s restaurant that I’ve spent the better part of the past 15 years sitting in.  Stop by and you are almost guaranteed to find me in a booth near the back — next to the filthy bathrooms and just inside the door where the sketchy teens are chain-smoking Marlboro Reds.

I come here after school and on the weekends to crank out writing for part time projects.  Sometimes I’m blogging.  Sometimes I’m putting together #edtech or #ccss lessons that I’ll use in my classroom AND in professional development workshops that I deliver during  those legendary “vacations” that teachers get.  Sometimes I’m answering emails sent by school leaders who need a bit of advice on how to move their buildings forward.

Always I’m tired.  Finding energy AFTER a full day at school ain’t easy.  

I walk into my classroom at 6 AM every morning and spend the first two hours planning, grading and answering email.  From 8:00-1:30, I work with 140 of the most engaging eleven year olds you’ve ever met.  They are simultaneously beautiful and demanding, though.  Meeting needs, answering questions, calming worries, celebrating successes and soothing hurt feelings are all wrapped around delivering the content in my curriculum.


I spend the last two hours of my day in meetings — with parents, with peers, with special educators, with principals, and with professional developers.  On good days, I might even get a few more minutes of planning before picking my daughter up from school.

As soon as my wife gets home at 4:30, however, I head to McDonald’s to start my second job.  Most nights, I work until 7:30.  Most Saturdays and Sundays, I work from 6:30 until noon.

Always, I’m worried about making ends meet because my family literally relies on my part time income to pay our bills.

Living in a state that ranks 46th in the nation for teacher pay — a full $10,000 behind the national average — means I’ve GOT to generate part time revenue in order to financially survive.  If the content that I create on nights and weekends doesn’t resonate — if I can’t convince SOMEONE to buy my ideas or my time — we’d be flat broke.

The hacks that harp on the horrors of the public education system would probably revel in this reality, wouldn’t they?  They’d argue that the stress of my poor salary has pushed me to be a better teacher. “Competition blah-blah-blah.  Pay for performance blah-blah-blah.  Cushy teaching jobs blah-blah.  Wasting our tax dollars blah-blah.”

And in a way, they’d be right:  While a part of me is constantly improving my practice because I know that improving my practice means improving the lives of my students, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m also constantly improving my practice because I’m hoping that someone will see me as an expert and hire me as a consultant so that I can cover next month’s day care bill for my four-year old daughter.

Long story short:  Teaching is a grind.  

On a good day, the grind feels like a noble sacrifice because I know that my work has made a difference for the kids in my class and the families in my community.  On a bad day, the grind feels like professional masochism.  I guess that’s the uncomfortable truth for those of us who have chosen a career that has always been undervalued and — more recently — been unappreciated.

The question is how long can I keep on grinding?


Related Radical Reads:

 The Straw

Saying Goodbye to Maria

A Profession That Doesn’t Give Back


The Straw.

Cranky Blogger Warning:  I’m exhausted, y’all.  And sad.  That means this post is probably more emotion than it is logic.  I won’t apologize for that — it is a part of who I am — but it also means that I might just feel differently about all of this tomorrow.  

Hope you’ll understand.


– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Simple Radical Truth:  Staying in the classroom full-time has ALWAYS been my only professional goal.  I love the #edtech and #atplc consulting work that I do, but the fact that I still work with kids all day, every day is what I’m proudest of.  More importantly, it’s what I enjoy the most.

But after the past few days, I’m not sure that I’ll be a full-time classroom teacher for long.

You see, my four-year old daughter — who I love more than life — went to her first gymnastics class on Tuesday and I missed it because I was working one of the three part time jobs that I work in order to make ends meet around our house.  Rumor has it that she LOVED the entire experience.  She walked on balance beams and jumped on trampolines and wore a harness as she flew and flipped her way around a local gym.

“I’ve never seen her so happy!” my wife said.

Neither have I.  

Things got worse when I got home.  “Do you think we could sign Reece up for gymnastics classes?” my wife asked.  “They’re $67 dollars a month.”  She knew my answer before I had the chance to speak.  We don’t have $67 extra dollars a month for gymnastics classes no matter how happy they would make my daughter — and finding another $67 dollars a month would mean spending even more of my nights and weekends away from home shaking the money tree.

Then my best friend called.  “Hey Bill: We’re going camping this weekend and thought you guys might want to come with us.  We’ll have a campfire and cook Smores with the kids.  Whaddya’ think?  We know Reece has been asking about going camping all summer.  It’ll be fun!”

Should be an easy answer, shouldn’t it?  Any GOOD dad would jump at the chance to take his daughter camping for the first time with friends and family on an early fall weekend, right?

Here’s the hitch:  I have a GOOD 20 hours of part time work that needs to get done this weekend.  Going camping will put me WAY behind.  Might even mean that I miss a deadline or two — or that I do a poor job at the 5 different workshops I’m delivering in the next three weeks.

Do you have any idea how broken I am right now?

I feel like a complete failure as a father.  I can’t afford the classes that my daughter wants to take and I can’t find the time to take her camping.  Instead, I’ll spend my weekend like I spend damn near every night of my life: Sitting in a McDonalds writing blog entries, preparing for presentations, and praying that I find potential contacts with contracts in a Hail Mary attempt to cobble together a semblance of a living.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m NOT looking for sympathy.  This isn’t meant to be a woe-is-me, the sky-is-falling-and-it’s-not-my-fault kind of post.

I know full well how lucky I am to have a solid full-time job doing something that I love.  That’s more than many people can say in the crappy economy that we’ve all lived through for the better part of a decade.  Heck, until the State of North Carolina goes broke, I even have a pension.  Just as importantly, I’m proud of what I do for a living because I know it matters.  I’ve made a difference — and that is worth more than most paychecks.

And for long while, I was more than willing to ignore the fact that I was making less than the majority of my friends and family members.  I didn’t need to go on vacations or drive new cars in order to be happy — and the 1,028 square foot house that I live in on the on a .08 acre lot that I own was more than enough for me.  I was even perfectly satisfied with the fact that my wife and I are still using the Sears press-board dresser that my mom and dad bought me when I was 12 to store our grown-up clothes in.

But a simple fact rumbled right into the middle of my life this week:  My decision to ignore opportunities to move into higher-paying positions beyond the classroom out of a noble commitment to teaching aren’t just hurting ME anymore.  They’re hurting my daughter and my wife — and I’m not sure I’m willing to let that happen for much longer.



Related Radical Reads:

Here’s How Being a Father is Changing Me as a Teacher

Saying Goodbye to Maria

A Profession that Doesn’t Give Back