Lessons we learn come from many places. Both professionally and personally, they appear when we least expect them. For the most part, my lessons seem to take hold when I am really present; when I am truly paying attention to what is happening around me. I am sure that I have missed many of the “lessons” in my life by just not noticing. Thankfully, I have learned to be more aware and to recognize that I can learn from so many people in many situations. This past week, I had one of those moments. In a single conversation, I had a valuable lesson about the work that I do in school improvement. I think it was one that I knew before but it became crystal clear to me this week. It created a spark and inspired me to tell you about it. So, this twentieth school improvement blog is dedicated to Julie Ortego and the lesson she taught me this week…
1989… that is the year my youngest daughter was born. Why am I telling you this? Because that is also the year that Ms. Ortego was born. I am amazed by this generation. They are willing to work and willing to learn. And, willing to teach others as young as her students and as old as me. She was my teacher this week…
Julie is a second year teacher at Northside High School in Lafayette, Louisiana. Northside is a high needs school and both students and staff are working hard to improve the current reality. Julie teachs biology and other sciences and she works with other teachers as part of a collaborative team. But, that is not what I want to write to you about. What I really appreciate about Julie is her willingness to learn and improve as a teacher. She would be the first to tell you that she struggled her first year; to the point of wanting to resign on several occasions (and just for a minute I flashed back to my first years of teaching when I carried around a letter of resignation for weeks). She even admits that she still thinks about it and considers other professions. And, Julie is not alone.
We know that there is a very high number of beginning teachers who leave the profession, year one and two especially, but as high as in their fifth year. We also know that ninety percent of teacher demand is not because of increased student enrollment, it is because of teachers quitting. Yes, some retire but mostly teachers leave because they are dissatisfied with their work. Every principal reading this knows how hard it is to staff a school over and over again with teachers who are highly effective in the classroom. And this pattern of over and over again happens more in high poverty areas where students need consistent effective instruction. In fact, students in high needs schools are four times more likely to be taught by uncertified teachers. So, how do we keep the Julies in these schools?
Well, first of all, they have to be willing to do the work. Anyone who has taught in a school with extremely high needs knows that it takes a great deal of commitment and dedication to meet the needs of the students. So, a work ethic is job one in my opinion. Now, if the will is there, how do we improve the skill? That is exactly what Julie figured out in year two. She was more than willing to do the work and learn and she readily admitted that she needed to be a more effective teacher.
In year one, Julie started out with high expectations but soon fell in to a common pattern…lowering her expectations because it didn’t seem like the students could do the work. This is a common pattern that I see in low performing schools. In conversation with Julie, she admits that the lowering of her expectations last year led to a struggle with classroom management. The students were bored, not engaged and started to show this in very negative ways. The job became more difficult and she did not feel that she was able to meet the needs of her students. It was overwhelming.
Over the summer, Julie had an opportunity to observe a leader who had very effective skills with students. She noticed that the students responded to high expectations as long as the leader was taking the time to get to know the students and build relationships. Julie went back to the drawing board for this year and started over. She worked hard to build trusting, respectful relationships with her students and she maintained high expectations for them. She worked with an instructional facilitator, accepted feedback from her administration and was willing to try new strategies. When I talked to her this week she was full of enthusiasm for how far she has grown in her profession. I asked her what her evidence was that she was being more effective and she replied, “her students are more successful academically, they are asking more questions, they want to learn and they even stay for tutoring!” Oh, and the big aha moment we had… they are no longer skipping her classes!
Julie also benefits from working with a caring, committed school administration and has the support of a collaborative team. All of this is important to a beginning teacher. It removes the feeling of isolation… of having to figure things out by themselves. Teaching is a very challenging profession and the last thing we want in our schools is for teachers to fall through the cracks when support, learning and encouragement is needed. Dylan William is one of my favorite education experts. In his book, Leadership for Teacher Learning (1916) he states, “improving the quality of teachers can be done in two ways: by replacement and by improvement. We can replace existing teachers with better ones and we can improve the teachers who are already working in our schools.” If the will is there and the work ethic, I say we support learning and improvement with the teachers, like Julie, already in our schools. Northside students deserve and need Julie and others like her.
Julie’s lesson with me this week was about this… improvement is improvement. Julie might not be completely happy with her classroom management and lesson designs yet but she sure knows that she is more effective in meeting the needs of her students this year then last year. So, we celebrate…celebrate the small wins… recognize that fewer students skipping class is a really good thing. Celebrate when five more students are able to master a skill or concept than the last time you checked. Be really happy with growth… it may not be the final outcome we have but it is where we have to start. In every school there is a Julie. A teacher who goes to work each and every day wanting to do their best. How do we, collectively, take care of the Julies? What does it take to ensure success? Keeping these young teachers in our profession matters. Helping them improve has to be a priority. Thank you Julie. I appreciate you.