A Time to Nurture

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 I believe everyone has an underlying life mission and set of beliefs that when applied to our vocation can lead to our success and happiness.  I believe that usually life “unfolds” and we make choices at each new situation, consciously or subconsciously, that put us in positions of acting on our beliefs and with each decision, life “unfolds” in a new direction.  We are guided only by our myopic view in the present and experiences on our journey so far.  Despite being blind to the future, with our hopes and beliefs, we forge on.  If our decisions are aligned with our life mission, then despite the daily ups and downs, we find satisfaction and contentment in our life’s work.

There are many worthy callings and roles people choose.  For me, my calling was and still is – to teach.  To me, teaching, in all its various avenues, is the single most important endeavor as human beings.  We intend that by teaching our young, they not only survive but thrive. Learning from those who teach and nurture learning is how humans have empowered the next generations.

The most important thing about teaching is that it requires a positive and caring bond between teacher and student. Teachers understand that every learner is unique and that there is no magic bullet when it comes to facilitating learning.  Teachers who help struggling learners overcome the obstacles do so by employing multiple methods until the right key unlocks understanding.  In recent years, I have been saddened to see the effects of political focus on education and the accusatory and downright negative rhetoric directed at teachers and school administrators.  There is a natural defense system that kicks in when one feels attacked. Our human brains are “wired” to rely on what we already know to protect ourselves.  We stop venturing into new learning and hunker down to do things we know are “safe”.   To be in fight or flight mode is a terrible place for both teachers and their students.

The number one indicator for students’ low-performance is poverty.  Poverty has been a well-known correlation for decades.  Several years ago, I became an elementary principal of a small rural school where nearly half my families’ incomes were at or below the poverty level.  The puzzle has been how to help students from poverty perform as well as their non-economically disadvantaged peers.  Even a few years ago, our undergraduate training in college could not have predicted and adequately prepared us for the impact of poverty on our public schools.  I read everything I could find on successful high-poverty schools. I led staff development on brain-based methods of instruction and led book studies on poverty.  We saw measurable improvements, but poverty was on the rise.  The most recently gathered data as of October 2015 confirms this.  The numbers of students in public schools across NYS who are eligible for free or reduced school lunch has risen to a whopping 54%.

The good news is that in the past few years, using new imaging tools, neurologists have been investigating the correlation between poverty and learning.  With the findings from the fMRI’s in their research, they now have evidence of just how poverty adversely and physically affects a child’s brain and interferes with normal learning functions.   Researchers from the education field are now using these findings from neurologists to identify teaching strategies that best help low-income learners succeed.  Teachers need to learn how to strengthen working memory, concentration and engagement – but for children from poverty, teachers need to have a better understanding of why their usual methods of instruction do not work.

Teachers need the opportunity to learn and adapt with new practices.  It takes time since training for working teachers must fit around a daily schedule.  What little time available for training has been squandered responding to State initiatives focused on assessments and punitive teacher evaluation policies.  Someone outside education might think “Just give teachers a report to read.”  Truly if the art of teaching were that easy, it would have been done by now.  Learning teaching practices involves seeing the practices modeled and testing new practices in a collegial environment before putting the strategies into their own practice with children.  Just as learning to drive involves actual driving with a tutor, in teaching -to seamlessly perform a new instructional strategy, much thought, preparation, practice and feedback from a mentor is involved in order to successfully “perform” the newly acquired skill independently.

Even though public school teachers and administrators have been voicing their concerns about State initiatives, our “compliance-oriented” state officials failed to see the implications of their plans. The harm done to the learning process and our students was ignored until parents expressed their concerns by “voting with their feet” during the 2015 State assessments.  The loud and clear message from parents to NYS politicians has finally given Albany pause.

Fortunately, our new Commissioner of Education has been allowed the opportunity to reassess the State plan and make new recommendations. Our elected officials are finally ready to listen.  I’m sure she sees that the current climate not only adversely affects student learning, but also sets up NYS public schools for a record deficit in teachers and administrators.  Pre-service enrollment in teacher preparation colleges are already experiencing a significant decline.  From this, I hope our NYS politicians will realize that their tactics are not a productive way to address the issues facing public education, especially with children from poverty.  There needs to be a collegial climate conducive to learning, not an atmosphere of recrimination and fear. Teaching is a demanding job.  It takes a lot of passion, patience and practice to be a good teacher. In an oppressive climate of blame, negativity and finger-pointing at teachers, it is our most conscientious teachers who suffer the most anxiety. This is apparent to young people who, as a result, are deterred from choosing a career in teaching.

It’s time to nurture our educators and students.  In my workshops, I support teachers by giving them a better understanding of poverty, the new research findings on the brain and learning.  As a result, teachers understand why the specific, easy-to-do strategies I model in my trainings, work.  As an instructional coach I support teachers as they implement and polish their new skills.  For those receiving the training, now teaching struggling learners actually gets easier and at last, their students begin to experience every day successes.  Nurture the teachers and ensure they have the emotional stamina to nurture their students in need.

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