I was asked why I have this passion to work instead of “just relaxing” and doing whatever “retired” people do. I blurted out to my friend, in half-jest, “because I wasn’t dead yet.” We giggled about my “A” Type personality, but perhaps I was nearer the heart of my drive than I realized at the time.
Fundamental to my nature is the belief that we are at our best when we are helping one another toward a higher purpose for the benefit of all. I think of my hobbies like gardening, reading and music as things I do for myself. My desire to help teachers who work with struggling learners is what I do to make the world a better place for everyone. So it is that I continue to work and read and do professional development. What I am doing now, with all the research, trainings, presentations – this is my calling, to fulfill my life purpose to help children – all children, learn. What better way to do that than to support teachers and principals in how to be more effective, efficient and find joy in their work!
My years as a school principal and quest for The Grail: Several years ago, while a first-time elementary principal, I was on a quest for The Grail –– how to improve student performance. I was concerned that in public schools, we kept doing more of the same instructional methods and expecting different performance results. You know it…this is the definition of insanity. I’d lived through “open classrooms” and “whole-language” among other initiatives in the 70’s and 80’s. So yes, while I do not ascribe to change for the sake of change, I do believe there is room for improvement in classroom instruction, provided there’s substantial evidence that the new strategy has a powerful and positive impact on learning.
When I found Jensen’s book – “Teaching with the Brain in Mind”, I started reading it with a well-developed jaundiced eye. However, I soon found his message compelling and his points were backed by solid research, not just from one study but several studies that concurred with their findings. Jensen didn’t write from extracts from education theorists, but he delved into recent medical and behavioral studies by neurologists whose results were held up to the scrutiny and high scientific standards of peer review and the entire medical community. Moreover, in his book he described instructional techniques that tapped into this new understanding of how the brain is designed. I began sharing what I read with the teachers in my small school.
Throughout the year, numerous individual conversations with teachers revealed how they were applying a particular aspect of the brain that we’d discussed. I enjoyed our very collegial and interesting dialogues. Most of my staff were veteran teachers and already very good at what they do, but my admiration was deeper because they were continuously seeking ways to improve their instructional techniques. After receiving our math benchmark results, I noticed a significant jump in third grade scores. Excited, I spoke with the teacher that day and she attributed the improvement to the eight-minute movement activity she did each day with her students prior to her math lessons. This was great to share with everyone! There was the proof right in our own results!
In my second year as principal, my district arranged for Ruby Payne to address all administrators and teachers on the topic of understanding poverty. This was of great interest to me as my little school had almost fifty percent of our students qualifying for free or reduced lunch program. Our superintendent and school board purchased every teacher and principal copies of her book “Understanding Poverty” with the expectation that every school would do a book study. The awareness and realization that we educators had made erroneous assumptions about poverty, parents and children was profound. This training made us rethink some of the procedures in place at our school. Thinking differently about our children resulted in new schoolwide activities and how we communicated with and involved parents. It also resulted in thinking differently about our school library and its important role in providing student access to books.
At the start of my fourth year as principal, we received delightful news about our state assessment results. Our small, Title 1 school made not only overall improvements in student performance but a significant leap for grades three and four in ELA and Math. Our NYS assessment scores placed our school in the top of our category of similar schools and placed us twenty positions higher in our local newspapers’ school rankings for Western New York.
As we often do in education, we didn’t bask in our achievement long as our focus on RTI processes and better understanding and utilizing data came to the front burner for the next two years. Additionally our district, like many others in Western New York, had been experiencing declining enrollment for several years. As a result of our district’s findings regarding enrollment and classroom spaces, in December of that year, our Board made the difficult decision to close two elementary schools. My school would close in June and the other a year later.
In the three years that followed, I became principal for the last year of the next school to close and finally arrived at one of the schools that wouldn’t close. Due to the District reconfiguration plan, I was now rejoined with most of my original students and staff from my first school. But it was here that I learned even more about social-emotional issues and the effects of poverty on children in a Title 1 school. My heart broke to see so many of our children coming from difficult situations at home and parents needing our support as much as our teachers needed theirs. I longed to dig deeper into the research on poverty and the brain, but new state initiatives with Common Core, new assessments and APPR took over our every non-teaching moment. I purchased John Hattie’s book “Visible Learning” and Eric Jensen’s books on “Teaching with Poverty in Mind”, among others like these, but with so much going on, time to share these books with staff was limited.
So it was, though my retirement was imminent and I would have to pay my own way, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet Eric Jensen in person and learn more. The first day of the Jensen workshop, attendees gathered early. Some chatted near the coffee service while others browsed the many professional books on display. The excitement in the room was palpable. I learned that several people at my table had already attended one of his workshops and were back for more. Many administrators attending were from Texas, not just because the workshop was in San Antonio, but also because their ongoing training was part of their districts’ school improvement plan. Eric Jensen had personally worked with their entire faculty and provided ongoing training on poverty and brain-based instruction. I was downright envious of their good fortune and the funding commitment from their respective schools for their growth as educators.
Eric began the workshop. He briefly introduced himself and gave us some brief instructions to tell whoever is nearby when the music stops something we are grateful for. Within thirty seconds, he launched us into an activity that wasn’t just a “warm-up” but something he explained was important for learning. Once our activity was completed, he showed us why – in addition to music and movement, gratitude is important to reset one’s mindset and create an environment for optimal learning. His point that emotions are a major factor in engaging or impeding the brain. And then, Eric began to talk about poverty and struggling students and their urgent need to develop the skills he was going to teach us over the next few days. To make his point about the urgency, Eric brought up a chart that made my heart jump to my throat. The chart was a map of the Fifty States shaded in various color saturations to show the percentages of public school children who live in poverty as reported by public school districts from each state. (see Southern Education Foundation for the report. ) The statistical average for the entire country in 2013 (the year the data was compiled) showed more than 51% of all children in public school were living below the poverty line and that the numbers were increasing rapidly. Many states far exceeded the fifty-one percent.
I was in shock. The top correlate for poor-academic performance was socio-economic status. I understood immediately that our country and our way of life was at risk if how we teach poor students wasn’t improved. With a big gulp, I realized I had to pitch in and help turn this around. And that was the moment my previous ideas about a leisurely retirement of gardening, giving piano lessons and traveling, all vanished in a “puff of reality”.
Returning home, I dug into the latest available data from New York State at the time, the 2013-14 school report cards. I wanted to know just how prevalent school-age poverty was in my state. The NYS report card has all the disaggregated data, however, their interactive chart didn’t have an economic status filter. So I copied the data from the two rows of the spreadsheet with economic status and pasted into Excel and generated my own bar graphs comparing the non-economically disadvantaged performance results to the economically disadvantaged. What I found astonished me.
It was now summer and I was a data hound on the scent. I began looking at the countywide statistics from across the state, then at each school district. I kept looking for a school whose chart for economically disadvantaged performance resembled a bell curve like that of the non-economically disadvantaged. I gathered and charted every school district’s data in Erie, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Niagara and Orleans counties. I added a tab for each district with their numbers and a chart. Tab after tab of my spreadsheet confirmed poverty and low-performance was not a localized issue in the Big 5, but endemic for the entire state. Poverty students’ poor performance was experienced in every urban, rural and suburban schools regardless of the school’s overall performance. Even high-performing schools had equally poor results in the poverty gap.
So when the 2014-15 reports were posted by NYSED, I again copied and pasted the economic status testing results and looked at bar graphs showing the impact of poverty on school performance. While other demographic information showed some improvement in closing gender or ethnicity gaps from school to school, the biggest discrepancy in performance was in socio-economic status. AND, this was true in each and every school district again.
Not only was poverty the biggest gap, the numbers in poverty were on the rise. Our state average in 2014-15 for children in public schools with low SES had risen to 54% – a new all-time high. If you look up sources for general data on poverty, you’ll find that the numbers of people living in poverty improved from 2013 to 2014. But take a closer look. Lest you think the public schools statistics I quoted on child poverty is merely a one or two-year bubble. That hopeful thought bursts when one looks at the data on children ages 0 to 5 who live in poverty. For that age group – one in four are poor and that ratio has not improved. For public schools, this means for several more school years to come, poverty will still play a big role in learning and instruction.
My friends and colleagues could tell you that I have always had a silver-lining outlook on things. I’m one who believes there is a solution for every problem. And despite uncovering these doom-and-gloom statistics, I firmly believe it’s possible to change the future for our students. The training I received provides solutions that not only make sense, but have positive results. The high-poverty schools Dr. Jensen has worked with, have experienced improvements.
With what I have learned, I can’t sit on my patio sipping iced tea and watch the world go by. I have to do all I can to help. Through my trainings, I empower teachers to close the achievement gap for poverty. So instead of retiring, I’ve hopped on my noble steed – Research, and spread the news about what works for students, especially those from poverty. We, as a country and as educators, can’t afford to lose any more time on strategies that don’t address the needs. Neither can our children.