Day One.

A new year.

I recently learned to ski. Learning something new as an adult is not easy. It can be awkward, embarrassing, and frustrating. Especially when you are learning to strap your feet into two sticks and barrel down a mountain at high speeds around what seems like a million other people.

That first day skiing had its disheartening moments. As I was making my way down the mountain, practicing slow but steady turns according to the exact technique my instructor had taught me, there were children flying past me, in full pizza position, completely unaware of the correct turning technique and seemingly oblivious to the numerous potential dangers around them. For example, when I started to pick up speed, my train of thought would immediately turn catastrophic – what if I hit a rock and go flying and break all four limbs and die? what if I skid and hit a tree and die? what if I can’t turn fast enough and go flying off the edge of the mountain and die? what if I can’t stop and collide with someone and we both die? what if the leash on my glove gets caught on a branch and rips off my arm and I die?

All reasonable and totally valid concerns.

When children learn something new, like skiing, they tend to go all in. They pick up the skill fast and have little concept of the risks, social or physical, involved. They decide pretty quickly whether or not they like it, then they move on either way.

When an adult learns something new, they tend to be more aware of the social and physical risks involved. This can make it more difficult to go all in. For example, if I am hyper aware of how embarrassing it is to fall in the lift line (totally not speaking from experience), then I might be extremely cautious and aware of my actions in the lift line. In general, it takes longer to pick up and master the skill, so it may take longer to decide whether or not we like it.

It’s way easier to learn new things as a child. But my experience learning to ski reminded me that learning new things as an adult is so valuable. Taking social and physical risks makes you grow and even allows you to surprise yourself. Like who knew it was possible to fall while standing stationary enjoying the mountain view? What a surprise!

Now, on to mastering apr├ęs skiing.

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Regression

A major part of my job as a Special Educator is to do testing. Pre-testing, post-testing, formative assessment, academic evaluations, and regression testing. Before and after every long weekend or vacation, I test the students to see if what they know after vacation matches what they knew before vacation. If there is a significant difference, then they regressed and I refer them to the dreaded summer school.

Hint – the longer the vacation, the more they regress.

https://www.oxfordlearning.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ol-summerlearningloss-640w-final.jpg

As summarized above, this phenomenon has a snowball effect as the years go on. Especially notable is the fact that vacation learning loss, especially the “summer slide,” disproportionately affects low income students and students with disabilities.

My fellow educators often complain that the world is changing, the students don’t have the same work ethic they once did, and the students are not mastering skills as quickly as they used to.

The answer seems clear, although wildly unpopular – maybe the school year needs to be restructured to meet the needs of today’s students. *gasp*

I can hear the stutters and open-mouthed gaping from my colleagues. “Why would you want to give up 10+ weeks of vacation a year??” “How would I take care of my own children and pay for child care that whole time?” “The job is difficult and we need breaks!” “How would students transition between grades?” …are all questions that pop up like worried prairie dogs whenever the subject arises.

I am not suggesting we do away with breaks altogether. Teaching is a stressful and difficult job, and every one of those vacation weeks is well-earned by most professional teachers. However, the structure of the school year is clearly no longer servicing our neediest populations, and therefore needs to change.

I like to counter those panicked questions with, what if teachers were paid a higher salary that actually reflected the hours put in to the job? In other words, what if teachers’ salaries reflected 12 months of work instead of 10? What if you didn’t need a second summer job to support yourself?

We could create a better teaching environment for teachers by having higher wages and more prepared students who are able to retain skills from year to year. As a result, we could narrow the achievement gap and make learning more meaningful to all students by encouraging them to learn new skills, hone old skills, and always be learning. As a country, we place a great amount of importance on education and children, but how much do we really value them if we deny them the ability to be the best learners they can be?

What Will Education Look Like In Five Minutes?

No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top. Civic Learning. Excellent Educators for All. STEM. Mandatory Retention. Full Inclusion.

This is a small sampling of well-known educational initiatives on a state or national scale that have received scrutiny at some point during their tenure in public education. A number of initiatives are successful, but many are riddled with issues that are affecting all facets of teaching and learning.

Public education oscillates between new and recycled initiatives that demoralize educators, confound administrators, and don’t necessarily consider the best interests of the students. Many of these initiatives can be traced back to the push for standardized testing and teacher evaluations. In the ongoing race for improved test scores and increased accountability, public school districts desperately seize opportunities for new initiatives and implement them, hoping for a quick fix to the unique problems in education.

Too often, however, these initiatives are accompanied by sloppy roll-out plans, lack of training, or a standstill of progress due to bureaucratic constraints. Most of all, improperly introduced initiatives leads to disheartened and frustrated teachers who are required to spend valuable professional development time and instructional time implementing these ideas. Once one has taught for just a few years, it is easy to grow wary of the constant stream of new initiatives introduced year after year, promising to make teaching and learning easier – but easier for who? This dangerous road leads to incredible resistance to change and a feeling of having no autonomy over these initiatives and the impact they have. Teachers are not often called upon to improve upon the career in which they are an expert. Instead, these ideas come from central administration or government – in other words, people far removed from the daily classroom experience.

As Harriet Sargent writes in her 2009 report,

“The education establishment emphasizes what ought to work. It does not investigate or accept the evidence of what actually works. As one science teacher in the East End of London remarked, ‘”I am instructed to put into place educational initiatives for which there is no educational evidence whatsoever.'”

Sargent sums up the issue here by citing a lack of investigation or acceptance of evidence when rolling out new initiatives. Education is a uniquely sensitive subject; everyone has been through school and/or have children in school, and therefore people otherwise completely unconnected to the profession itself may have strong feelings regarding how teaching and learning should happen. In a constantly changing world, the education establishment does not often take the time to test what actually works and it does not seek out teachers’ opinions about what actually works. Instead, these entities make decisions that greatly impact teachers’ careers based on a feeling of what “ought to work.”

In order to make effective progress, teachers need to be involved in the process. Teachers and administrators need to collaborate with local, state, and federal government to solve problems unique to their district or school. Educational initiatives can be successful only when accompanied with collaboration, thorough training, administrative support, and complete roll-out plans. We need to stop accepting the revolving door of educational initiatives as the status quo. The teaching profession is suffering and, most of all, the students are suffering. We need to ask: can we sacrifice student learning and growth for the sake of a new initiative that involves more paperwork and the appearance of increased accountability?

One final thought.