Inside a Trauma-Informed Classroom – NEA Today

A student models the “cool down” corner in a trauma-informed classroom at Highland Elementary in Newark, Del. (Photo: Luis Gomez)

On a recent morning, Wilmington, Del., school nurse Donna O’Connor was reading the local news online “and saw that one of our fathers had been shot the night before.” She knew it would mean a bad day—week, month, year—for his children, and a new challenge for their educators. And, unfortunately, that kind of trauma isn’t unusual in their community, she says. “What does normal mean? What we consider normal [may not be] normal for them. How many of our students sleep in a bed?”

Scientists tell us that a child’s brain changes when they witness violence at home or in their communities, or experience poverty, eviction, and hunger. It adapts, altering its structure in a way that can be observed in brain scans. As a result, educators of these children will notice frequent “fight, flight, or freeze” responses to stress.

But what educators need to know is that they can adapt too, says Deb Stevens, director of instructional advocacy for the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA).

With professional training, they can reduce the impact of traumatic experiences and help all children learn. “You must believe you can make a difference,” she tells educators.

In 2017, DSEA won a $253,683, three-year NEA Great Public Schools grant for a collaborative project supporting educators at five Wilmington and Newark, Del., schools through frequent after-school and summer trainings, book studies, and more. “This is not another program,” says Stevens. It is a promise by the union, rooted in compassion and science, to change everything.

trauma-informed classroom

Dim The Lights!

Heather Harrison’s second-grade classroom at Highlands Elementary in Newark, Del., is an oasis of tranquility. The ceiling fluorescent lights are off. Natural light filters through sheer, handmade shades, while floor lamps glow in the corners. Wall posters say: “Relax” and “Just Breathe.”

Against the back wall, dozens of yoga mats and bolsters are stacked. “That classroom is a happy place for me!” says Principal Barbara Land. It’s also a trauma-informed space with flexible seating that allows for small movements by students, and a cool-down corner for students who need a break. During a recent math lesson, when a student yawns loudly, Harrison points to her own head and whispers to him: “Mindful! Be mindful of our actions!” Down the hall, in Sabra Lyons’ first-grade classroom, another math lesson is going on: “Last week, our brains were warming up,” she tells her students. “This week our brains are building on.”

Inside the Cool-Down Corner

Predictability and consistency help. But educators can’t always know what might spark fear or anger in a traumatized student. A “cool-down” or quiet corner can help stressed-out students avoid eruptions by taking a break, and almost every trauma-informed classroom has one. These places can be equipped with audio headphones, children’s books (Grumpy Bird is a favorite), or calm-down kits with stress-relieving putty, magic sand, stress balls, etc. “These are not toys,” says Stevens. They’re sensory tools that help students regulate their emotions. Recently Harrison had every one of her second graders visit her cool-down corner to practice their self-soothing skills. When they feel the need, they should be able to freely relocate there—and know what to do to take care of themselves.

At Shortlidge Academy in Wilmington, first grader Taralyn explains it like this: “You play there if you’re mad.”

trauma-informed classroom

Highland Elementary teacher Shayna Moon (Photo: Luis Gomez)

Social and Emotional Learning

“Good morning, Henrietta!” say Highlands Elementary kindergartners to their hedgehog puppet mascot. But it is not a good morning! Henrietta, a character from Highland’s social and emotional learning curriculum, is feeling frustrated and losing her cool. “Boys and girls, what should Henrietta do to calm down to think about her choices?” asks teacher Shayna Moon.

Says kindergartner Serenity: “Do turtle.” Sitting with crossed legs, Moon’s kindergartners demonstrate by tucking their heads against their chests, and getting “in their shells.” They breath deeply, and then “say the problem and how you feel.” These kinds of lessons will help their students in all aspects of their lives, educators believe. Meanwhile, at Shortlidge Academy in Wilmington, kindergartners learn about their brains as engines—if you’re revving too fast, it’s not a safe time to drive! “We teach the same thing,the same language, to our families,” says O’Connor.

Deb Stevens, director of instructional advocacy for
the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA). (Photo: Luis Gomez)

It’s a Good Thing She Loves Her Job…

From early Monday classroom visits to all-day trainings on Saturdays, the trauma project means DSEA’s Stevens is always on the go with bags full of handouts, books, and other resources.

Her recommended reading? Disrupting Poverty: Five Powerful Classroom Practices by Kathleen Budge and William Parrett; Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom by Kirstin Souers and Peter Hall (who came to Delaware this summer to work with DSEA members); and Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Children in the Classroom by Heather Forbes.

Recently, Forbes visited a book study group that Stevens coordinated with interested teachers, where they talked about the importance of making kids feel safe and building community in classrooms.

In the first year of the NEA GPS grant, Stevens focused on steering committee members at each school—doing poverty simulations and brain-architecture maps, and exploring school strategies that can counteract those effects. This past year, compassionate- schools training unfolded to all staff members.

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Immersion Programs Teach Much More Than Another Language

Matthew Bacon-Brenes is a dual language immersion mentor teacher in Portland Public Schools in Portland, Oregon. He teaches Japanese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Spanish. We spoke to the NEA Foundation Horace Mann Awardee about about language immersion programs and the wide-ranging benefits they bring to all students.

Why is learning a culture as important as learning a language?

It’s a gateway to understanding the multicultural, multi-perspective world in which we all live. My interest in language is deeply rooted in cross cultural communication. We need to understand different cultures and perspectives to fully understand our place in history and our relation to the world.

There is great power in history lessons told in a different language with a different cultural lens. That’s how we learn about narratives and paradigms that don’t exist in one language but do in another.

What lessons have your students learned from cross –cultural studies?

A core Japanese cultural value emphasized, encouraged and honed in my classroom is “thinking of the other.” It is thinking about and honoring the feelings and perspectives of those around you. “The other” can be in the seat next to you or someone on the other side of the globe.

By teaching about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights in Japanese to American students, I can present a more global perspective on what is to be “American” – that it is a unique perspective on what is most valued in our country and that it is not the only way to go about creating a nation of people.

The unit starts with John Locke’s “State of Nature” and “Natural Laws” that are the basis of Thomas Jefferson’s “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”.  Most American students at 8th grade have heard those words and can repeat them when prompted with the fill-in-the-blank “Life, liberty and _______?” A light bulb goes on. A connection to a thread of American culture and value system in which students have been immersed unfolds.

We look at interpretations on this triad of individual rights and dearly-guarded American values to examine events like the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the flying of the Confederate flag, homelessness in Portland, and other contemporary issues. The core question is, “whose rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being violated?” The answers are complicated, involving racism, classism and more.

At some point following this unit on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, I offer students a series of readings on Japanese cultural values, offering another fill-in-the-blank: “Liberty (or freedom) is to Americans, as __________ is to Japanese.

There is no shortage of answers: respect, peace, community, etc. Harmony is one of the highest cultural values in Japan. Collectivism, in contrast to America’s ardent individualism, places greater emphasis on the needs of the group than the individual in Japan. “Ongaeshi” (returning a favor) is also enormously important.  We push students to not just speak the language of Japan, but its culture as well.

Learning all the correct vocabulary and attending well to the grammatical rules is important. But not paying attention to cultural norms when speaking another language leads to “fluent fools” – our students become aware of other perspectives, that the American perspective isn’t the only one and that being a fluent fool is not cool.

What other benefits do language immersion programs have for students?

There is a lot of research that shows the rigor of language acquisition combined with content acquisition has enormous cognitive benefits for native and non-native speakers, raising achievement particularly in language arts and math.

Benefits are seen in every student demographic – affluent, low income, native speakers and English native speakers. Higher level learning skills comes from the power of transferring words and ideas from one language to another, thereby reinforcing them.

It’s a little hard sometimes for parents and educators to get on board with 50-50 immersion programs because there is an initial lag. Some parents wonder how their child, who might already struggle in math, will catch up if he’s learning math in a second language. But they do catch up. In fact statistics show that dual language students not only catch up, they pass up English-only students.

Students participate in a Japan Research Residency, the culminating 8th grade academic experience in Osaka and Hiroshima.

What are the benefits for ELLs in a dual immersion program?

I you want students to understand content, the best way to get them there is in their first language. This is an equity issue. We must move past the historic thinking around ESL as a deficiency model, like they are deficient because they can’t speak English. Instead, we embrace their heritage language skills as Spanish speakers or Vietnamese speakers, for example, and offer English simultaneously. We value their first language and realize that using it is the best way for them to access new content while also teaching them the English language. Again, it’s reinforcing the concepts, words and ideas.

How is the presence of a language immersion program an equity issue?

The dual language immersion department has made a commitment to equity and benefiting all students. Statistically, kids from economically diverse backgrounds make the biggest gains in language immersion programs. We are deeply committed to serving all students and schools, particularly those that have been historically underserved.

Language can be divisive – we’ve seen that around the country with English only laws, but we’ve also seen how language can bring people together and bring about academic rigor more universally. By looking at the immersion program through an equity lens, we see that the best model is 50-50, with half of the student body coming from a targeted language.

Why is the celebration of diversity so important in our current political environment?

The “America First” mentality is based on fear and is totally counterproductive to solving our greatest issues on the globe, from racism and hunger to human rights and environmental disasters. We need to embrace each other to evolve, grow and be a place where we all have an opportunity.

I think language and multicultural learning – embracing all heritages, opening access to opportunities, and offering a sense of belonging to everyone — is a piece of it. When students see their culture and their perspectives as part of our curriculum it counters that destructive idea that fear needs to drive us.

I believe that love needs to drive us, I take that from Martin Luther King, Jr., from Gandhi, and from all of the educators that I work with. That’s what drives educators — the love; getting outside ourselves to embrace the beauty and gifts of the other. Language studies and cross-cultural communication is key to that.

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What Does a Global Arts Classroom Look Like?

Julie Midkiff, an art teacher at Bradley Elementary School in Mount Hope, West Virginia, is an NEA Foundation Global Fellow who studies the connection between global arts and the Appalachian Arts and Crafts Tradition. She is also a contributor to 12 Lessons to Open Classrooms and Minds to the World, which supports students’ need for a globally conscious education.

NEA Today spoke recently to Midkiff about what a global arts classroom looks like.

How does arts education lend itself so well to global education and crossing international lines?

Julie Midkiff: Arts education is one of the core pillars of the Humanities; it helps us to gain a higher understanding of common human experiences.  The visual arts and the arts in general help us tap into this higher understanding of the human experience through the senses, whether it be what we see, hear or feel, or common things we all experience, such as growing up and going through life’s milestones while learning about our culture and the emotions we feel along the way.

Throughout history visual artists have used universal human experiences, feelings, and emotions in their work, and students from many different countries and cultures can easily relate to, for instance, a photograph of a mother cradling a baby, a painting such as Picasso’s Guernica, depicting the ravages of war, or emotions captured in Käthe Kollwitz’s drawings.

What commonalities do students from different parts of the world find in your art and theirs? What traditions are shared?

JM: When students see or experience a painting, sculpture, drawing, or installation, it helps them tap into these core experiences and they start to interpret these works within the framework of what they already know of the world.

It is my goal as an elementary arts educator to use a global lens to help my students expand their world from the familiar and local to include regional, national and international perspectives.  I like to use functional craft as a common example in my elementary Art classroom to help my students find commonalities between traditions and cultures shared around the world.

We use the four global competency domains to not only investigate and analyze artwork, but also as a lens for understanding the history and cultures of the artists we study.” – Julie Midkiff

My students in Appalachia can relate to quilting as an art form. They understand that quilts have been made and passed down from generation to generation and that some are used to keep them warm at night while others have been made to memorialize family members.  I build a regional perspective by helping them compare quilt making in Appalachia to the quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

On a global scale, I’m expanding their understanding of textile arts by introducing my students to artists I met and learned about as an NEA Foundation Global Fellow in southern Africa, including the work of Anthony Bumhira from Zimbabwe who uses blankets, doilies, and painting techniques to explore cultural and contemporary traditions.

I’m also researching the work of Thania Petersen from South Africa whose work taps into her Indonesian heritage and experiences with Islam and uses costume as imagery to explore personas and her own identity.

What does global competency mean for students in your classroom? What about global citizenship?

JM: According to the Asia Society, students can demonstrate global competency in four ways: When they can investigate their world with awareness and curiosity in learning about how it works, recognize their own perspectives and those of others with the understanding that others may not share their perspectives, effectively communicate ideas verbally and non-verbally with diverse audiences, and take action to use their knowledge and skills to make a difference in the world.

My young learners range from Pre-Kindergarten through fifth grade and we use the four global competency domains to not only investigate and analyze artwork, but also as a lens for understanding the history and cultures of the artists we study.

Global citizenship naturally goes hand in hand with global competency. By being engaged in lessons that use the global competency domain framework, my young learners gain the understanding that they are more than citizens of our town, region and country, but that they actually belong to and live within a world that is interconnected and that we all share the responsibility of making our world a more equitable, fair and sustainable place.

Julie Midkiff

How does creating a lesson with a global reach differ from creating other lessons?

JM: Lessons with a global reach dig deeper into the human experience and condition.  These lessons tend to be longer, and often cover a range of topics connected by a common thread of curiosity, gaining perspectives, communicating specific ideas, or taking action to solve a problem.  Giving yourself time to make these connections as an educator will help you be able to facilitate this in-depth learning in your classroom, no matter your content area or specialization and to help students make connections to real world problems, issues, cultures, etc.

How does global competency starting at a young age help tackle major issues of poverty and climate change?

JM: Tackling issues of poverty and climate change at a young age within the framework of global competency is a tall order for young learners.

Developmentally, they are just discovering themselves as individuals and the world immediately around them.  However, if these young learners can learn to make connections to these larger issues and taking action from an early age, we are positioning them on a trajectory where they will be able generate innovate solutions and to be the creative problem solvers of the future.

When possible, I try to partner with other teachers, community groups or organizations to help my students take action and participate in being part of a change or solution.

This year, I facilitated a partnership between my fifth-grade classes and a citizen’s conservation group in the Florida Keys. The group sent my students plastic trap line that is commonly used by commercial and recreational fishermen that had been cleared from the canals and waterway after the marine devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.

My goal is for my students, who live in land locked state, to gain an understanding of why we need to be good stewards of environment and to care about ocean pollution, which is one of the factors contributing to climate change.  My students researched the problems of recycling trap line, the affect of trap line has as marine pollution and its’ affect on local marine life and ecosystems.  They are in the process of building a sea turtle sculpture out of the trapline to be displayed with a QR code to bring awareness to the marine pollution and climate change issues to our local community.

By engaging in the trap line sea turtle sculpture lesson, my students have an increased sense of agency that they too, at a young age, can take action as global citizens and make a difference in the world.

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Sparking Student Inquiry Key to Classroom Engagement

To help spark curiosity, wonder and discovery—the things that
engage us in learning—I encourage educators to provoke more student inquiry. If students are asking more questions, and you work with them as part of a team to discover the answers to their questions together, they will be more engaged in their learning journey.

But I’ll be frank, the word “inquiry” is one of those teacher-ese
terms that sometimes doesn’t resonate in any way, nor provide a way of understanding how it can be implemented. I’m hoping to break it down here in a way that can be easily digested.

We talk about the 4Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication. But the fifth C—curiosity—is just as important. I would also argue that instilling a sense of curiosity in our students is our most vital task. When it’s time for them to leave our care, we want them to take along the desire to continue asking questions and looking for answers.

Don’t worry. I’m not suggesting that students take the reins entirely. As their coach, you control the ultimate destination, and the direction they should take to get there. But allowing them to ask questions creates a more rich—a more curvy, if you will—route.

Opening the door to questions can sometime make it feel like the fast-moving train of content-driven classes is slowing down. I am the first to admit that. But you must trust that you are generating enagement, which will help make your lessons stick.

Way to Trigger Inquiry

The key is to build in spontaneous, in-the-moment instruction that encourages students to ask questions and fumble toward the answers. This “flexible instruction,” as I call it, only appears to be spontaneous. In fact, you plan for and encourage it. In this way, teachers can create a more student-driven environment that still has scaffolds and structure. Here are some concrete ways to trigger ongoing inquiry in a classroom:

At the Beginning of a Unit: After introducing a topic in an engaging way—like using an entry event to launch a unit, for instance—give students the chance to develop a list of questions. At this stage, no question is too “out there.” Then, use this as an opportunity to teach high-level sentence stems and see if students can change those close-ended questions into ones that are of a higher level and more open ended. This initial brainstorm can then be whittled down to the highest quality of questions that can then become a classroom-created list. The resulting questions can guide student research, be used as writing prompts for future formative assessments, and as talking points once students have generated some expertise in the topic.

During Research: Students can generate questions prior to the appearance of a guest speaker. To showcase their prior knowledge of the topic, have students incorporate their research into a sentence stem before launching into questions.

For example, when my middle school students were interviewing a scientist to ask about the physics of their superhero powers for their superhero origin stories, one student developed the question,

“I know that a positive and negative charge is needed to create lightning. If my superhero has one hand that generates one charge and the other hand generates the opposite, and I put them together, could my hero possibly create lightning?”

After an Initial Draft/Prototype: Once a student has created a rough draft or a first prototype, have them develop questions that are designed to elicit the feedback they want to receive. That way, they will get what they need. Also, the questions created during this step will allow you to understand what a student knows about the topic. For instance, after a student writes a first draft in my class, I will look at the question quality in order to formatively assess their knowledge of how to write. If a student poses the question: Is this good?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

I know that this student might be at a loss and is not using this opportunity to reflect on what we’ve learned about writing. But if a students asks instead: Does my evidence strongly reflect my thesis statement? I know that kid is thinking even while needing help.

To Set up Assessments: While you’re at it, have students develop some of the questions they might encounter on an assessment. If you’ve spent some time prepping the students in high-quality questions, they can develop some questions that can then be distributed to peers to formatively assess a variety of topics.

By “outsourcing” to the students themselves some of the responsibility of generating curiosity, you will cast yourself as an ally in their learning.

The bottom line is this: Get excited by their curiosity. Don’t panic at the possibility of a lesson being derailed.

See every question as an opportunity to learn deeper and to take them on a more exciting learning journey. And when questions confuse you, well . . . smile at those, too.

You don’t need to know everything. You’ve got curious brains in the room to learn with you. Your responsibility is to give students a safe space in which they can enjoy the confusion and the inevitable learning.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school teacher at Jefferson Middle School in San Gabriel, Calif., and the author of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement.

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Art (and Art Teachers) Have Power

Allison Richo

“What are you going to do with that?” It’s a question college students and newly minted college graduates often hear from family and friends. For Allison Richo, who finished college in the 1980s, the that” was an art degree.

Today, she holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., and for the last 25 years has helped high school students in Prince Georges County, Md., see the world through artistic eyes.

“It’s been the best thing ever,” says Richo, who once owned an architectural design business with two friends.

When the business folded, Richo started to substitute teach.

“I did so well as an art teacher, I got a call [to return] and that started my career.”

Multiple Hats

It’s been nonstop for Richo, who teaches at Oxon Hill High School. Despite her love of art, and her long list of personal awards and recognitions, her attention is squarely centered on her students. So much so that she takes on a mammoth amount of responsibility: visual arts chairperson, interactive media and production coordinator, and academy and national art society sponsor. She also teaches five prep classes that include AP Drawing Studio, AP 2-D Design Studio, Basic Design, Drawing and Painting, and Art 1. Richo also earned National Board Certified status while battling a health crisis.

From your shoes to your cell phone, everything is connected to the arts.” – Allison Richo, art teacher

“I know it’s a lot, but I’m determined to give my students the best art education I can. If that means taking on more than what I need to, then I’ll do it.”

Richo is unafraid when it comes to looking directly at societal challenges, and bringing them into her classroom. Her students have examined issues like the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was killed by police in Ferguson Mo., during August of 2014, and the Louisiana communities that were neglected following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The discussions help to fuel installation pieces the students create afterward.

By connecting art with everyday life, Richo helps her students understand art’s relevance. “From your shoes to your cell phone, everything is connected to the arts.”

Otherwise, students think it’s like it’s being in kindergarten, ‘Oh, we’re
just drawing and coloring.’ No. There’s more to it than that.”

The More

Art isn’t just painting a pretty picture and learning fundamental skills, explains Richo. Art builds character and critical thinking skills, and because of the giving that creativity requires, art also teaches empathy.

While Richo wants her students to achieve mastery and evolve in their technique, she also wants them to use their art to give back to their community.

To achieve this sense of selfless generosity, Oxon Hill High School students have participated in The Memory Project, which invites young artists around the world to create portraits as special gifts for children facing challenges in countries like Haiti, Syria, and Madagascar.

“Art teachers have so much power. We have the tools to equip students with the skills they need to go out into the real world and be successful and it’s up to [us] tp help them get there.”

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It Is All About You! Bring Your Personality and Interests Into the Classroom

We all want to make learning more meaningful and authentic, One way to do that is by connecting learning to the world beyond school. The easiest way to do that is by bringing yourself—your personality and your interests—into the classroom.

That’s right. In addition to differentiating our students, it’s also vital that we differentiate ourselves as we work to increase the level of student engagement.

My recent nationwide student engagement survey of sixth through twelfth graders revealed that students are engaged by nine different categories of strategies. One of the most frequently mentioned results was for teachers to “be more human.” This teases apart into different sub-categories:

• Teachers’ enthusiasm for subject area and students;
• A teacher’s ability to share humor and personal stories; and
• The ability to comfortably share personal failures and how the teacher
bounced back.

In a recent study of almost 400 students and their 25 teachers published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the control groups of teachers and students were given information about five similarities they shared.

Merely knowing about those similarities was acknowledged as something that helps to strengthen their relationships, in particular “between teachers and their “underserved” students.” As a result, “This brief intervention appears to close the achievement gap at this school by over 60 percent.” Indeed, an increasing number of studies show a correlation between student achievement and the care educators show toward their students

That’s right: Your interest in gardening, running marathons, your food blog, or—in my case—comic books, can trigger student engagement and ultimately boost student achievement. Your interests—with you as the supplemental material— can defeat what I call, The monstrous “meh.”

That’s the lesson that gets the job done, but doesn’t quite land. It’s the unit that relays the standards, but is still greeted with a yawn.

Battling for student engagement, conquers the monstrous meh.

How To Get There

What are your interests? What was your journey toward education? What makes you … well … you?

Once you’ve identified the things that make you unique, connect them to your subject area. But remember, your personality can’t trump pedagogy. You have to leverage your own geekdom to supplement the curriculum. Because if the kids are moving from classroom to classroom, from period to period, and they know nothing about the diversity of people in those rooms, we are losing a valuable resource to prepare them for the world beyond school.

That’s its own lesson.

How Does This Look in The Classroom?

There are many ways to integrate yourself into your content area.

Stray from the textbook—Bring in examples of your content area from places outside the traditional textbook. Show you’re thinking of the material—and of your enthusiasm for it—by bringing in something you found on your own time.

Create assignments that ask students to mine their own lives for examples. You might find someone bringing in an example of an arch from local architecture, but you also might see an example of a trajectory from a football toss. Celebrating student findings is the ultimate in differentiation strategies and honors their personalities as well.

Help students to share their interests—Students will be more engaged if you are interested in them beyond the scope of academic learning. For instance, you can start a public event calendar, and students can add their own concerts, games, and other activities.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Celebrate uniqueness and passion as an ongoing theme in your classroom—Read A Bad Case of Stripes to your elementary students.

Have your middle schoolers analyze Apple’s “Think Different” ads through a persuasive lens. Bring in biographies of people who thought a little off-center and brought change to the world.

Share the many different personalities being celebrated in the world around them.

Share stories of yourself and your family as examples—Imagine your father won a lottery to drive a race car for a charity event. That story could become part of a lesson about velocity. Why did you select your own children’s names? You could talk about that when naming characters in a narrative. Teaching measurement?

Maybe there was a time your significant other had to try three times to level a shelf before the photo it was supposed to hold wouldn’t just slide away.

Administer a multiple intelligences test … to yourself— Analyze what makes you tick, and then deliberately embed other themes into your references and lesson planning. For me, this means not always referencing Star Wars and superheroes. But being aware of my Marvel-influenced tendencies, means I make sure to offer a few Major League Baseball references too.

Think aloud—This strategy is at the heart of everything. Narrate what you do and why you do it. Keep talking. Let the kids into your thinking process, and you will have shared both your personality and your expertise.

Of course, in the end, the real goal is to model comfort in yourself so that your students will feel comfortable with themselves. Engagement, after all, stems from comfort and comfort builds community.

You want a classroom that honors the interests of everyone. And that begins with talking about the things you like. Create a classroom culture that celebrates geekdom, and you’ll be advancing tolerance, empathy, and—yes—achievement

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What Motivates Educators To Step Into (and Stay) in the Classroom

Jayson Chang

It’s a well-known fact that many public school teachers enter the profession only to leave a short time later. The U.S. Census Bureau says teachers are leaving the profession at a rate that has continued to climb for the past three years.

First-grade teacher Michelle Usher stays. Currently in her eleventh year of teaching, and her second year at Brentfield Elementary School in Dallas, Texas, Usher says she considered the statistics on teachers who leave while attending last summer’s NEA Representative Assembly, and wondered, “Why aren’t we also talking about the people like me who stay?”

Her musings inspired this story about the motivations that encourage Usher and other teachers to stay.

Usher was raised by a mom who this year entered her 39th year as an educator. But it was really her third-grade teacher, Robin Johnson—with whom Usher continues to maintain contact—who inspired her to teach.

While she was a student in Johnson’s class, Usher’s grandmother died. “It was really hard on me,” she says. Johnson assured her they would weather Usher’s grief together.

Johnson’s support led Usher to understand early that teachers provide more than academic instruction. They also provide care—the lesson Usher says she most wants her students to receive: “I’m not just here to teach you something. I really care about you.”

Usher’s first teaching experience was in an Arkansas county where the number of students from families with low incomes was high. In the neighborhood surrounding her current school in Texas homes average $300,000, compared to a state-wide average of $185,000. The only difference between the two sets of students, says Usher, “is what their parents can provide.”

She says students enter school carrying with them an invisible suitcase filled with whatever is going on in their lives, and they can’t set it aside. “Even though I don’t know what’s going on, I can help them unpack their suitcase.” At day’s end, she helps pack it back up, hoping that she has helped to make the contents a bit “fluffier and brighter,” she says.

Michelle Usher (Photo: Hoyoung Lee)

And that’s why she remains. “I stay because I want to make change. Even when I started teaching, there were laws and policy procedures that didn’t fit with what is actually happening in the classroom. I could have left five years ago, but my drive is if I keep teaching in the classroom, [and] keep talking to parents, we can get the votes we need.”

She adds, “I think now, we are seeing what we decided earlier isn’t going to work. If I can impact students every day, teach them how government works, I am impacting what we will see in 20 years.”

Student Success

Jennie Campbell, a special education teacher at Pine Ridge Elementary School in Aurora, Colo., has a similar experience and agrees with Usher’s sentiment about how educators help to shape the future.

“For our kindergarteners today, the world is going to look completely different by the time they’re in twelfth grade,” says Campbell, who adds that educators strive to “help best meet the needs of our kids so that the world is accessible to all of them.”

Campbell is a fifth-generation educator and says teaching runs in her blood. Her mom was a teacher of students with severe needs. Her grandmother was an English teacher whose mother and grandmother were one-room schoolhouse teachers.

Campbell also has aunts and cousins who teach. But when NEA Today asked Campbell why she decided to teach, she, like Usher, credited her third-grade teacher.

“There are always one or two teachers in your life who stand out because they did something to help you or they connected with you on a personal level,” Campbell says. “Ms. Harper was my inspiration [to become] a teacher. There was something about her that made learning fun and magical.”

Jennie Campbell

Campbell has been a special education teacher for 12 years, and has worked with students with severe autism and Down syndrome. Her student caseloads have been, at times, overwhelming. Yet, she remains in the classroom.

“Every kid is like a puzzle and I’m trying to figure out what pieces I can give him or her to make learning a whole picture,” says Campbell, explaining that one of her students at the beginning of the year was reading 31 words a minute at grade level. Today, this student reads 85 words a minute.

“This is tremendous growth for a kiddo to read more fluidly and to more accurately comprehend,” she says. “And, to have the kids have the ability and the skills to be functional citizens within our world—however that may look—is why I’m still in it.”

Not every teacher comes from a family of educators or instantly recalls that one special teacher.

Goodbye Private Sector, Hello Public Education

California’s Jayson Chang, who teaches tenth-grade world history and twelfth-grade government and economics at Santa Teresa High School in San Jose, Calif., held an unfulfilling marketing position for two years before entering the classroom.

He recalls a staff meeting during which his manager explained how it was cheaper for someone in India to buy a TV from their U.S.-based company and have it shipped from their warehouse (also U.S. based) to India, than for the person to buy a TV from China and have it ship from China.

“China and India are right next to each other!” Chang recalls thinking that day. “It makes no sense to ship a TV back and forth across the Pacific. I made a comment about ‘That’s not good for the environment.’ My manager replied, ‘I’m here to sell TVs, not save the world.’ That’s when I knew I had to leave.”

After he resigned, Chang did some soul searching. He reflected on his love of history—how, as a high school student, he often thought of wanting to teach history so other students, like him, would love the subject, too. He thought about his undergraduate studies, which focused on being a global citizen and making human connections. He thought about making a difference in the world.

In 2016, Chang stepped into the classroom recognizing that while all students may not end up loving history, they can at least understand its importance.

“Teaching history, and why it matters—especially now that the country is so divided—is where I can make an impact,” he says. “Students are our future and they can shape it as they see fit. It’s important to teach them about community.”

While he does enjoy his students’ “aha” moments, Chang finds it most rewarding when his graduated students come back to visit.

“It’s these moments that reinforce why I teach. Students share how I made a difference in their lives or how they used the lessons learned from my class in real-world situations,” he explains. “These are the kinds of connections and the type of community experiences that get me pumped and ready to go the next day.”

From Volunteer to School Secretary

For JaTawn Robinson, a secretary at Thomasville Heights Elementary in Atlanta, Ga., the power of community is strong.

Several years ago, Robinson was a frequent volunteer at her children’s school, Slater Elementary. Robinson was a lunch monitor, volunteer reader, and a field trip chaperone.

She made copies and assisted in the office. “Whatever needed to be done, I was there,” says the mother of three sons.

JaTawn Robinson

The seed for JaTawn Robinson’s commitment to her children’s school was planted long ago when Robinson herself was in elementary school.

“My mom volunteered a lot at my school,” she fondly remembers. “Attending PTA meetings was a requirement for us, and I always appreciated the sense of community and family in school when I was a little girl.”

One day, while she was working as a volunteer monitor in the cafeteria of her children’s school, the principal approached Robinson, said, “I need to talk to you in my office,” and then walked away.

“It made me nervous,” Robinson says, “I thought, ‘Did my children do something?’”

The principal had asked Robinson about her background. She explained how she held an associate degree in education and was affiliated with the Georgia Association of Educators and the NEA.

They discussed opportunities within the school, but nothing concrete.
By the end of the school year, Robinson was offered a position as the school’s parent liaison.

Two years later, she became the school secretary. Robinson spent two years in that role, and then moved to Thomasville Heights—the elementary school she attended, and where her mother spent countless hours as a volunteer.

Robinson has been the secretary at Thomasville since 2017. Remembering her time there as a fourth and fifth grade student, she says that while the surrounding community struggled with poverty and drugs, she felt safe when she arrived at school.

“You knew you were loved here. You knew someone was going to care for you. Our babies still battle some of the things we battled when I was in elementary school, and I want to provide that same love and the same sense of safety I felt when I was a student here.”

A Teacher For Life

Erika Navarro-Dix also teaches at the school she once attended. She is a first grade teacher at Carnation Elementary School, in the small, rural town of Carnation, Wash., about 30 minutes east of Seattle.

The reason she continues to teach? “I’ve always enjoyed being around kids,” she says.

Erika Navarro-Dix

Navarro-Dix says her first year of teaching was hard. She she was young and new to the profession, and says she didn’t emerge from her preservice with a developed classroom management style.

Still, she adds, “I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life..”

Navarro-Dix sought help. She went to her principal and asked for additional classroom observations. She watched other teachers. She looked for mentors.

Ten years later, she is still in the classroom.

“For me, it’s teaching first grade because that’s a really big ‘aha’ year for kids. School starts to make sense and their light bulbs turn on and just geting to see their love for learning has made me want to stay in this profession.”

Navarro-Dix, Usher, Campbell, Chang, and Robinson are hardly alone in their decision to step into—and remain—in the classroom. Nationwide, and day after day, millions of educators step into school settings with a willingness to share love and commitment with their students. And although they use different words to describe why they stay, it all boils down to the determination to make a difference in students’ lives—one that will last a lifetime.

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KonMari Does More Than Just De-Clutter the Classroom

Spring is in the air! Which means, in public schools across the U.S., classroom mess is reaching full bloom.

If you’re an educator who is allergic to disorder, take inspiration from the current master of de-cluttering: the star of the new 2019 Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Like millions of Kondo fans, NEA members are using the KonMari method to put their homes and classrooms in order and focus on what “sparks joy” or engagement or curiosity in their students.

Not only do they end up with less cluttered, more tidy and organized physical spaces, KonMari’s fans say they also gain more mental clarity and purpose.

“When everything is in its place, it feels better—and I think it works for the kids too,” says Courtney Middleton, an Oregon kindergarten teacher who applied the KonMari method to her home and her classroom this year.

“I feel like my mind is clearer and that I can focus better on what is truly important to me,” says Christy Bishop, a Florida third-grade teacher. “Keeping in mind the experience I have had so far with using the KonMari method in my home, I suspect that using this same method in my classroom will force me to define—or redefine—who I am as a teacher now and going forward. I believe that reflection will help me to grow and to be a better teacher.”

What is a KonMari?

Kondo, a Japanese author and self-described “tidy freak,” grew fans a few years ago with a best-selling book, “The Magical Art of Tidying Up.” But the “cult of Marie Kondo,” as The New York Times calls it, hit a peak this year with the New Year’s release of her Netflix series that takes her into American homes. Across the country, donations to thrift stores spiked as Americans re-examined their relationship to their stuff.

A few highlights of the KonMari method are these:

  • First, empty your drawers, closets, boxes—take it all out and make a big pile!
  • Then, hold each object in your hand and ask yourself, does it spark joy?
  • If the answer is no, then thank the item for its service—and toss or donate it. Often art teachers will want your “useless” crayons, magazines, storage boxes, and other detritus!
  • If the answer is yes, then find a correct place for it. Everything should be “easy to see and easy to access without making a mess,” says Bishop.
  • Kondo loves to organize items by size. Categories are important. She also wants you to be able to see the items that you place into storage containers.

Is every aspect of the KonMari method relevant to educators? Well, you can’t toss the students who don’t spark joy….and often there are district policies about retaining paperwork, curriculum, and other classroom items. The decluttering guru’s much-imitated method of folding socks and T-shirts may not have much applicability either.

But the essential (and often mocked) Kondo question—does this thing spark joy—is adaptable to a classroom environment, say Kondo’s educator fans.

“When everything is in its place, it feels better—and I think it works for the kids too,” says Courtney Middleton.

KonMari In Our Classrooms

Middleton started the KonMari process in her kindergarten classroom during a recent teacher workday by taking everything out of her classroom’s storage areas and piling it on the kids’ desks. “I open everything!” she says.

Then, the questions start. “The first year, I asked myself, ‘Is this something I would ever use?’” says Middleton, who has taught kindergarten for three years—and KonMari’ed her classroom each year. “Now I throw away more. It’s easy to say that, if I haven’t used it in the past three years, out it goes. As far as sparking joy, some things aren’t worth it. If it takes a lot of energy or mind space to keep a project organized, I’ll probably try to give it away and replace it with something more organized.

“I like thinking about whether something sparks joy. I think, in a classroom setting, some things do spark joy in my students!”

For Bishop, the question may be modified for an educational setting: “I think many, if not all, good teaching materials do spark joy in children (and teachers, too!) However, I think the guiding question I will use will be something like, ‘Does this spark engagement?’ Or, if ‘engagement’ is too much of a buzzword for some people’s liking, it could be replaced with ‘curiosity,’ ‘excitement,’ ‘interest,’ or whatever seems important to them.”

Examining every classroom resource also will help identify what you don’t have, says Bishop. “I may find a particular area of study for which nothing I have seems to engage students. Going through this process will help me better spot those gaps in my resources and be as prepared as possible for the following school year.”

Something else important happens while you KonMari your stuff, and it’s more powerful than a clean closet, says Bishop. “Really taking the time to ask myself if items bring me happiness or not forces me to define not only who I am right now, but who I want to be going forward. I can’t tell you how many times over the past month and a half I have asked myself, ‘Do you want to be the kind of person who owns and uses this?’ and ‘Why have I kept this so long?’”

Farewell Desks, Here Come the ‘Starbucks Classrooms’
While the idea of modeling a classroom on a Starbucks coffeeshop may elicit skepticism (and even a few groans), the move to more flexible seating is grounded in research that points to real gains in student health and classroom engagement. “Classrooms need to look different from how they did one hundred years ago, but we’re still seeing rows and rows of desks. The skills students need these days – 21st Century skills – can’t really be taught properly in a classroom where you have created islands of desks,” says teacher Kayla Delzer.

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5 Key Trends in the Teacher Workforce

Thanks largely to a nationwide campaign by educators, the country is finally talking about how we can recruit, support and retain teachers. This is an important discussion, says Richard Ingersoll,  professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, because “the teaching force has been transformed over the last 30 years, with significant financial, structural, and educational consequences.” 

Ingersoll recently updated “Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force,” his longitudinal study on the elementary and secondary teaching force that culls data from several comprehensive sources, including the Schools and Staffing Survey.

“Too often, researchers, school leaders, and policymakers are still operating under false assumptions about who goes into teaching and how teaching careers unfold,” Ingersoll said. “If we want to improve student performance, we must understand this new reality.”

Here are Ingersoll’s key  findings:

A Growing Profession

Since 1987, the size of the teaching force, says Ingersoll, has “ballooned.”

Student enrollment and the number of teachers peaked in the 1970s, then leveled off before climbing again in the late ’80s. The teaching force has been on the uptick ever since (except for the period following the Great Recession), even outpacing the rate of increase for students.

From 1987-88 to 2015-16, total K-12 student enrollment in the nation’s public schools went up by 24 percent. During the same period the teacher workforce increased by 65 percent.

Pinpointing one decisive factor to explain the growth of the profession is difficult. Ingersoll cites the demands for more math and science teachers and more special education teachers. In particular, there has been dramatic increase (225 percent since 1987) in the number of bilingual/English-as-a-second language teachers.

Gender Imbalance Wider

Teaching in public schools has aways been a predominantly female occupation. Over the past 30 years, the gender gap has only grown. Both the number of women entering the field and the percentage of female teachers has increased. In 1987, 67 percent of teachers were women. By 2016-17, that number had risen to 76 percent.

Despite the dramatic increase of women employed in the U.S. labor force overall – 36 percent growth between 1988 and 2016 –   the number of women who entered K-12 classrooms increased by 80 percent during the same period.

If the trend continues, soon 8 of 10 public school teachers in the nation will be women, and more students will encounter few, if any, male teachers during their elementary or secondary school careers.

Moreover, Ingersoll wrote, “an increasing proportion of women in teaching may have implications for the stature and status of teaching as an occupation. Traditionally, women’s work has been held in lower esteem and has paid less than male-dominated work. If the feminization of teaching continues, what will it mean for the way this line of work is valued and rewarded?”

Grayer and Greener

Overall, the teaching force is older than it was in 1987 and retirements are increasing. But Ingersoll notes that this trend is coming to an end.  The number of teachers age 50 and over hit a peak in 2008 with 1.74 million. By 2016, the number had declined to 1.13 million.

At the same time, another trend is occurring, which Ingersoll calls the “greening” of the teaching force, driven by a dramatic increase in new hires.

In 1987-88, there were roughly 65,000 first-year public school teachers. 30 years later, there are more than 190,000. In 2007-08, the most common age for a teacher was 55. In 2015-16, the most common age ranged from the mid-30s to mid-40s.

While new teachers can help revitalize a school, the report noted that a large number of beginners also has its downsides.

“A sufficient number of experienced teachers makes a positive difference for beginning teachers,” the report said. “A solid body of empirical research documents that support, including mentoring by veteran teachers, has a positive effect on beginning teachers’ quality of instruction, retention, and capacity to improve their students’ academic achievement.”

Progress on Diversity But How Much?

In what Ingersoll calls “something of an unheralded victory,” the public school teaching force has seen a bump in racial diversity.

Numerically, there are far more minority teachers than ever before. In 1987-88, there were about 305,200 minority public school teachers. Today, there are over 760,000.

Ingersoll says growth in the number of minority teachers over the past several decades outpaced growth in minority students and was about three times the growth rate of white teachers.

Still, a slightly more diverse teaching profession hasn’t done much to close the wide teacher-student racial gap. It’s also worth noting that the increase in teachers of color is primarily due to an uptick in the number of Hispanic teachers – 3 percent to almost 9 percent. The share of African American teachers, on the other hand, has actually declined, from 8.2 percent to 6.7 percent.

Michael Hansen and Diane Quintero of the Brookings Institution project that in the near future, the change in student demographics will evolve at a  higher rate than any expected shift in teacher diversity. “This means the underrepresentation of teachers of color will likely persist or even grow in the coming decades,” he wrote in a report issued last week.

Where Instability is Concentrated

Teachers of color also have particularly high turnover rates, more so than their white counterparts.  This departure rate is increasing and is driven in large part by where they work.

Newer teachers, regardless of their race, have among the highest rates of turnover of any group of teachers.

The teaching professions has always been hampered by a high attrition rate, but, as Ingersoll points out, it’s not spread out evenly. Half of all turnover occurs in 25 percent of public schools, predominantly in high-poverty urban and rural areas.

Indeed, there is an “asymmetrical shuffling of  significant numbers of employed teachers from poor to not-poor schools, from high-minority to low-minority schools, and from urban to suburban schools.”

Ingersoll notes that while demographic characteristics of schools do factor in a teacher’s decision-making process about where to work, later decisions about whether to stay or depart are driven by other issues.

“What does impact their decisions, our analyses show, are school working conditions, in particular the degree of autonomy and discretion teachers are allowed over issues that arise in their classrooms, and the level of collective faculty influence over school-wide decisions that affect teachers’ jobs,” the report said.

What Happens When a Teacher Leaves Mid-Year?
teachers leaving mid-yearU.S. teachers leave the profession at higher rates than other countries, but the debate and discussion over teacher attrition – reflected in research and in the media – focuses on educators exiting the profession before the beginning of a school year, based on the assumption that’s when turnover occurs. Little is known about teachers leaving mid-year.

A Growing Recruitment Strategy for a Diverse Teacher Workforce

grow your own teachers“How do we help those who should be in classrooms working with students who look like them, sound like them, and will connect with them?” asks NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. An answer may rest within grow-your-own programs, which recruit local community members and help them become teachers, creating a workforce that’s reflective of the full diversity of the student population.

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What’s Changed in Lesson Planning?

Technology and the connected world put a fork in the old model of teaching: instructor in front of the class, sage on the stage, students madly taking notes,
textbooks opened, homework as worksheets, and tests regurgitating facts.

Did I miss anything?

This model is outdated not because it didn’t work (many statistics show students ranked higher on global testing years ago than they do now), but because the world changed. Our classrooms are more diverse. Students are digital natives, in the habit of learning via technology. The “college or career” students are preparing
for isn’t that of their parents.

What is slow to adjust is the venerable lesson plan. When I first wrote these teaching maps, they concentrated on aligning with standards and ticking off
required skills. Now, with a clear-eyed focus on where students need to be before graduation, they must build on the habits of mind that allow success not only in
school but life.

Here are sixteen concepts you may not think about—but should–as you prepare lesson plans:

1. About a third of high school graduates go to work rather than college so they must be prepared for what they’ll face in the job market. This includes knowing how to speak and listen to a group, how to think independently, and how to solve problems. Lesson plans must reflect those skills.

2. Lesson plans must be platform-neutral, not a cheerleader for the school’s favorite tool. For example, spreadsheets should teach critical thinking and data analysis, not Excel or Sheets. What students use at school may not be what their future employer requires.

3. Conflate ‘knowing’ with ‘understanding’. Students must understand why their project is better delivered with a slideshow than word processing.

4. Transfer of knowledge is key. What students learn must be applicable to other classes—and life. For example, vocabulary isn’t a list of words to be memorized.
It’s knowing how to decode them using affixes, roots, and context.

5. Collaboration and sharing is treated as a learned skill.

6. Real life allows for do-overs. School should respect the process of review, edit, rewrite, and resubmit by allowing it to happen.

7. Student projects are shared with all, not just the teacher. The entire community of learners can benefit from each student’s work.

8. Self-help is expected, such as using online references and how-to videos. These are available 24/7, empowering students to work at their own pace, to their
own rhythm.

9. Teachers are transparent with all stakeholders. Here, I’m thinking of parents. Let them know what’s going on in class. Welcome their questions and visits. Respond
to their varied time constraints and knowledge levels.

10. Failure is a learning tool. Assessments aren’t about finding perfect. In life, failure happens. Those who thrive know how to recover from failure and continue.

11. Differentiation is the norm. Different methods of showing knowledge are welcomed as long as students stick with the lesson’s Big Idea.

12. The textbook is a resource, supplemented by a panoply of books, online sites, experts, virtual chats, and anything else that supports the topic.

13. Problem solving is integral to learning. It’s not a stressful event, rather a life skill. Students attempt a wide variety of solutions before asking for help.

14. Digital citizenship is taught, modeled and enforced in every lesson, every day, and every class. Just as students learned to survive a physical community of strangers, they must do so in a digital neighborhood.

15. Since keyboarding benefits all classes, all stakeholders—parents included—are partners in ensuring that students can type efficiently, quickly, and without stress.

16. Play is the new teaching though it’s been relabeled ‘gamification’. The power of games makes learning fun. I know—this is a lot. Don’t feel like you have to rework
every lesson plan immediately. Do a few. Prove to yourself this approach works. Then, spread the word to colleagues that lesson planning has changed.

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K–18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources including a K–8 technology curriculum, K–8 keyboard curriculum, and K–8 Digital Citizenship curriculum.

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Thinking About Becoming a Blogger? It’s Never Too Late to Start.

For Gwyneth Jones, one of the best parts about blogging is having an ongoing record of all of the cool things she’s doing as an educator.

“I’m very forgetful!” admits the woman behind “The Daring Librarian,” an award-winning technology and library science blog Jones launched more than 10 years ago. “Now I can remember what the heck I did from one year to the next.”

But beyond offering personal documentation of the goings on in her library and school, it’s also a way for Jones to work through ideas, share them with colleagues, and get valuable feedback from her readers.

Best of all, blogging lets her share her passion for education.

If you’re passionate about your profession (and what educator isn’t?) Jones says to dive right in, the water’s fine! It’s crowded in the blogosphere to be sure, but newbies can carve out their own space with their own unique passions.

“It’s never too late to start,” says Jones. “There is room for all

But there are some rules for the road, and as a seasoned traveler Jones fields some common questions from would-be bloggers.

To Blog or Not to Blog

Start a blog because you want to share your passion, never because you think you should share your passion.

You must feel a strong desire to blog. If you’re not 100 percent committed, Jones advises that you don’t bother to start. Who needs that extra stress?

How Often to Post

“I try to post at least once or twice a month,” says Jones. “I’d like to do it once a week, but I usually don’t because I’ve got a life! There are definitely stretches when I do three or four posts a month, then fall back to once a month.”

Jones’ posting schedule follows her inspiration. When she discovers something that inspires her, she posts. It’s hard to predict how often that will happen, but the goal should be to post for yourself—to capture that moment that you want to share and record. Never post because you look at the calendar and think, “Uh-oh.”

“Never start a post by apologizing for not blogging in a while,” she advises. “The world is full of excuses, please don’t make your readers slog through your self-induced guilt!”

If you feel passionate enough to start a blog, you should be confident that you can easily post at least once a month. “Don’t try until you’re ready to do it because you’re just going to stress yourself out,” Jones says.

How Do I Use Social Media?

A great reason to blog is because you want to be helpful by offering your ideas to the world. And a great way to get your ideas out is with social media. For example, join Twitter and log on to live Twitter chats related to your educational topic or passion, whether it’s literacy, STEM, or technology. There are at least 100 different education-related chats a week that you can join to converse with other educators about what you’re passionate about.

“Then in your Twitter profile add a link to your blog, so when other educators hover over your name, your profile pops up and they say, ‘Oh look she has a blog, too!’” Jones says. “Or during the chat, you can say, ‘Hey I blogged about this last week, read more about it on my blog at this or that address.’”

But, she warns, don’t join them just to promote your blog. You need to be contributing to the conversation in a meaningful way and offering good content.

Try Microblogging

Twitter and Instagram are essentially microblogging sites, says Jones. So is Pinterest, for that matter, or Facebook. You can post pictures and a long caption to explain, you can share links, ideas and tips that are short and sweet.

If you don’t feel like having a big blog with a fancy URL, or if being unable to write a couple of paragraphs or bullet points will give you guilt trips, you can just start out small with those platforms.

If that’s the route you decide to take to dip your toe in the water, Jones suggests starting with Instagram and sharing that with your students, their parents, and colleagues.

“That’s where our students are and they are really into it, and their parents can also see the great things that go on in your school,” she says.

Gwyneth Jones

From there try connecting with the community to share with them what fantastic, positive things happen at school.

“So much media focuses on violence, sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying, or other bad things, and they have to be reported, but I like to push out the positivity to balance out the negative,” Jones says. “Every day I see acts of generosity and joy and innovation and brilliance happening right and left.”

An easy, quick example: She Instagrammed one of her student’s silver high tops with the caption, “Cuteness caught in the hallway—shoes that show sparkle.”

Be Useful

When explaining a classroom concept, show visuals, provide tips on how to do something specific with a step-by-step approach, or include a printable.

“Strive to offer something that will help—even if it’s just a worksheet—even in their daily life as a teacher,” she says. “I blogged that I’m giving out chargers to kids so they can charge their devices, and I posted the sign-out sheet I created for the chargers that tons of people then downloaded.”

A passionate promoter of the #weneeddiversebooks movement, Jones posted a curated list of books celebrating diversity on a bookmark that could be downloaded, copied, and shared.

“Promoting and celebrating diversity and being inclusive is part of what I do every day because we’re a multicultural school and I reflect that,” Jones says. “Maybe it would be different if our school was in New Hampshire or Iowa, but we’re right outside of D.C., Baby! I blog my passions, and I am passionate about welcoming and valuing all students.”

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Effective Engagement Focuses on Getting Students to Care

It’s vital that we give purpose to what the students must learn. Let’s face it: Learning something because it’s on a test, or because it’s in the text book, isn’t purpose. But when you connect what they are learning to the world outside of school, you create your “in.”

And engaging students doesn’t require doing a soft-shoe or stand-up comedy in front of a brick wall.

Engaging students isn’t about entertainment. It’s about focusing on how to get students to care. It’s about adding a layer to the content so that they are motivated to understand concepts more independently.

And when they care about the material, they become less likely to need a letter grade to prove their knowledge. That’s right. Student engagement is the key to intrinsic motivation.

In a video for my most recent book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak out on Student Engagement, a group of middle schoolers agree that engagement isn’t just about fun. One claims that “engagement isn’t always fun. Well, sometimes it is, but it’s also about focusing on what you’re doing and comprehending everything that’s coming into you.”

Engagement is as much about sweat as it is about smiles. Ultimately, engagement is about connecting with the material so much that a student is willing to blast through hurdles to learn more.

What’s the best way to connect students to the material? Ensure learning is meaningful. That’s where the outside world comes in. That said, I’ve long resented the concept of the “real world” and the “school world.”

Our students spend almost their first two decades of life in school, so it’s unfair to disassociate school with the world outside of it. For them, school is the real world. They should expect that the time spent with us is in preparation for the world beyond school.

So how can we align the school day with their eventual adult-aged work day? Here are some strategies to chew on. Use this list as your own launching pad for your own research. Go to conferences and seek out your own professional development by casting your net with these thoughts in mind. Become an expert in ways to give
learning purpose.

Be Transparent With the Purpose of Learning – Why are we learning this? Where does it exist in the world beyond school? What professions use this content knowledge or this skill? Give students examples of how your content area makes an impact in the world. Better yet, have the students bring in examples from their lives outside of school that showcase your content area.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Grant Students More Choice—As adults we get choices. If we want to better align learning with the world they will enter, we must offer more opportunities for students to own their learning. As education author and lecturer Alfie Kohn says,

“Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” Offer choice in everything—from prompts, people to work with, resources and deadlines, to ways they can showcase what they know and topics of study.

Engage Students in Project-Based Learning (PBL)—PBL is the strategy that helps students to solve real-world problems—ones they often choose to tackle themselves. They do this through independent and collaborative research, design, prototyping, pitching, oral presentation, and public products.

PBL is totally grounded in authenticity. To teach using PBL requires some training. But more than anything, it involves a shift in philosophy to ensure that the learning is set in the creation, not regurgitation, of information. As I say in my DIY for PBL series, “PBL isn’t about writing a state report, it’s about creating your own state.” Students want to know how they can use what they’re learning to make an impact in the world around them.

The bottom line is this: Allow students to own their pathway through our educational system. Allow them to bring in evidence that indicates their content areas are valuable. And when students come to a crossroads, allow them to choose their own direction. Most of all, help them understand that they can make an impact on their world any time they want to start putting their training to use.

Show them examples of students who are making an impact—both big and small. Every student can develop a long-range plan in something they are passionate about, and those plans can include proof of literacy, writing, STEM, past history, and current events.

By bringing the students’ choices and interests into the classroom, you will have made your room and the learning that happens inside of it more meaningful. That translates to engagement.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school teacher, a fellow at the National Writing Project and a faculty member of the Buck Institute for Education.


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‘Inspiring Children to Walk in Their Own Dreams’

It’s about 4 p.m. in Room 228 at Skyview High School in Billings, Montana, and resource teacher Deb Roesler is explaining her “action plan.” In the coming days, when she returns to her middle school across town, this white, middle-aged, rural Montanan will invite a student who doesn’t look like her to eat lunch together.

“I’ve been in the biggest groups all day. I’ve never been in a small group,” she says, referring to the “identity groups” that have formed and reformed in Room 228 around age, gender, race, religion, income, education, and more. “But I want to reach out, and I’d like to get to know better the students in the small groups,” she says.

Roesler is among the nearly 200 educators who spend time in Room 228 during the Montana Federation of Public Employees’ annual, two-day Educator Conference. The October event, which hosted more than 3,000 educators, offered more than 500 trainings and workshops—including six from NEA’s Center for Social Justice in the areas of social justice, cultural competency, diversity, and support for LGBTQ students.

These are free workshops, provided upon request, by NEA members—for NEA members. Since 2015, the union’s student-centered, research-based tools have been shared with more than 5,000 educators.

“NEA sends us out to do these trainings because the NEA mission and vision is a great public school for every student,” explains trainer Kevin Teeley, a retired teacher from the Seattle area, to the educators assembling in Room 228. “We want every single student to be achieving and successful in our diverse world.”

With Dreamers marking time, the school-to-prison pipeline thriving, and the divide between rich and poor growing, these may be dark days for educators who care about social justice. But the promise of public education, reminds NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, is “to prepare every blessed child to thrive—and succeed—to love living in a diverse and interdependent world.”

That’s why NEA has dedicated itself to erasing institutional racism, to protecting immigrant families, to standing up for LGBTQ students, and more. “The moral arc of the universe is long, and hearts and minds are bending towards justice. But if our institutions—our policies, our programs and practices—don’t change, then the oppressive conditions that people face will stay the same,” says García.

The educators in Room 228 understand this. Says Montana teacher Richard Montoya: “This is more than a job. We’re inspiring children to walk in their own dreams.”

‘We Should Do This!’

It’s 7 a.m. on the first day of the conference when Teeley and co-trainer Alicia Bata, a high school teacher who works along the North Dakota-Canada border, open the door of Room 228. Fifteen minutes later, the first participant enters. Dozens more follow. At 7:57 a.m., Teeley sends a message to conference organizers: More desks, please!

“Am I culturally competent? Perhaps. Do I know everything I need to do? Absolutely not! This is a skill that you need to practice every day,” Bata tells their classroom of 30 educators. “In three hours, we can’t make you culturally competent, but we can make a good beginning… The first step is to learn about yourself.”

Alicia Bata (center) with workshop participants.

Like many places in rural America, Montana lacks racial diversity in its teachers. Ninety six percent are white, according to federal statistics. By comparison, their student population is diverse: 78 percent white, 11 percent American Indian, and 5 percent Hispanic, with small fractions of other racial groups.

“My colleagues have good intentions, but they don’t always have the tools they need [around diversity],” says Billings Education Association officer Theresa Mountains.

It is critical for those teachers to develop “cultural competence,” as NEA calls it, to reach every student, no matter who they are or where they’re from. This depends on educators doing at least four things: valuing diversity, or letting go of the idea that their view of the world is the only one that is normal; being self-aware of their own culture and how it affects their perceptions; understanding how students also are cultural beings; and finally, using what they know to change their classrooms, schools, and districts.

Just by walking into Room 228, these Montana educators are proving they value diversity. Next up is cultural self-awareness. Who are they? At 9 a.m., kindergarten teacher Paige Bealer reads aloud a poem that she has dashed off: “My father’s side is German through and through…my mother is Jewish and Catholic Portuguese. I am of…cabbage rolls, borscht and sauerkraut we stomp ourselves.”

At 10 a.m., Room 228 is talking about culturally competent teaching and curriculum. Allan Audet is a metals manufacturing teacher whose students are working on a life-size, steel and copper, ceremonial Crow headdress, he tells his colleagues. “I just thought, ‘We should do this!’” says Audet, who worked with Billings’ American Indian instructional coach Jacie Jeffers. An hour later, everybody leaves with one idea that they’re willing to implement in their own classrooms.

Kevin Teeley

‘Do It!’

Cultural competency is just one workshop that NEA’s HCR-trained members provide to their colleagues. By lunchtime Bata and Teeley have moved onto social justice, and the educators in Room 228 are taking Post-its and jotting their real-life examples of marginalization, exploitation, cultural imperialism, and other forms of oppression.

There’s the female teacher who was asked by an administrator to attend an IEP meeting for a student—not her student—to be “eye candy” for the student’s father. There’s also the Eurocentric textbooks, the achievement gaps, and more.

“Identify actions at each level—individual, institutional, and societal—to combat these examples of oppression,” says Bata—and they do. For example, the next colleague who casually says, “you don’t look Native” will be challenged, say the educators of Room 28, who also pledge to make it part of their curriculum to celebrate the diversity within Native American groups.

And then it’s onward to “Understanding Diversity,” a two-hour workshop with retired Portland teacher Debra Robinson and California first-grade teacher Laura Ancira. “This is about honoring and understanding our students,” Robinson tells Room 228. It’s followed by two more hours on “Valuing Diversity,” and then an additional four hours with retired Wisconsin teacher Bonnie Augusta and retired Georgia teacher Toni Smith on creating safe spaces for LGBTQ students.

Every time the door opens, educators leave with a written action plan.

“Post it on your fridge, do not forget this. Do it,” urges Bata.

Photos: Mary Ellen Flannery

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The Perils of Sending Report Cards Home

Something many teachers and pediatricians have long suspected to be true is that child abuse incidents increase when report cards go home. They’re right, a University of Florida (UF) research team has found—but only when report cards go home on Fridays.

UF research scientist Melissa Bright, a NEA Higher Ed member, was talking last year with a UF pediatrician whose patients include victims of abuse or neglect. “He said to me, ‘there’s this idea that when the report cards go out, our patient load goes up,’” Bright recalls. “And then I also talked to some teachers who said, ‘oh yeah, we hate sending home report cards. We know some kids are not going to have a good experience.’”

“So I said, ‘Let’s look for data.’” says Bright.

After comparing a year’s worth of Florida child abuse cases to the dates that report cards were sent home with students, the UF team found a correlation—but only on Fridays. In fact, cases of child abuse, verified by the state’s Department of Children and Families, were four times higher on Saturdays following a report card. When report cards were sent home earlier in the week, no increase was found. Their study was published in December in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

A simple answer—maybe too simple—might be to send report cards earlier in the week, says Bright. “If it’s really just something that happens on Fridays because of something about Fridays, then maybe we could move it earlier. But because we don’t know why it’s happening on Friday, it’s possible we might just move the cases to an earlier day.”

Fridays often are pay days, she notes. Fridays also may kick off a weekend of substance abuse. Or it could be the day that some children switch homes, if their parents live apart. Do any of these things matter? Researchers can’t say for certain.

“I think it’s also important to figure out the nature of report cards,” says Bright. “This is speculation—but I don’t think this is just about bad grades. In elementary school, the report cards include grades and also behavior reports. Parents tend to be more punitive about bad behavior. If the card says the kid is acting up, or not paying attention, I think those are the things that upset parents.”

With that in mind, a more sustainable intervention to prevent abuse—but one that requires more work from parents and educators—is increased, more constant communication between school and home. “It’s not that teachers need to keep an eye on parents, or help them do their job better, but everybody should understand that their shared goal is to help the kid succeed,” says Bright.

Some NEA local affiliates have worked to improve communication through teacher-home visits. Others are making sure that parent-teacher conferences are well-planned and effective.

“The idea is to put everybody on the same page,” says Bright.

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Why Social Justice in School Matters

Social justice is about distributing resources fairly and treating all students equitably so that they feel safe and secure—physically and psychologically. Sadly, a look at schools across the nation makes it clear that fair distribution of resources and equitable treatment don’t always happen. Students in poorly-funded schools don’t have the technology, new books, or art and music programs that create a well-rounded education, while students in affluent areas have the latest academic resources, school counselors, librarians, and more to help them succeed. Bringing social justice into schools shines a spotlight on all sorts of important societal issues—from the myriad reasons that lie beneath the deep disparity between the suspension rates of black and white students to how current U.S. immigration policy separates families and violates student rights. Meet five educators who determined to make a difference in the lives of their students and within their profession by ensuring social justice is a topic that is addressed in their schools.

Audrey Murph-Brown
Springfield, Massachusetts

Audrey Murph-Brown is a member of the Springfield Education Association (SEA) in Massachusetts. She has been a school social worker for 26 years. She describes events that happened during the 2017 – 2018 school year as “a perfect storm at the perfect time.”  The storm swirled with nepotism, favoritism, and institutional biases that prevented highly qualified educators of color from becoming lead teachers or being offered lateral promotions. “Rarely were those opportunities given to educators of color,” says Murph-Brown. The Massachusetts Teachers Association offered training that led to the establishment of ALANA (African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American) Educators and Allies, an arm of SEA. The group focused on building a diverse and culturally proficient environment for educators of color, and when the opportunity arose to speak to school board members during a public meeting, they did.

“They’ve never had a collective raised voice before and we were bold,” recalls Murph-Brown, referring to the school committee. Educators and their allies filled a school board meeting with signs that read, “Fair Hiring for Everyone” and “No More Nepotism.” After powerful testimony from Murph-Brown and other educators, the door to communication was cracked open, and efforts have been made to level the playing field. For example, principals must add an applicant’s ethnicity to the hiring application as a way to keep track of who’s applying for teaching positions. The school committee’s human resource department is looking into better practices within its hiring process, too. It’s been slow going, “but it’s more than what’s ever happened before,” says Murph-Brown.

Jesse Hagopian
Seattle, Washington

Jesse Hagopian teaches ethnic studies and is the adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle. Hagopian established the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award after he sued the City of Seattle for being pepper sprayed in the face by a police officer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015. Recipients of the award demonstrate exceptional leadership in struggles against racism—especially with an understanding of the intersections between sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, class exploitation, and other forms of oppression—within their school or community. Since 2015, nine Seattle Public Schools students and one youth organization have been honored with the award.

“The bold and courageous work of standing up to racism is hard, and this award gives recognition for those with the courage to do it,” says Hagopian. “I wanted to create a space and an awareness that if you step forward for social justice, you will be lifted up in the community and by mentors who will support your work.”

Activism is at the heart of this award, Hagopian says, and “the examples are breathtaking.”

He points to seven black Seattle high school students who formed “New Generation,” a school activist group that led a walkout at Garfield High School to raise awareness about Charleena Lyles, a pregnant 30-year-old black woman who was fatally shot by two white Seattle police officers at home as her three young children looked on. One student organized a city-wide movement to get free bus passes for students from low-income families.

Another student started an Islamophobia global awareness day. One group got the Seattle School Board to endorse “Black Lives Matters at School,” which included a week of action. The movement has spread to other cities and districts. Another group of students fought for the addition of an Ethnic Studies program that is transforming Seattle’s schools.

“None of this would have been possible without student activism,” says Hagopian. “I wanted to find a way to recognize this critical work of young people who see that they are the changemakers—the ones who will have to bring about the changes they want to see.”

Angie Powers
Olathe, Kansas

Angie Powers, a high school English teacher in Olathe, Kan., says she defines success according to her ability to make school a place where students feel welcome and receive the tools that will help them navigate the complexities of the world with compassion and empathy. That’s why Powers sponsors the Olathe Northwest High School Gender Sexuality Alliance and mentors students in the areas of civic engagement, social justice, and advocacy. The latter draws on her training from the NEA, GLSEN, and the Human Rights Campaign. As co-chair of the Kansas NEA Social Justice Taskforce, and the Olathe NEA Social Justice Cadre, Powers leads her state affiliate’s social justice efforts. She has spoken to pre-service teachers in every college in Kansas about the challenges LGBTQ+ students face and how new educators can create welcoming schools for their future students. Powers also serves on THRIVE, an organization in the Kansas City area that creates LGBTQ+-specific policy recommendations for local districts.

Powers is committed to ensuring that every student has equitable access to a quality public school, and says, “Education and equity are inseparable. One cannot exist without the other. When inequity plagues the educational system, [the system] fails to serve the needs of each child. It is our most important work to battle inequity in each classroom across the nation, [and within] our educational institutions as a whole. Our children are worth this fight.”

Elizabeth Villanueva
Sacramento, California

With that goal in mind, Villanueva began an after-school class for Latina students when she was in her second year as a teacher. The goal of the effort was gang prevention, and most of the students enrolled in the class had some affiliation with gangs. But by the time the second cohort had enrolled, the group changed its name to New Age Latinas—NAL, for short—and focused on leadership skills, college readiness, community service, personal growth, and networking with other Latina college students and professionals.

With today’s uncertainty over immigration policy, NAL participants and many students in Villanueva’s classes share their fears and anxieties about the increase in ICE raids and deportations in their communities. To create a safe haven for her students, Villanueva reached out to the community, colleagues, and other students and started a group called the Luther Burbank High School DREAMers. The group meets weekly and features guest speakers, such as immigration lawyers, who provide “Know Your Rights” workshops, and college counselors, who share information on how to enroll in college and access financial resources.

“Providing good quality, transformative education to the underserved and underrepresented is an essential component of social justice. Every student is part of our collective society, and part of that which makes us all who we are,” says Villanueva. “Each one deserves the dignity, respect, and opportunity that is provided for every other member of our collective society. Education has the power to transform our collective consciousness and improve the well-being of us all.”

Erica Viray Santos
San Leandro, California

About a decade ago, educator and activist Erica Viray Santos drew upon her personal experiences—growing up in a poor working class, immigrant household, where her mother worked multiple jobs and her father turned to substance abuse and was in and out of the criminal justice system—to help develop San Leandro High School’s Social Justice Academy, a cohort that gives students the opportunity to explore their identities and cultural strengths and use them to transform their communities for a more socially just world.

As a teacher and program director for the academy, Viray Santos serves more than a hundred sophomores, juniors, and seniors with a team of teachers. Student projects and actions range from supporting undocumented students to challenging the rape culture. All of the projects, events, pieces of writing, and the curriculum reflect topics that interest and impact the students.

“I think it is essential that we not only give our students content knowledge and hard skills, but we also instill compassion and a sense of accountability to their local and global communities. As educators, we have the responsibility to help young people realize their value and power. It is our responsibility to teach them how to look at the world critically, challenge systems of oppression and discrimination, understand how they can be agents of transformation, and inspire them to take action.”

Last year, students addressed the gun violence in school. Viray Santos explains that they developed a new comprehensive discipline plan based on restorative and transformative justice. The goal was to improve relationships between marginalized students and the wider school community. The plan runs counter to the trend of discipline that punishes and pushes young people out of school. Ultimately, students presented their plan to the San Leandro School Board. “These types of lessons and experiences grant students the ability to navigate a landscape that places underserved youth at a disadvantage within the education system,” Viray Santos says.

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Using Meditation to Mitigate Stress

It’s news to exactly no one that being an educator is stressful. Long
hours are spent in an environment that churns with mental, visual, and emotional stimulation. And when what should be the end of the work day finally arrives, there is still more to do.

For educators, the list of stress and anxiety-inducing triggers is endless—and potentially dangerous to your career and health. Whether you’re nearing burnout’s precipice, or already staring into the abyss, meditation can help. In this first installment of a two-part series about mindfulness, learn what meditation is (and what it isn’t) and how to create a practice.

Why Meditate? In a world filled with inputs, meditation gives your
mind a rest. It also can help you to learn how your mind works. Instead of paying attention to your swirling thoughts— “I’ll never get these papers graded in time.” “I always knew that parent didn’t like me.”—you will attend to your breath and train your mind to bring similar focus to day-to-day life. That’s all “mindfulness” means: It’s having the ability to direct the mind to pay attention to one thing.

Will Meditation Make Me Happy? Nope. But focusing on your breath in meditation helps your mind learn to focus on the present moment. And it’s that ability to keep your mind in the present moment—not ruminating over something in the past, or worrying about something in the future—that lays the groundwork for the calm, happiness, and increased efficiency that often are attributed to meditation.

Where Do I Begin? Insert small pauses into your day. Sit silently in your home or your car before heading into school, or on your bed when you wake up or before you go to sleep.

How Do I Create a Practice? Select a time of day and a location. Sit upright in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands palms down on your legs. You may also sit cross-legged on a floor cushion. You’ll benefit more from a quick two-minute daily practice than a 30-minute practice that only happens once a week. Think of your mind as a muscle and meditation as its gym. Like your body, your mind will respond better to regular sessions.

It’s the ability to return to the breath in meditation that enables us to return to a task, a conversation, or a lesson in everydaylife, and not be totally sidetracked by worries and thoughts.

Now What? Set your timer. Five minutes is a great place to start.
Close your eyes, or cast your gaze toward the floor, and begin to notice your body. If you feel areas of tension—the most common are abdomen and shoulders, where many of us hold stress—imagine directing your breath to those areas and encouraging them to relax. Next—and without losing the sense of relaxation—sit up tall and straight. Many of us also hold tension in our jaws, so relax that area by closing your mouth and keeping your lips and teeth slightly parted.

Do I Breathe in a Special Way? No. Focus on the flow of your natural breath. Take a moment to notice where you feel your breath the most. Is it the air entering your nostrils, or exiting? Your breath may be most noticeable in the rise and fall of your chest, or the movement of your abdomen. Place your attention there.

How Do I Stop Thinking? You won’t. Just as it’s not possible to ask
your skin to stop feeling, you can’t tell your mind to stop making thoughts. That’s its J-O-B. Thoughts will come and go. Just keep your attention on your breath, and when you realize a thought has distracted you, return your attention to your breath. It’s the ability to return to the breath in meditation that enables us to return to a task, a conversation, or a lesson in everyday life, and not be totally sidetracked by worries and thoughts.

What If I Miss A Day? That’s fine. The most important thing to remember is that the reason we meditate is so that we can approach others with patience and compassion. What better place to start than with ourselves?

Lisa Leigh is the editor of NEA Today and NEA Today for NEA-Retired Members. She is a 200-hour registered yoga teacher and a certified meditation instructor.

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Neutrality in the Classroom Shortchanges Students

When teaching about U.S. elections or politics many educators will strive for neutrality. They may insist these discussions have no place in the classroom, while others argue that standardization and a lack of time make them a non-starter. Even if there was an opening, the slightest hint of bias could attract the ire of an administrator or parent. In this hyper-polarized political climate, that’s a line that’s easy to stumble across.

All this neutrality or avoidance may work for the teacher – but what about the student?

Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, believes that a strict adherence to “neutrality” – not expressing your views to students and/or avoiding political topics – is a tactic that can actually marginalize many students.

Neutrality is itself a political choice, Dunn argues, and is one that bolsters the status quo. What results is a classroom that potentially ignores the fears, interests, and concerns of many students.

To be clear, Dunn is not talking about a teacher who stands in front of the class and reads aloud endorsements for local, state and federal political office and then urges students to go home and tell their parents to vote accordingly.

The kind of neutrality that concerns Dunn is, for example, a decision to avoid discussion of  “controversial” issues – racism, inequity, climate change, or gun violence, for example – out of fear of appearing political or partisan.

Education, at it’s core, is inherently political, says Dunn.

“Everything in education—from the textbooks to the curriculum to the policies that govern teachers’ work and students’ learning—is political and ideologically-informed,” she explains. “Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.”

Especially after as the election of Donald Trump.

Although political polarization didn’t begin with his candidacy, Trump’s incendiary, crude, and divisive rhetoric about race, religion, gender, and immigration that marked his campaign (and his presidency) has been deeply unsettling to many, if not most, Americans.

“I don’t care what my school administration says. My loyalty is to my students and their lives, . . . not to administrator requests to avoid conversations that are uncomfortable.’’

According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the 2016 presidential campaign had a “profoundly negative effect on children and classrooms…particularly acute in schools with high concentrations of minority children.”

Yet, as Dunn and her colleagues Beth Sondel of the University of Pittsburgh and Hannah Carson Baggett of Auburn University concluded in a recent paper, many teachers continue to feel pressured to remain neutral when discussing Trump and are generally uncomfortable addressing racial and social justice issues in the classroom.

“This pressure (to stay neutral) is reflective of the lack of trust, autonomy and professionalism for teachers in our current climate,” the study, published in the  American Educational Research Journal, concludes.

The researchers surveyed 730 teachers from 43 states to gauge how their pedagogical choices were affected after the election.

Some respondents made it very clear they did not adhere to what they saw as misdirected directives from school or district officials to stay away from anything Trump-related.

One middle school teacher explained that despite the fear many of his students had of deportation and harassment, “my school, tied by a never-ending desire to remain ‘unbiased,’ did nothing and told teachers to limit conversations about the elections because such conversations were not included [in the standards].”

“I don’t care what my school administration says,” the teacher continued.  “My loyalty is to my students and their lives, . . . not to administrator requests to avoid conversations that are uncomfortable.’’

Generally, however, responses from educators were littered with words such as  “fearful,” “anxious,” “unsure,” and “scared,” even as they acknowledged that a more engaged, proactive approach in the classroom may be necessary.

One educator from Massachusetts summed up the dilemma this way:

“Trump unlike any other presidential candidate stands for everything I work to combat: racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. My students fall into categories of people he wants removed or controlled, in his America. I do not know how to talk to my students about this and be neutral (as per country policy).”

According to the study, teaching after the election was most challenging for those who were “ideological outsiders” – Clinton voters in areas where the majority of voters were pro-Trump and vice versa.

“Teachers had to negotiate if and how to talk about their own beliefs knowing that their students’ parents and/or colleagues may disagree with them,” Dunn says.

For example, an elementary teacher from a predominantly White school in Michigan explained,

“I always feel nervous explicitly discussing politics in my classroom due to the variety of views of my students’ parents and my own fear that parents will be upset or complain about me if my own view come up explicitly in classroom lessons/discussions. I know I have students whose parents supported both candidates passionately and I do sort of feel a responsibility to respect their parents’ views (no matter how much I may disagree)”.

It doesn’t help that so much of our discourse is labelled “political” or “partisan,” including discussions about human rights and social justice. Pedagogical choices, the researchers argue, should not be confined by this false construct.

“Making justice-oriented pedagogical choices is not about partisanship or controversy but, rather, is reflective of an overarching commitment to equity,” they write.

Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.” – Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Michigan State University

Anchoring discussions to a justice and equity framework can provide educators with a path forward. Still, many of the respondents in the survey did not feel particularly well-prepared to take this on, let alone publicly challenge the presumed virtues of a neutral classroom. The study concludes that teacher training programs need to better prepare educators in adapting their classrooms to help students understand current events and political upheavals. The researchers recommend that current teachers, especially those “ideological outsiders,” seek out networks across schools and districts that can serve as “restorative and supportive communities.”

While Dunn and her colleagues are careful not to downplay the pressures educators face, they emphasize that, ultimately, teachers are charged with preparing their students to work toward a more democratic society.

With 2019 and 2020 shaping up to be just as tumultuous as the previous few years, what are the chances more educators will feel empowered and better prepared to talk politics (for lack of a better word) in their classrooms?

Don’t count on the administration to lead the way, at least not yet. “Districts are still issuing bureaucratic demands on teachers that take their time away from the most important thing they can do in the classroom: create responsive and relevant curriculum for their students,” explains Dunn.

And while too many parents still believe the classroom door should always be shut to any political discussion, they may be “ignoring the reality that such a move is never really possible,” Dunn says.

teaching controversial issuesTeaching the ‘Hard History’ Behind Today’s News
For educators, uncomfortable discussions come with the territory. The challenge is to help students grapple with controversial issues without turning into enemies. The job is also to prepare people with multiple points of view to survive and thrive in self-government.

NEA EdJustice engages and mobilizes activists in the fight for racial, social and economic justice in public education.

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Educators Share their Most Memorable Gifts

From practical and personal to silly and sentimental, the gifts educators receive definitely leave a lasting impression. We asked our Facebook fans to share their most memorable gifts, and, in the spirit of the season, they delivered. Happy Holidays!

A half bottle of used perfume. A fifth grade boy who lost his mom said I reminded him of of her so he wanted me to have her favorite perfume. I wore that perfume every day.
Holly, Bradenton, Florida

A Christmas ornament given to me in June because his locker was such a mess that he “lost” it until the end of the year locker clean out!
Amy, Boyne City, Michigan

It was a hand-written colorful birthday note from a 6th grade student. She wrote about how much she appreciated me not just because of my role in her life, but as a single mother to my own daughter (2nd grade at the time), and how she saw me working hard in that role, as well. It touched my heart and went well beyond her years.
Stacey, Chandler, Arizona

A simple “Thank you” from one of my high schoolers at the end of the year. I said good morning to him every single day that I drove the bus and he never answered, sometimes even scowled. I knew he was going through something deep. On the last day of school, he told me his mother had left the family and he felt lost. He said he felt happy to hear the ‘good morning’ each day.
The best gift ever! It resides in my heart. Marti , Traverse City, Michigan

The students in a club that I sponsored surprised me with a life-sized cardboard cut-out photo of me so that I could be in two places at once. Debi , St. Louis, Missouri

After my dad, a retired science and social studies teacher and park ranger, died, my student bought a tree to be planted in his memory. I got a certificate and everything. My dad planted hundreds of trees in his lifetime, so this was perfect. Emily, Pheonix, Arizona

I taught students from Haiti in a bilingual program. When school was about to be dismissed for Christmas Break they spontaneously got up and begin to run around the room hugging one another, shaking hands, and wishing each other Merry Christmas. Just watching that go on was such a greatest gift! It was heartwarming. Marilyn

When, 15 years after leaving my class, my student, Marco said, “ I became a singer because of you.”
Pam, Oneieda, Wisconsin

After my house was burglarized my third-graders bought me new earrings! Linda, Pensacola, Florida

When I was student teaching a boy gave me a “Favorite Teacher” ornament that he had taken off of another teacher’s tree. You might not see the love in this, but he was very poor, already in a gang, and had never been successful in any class before. It told me I was making a difference in his life…on so many levels. To this day, I don’t care where he got it. Kathleen, Brentwood, California 

I received a hand-painted portrait of my Golden Retriever, done by a second-grade student in a frame made by his Grandfather. Suzanne, Louisville, Kentucky

One of my students made me a traditional Dominican meal which still makes my mouth water when I think about it! Melissa, Hopewell, New Jersey

I worked in a Dual Language school and most of my students were from migrant worker families. Once a young girl gave me a perfume set. I spoke with her mother and expressed my gratitude for the gift. She told me that her daughter worked the fields with them for a month so she could save enough money to buy it. She told me that the gift was her way of showing how proud she was of me for earning my Masters, which I had just done that December. She told me she wanted to be exactly like me and grow up to be a teacher. I still have that empty perfume bottle. My student graduated and is now a teacher and I am honored to have been a small part of her life. Lisa, North Carolina

A seat on a bus. The parents organized a trip to Chicago to see the King Tut exhibit. They paid for all the teachers who wanted to go! Polly, Lebanon, Ohio

My very first student was on the autism spectrum and was primarily nonverbal. Toward the end of the year, I was telling my educational assistant that I had been accepted into the Peace Corps and was going to the Philippines He looked me in the eye and said clearly, “I’ll miss you, Reyna.” Best gift ever and is what got me into the field of special education and autism. Reyna, Nehalem, Oregon

I was pregnant and on bed rest. I went into school the day before break and found a note that said, ”Mrs. Mascaro, I don’t have any money to buy you a gift, so I cleaned your desk. Merry Christmas!” Best Gift Ever.
Kelly, Central Square, New York

A rubbing of my cousin’s name from the Vietnam memorial I received in the mail. A former student was in Washington, D.C. his junior year. I was his third-grade teacher, and always read them “The Wall” on Veterans’ Day, and told them about my cousin. I can’t believe he remembered that! Stephanie

One of my students made a Lord of the Rings cookbook for me. He found the recipes online, and made a leather cover with the Tree of Gondor. I treasure it. Ann, Anchorage, Alaska

After winter break I had a first-grader drag in a Christmas tree he found in the alley to school to give to me. Dolores, El Paso, Texas 

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Your Computer Isn’t Broken: Quick Tech Fixes for Students

The Number One reason—according to students—why their computer doesn’t work is… It’s broken. As a teacher, I hear this daily, often followed by their preferred solution, “I need a different computer.” My students innately think computer problems are something they can’t solve. I asked them what happened in class when I wasn’t there to fix the problem, or at home. I usually got a shrug and one of these responses:

“My classroom teacher can’t fix them.”

“My mom/dad can’t fix them.”

“The school tech people couldn’t get there fast enough.”

Which got me thinking about how these problems that bring learning to a screeching halt really aren’t that complicated. They don’t require a Ph.D in engineering or years of experience in IT. So why not teach kids how to troubleshoot their own problems?

I started with a list. Every time a student had a tech problem, I wrote it down and then ticked it off each time it happened. It didn’t take long to determine that there are about 16 problems that happen often and repetitively. Once students learned how to solve these, they’d be able to fix half of the problems that bring their education to a screeching halt. I spent the school year teaching the solutions authentically as they arose starting in kindergarten. By the end of second grade, students felt empowered. By the end of fifth grade, they rarely asked for help.

Here’s my list but yours may be different. Include those that arise in your school’s educational endeavor. For example, if you use Macs, right-click issues won’t be as big a deal.

Once students have these in their toolkit, they realize they can solve their own problems, they can troubleshoot, and they can act independently. Not only does this impact how they use technology but every other part of their lives.

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-18 technology for 30 years. She is
the editor/author of over a hundred tech ed resources, including a K-8
technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, and a K-8 Digital Citizenship

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Dual-Language Immersion Programs Boost Student Success

If you are an English Language Learner (ELL) enrolled in a dual immersion program, learning to speak, read, and write English is about many things. It’s about new words. It’s about pronunciation. It’s about becoming bilingual and biliterate. Above all, it is about something very elemental: maintaining your native tongue while gaining access to grade-level classes in math, science, and other subjects.

Dual-language immersion programs are effective because they encourage students to master English but not at the cost of losing their native language, says Elizabeth Villanueva, a language and literature teacher at Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.

“Language is power,” says Villanueva, a member of the Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA). “When we encourage students to use their language while learning English, academic success follows.”

In Minnesota, Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) is one of the state’s largest school districts with more than 37,000 students who speak more than 125 languages.

“Maintaining a student’s native language is vital to their self-esteem, family heritage, and identity,” says See Pha Vang, a teacher with the SPPS Office of Teaching and Learning. “German, French, Spanish … all native languages are critical to who we are as individuals.”

Two-Way Language Learning

Numerous studies have shown that academic skills and knowledge transfer between languages, according to James Crawford and Sharon Adelman Reyes, authors of Diary of a Bilingual School, which combines narratives and analysis from a Chicago magnet school to demonstrate how dual language programs work.

“Students who learn to read well in, say, Spanish, tend to learn to read well in English over the long term,” the authors state in an article for Colorin Colorado. “Developing fluent bilingualism also gives children a variety of economic, cultural, cognitive, and psychosocial advantages.”

Dual immersion has proven successful precisely because “it avoids skill-building in favor of natural approaches to language acquisition,” according to the authors. “Students acquire a new language incidentally, as they understand it, by making sense of it in context, while engaged in purposeful activities.”

Comprehension is enhanced when children from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds interact and learn from each other in the same classroom, according to Crawford and Reyes. Immersion teachers employ sheltering strategies that adjust the language of academic lessons to students’ current level of understanding.

“The emphasis is on developing children’s capacity to use the language for meaningful pursuits, an approach that is far more likely to engage their interest than memorizing the syntactical forms of English or Spanish,” they state. “It is also far more likely to foster proficient bilingualism.”

Heritage Language Learners: Spanish

Latino students enter U.S. public schools at varying degrees of language literacy. Some are from families who have been in the U.S. for generations and happen not to speak fluent Spanish. Some are bilingual in Spanish and English. Some are immigrants who cannot speak a word of English, while others are illiterate in even their native tongue from lack of formal schooling.

“The linguistic needs of a second or third generation Latino are very different from someone who arrived in the U.S. at age 16,” says Villanueva, who has conducted research and written numerous papers on language and cultural heritage. “Whatever their grasp of English, we should use their linguistic skills to empower and enrich their education and sense of self.”

Dual language programs and curriculum, says Villanueva, can prompt student’s interest to connect new words and knowledge with their own learning experiences and surroundings.

“When students make these connections, they create an internal relationship with the subject matter, new words, and culture that builds their confidence,” she says. “This ultimately leads to academic success.”

In 2017, Latinos were almost 18 percent (57.5 million) of the U.S. population. As members of the nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority, many ELL Latino students exist in a familiar environment surrounded by Latino family members, music, food, and culture. For those who are literate in Spanish, learning English is enhanced when they are encouraged to immerse themselves in both cultures and languages, according to Villanueva.

“Encouraging them (heritage learners) to read and write in Spanish not only prepares them better for academic success in mainstream courses, it also enhances their learning skills in English,” she says. “Dual immersion programs work well because these students are motivated to cultivate their Spanish as well as their English skills.”

Heritage Language Learners: Hmong

In Saint Paul Public Schools, the top four languages are Spanish, Somali, Karen (spoken in Myanmar (Burma) and the borders of Thailand), and Hmong, a language and dialect native to China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.

Hmong is an endangered language, says Vang, a native of Laos who speaks Hmong, Lao, and English. She also studied Spanish in high school and college.

“The main reason is that Hmong is, traditionally, an oral language,” she says. “It is passed on verbally from one generation to the next.”

In response to the growing Hmong community in St. Paul over the last dozen years, the district established the Hmong Dual Language Program for elementary school students and Hmong Language and Culture Program for students in middle and high school.

Vang, who joined the dual language program about five years ago, says there are no higher education institutions or recognized scholars in the Hmong language arts to reference regarding lesson plans, curriculum, and other etymological formalities.

“We are our own resources,” says Vang, a member of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT). “We (language teachers) consult with each other and with Hmong elders about the language, cultural values and identity.”

In SPPS, many of the enrolled Hmong students arrived in the U.S. not knowing English. The Hmong immersion program was developed to foster bilingual, biliterate students by easing them into speaking English as they progress with their peers through the public-school system.

In the early years of their education, Hmong students spend the majority of their school day reading, writing, and speaking in Hmong. Their instruction involves learning English through the use of their native language. As students gain knowledge and experience, the percentage of classroom time using English increases.

“If you live here, you have to learn English,” says Vang. “But there are also tremendous benefits to speaking your own language and other world languages. The boost in self-esteem, world-view, and joy of experiencing other cultures cannot be valued enough.”

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The Bittersweet Experience of Teaching Overseas

Judi Nicolay has taught in Brussels for 24 years (Photo: Leilani Hyatt)

Randy Ricks teaches at Lester Middle School located on Kadena U.S. Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan. Tokyo, Bangkok, and Hong Kong are a short plane flight away.

“I love living in a foreign country and experiencing the local culture,” says Ricks, a member of the Federal Education Association (FEA). “The opportunities to travel are great.”

In Brussels, Judi Nicolay teaches English, history, and finance to the children of military service personnel and foreign diplomats at the annex of the U.S Army Garrison. Cities like Hamburg, Germany, Paris, and Vienna, are a drive or train ride away.

“It’s one of the advantages . . . seeing new places,” says Nicolay, who has taught in Brussels for 24 years out of her 30 as a federal employee of the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), the civilian branch of the Department of Defense that serves more than 70,000 students of service members and civilian staff in 11 nations, seven U.S. states, Puerto Rico and Guam.

For 28 years, Stacey Mease taught school in South Korea and Turkey before her current assignment at Robinson Barracks Elementary School in Stuttgart, Germany.

“The military community is really a melting pot,” says Mease, a former military dependent who attended four DoDEA schools growing up. “I enjoy working with people from all over America who have different backgrounds.”

The combination of living overseas for years, while firmly planted in U.S. military culture, helps some FEA members cope with being away from family back home, according to Rhoda Rozier Cody, who teaches at Humphreys Central Elementary School at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, a rural city in the middle of the South Korean countryside.

“Day to day life is pretty normal, but when we travel it is to places that we may not be able to visit if we were working in the States,” she says. “It is a global experience working overseas.”

DoDEA’s Changing Landscape

Weekend train trips across Europe. Basking in the Middle Eastern sun. Wandering the cobblestone streets of ancient Asian cities. That’s only part of the experience of working overseas for DoDEA. Unfortunately, there are a growing number of negative aspects to the job.

“There are many reasons why I joined DoDEA that are no more,” says a veteran teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Some teachers fear losing their jobs.”

Stacey Mease

Stacey Mease teaches in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo: Sabrina Wilson)

While DoDEA schools have adequate resources, there are many components that make the job challenging.

“DoDEA used to provide very good professional development both during the summer and school year that really met the needs of teachers,” says a teacher, who has worked with DoDEA since the 1990s. “In recent years, professional development has been one-size-fits-all.”

After more than 30 years of teaching within the DoDEA system, as well as growing up in a military family, a second educator expresses dismay about a lack of support from DoDEA officials.

“These last few years, we are having an issue getting respect from our leaders,” the teacher says. “It is a shame, because living overseas, our teachers, administrators, students and parents have always been more like a family.”

According to several accounts by FEA members who were attracted to DoDEA by the chance to work in a variety of countries, opportunities to transfer to a different location within the system have all but vanished.

An Imperfect System Getting Worse

DoDEA salaries and benefits are commensurate with those in school systems based in the U.S. As federal employees working overseas, teachers receive benefits that include health insurance, retirement contributions and allowances for housing and transportation.

Under the tax law passed this year, allowances and assistance for airfare and the shipment of vehicles, clothing, furniture and other household goods are now being considered as income and therefore taxable. DoDEA has not clearly communicated the change to new teachers entering the system, FEA says. Consequently, new teachers and retirees are being blindsided by a high tax debt.

“There is a current effort by the federal government to place an unfair tax burden on employees who receive moving assistance from the government when entering or leaving federal service,” says FEA President Chuck McCarter. “In addition, too many people are not receiving their proper pay or having their pay docked for bogus debts the government claims they owe. FEA continues to press management to resolve these issues.”

Chuck McCarter

Federal Education Association President Chuck McCarter (Photo: Courtesy of FEA)

Efforts by the Trump administration to weaken bargaining rights, union representation, and employees’ rights to due process government-wide are affecting DoDEA teachers.

“They (DoDEA officials) are also forcing bad contracts on our stateside and overseas bargaining units,” says McCarter. “They all stem from DoDEA management’s complete lack of respect for its school-level employees.”

McCarter says DoDEA senior officials possess a pervasive attitude of: “If you’re not happy, make an adult decision and leave.”

“Management simply does not care what building-level educators—the people who actually work with students on a daily basis—have to say about the learning and working environment in our schools,” says McCarter, who spends weeks at a time meeting with FEA members, who belong to eight DoDEA school districts containing 166 schools in the U.S., Europe, and the Pacific.

When it comes to curriculum, decisions are made by people based at DoDEA headquarters in Alexandria, Va., “who have not been in the classroom in years,” says McCarter.

A separate survey by FEA reveals the following:
– 82 percent of members say DoDEA is not heading in the right direction.
– 17 hours per week, on average, is the time members work outside the duty day.
– 19 percent of members’ workday is spent on non-essential duties assigned by management.

“Decisions are made with no input from the field and no thought to how they’ll be implemented, how to train the school-level staff to use new resources, or how these new programs and initiatives dreamed up by management will impact classroom learning and the amount of time educators have to work directly with students,” he adds. “There is also a disturbing trend toward the micromanagement of classrooms, ignoring educators’ professional judgment.”

Last spring, DoDEA management lobbied Congress—which, along with the Pentagon and White House, serve as DoDEA’s de facto school board—to create a new law governing DoDEA schools that would have gutted bargaining and due process rights.

“Fortunately, with help from NEA members who wrote to Congress on our behalf, we were able to convince lawmakers that DoDEA’s proposal was a bad idea,” says McCarter.

In a 2017 report of the best places to work in the federal government, the Partnership for Public Service ranked DoDEA in the bottom 5 percent—322 out of 339 agencies. The report is an assessment of how federal workers view their jobs and workplaces, considering leadership, pay, innovation, and other issues.

Sheltering Members

“As public employees, our members are often afraid to point out problems and shortcomings of DoDEA out of fear of management targeting them for retribution or even dismissal,” says McCarter. “It’s not a healthy environment and certainly not one that would promote improvements in the system.”

The Federal Education Association is NEA’s state affiliate representing more than 8,000 faculty and staff in the DoDEA system. FEA represents two bargaining units: Stateside (including Guam) and Overseas (including Guantanamo Bay, Cuba).

The overseas unit is divided into two areas:
– Europe, where members are located primarily in the United Kingdom, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany.
– The Pacific (South Korea, Okinawa, and mainland Japan).

Randy Ricks

“I love living in a foreign country and experiencing the local culture. The opportunities to travel are great,” says Randy Ricks (Photo: Courtesy of Randy Ricks)

FEA members worldwide include teachers, counselors, school psychologists and speech/language pathologists. Education support professionals (ESP) are part of FEA’s stateside bargaining unit but are represented by other unions overseas. FEA also has an active NEA-Retired membership.

As federal employees, FEA members have strict limitations on their actions and speech in the work place.

“The Association does its best to shelter members, but we simply can’t stop all of the blows when the whole system right now is rigged against federal employees and their unions,” says McCarter.

But there is a bright side to working for DoDEA, he says.

“The faculty and staff in our schools enjoy great respect and support from the military parents and communities we work with,” says McCarter. “And, of course, our members have the utmost respect and appreciation for those military personnel and their families, whom we are honored to serve.”

A Pacific Tale

The U.S. government regularly looks for teachers to work abroad. When Mary Anne Harris was teaching at a Catholic grade school in the early 1990s, she attended an international teachers’ recruitment fair.

“I found the international schools tended to serve the elite members of both American and local nationals near U.S. embassies,” says Harris, in her 26th year with DoDEA, based at Kadena Middle School in Okinawa. “In contrast, DoDEA schools provide educational opportunities for the children of servicemen, like my father.”

Like many FEA members, Harris grew up in a military family. Her father served in the U.S. Air Force.

“I liked the idea of serving those who serve our country,” she says. “DoDEA teachers are a unique group of individuals who left home to seek adventure overseas.”

Harris says her students experience the hardship of frequent residential moves and parent deployments, but still maintain “a resilient moxie that is totally amazing.”

“We are a highly successful school system that provides students with loving, motivational and educational learning opportunities,” she adds.

The same could be said of educators like Harris who in October lived for several days under lockdown and without electricity after Okinawa experienced a massive typhoon.

“We managed,” she says.

Salary Schedule

Educators working overseas are considered defense civilian personnel and are compensated according to a public law (86-91) created for overseas DoDEA schools.

According to figures for the 2017-2018 school year, the pay range is $44,170 (Step 1) for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree through $89,205 at the top of the scale (Step 18) for a teacher with a Ph.D. A teacher with a master’s degree would start at $48,490 (Step 1), reach $64,735 at Step 10 and top out at $78, 795.

Steps 15-18 are longevity steps payable upon completion of four years of service in Steps 14-17, respectively.

Salaries for educators overseas are set at the average pay for educators compiled from more than 250 urban school districts as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau with a population of at least 100,000. Figures for the current school year were still being tabulated at press time.

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With the Free Press Under Attack, Student Journalists Thrive

Student journalists at Clayton High School, outside St. Louis, took a hard look at football-related brain injuries this fall, asking questions like, “Why do we still play football? What do we know about what it does to people’s brains?” and interviewing players, athletic directors, and a concussion expert at Vanderbilt University.

This followed a cover story on designing a “more perfect school,” based on what scientists know about sleep, exercise, and learning science, and preceded a deep dive into post-surgical pain medications that sometimes may lead young people to heroin addictions.

These aren’t easy times to be journalists. Recent polls show one in three Americans can’t name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, and more than a third of Republicans think “press freedom does more harm than good.” From the White House, President Donald Trump recently tweeted that “a large percentage of the media” is “the enemy of the people.”

And yet, the students at Clayton High School are doubling down on journalism. Never in her tenure have more students been involved in their award-winning print and online news outlets, says journalism advisor Erin Sucher-O’Grady. “We have about 850 students in the whole school—it’s a relatively small public school—and I have about 100 students involved in the Globe and the website,” says Sucher-O’Grady.

And it’s not just Clayton High School. College applications to notable journalism schools are up—24 percent at Northwestern University, for example. At the University of Maryland this year, the incoming class in the journalism college is 50 percent bigger than last year. “Every time [Trump] calls journalists the ‘enemy of the people,’ or says something about ‘fake news,’ or gets a crowd at a rally to jeer at the White House press corps,” Maryland journalism dean Lucy Dalglish told the Washington Post, more students decide “they’re going to major in journalism.”

Fake News?!

This isn’t the first time that current events have inspired a flood of journalism students. In 1972, Washington journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward captivated the nation with their investigation of a corrupt White House. A generation of students was inspired to work in newsrooms. Then, like now, young people sought to seek truth and change the world.

Today’s headlines—from climate change to police shootings to federal shenanigans—carry a similar message, that the work of a free media is critical and necessary to a Constitutional democracy. “We’re in a sort of singular moment, in the way that I perceive happened after Watergate, where we understood that it’s an important civic responsibility to do this work,” says Sucher-O’Grady. “There is a sentiment that America needs journalists.”


The Globe Newsmagazine, a production of the journalism staffs at Clayton High School in St. Louis, has won national awards.

Even as journalism students are energized by current events, their studies aren’t the same as they were in 1972. Consider the rise of “fake news,” or news articles that are wholly made up and published on the Internet. In 2016, about one in four Americans visited a fake-news website during a five-week period, according to a Princeton University study that tracked the internet movements of willing participants. A more recent study found that fake news travels faster on Twitter than actual truthful news.

My students wonder what their role is in fighting this: What do they do? I tell them their main role is not to pass it on!” says Dennis Swibold, a professor of journalism at the University of Montana in Bozeman.

But fighting fake news shouldn’t be the job of journalism teachers only, says Swibold. “We’re talking information literacy here, and I don’t care if you’re a scientist or an economist, you have to care about being able to find credible information. If truth is under attack, it’s not just journalists who should be worrying.

“I asked my class of 20 today, and only three or four say that ‘maybe’ they had any training in information literacy,” says Swibold. “This has to be a broad push through education.”

Paul Aubrey, a journalism teacher at North Kansas City High School in Missouri, agrees. “My students talk about this from day one. We look at news stories and talk about how to recognize real news,” he says.

Clayton High School journalism advisor Erin Sucher-O’Grady (center) with two Globe staffers in 2013.

But the issue is bigger: “It’s not just about teaching kids to be student journalists, it’s about teaching all students to be skeptical consumers of information,” says Aubrey. “My personal opinion is that it should be required of all students.”

Meanwhile, more than ever, journalism teachers are talking about truth and accuracy. “We talk a lot in our law and ethics unit about anonymous sources and what they do to the public’s trust of news outlets. Journalists will use anonymous sources when that source is afraid they’re going to lose their job, or when they’re afraid they might come to financial or legal harm because of talking,” says Aubrey. “But I don’t think news outlets are good at explaining why they use anonymous sources, and it breeds distrust.”

Future Woodwards

On Sucher-O’Grady’s staff at the Globe, she might have a future Bob Woodward or Gwen Ifill, or she might not. Over the years, a few of her former students have landed at local newspapers, but being a student journalist doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a working one someday.

And that’s okay.

“I tell students and families that I know the majority of students entering this space aren’t going to be journalists in their future professions,” says Sucher-O’Grady.

“The things I really care about are transferrable into any field—the having a conversation with somebody you don’t know and having that person walk away and say, ‘That was professional,’ the writing skills obviously are useful, and also the leadership skills. This is a student-run publication by our school board policy—kids are in the drivers’ seat—and so we talk about how upperclassmen need to mentor and coach the underclassmen who will someday take their place.”

The New Voices Act

The movement to protect student journalists

In September, the student newspaper at Vermont’s Burlington High School reported a guidance counselor had been charged by the state with six counts of unprofessional conduct. One day later, the school’s interim principal ordered student journalists to remove the article. They refused—and the article remains online today.

But in Pennsylvania, a student editor says her principal suppressed about a dozen articles, including a front-page story about marijuana use and an editorial about the district’s mishandling of students’ sexual assault complaints.

The difference? Vermont—and not Pennsylvania—is among 14 states with laws to protect student journalists from censorship.

In recent years, the nationwide New Voices campaign, led by the nonprofit Student Press Law Center (SPLC), has sought to expand protections for student journalists. Last year, it helped introduce bills in eight states. In March, a New Voices Act became law in Washington.

In states that pass New Voices, lawmakers nullify the effects of the 1988 Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood v. Kulhmeier, which allows principals with “legitimate pedagogical reasons” to censor student journalists. Since then however, principals have used Hazelwood as cover to kill articles about hazing in school sports, unsafe conditions in school facilities, and other embarrassing reveals. “It is a mentality that the paramount concern of school governance—more important than effective teaching and learning—is to get through a day without controversy,” writes SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte.

In Paul Aubrey’s classroom, principals haven’t censored anything that he recalls—but the threat of censorship still impacts his students’ thinking. “They’ll come up with an idea and then say, ‘Oh, they’ll never let us do that!’ and abandon it,” he says.

“Administrators are very concerned with image, and they want all the news about a school to be positive. And most student publications are very positive because students are proud of their school for the most part,” says Aubrey. “But there are problems everywhere and the point of journalism is to shine a light on those problems. If you’re not allowed to practice that as a high school journalist, you start to believe you have to give in, that you can’t fight power.”

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Effective Engaging Strategies Not Just an Investment in Students

Recently, I conducted a survey of sixth through twelfth graders and asked them one simple question: What engages you as a learner? The responses flooded in from every school model out there—from each coast, and from districts both rural and urban. And no matter the student, their responses could be categorized into the same 10 strategies of student engagement.

I’ll be covering some of those strategies throughout this NEA Today series on student engagement, but my focus today is on rationale. I want to make the argument that by focusing on student engagement, you, the teacher, will be more engaged as well. It’s not the only reason to focus your practice on student engagement, but there’s no reason not to rank your own enjoyment of teaching high up on the rationale-meter.

As I say in my book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak out on Student Engagement (Corwin, AMLE 2017), using engagement strategies to lure kids into learning—while it might seem draining—is actually an investment in your own energy as an educator.

Being engaging as a teacher is not just an investment in students; it’s also an investment in you and your quality of life.

After all, I’m selfish. I want to like my job. I want to like how I spend my day. Focusing on student engagement, even before I focus on content, not only ups my own  enjoyment and makes classroom management easier, it also happens to positively affect student achievement. It’s a win- win.

Neurologist-turned-educator, Dr. Judy Willis says that “when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage.”

Boredom, as it turns out, isn’t just an energy-sucker, it’s a brainpower-sucker too. In other words, if a student is bored, a cycle can begin where the brain becomes less able to re-engage.

Yet, teachers often tend to focus their curriculum development efforts primarily in content standards—sometimes to the detriment of enjoyment.

Educator and author Kelly Gallagher says, “Engagement first, then content, then rigor.” In that order. Kids simply won’t learn if they aren’t engaged. For that reason, I believe that the student engagement standards are, in the land of Google-able answers, as important to utilize as the content standards.

So it’s also about doing a job we can be proud of. We can’t help our students without using engagement strategies. We as a profession are competing for these kids’ attention with so many other outside elements. We are competing against social media and Netflix. We are competing against having crushes and getting dumped. We are competing against hunger and homelessness, bullying, and abuse. We are competing against elements in our students’ lives that range from traumatic to simply more interesting, and those elements will win out…unless we prove to students that we or our curriculum can be more engaging.

The good news is that engagement is cyclical. If your students are engaged, you will be too. See, student engagement acts like a teacher’s batteries. The students’ eureka moments, their excitement, discoveries, and efforts recharge you. And much like your phone gets a new boost of energy after you slap on a spare charger, you get a new surge of engagement for each day the students are engaged.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

When that silent student in class appears online to praise and give feedback on another student’s essay, that engages us. When that seemingly bored student lifts his head from the desk in alert attention at the prospect of going outside to read under a tree, that engages us. When the student who never shares the air actively listens to her peers in her small group, seeking advice from others in the room, that engages us. When that student asks to use Minecraft to visualize the setting of her novel because she’s been allowed to choose her own way to show her knowledge, that engages us.

So to sum up the answer to the question: Why focus on student engagement? Here’s why:

  •  It increases student achievement.
  •  It makes classroom management easier.
  • It increases teacher enjoyment in a really difficult job.

It’s become a part of our responsibility to not only teach the content, but to teach it in a way that stands a chance against the competition. And the only way to do it is to tackle our students’ levels of engagement.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is a middle school teacher, a fellow of the National Writing Project, and a faculty member at Buck Institute for Education. This article is Wolpert-Gawron’s first in an NEA Today series about student engagement.

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The Wild and Amazing World of Augmented Reality

The poster child for a cutting-edge classroom over the years has included computers (back in your mom’s school days), iPads (a surprisingly long time ago), 3D printing, Maker Space, and G Suite. By now, those have all been mainstreamed, with savvy parents asking, “What else do you offer?” In today’s world, “Augmented Reality” is the most popular ending to the sentence that begins, “My school actually has…” Called AR for short, the technology does exactly what the name suggests: It allows students to learn more about what they see.

Using reality inspired by their lesson plan, teachers expand—in fact, they supersize—lessons with motion, color, websites, audio, and other pieces that enrich students’ experience. When students unpack learning via AR, they want more and don’t want to leave. They also develop a willingness to solve complex math problems and understand deep concepts just
so they can see what else comes with augmented reality.

As an affordable boost to educational engagement, AR in theory takes students into Harry Potter’s world where school hallways are lined with interactive paintings. After downloading an Android or iOS AR app, students aim their phones at an image (called a “trigger”) and reveal deeper content layered on top of the physical world. The content can be a student’s discussion of a book they read or the inspiration behind their artwork. Unlike QR codes or other embedded link technologies, AR content is superimposed onto existing materials in the student’s own real-time environment.

How is AR Different From Virtual Reality?

Ask anyone about AR, and the usual answers will conflate it with Virtual Reality (VR), which is a wonderful education tool in its own right. But there are important distinctions between the two. Kathy Schrock, Adobe Education Leader, Google Certified Teacher, Sony Education Ambassador, Discovery Education STAR and a DEN Guru, and columnist for Discovery Education (just to name a few of her accolades) said it best:

“Augmented reality layers computer- generated enhancements on top of an existing reality to make it more meaningful through the ability to interact with it.”

“Virtual reality is a computergenerated simulation of real life… It immerses users by making them feel they are experiencing the simulated reality firsthand.”

How to Use AR

While AR isn’t difficult or expensive to use (especially when compared to 3D printing or makerspaces), it does require forethought and planning. You’ll need a smartphone or tablet with a back-facing camera, an augmented reality app (many free versions are available), a trigger image (you can create one yourself, probably for free), and an Internet connection. Then, scan the trigger image with a mobile device app and see what happens!

10 Ways to Use Augmented Reality in the Classroom

I collected the best ways to use AR in the classroom from colleagues and edtech websites (like Edutopia) to provide a good overview of the depth and breadth of education now being addressed with AR-infused projects:

Book Reviews: Students record themselves giving a brief review of a novel that they just finished, and then attach digital information to a book. Afterward, anyone can scan the cover of the book and instantly access the review.

Classroom Tour: Make a class picture image trigger a virtual tour of a classroom.

Faculty Photos: Display faculty photos so visitors can scan the image of an instructor and see it come to life with their background.

Homework Mini-Lessons: Students scan homework to reveal information that will help them solve a problem.

Lab Safety: Put triggers around a science laboratory that students can scan to learn safety procedures.

Parent Involvement: Record parents encouraging their child, and attach a trigger image to the child’s desk.

Requests: Trigger to a Google form to request time with the teacher, librarian, or other educator.

Sign Language Flashcards: Create flashcards that contain a video overlay showing how to sign a word or phrase.

Word Walls: Students record themselves defining vocabulary words. Classmates scan them to get definitions and sentences using the word.

Yearbooks: So many ways, just know AR will energize any yearbook.

AR is the next great disruptive force in education. If your goal is to create lifelong learners inspired by knowledge, AR, in its infancy, holds the seeds for meeting that goal.

Jacqui Murray has been teaching K–18 technology for 30 years. She is the editor/author of over 100 tech ed resources including a K–8 technology curriculum, K–8 keyboard curriculum, K–8 Digital Citizenship curriculum. Murray is an adjunct professor in tech ed, Master Teacher, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, CAEP reviewer, CSTA presentation reviewer, freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Find her resources at Structured Learning. This essay first appeared at

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10 Challenges Facing Public Education Today

Whether you’re a classroom teacher, school counselor, paraeducator, bus driver, cafeteria worker or school secretary, everyone who works in a public school faces a new school year ready to do the job they love. But they are also prepared to confront undeniable challenges. These challenges may differ district to district, school to school, but one thing is clear: the voice of educators is needed now more than ever and their unions are providing the megaphone. It’s not up to our teachers and school staff to shoulder this burden themselves. Administrators, parents, communities, lawmakers must do their part. But as the mobilization of educators that began earlier this year has demonstrated so powerfully – the “Educator Spring” as NEA President Lily Eskelsen García calls it – the nation is finally listening to what they have to say.


When educators from around the country walked out of their classrooms last spring, their message was clear: Our students deserve better. By taking this action, they said no more jam-packed classrooms with 40-plus desks, no more decades-old textbooks held together with rubber bands, and no more leaky ceilings, broken light fixtures, pest infestations, and cuts to basic curricula that are essential to a well-rounded education.

“We are truly in a state of crisis,” says Noah Karvelis, an educator from Arizona, where cuts to public school funding have been deeper than anywhere else in the country.

Public school funding has been cut to the quick all over the country after excessive and reckless tax cuts.

It’s been more than 10 years since the Great Recession, but many states are providing far less money to their schools today than they did before the crash. Our schools are crumbling and educators are leaving the profession in droves, unable to pay off student debt or make ends meet on stagnant salaries.

As of the 2017 – 2018 school year, at least 12 states had slashed “general” or “formula” funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—by 7 percent or more per student over the last decade, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Seven of the states—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—enacted tax cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year, instead of restoring education funding.

“To add to this heartache, new teachers in our state of North Carolina have never known anything different, and many even believe our current reality is normal,” says Todd Warren, a Spanish teacher and president of North Carolina’s Guilford County Association of Educators. “While the wealthy and corporate elite recovered from the recession of 2008, public school teachers and their students did not. North Carolina public school teachers make more than 11 percent less on average than we did 15 years ago when salaries are adjusted for inflation.”

But it’s the students who suffer the most from budget cuts, particularly poor students. Public education has been a pathway out of poverty for families for generations, but that pathway is blocked when schools are unable to offer a decent education.Too often, low-income students end up in schools with the lowest funding, fewest supplies, the least rigorous curriculum, and the oldest facilities and equipment, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

On average, school districts spend around $11,000 per student each year, but the highest-poverty districts receive an average of $1,200 less per child than the least-poor districts, while districts serving the largest numbers of students of color get about $2,000 less than those serving the fewest students of color, the study says.

No more, says Todd Warren.

“There are enough of us to say, ‘Enough!’” says Warren. “It is time to leverage our power now.”

Join millions of voices fighting for our nation’s public school students and educators. Take the #RedforEd Pledge! 


A 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center conducted two months after this year’s February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., showed that 57 percent of U.S. teenagers are worried that a shooting could take place at their own school. One in four are “very worried” about the chance.

Those numbers are staggering but hardly surprising given the rash of school shootings that have captured headlines this year, and in previous years. Since the shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in April 1999, more than 187,000 U.S. students have been exposed to gun violence in school.

Fed up with lawmakers’ inaction, students across the nation in 2018 are leading a national movement to bring common sense to the discussion.

Educators understand if students don’t feel safe at school, achievement suffers. It’s the paramount duty of everyone in the community–and the politicians who represent them–to help create safe learning spaces.

Arming teachers and school staff is not the answer. According to an NEA survey, seven in 10 educators said arming school personnel would be ineffective at preventing gun violence in schools and two-thirds said they would feel less safe if school personnel were armed.

Educators across the U.S. stood up to reject the idea that more weapons would help save student lives. As of May 2017, only one state had passed a law that mandated arming teachers and staff.

“We don’t want to be armed. We want better services for our students,” says Corinne McComb, an elementary educator from Norwich, Conn. “More psychologists and counselors who can be present for the students more than one day a week or month. We need services for families. We have the money, we can do this.”


Kathy Reamy, a school counselor at La Plata High School in La Plata, Md., says the trend is unmistakable.

“Honestly, I’ve had more students this year hospitalized for anxiety, depression, and other mental-health issues than ever,” says Reamy, who also chairs the NEA School Counselor Caucus. “There’s just so much going on in this day and age, the pressures to fit in, the pressure to achieve, the pressure of social media.”

It doesn’t help, adds Denise Pope of Stanford University, that schools have become “a pressure cooker for students and staff…and student and teacher stress feed off each other.”

According to a 2018 study by the University of Missouri, 93 percent of elementary school teachers report they are “highly stressed.”

Stressful schools aren’t healthy for anyone. There’s nothing wrong with a little pressure, a little nervousness over an exam, or a teacher who wants students to succeed. We all feel pressure, but something else is going on.

The causes and convergence of teacher and student stress has been a growing concern over the past decade. Research has consistently shown that stress levels in newer educators especially is leading many of them to exit the profession within five years.

Teachers need adequate resources and support in their jobs in order to battle burnout and alleviate stress in the classroom. If we do not support teachers, we risk the collateral damage of students.

One solution for students could be more one-on-one time with psychologists and counselors. But that’s a challenge since so many of those positions have been cut and are not coming back. That said, more and more schools take the issue of stress seriously, and have begun to look at ways to change policies over homework, class schedules, and later school start times to help alleviate the pressure many students feel.

“People are finally seeing what negative stress does to the body, what that does to the psyche, and what it does to school engagement,” says Pope. “Schools and communities know stress is a problem and they want solutions.”


Think back on the days when you were in middle school and high school. Remember the awkwardness, anxiety, and angst that hung over you like a cloud? Your students, no matter their behavior, are probably grappling with the same troubling emotions, says Robin McNair, the Restorative Practices Program coordinator for Prince George’s County in Maryland.

“When you look beyond behavior, when you truly look at the person behind the behavior, you’ll often find a cry for help,” says McNair, whose work in Restorative Justice Practices (RJP) aims to drastically reduce suspensions and expulsions, increase graduation rates, and transform student behaviors.

RJP has proven to be the most effective way for educators to break the school-to-prison pipeline, a national trend where children—mostly low-income and children of color—are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems through harsh “zero tolerance” discipline policies for even minor infractions.

In the 2013 – 2014 school year, the most recent nationwide data available, black students were three times more likely to receive both in-school and out-of-school suspensions than white students.

Rather than casting out students after wrongdoing, RJP seeks to reintegrate them into the classroom or school community to make amends and learn how to handle problems more positively. 

Simply put, students are better off in school than they are when they’re kicked out and left to their own devices in an empty home or apartment, where court involvement becomes more likely. But all students who participate in RJP—even those not directly involved in a conflict—report feeling safer and happier.

McNair suggests that educators strive to create a tight-knit community, even a family, in their classrooms from day one so that students not only know each other, but genuinely care about each other. 

“Restorative practices aren’t only for use after a conflict or incident. These practices allow us to proactively build community within a classroom and within a school by nurturing relationships between teachers and students,” McNair says. “When students know that you care about them they are more likely to follow the rules and more likely to stay in the classroom and do the work,” adds McNair.

Learn more about restorative practices in schools.


According to the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), about 8 million students missed more than three weeks of school during the 2015 – 2016 school year, up from 6.8 million the previous year.

Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year. This translates  to roughly 18 days a year, or two days every month. Chronic absenteeism is usually a precursor to dropping out. And dropouts often wind up before the court.

Educators like Lois Yukna have created innovative ideas designed to keep kids in school. Others can learn from what Yukna is doing. 

For more decades, Yukna was a school bus driver in Middlesex County, N.J. Today, Yukna is a school attendance officer in New Jersey’s Woodbridge Township School District. Her job now is to make sure that once students get to school, they stay. 

When students don’t attend school regularly, Yukna works closely with students, parents, and the courts to turn the situation around.

“Something needed to be done because the main goal is to educate students, and they can’t be educated if they’re not in school,” says Yukna.

She noticed that students who were frequent no-shows at school were the same ones whose behavior when they attended resulted in detentions, suspensions, and sometimes, trouble with police.

Yukna and a guidance counselor in the Woodbridge district put their heads together to come up with something that would emphasize restorative practices instead of suspension and encourage students to return to and stay in school.

Supported by NEA grants, the program exposes about 100 students “to a world of possibilities through internships, mentorships, and achievement incentives.” Parents have classes on nutrition, health, and the impact of social media and family dynamics on learning. “They learn how to motivate their children to come to school and do their best,” Yukna says.

In the first year, approximately 85 percent of the students improved in at least one area: academics, attendance, or attitude. In the second year, all of the students improved in each area. Best of all, of the participants who were seniors, 100 percent graduated in 2017.

—Contributed by Joye Barksdale


In the last few years, schools and states nationwide have spent a lot of time designing new plans to coincide with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed by Congress in 2016. 

Now that ESSA state implementation plans are done, what should educators expect in the new school year? 

Expect to see more schools identified for improvement under the law’s expanded accountability system. Some states, like Washington, have already released their list of schools, which were identified through multiple measures of academic and school quality indicators, not just test scores.

The challenge here is that while the accountability system was expanded, the money to help support the additional schools identified for improvement was not. These schools will be put on tiers of support. The greatest amount of money will go to the highest priority and trickle down. 

As the school year continues, district leaders will need to create ESSA implementation plans, leaving schools identified for improvement with the task of building their own site-based plans. Since the plans must include educator input—not only teachers, but also paraeducators, nurses, librarians, counselors, and other education support professionals—this is the period during which the voices of NEA members will be critical. 

“Get in front of it,” recommends Donna Harris-Aikens, director of NEA’s Education Policy and Practice department. “It is possible that the principal or superintendent in a particular place may not be focused on this yet.”

To learn what’s available at their schools, educators can use NEA’s Opportunity Checklist, a short, criteria-based tool to quickly assess what’s available at their school, and the Opportunity Audit, a tool that is rooted in the seven NEA Great Public Schools (GPS) criteria, which addresses the research and evidence-based resources, policies, and practices that are proven to narrow opportunity and skills gaps.

While some may be discouraged by the thought of placing more schools on an improvement plan, the truth is that despite some funding challenges, ESSA remains a promising opportunity. 


(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

If the last several months are any indication of the challenges educators will face around the immigration status of students, they should expect uncertainty and fear.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster for Dreamers—young people brought to the U.S. as children, who have received the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, protections over the five years of the program. In September 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded DACA. Five months later, he vowed to work with Congress to protect undocumented immigrants who entered the country illegally as children. In April, he tweeted “DACA is dead” and “NO MORE DACA DEAL.”

“We have a lot of students on hold,” says Hugo Arreola, a campus lab technician for the Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona. A DACA recipient himself, he sees his students and community in turmoil. “Many are afraid to renew their DACA applications, student anxiety is up, and people are still scared. The environment is very tense.”

Hugo Arreola

“It’s hard being in this limbo,” says Karen Reyes, a 29-year-old teacher of deaf pre-kindergartners in Austin, Texas. A former Girl Scout who has lived in the U.S. since the age of 2, Reyes attended U.S. public schools from kindergarten through graduate school, eventually earning a master’s degree in Deaf Education and Hearing Science from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

“One moment you have your hopes up, thinking a deal might happen, and then there’s a tweet and people think you’re back to square one,” she says. That’s not the case, she explains. “But they don’t realize all the work we’ve done, the allies we’ve made, and the foundation we’ve built. We’re not back to the beginning. We’re just on a detour.”

Arreola and Reyes are active union members helping to inform, engage, and empower the immigration community in their respective hometowns.

Through Arreola’s unions, the Arizona Education Association and Phoenix Union Classified Employees Association, and local allies, he’s involved in various workshops, information forums, and trainings that help inform people of their rights. “It starts in the local area and making sure you have representatives who understand the realities of the situation and how this impacts their area,” Arreola explains.

Reyes has been involved with citizen drives, sponsored by her local union, Education Austin, and United We Dream. 

Educators can take steps in their own communities to fight the uncertainty and fear undocumented students face.  Go to NEA Ed Justice to learn more about Safe Zone school board policies and NEA’s toolkit for “Know Your Rights.”


Every few months it seems educators get inundated with stories about the next big thing in classroom technology—a “game changer” set to “revolutionize” teaching and learning. Sound familiar? It should. Education technology, for all its benefits (and there are many), tends to be subject to egregious hype. A lot of money, after all, is to be made and many school districts—eager to demonstrate that their schools are on the “cutting edge”—can make some rather questionable purchasing decisions. 

Just recall the 2013 decision by Los Angeles Unified School District to proceed with a $1.3 billion plan to put an iPad loaded with a Pearson curriculum in the hands of every student. Technical glitches and lack of teacher training were just a couple of problems that eventually crippled the initiative.

Educators know better than anyone that healthy skepticism or at least caution about the latest classroom technology will end up serving their students best. It’s a stand that gets teachers branded as resistant to change, a convenient and unhelpful label. It has more to do with what’s best for student learning. 

The good news is that the impulse to buy into the latest hype has been curtailed somewhat over the past few years as educators have taken a seat at the table. If you want to try the latest and greatest virtual learning, gamification, personalization, the first question always has to be “What is best for my students?” As Tracey Matt, a language arts teacher in Albia, Iowa, says. “It takes a great teacher to foster independent learners. This must be done with the use of technology on the forefront, but it should not supersede the importance of an instructor.”

Technology will continue to advance and more “game-changers” are invariably lurking around the corner. Maybe they can revolutionize the classroom, but it’s the educator who is best suited to determine how and why new tech should be used to best serve students. 


Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may be privatization’s most visible and stalwart proponent, but school privatization has been a threat to public education for more than 20 years and is financed and championed by a network of corporate interests. Their goal: to use their financial muscle and propaganda to undermine the mission of public schools and position the nation’s students as commodities upon which to draw a sizeable profit. 

Still, DeVos’ appointment to lead the nation’s education agenda in 2017 was a huge boost just as charter schools and voucher programs were losing a little steam. (Vouchers have been voted down at the ballot box every time they’ve been attempted through referendum.)

DeVos is a vocal advocate of cutting education spending and freeing up federal dollars to expand charter and voucher programs nationwide. Charter schools have expanded dramatically since their introduction in 1992, and currently serve about 5 percent of the nation’s students. 

Educators, however, are determined to stop vouchers from taking hold in the way charters have done. Voucher schemes drain hundreds of millions of dollars away from public school students to pay the private school tuition of a select few.

They “are destructive and misguided schemes that use taxpayer dollars to “experiment with our children’s education without any evidence of real, lasting positive results,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.

Educators and activists are making a huge difference in their states by lobbying lawmakers to reject vouchers (often rebranded by their advocates as “education savings accounts” or “tuition tax credits”).

In 2018, New Hampshire educators led the way in defeating a plan to establish so-called “education savings accounts,” which would have diverted a massive chunk of taxpayer money from public schools to fund the private school education of some students. Private schools would have to accept public funds but provide “no access to financial records, student achievement data, and no say in how the school is run,” says Megan Tuttle, president of NEA-New Hampshire. “The absence of public accountability for voucher funds has contributed to rampant fraud, waste, and abuse in current voucher programs across the country.”

NEA: Vouchers Cost Kids

Voucher proposals have been defeated in other states but their proponents are nothing if not relentless. Which is why, according to David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, activists must stay alert to the ongoing effort to push school voucher initiatives and to hold them up to public scrutiny.

“There’s a need to be vigilant in every state where governors and key legislators support these bills,” Sciarra says. 

Join in the fight against vouchers and pledge to protect quality public schools for all students.


Did you yell at the TV when you heard Betsy DeVos confuse proficiency and growth during her confirmation hearing? Are you disturbed by out-of-touch lawmakers like Arizona’s John Allen, who said teachers work second jobs so they can afford boats and big homes? Do you cringe at the fact that some Kansas lawmakers have tried to skirt the state supreme court’s ruling that they must remedy the woeful underfunding of schools?

 The reality is that too few elected officials at the local, state, and federal level have the in-depth knowledge of public education that only comes from working as an educator. And it shows in their policies and their budgets. 

 As if educating students every school day weren’t enough, it’s also on you to make sure officeholders understand the issues you face in the classroom and how to make progress solving them.

 The key is to show up and speak up.

 “We have to make our voices heard by the people who are making decisions that affect our classrooms,” says Maryland music teacher Jessica Fitzwater.

Balvir Singh, a high school math teacher from Burlington, N.J., won a seat on the Burlington County Board of Freeholders in November. Singh, an alum of NEA’s See Educators Run candidate training program, previously served on his local
school board.

“Elected officials need to understand that it’s not just dollars and cents, students’ entire lives will be impacted by these decisions,” she adds. 

That means showing up and sharing your story at school board meetings, lobby days with state lawmakers, and town halls when your members of Congress are back home. Check your state association website and attend your next local association meeting to find out how to get involved. 

And if your elected leaders still aren’t listening, throw your support behind people who will.

 This November brings a critical opportunity to elect (or re-elect) pro-public education candidates who are not beholden to those who want to privatize education, and who are willing listen to educators and parents. 

Educators are reliable voters. But you can inspire others to head to the polls for pro-public ed candidates as well.

 Latwala Dixon, a math teacher at Columbia High School in Lake City, Fla., says talking to people about the importance of voting in past election cycles has made her even more passionate about the issues that affect her as an educator and a citizen.

 “I tell a lot of people, if you don’t use your right to vote, you will lose it,” Dixon says. Some of the people she speaks with—friends, acquaintances, colleagues—have responded enthusiastically, but others indicate they do not believe their vote makes a difference.

“So what you’re only one vote? Your vote counts,” Dixon says emphatically. “What if all of you ‘only one vote’ people got out there and voted? It could really turn the tide.”

Here’s another “tide turning” way to make sure elected leaders invest in schools—become one yourself! If you’re considering a run or supporting a colleague who is running for office, check out NEA’s candidate training program for members at

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Hygge: The Classroom Design Word That Means Calm

(Photo courtesy of Aubrey Dane)

The first day of school is exciting—and also a little anxiety-provoking. But with a few calming classroom design elements from the popular Danish design trend hyyge (pronounced “hoo-guh”), you can help put your students at ease the minute they walk through the door.

Hygge is a Danish concept that means comfort, togetherness, and well-being, and it was what motivated third-grade teacher Aubrey Dane’s classroom design decisions.

“I’ve always been particular about design in my own home and I enjoy having a calm environment myself,” says Dane, who teaches at Redmond Elementary School in Washington, the state that introduced us to cozy coffee shops.

Dane used calming colors in her classroom, dimmed overhead lights and hung softer, string lights. She also created a cozy reading corner.

“The first step in setting up a space for ‘hygge’ is to designate a ‘hyggekrog’—the cozy nook,” says Jane Zhang, cofounder of, a classroom design website that’s been called the Pinterest of classrooms. “You don’t need a giant space to snuggle up in a blanket with a book. In a classroom, dedicate a corner or section of the room for cozying up.”

In Dane’s hyggekrog, she included a comfy chair with a big pillow, soft lanterns and string lights, and a cozy carpet. She also framed children’s book covers that pop with color on a dark background in dollar store picture frames that she spray painted to match.

To create a hygge-inspired classroom, follow these tips from Dane:

Start With Calming Colors

Many classrooms are painted in dull industrial colors. If you can paint your classroom, choose calming colors like light gray or light blue paint, which are softer than typical school paint colors. A lot of teachers have been able to paint their classrooms—some do it themselves, others were lucky enough to get the district to do it.

Aubrey Dane

Fabric or Paper the Walls With Calm Colors

If you can’t paint, cover the industrial cinder block walls with a calming solid color paper or fabric. I used black paper in the book nook with bright borders, but I kept a color scheme of calming grays and blues. On the fabric, which doesn’t tear or get all wrinkly, I can hang the book covers so they really pop. I used lots of staples because I’m in a portable classroom where the walls can be stapled. It’s really easy to decorate as a blank canvas. If you don’t have that, you can cover your bulletin boards with calming fabric colors and your doors. Wallpaper works very well on doors, too. Choose calming colors or patterns. I like cohesive blues and grays, but pick colors that you love and that make you feel good. If you feel comfortable and calm your students probably will too.

Limit Wall Hangings

When I was a student I found walls with too many posters and colors distracting. There were too many things to look at and different colors. It was overwhelming.
Try to minimize what’s on your walls. Only include what’s necessary. So often teachers put all their posters about everything so that all the tips for students are there, but it frequently leads to information overload and students stop using them as reference. If you put up fewer posters, students will pay attention more carefully.

Change it Up

If you have a lot of great posters, you can still display them, just not at once. I have a select few posters that I’ve framed—get them at the dollar store and spray paint them and they look great on a budget. Then I swap them out rather than having them all up at once covering the walls. I immediately noticed that students were calmer, more engaged.

I also switch out the book covers that I frame and students sometimes choose which books we’ll have framed in the nook. It provides interest and a spot of color in the calming nook.

Aubrey Dane limits her classroom color scheme to two or three calming shades, and also keeps bulletin board content to a minimum so students are not overwhelmed by visual clutter. (Photo courtesy of Aubrey Dane)

Framing is Easy and Cheap!

Framing posters and book covers makes them seem fancy, important, and special and it’s an easy design hack. Remember, the dollar store is your friend!

Dim the Lights

A key element in hygge is soft lighting, like flickering candles or the glow of a crackling fire. To create softer light in your classroom, turn off the overhead fluorescent lights, make use of natural light as much as possible, and use lamps where you can. You can use hanging twinkle lights in your hyggekrog as well as a lamp or two, but check with your district first.

My string lights are very lightweight LED lights that don’t get hot, and if they fall they’re plastic so they don’t break. All my lamps are LED lamps as well, with low wattage, soft white bulbs. Together with natural light coming in through the windows, there is a good amount of light in the classroom that’s not as harsh as the overheads and allows the kids to feel calm and to think.

Cozy, Comfy Seating

Start with the book nook, but in addition to the hyggekrog, have different and comfortable pillows, chairs, and workspaces throughout the classroom so students can feel comfortable, even feel like they could be at home.

Calm, Cool Community

A hyyge classroom design takes away anxiety that many students have at the beginning of the year. They see that the classroom is their space, designed for their comfort. They see it as a place where they can sit down and relax and not feel threatened. Hygge creates a family type of environment and helps build our community as a class. The whole idea is to build a community environment. Once you have that, everything else starts to fall into place.

Farewell Desks, Here Come the ‘Starbucks Classrooms’
While the idea of modeling a classroom on a Starbucks coffeeshop may elicit skepticism, the move to more flexible seating is grounded in research that points to real gains in student health and classroom engagement. Meet some teachers who are happy they “ditched the desk” in favor of standing tables, stability balls, crate seats, couches, and beanbag chairs.

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Educators Push Back Against Whitewashing of AP World History

In 2001, the College Board added World History to its catalog of Advanced Placement (AP) courses. AP World History, which starts in 8000 B.C.E and spans almost 10,000 years, provides a unique look at history by studying empires and cultures that predate Western records, empowering and engaging students from all different backgrounds and origins.

But recent proposed changes to the curriculum have triggered a backlash among many educators. The College Board recently announced that, instead of starting at 8000 B.C.E, the course will cut out all history before 1450 (Periods 1-3), effectively negating the lives and impact of ancient peoples before Western colonization.

Many teachers and other education professionals oppose these changes (to take affect in the 2019-20 school year) on the grounds that they could alienate students of color and undermine the primary functions of the course – learning to contextualize and identify causation throughout time. Taking out three periods of history could severely limit a student’s ability to achieve these goals.

“I was dumbfounded at how they were basically removing half of the course, in which there is some of the most rich, diverse content of the entire curriculum,” says Tyler George, an AP World History teacher in Michigan.

Like other concerned educators, George believes the changes made to the course are a step backwards from the increasingly diverse classes that are offered by the College Board. To begin the history of the world at 1450 is to begin with European expansion, effectively shaping the experience of cultures across the world through the lens of Western conquests.

As Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, recently wrote, “[the College Board] hasn’t proposed a new title for the course, but we recommend calling the class what it is: European Colonial History.”

Restructuring or Whitewashing?

According to George and other educators, students could be left oblivious to the cultural origins and broader context of modern events. So many history classes and textbooks are already whitewashed, telling the story of Eastern countries through the white man’s perspective. AP World History offered a unique opportunity for students to watch history unfold in a way most social studies classes failed to present.

The restructuring of AP World History could also disenfranchise students of color and of differing origins. History before 1450 tells the story of cultures that blossomed and made the world what it is today – long before Western empires robbed them of their liberty, says George.

“Imagine being a Pacific Islander and the only way you will begin to study your history is either by watching Moana or starting at the point when the U.S. and other countries begin expanding,” George explains. “Imagine being of African heritage and slavery is one of the first topics that come up in class. Imagine being from the Caribbean and your first lesson is the devastating impact of the Columbian Exchange on your indigenous ancestors.”

At the 2018 World Open Forum in Salt Lake City, Trevor Packer, senior vice president of AP courses, insisted that the content cuts to AP World History were a response to teacher grievances regarding the vast amount of information packed into the course. While the class is notably rigorous, many teachers sill disagree with the action that was taken.

Former California public school teacher Amanda DoAmaral attended the forum and confronted Packer. She argued that people in power are essentially telling her students they don’t matter and questioned why the College Board is deciding to do the same instead of helping them learn and grow in a world that doesn’t always support them.

So far the College Board’s only solution is to offer a Pre-AP course that covers the material that would be cut from AP World History. The new course would take pressure off teachers and present the information to students more effectively by “[spreading] this important and valuable content across two academic years, rather than just one,” College Board spokesman Zach Goldberg told Politico.

Unlike other AP courses, however, Pre-AP will not be funded by the College Board and won’t appear on any of the AP exams. Districts may subsidize the AP tests, but funding for the Pre-AP courses may fall on individual schools.

George’s school district in Michigan is only composed of 360 high school students, making the Pre-AP course basically unaffordable.

In her speech to Packer, DoAmaral noted that many schools cannot afford pencils, let alone another course. And without period three material represented on the test, teachers 10 years from now will probably stop teaching it.

Educators across the country are not sitting still and are determined to show the College Board the true ramifications of altering the AP World Curriculum.

“I’ve been teaching AP for a decade and I’ve never seen a hornet’s nest stirred up like this,”  AP European History teacher Tom Richey told Politico.

For the past few weeks the hash tags #SaveAPWorld and #SavePeriod3 have been trending on Twitter and other social media sites. At the World Open Forum, DoAmaral was accompanied by hundreds of other teachers ready to give their students a voice and challenge Packer and other College Board administrators to rethink their actions.

‘AP World History is Needed More than Ever’

The call to action has not stopped with educators; many students have taken to social media to share the impact that AP World History has had on their lives and academic experience. Dylan Black, a student and recent veteran of the AP World History course, created a petition on to try and reverse the cuts to period 3. Dylan’s campaign has resonated with teachers and students across the country, garnering over 10,000 signatures as of June 20, 2018.

“The class is demanding on students,” Black writes on the petition, ”but is also one of the most rewarding, life-changing classes I’ve ever had the privilege to take.”

Tyler George says he will not stop emailing, calling, and advocating on social media until his and other educators’ voices are heard.

“In a world that is fueled by quick reactions on social media, biased news, and people responding to passion rather than facts, AP World History is needed more than ever,” George says. “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

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Who is the Average U.S. Teacher?

In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) polled 40,000 public school teachers across the country as part of the National Teacher and Principal Survey. The survey covers a wide range of topics about the teaching profession. The complete report will be issued later in the year, but some of the results from the survey are being released. Here are a few of the highlights so far.

The Teaching Force Is Still Predominantly Female and White

The 3.8 million public school teachers (full and part time) in the United States in 2015-16 is significantly higher than the 3 million who were teaching in 1999-2000.  During that time, K-12 student enrollment increased 7 percent from 45.9 million to 49 million. About 77 percent of public school teachers today are female.

Despite the attention given to the need to recruit more teachers of color, little progress has been made in diversifying the profession. Overall, the percentage of White teachers has declined slightly from 84 percent in 1999-2000. In 2015–16, about 80 percent of public school teachers were White, 9 percent were Hispanic (an increase of 3 percent since 2000), 7 percent were Black, 2 percent were Asian, and 1 percent were of two or more races.

The Average Teacher Has 14 Years of Experience

In the 2015-16 school year, teachers in public schools had on average about 14 years of experience and worked roughly 53 hours a week.

More Teachers Hold Advanced Degrees

The percentage of public school teachers who hold a postbaccalaureate degree (i.e., a master’s, education specialist, or doctoral degree) has increased since 1999-2000. Fifty-seven percent had such a degree in 2016, compared to 47 percent in 2000. This trend is evident at both the elementary and secondary levels. Roughly 55 percent of elementary school teachers and 59 percent of secondary school teachers held a postbaccalaureate degree in 2015–16, whereas 45 and 50 percent, respectively, held a postbaccalaureate degree in 1999–2000. Furthermore, traditional public school teachers are much more likely to have a master’s degree than their counterparts in charter schools.

Union Membership = Greater Satisfaction with Salary and Job

According to the NCES data, overall, 55 percent of teachers are not satisfied with their salaries. By a significant 12-point margin, however, teachers who belong to a union or education association are more likely to be satisfied with their salaries than those who are not. Almost half of teachers who belong to a union report that they are satisfied with their salaries. Thirty-seven percent of teachers who do not belong to a union say they are not.

When asked to respond to various questions about their job, the data shows a clear correlation between satisfaction with salary and general job satisfaction. For example, if you are satisfied with your pay, you are more likely to believe that your school is run reasonably well and that you and your colleagues are a “satisfied group.”

On the other hand, a higher percentage of teachers who were dissatisfied with their salary were more likely to believe that the “stress and disappointments involved in teaching at this school aren’t really worth it” and  “I don’t seem to have as much enthusiasm now as I did when I began teaching.”

Still, research has shown that teacher job satisfaction generally depends on a variety of factors, including the availability of mentorship (crucial for newer educators), collaboration with colleagues, classroom autonomy, working conditions and support from the administration.

Teachers Spend Too Much of Their Own Money on Classroom Supplies

Overall, 94 percent of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies. The average teacher spends $479 every year.

If you are an elementary school teacher, you are more likely to spend more than your counterparts in high school. The average amount spent by elementary teachers was $526. For high school teachers, that figure was $430.

In addition, the average amount spent was higher for teachers at city schools ($526) than teachers at suburban, town, or rural schools ($468, $445, and $442, respectively).

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Sex Education in Schools Needs an Upgrade

Despite the prickly challenges it presents, sex education has always been an issue that many educators have championed, perhaps even more so now as the #MeToo movement has forced the nation to confront the pervasiveness of sexual assault in our society. Young people are also inundated with increasingly confusing messages.

“The world is changing so quickly. They are getting a barrage of information about gender and relationships and how they are supposed to act and not act,” says Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, who was on a panel responsible for creating widely accepted standards for sex education. “Unfortunately, too much of it is confusing and not helpful, so we need good comprehensive information about these issues.”

She and other experts say educators should actively support effective sex education in a number of ways – by teaching sex education and addressing related issues in the classroom, advocating for strong programs district wide and by supporting students who are increasingly seeking straightforward information.

tn 2017, The National Education Association recommitted its support for “sensitive” sex education programs taught by well trained educators who thoughtfully involve parents and give “careful attention to developmental needs, appropriateness to community settings and values, and respect for individual differences”.

Some schools are modeling their initiatives after a comprehensive, cutting-edge curriculum that educators in San Francisco schools developed for all of the district’s some 57,000 students, which now more thoroughly addresses critical issues involving consent and sexual preference, according to Christopher Pepper, a health educator who helped author the curriculum and teaches sex education in the district and advocates for it nationwide.

“In the wake of recent sexual harassment scandals, many schools and communities are examining how they talk about consent and healthy relationships. Health class is the perfect venue for those conversations, and now is the time to make sure sex ed is taught sensitively, thoughtfully, and comprehensively in every school in our country,” explains Pepper. “Teachers shouldn’t be shy about this.”

The State of Sex Ed

Research has found that nearly all students receive some sort of sex education, but the subject matter often varies, particularly regarding issues of abstinence and gender.

Some states and districts require “abstinence only” (now sometimes called “sex risk avoidance) philosophy be taught, while others cover issues helpful to the estimated half of students who may be sexually active.

Few states address consent and healthy relationships, according to a new analysis by the Center for American Progress.

“According to state laws and education standards, only 10 states and the District of Columbia mention the terms ‘healthy relationships,’ ‘sexual assault,’ or ‘consent’ in their sex education programs,”  write Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown. “This means that the majority of U.S. public school students do not receive instruction through their state’s sex education program on how to identify healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors.”

Sex Education Curricula in States

Sex Education Curricula in States
(Source: Center for American Progress)

NEA advocates for programs that cover abstinence along with birth control, family planning, prenatal care, parenting skills, substance abuse during pregnancy and issues associated with teen pregnancy. It also recommends that topics such as sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual harassment, homophobia, consent and sexually transmitted disease be covered thoroughly.

Representatives of NEA served with Kantor on that panel that worked in 2012 to develop Future of Sex Education (FOSE) standards that are used to guide policy in 41 states, according to Nicole Cushman, executive director of Answer, a Rutgers University-based sex education resource that was one of three key sponsors of the FOSE effort. The standards have been supplemented with a variety of resources, including standards for teacher preparation and tools that can help educators develop or map their systems and find research supporting its recommendations. Kantor says they will be updated this year.

Jessica Sales, a professor of behavioral science and health education at Emory University who authored a report last spring that reviewed the latest research on sex education, says she is encouraged by political activism related to consent and assault, and by the youth empowerment, but worries that the Trump administration’s priorities in its budget and appointments to key posts favor a more restrictive approach.

“Today, despite great advancements in the science,” Sales writes,
“implementation of a truly modern, equitable, evidence-based model of comprehensive sex education remains precluded by sociocultural, political, and systems barriers operating in profound ways across multiple levels of adolescents’ environments.”

What’s Happening in Schools

The San Francisco sex education program, which is being copied throughout California and in other regions, establishes sex education at every level, beginning in elementary school where it cvers topics such as touching and puberty, and in middle school where it uses a “Healthy Me. Healthy Us.” curriculum that addresses topics such as birth control, sexual harassment, personal boundaries and LBGTQ issues.

Pepper says a popular high school “Be Real. Be Ready.” curriculum with 26 lessons is delivered to ninth graders, focusing on ways to be “shame free and non-judgmental” while offering “developmentally appropriate information about health, sexuality and relationships at every stage of their lives.”

Pepper notes that the district’s initiative also requires wellness center in each school where students can get information and support.

Health class is the perfect venue for those conversations, and now is the time to make sure sex ed is taught sensitively, thoughtfully, and comprehensively in every school in our country,” he says. “Teachers shouldn’t be shy about this.”-  Christopher Pepper, health educator

On the east coast, Michelle Rawcliffe teaches sex education to about 400 middle schoolers in the quiet little town of Woodstock, CT. She has found that students, parents and others in the community now understand the need for this material, and have urged her to cover controversial topics such as condom use, safe sex and issues of gender identification.

“I’ve found I can use family and the community as resources and then serve as a resource to them.” she says, noting that a health advisory council with adults and students has been very valuable.

“Having parents and families talking about these topics and working alongside the schools sends a much louder message and has an even bigger impact on the student,” she adds.  (Kantor notes research now shows parents overwhelmingly want sex education for their children)

Rawcliffe, who has been teaching sex education for 28 years in high school and middle school and helped develop resources for schools in her state, says students have a good idea of what is needed and seek honest information in a safe atmosphere.

Some of Rawcliffe’s high school students sought discussions about condoms which resulted in a condom availability program in her school, and others let her know she was making assumptions about abstinence and sexuality that were not accurate.

“We need to give students the opportunity to lead – and really listen to them and hear their concerns,” she says.

Peer-Led Sex Ed

While many experts believe students should have a say in sex education programs, some want to take that idea one step further. They believe students should deliver the material.
 Peer-to-peer sex education has gained attention in several regions, including New Jersey and North Carolina, where Teen PEP, has successfully spread to more than 60 schools.

“The learning dynamic changes when the person teaching you is just like you,” says Tom Galan, an adviser for the program at Passaic (NJ) High School. “There is a visible sense of relief when a teenager realizes they are not the only one going through a particular situation. Compare that to someone two or three times their age talking about sex and all the issues this generation is experiencing. The message may be the same, but the delivery is very, very different.”

Sherry Barr, director of the Center for Supportive Schools, a Princeton, NJ,-based advocate for education programs and a Teen Pep sponsor, has found it offers a curriculum that covers key topics such as communications with peers and parents, consent and refusal skills and pregnancy prevention – all typically delivered by trained peers, who must take a for-credit, year-long training course.

“The Teen Pep peer educators receive the most up-to-date, sex education research and are able to deliver the information to the student body in a mature, fun and realistic fashion,” Galan says, noting that administrators have been supportive. “They are blown away by the maturity and knowledge of the peer educators and become raving fans.”

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How Many Teachers Are Highly-Stressed? Maybe More Than People Think

Everyone knows that teaching is one of the most demanding and stressful professions. And most are probably aware that a majority of teachers are feeling a high level of stress. Still, we may have been underestimating the magnitude of the problem, according to a new study by the University of Missouri (MU).

Keith Herman and Wendy Reinke, both professors in the MU College of Education, and doctoral student Jal’et Hickmon-Rosa found that 93 percent of elementary school teachers report that they are experiencing a high stress level. The study was recently published in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions.

The researchers asked 121 teachers who taught kindergarten through 4th grade in an urban Midwestern school district to complete self-report measures on their levels of burnout, stress, efficacy, and coping. The teachers were asked such questions as “How stressful is your job?” and “How well are you coping with the stress of your job right now?” The researchers then linked the resulting data to the behavioral and academic outcomes of their students. They found that high teacher stress levels were usually associated with poorer student results, such as lower grades and frequent behavior problems.

In the study, educators with low levels of stress and high coping ability were pratically non-existent.

While Herman wasn’t surprised that most teachers feel stressed in their jobs, he didn’t expect that “only 7 percent rated themselves as having both low levels of stress and high levels of coping with their jobs.” (Herman and his colleagues are finding similar results in a yet-to-be-completed follow-up study with middle school teachers.)

The University of Missouri study, while generally corroborating previous research about the job pressures educators face and the potential impact on students, brings something new to the table. “We could find no other study that simultaneously examined teacher stress and coping levels. While stress and coping are related to each other, they are distinct constructs,” Herman says.

Focusing on how educators succeed or fail at “coping” with job pressures can be misconstrued as placing the blame squarely on those individuals. Talking too much about “burnout,” for example, implies that many teachers simply can’t hack it in the classroom and it’s ultimately up to them to make the necessary changes. Doris Santoro of Boiwdon College believes teachers are just as “demoralized” by a changing profession as they are “burned out” by its demands. Schools, communities and policymakers, therefore, are all responsible for restoring what has been stripped from the profession.

I’m surprised that few people seem to connect the dots back to their own children. When I think of my daughter, I know that I don’t want her to spend an entire day with an adult who is feeling overwhelmed, under-appreciated, and mistreated.”

Herman agrees. The stress level felt by educators is a wake-up call to the country about the state of the profession, but supporting their use of effective coping strategies must be part of the solution – and educators recognize this.

Herman recalls the reaction of a group of teachers he was training in classroom management intervention a few years ago. After outlining basic coping principles to stress management on the board, Herman turned around to the class and saw the participants “feverishly taking notes,” he recalls. “I was struck by how many teachers had not been acquainted with this very useful approach to coping with inevitable life stressors.” Herman, with Reinke, co-wrote “Stress Management for Teachers: A Proactive Guide,” published by Guilford Press in 2014.

While individual coping matters, real, sustainable success is unlikely without a comprehensive school-wide commitment to create healthier and productive climates for staff and students.

“Administrators set the tone in their building for how teachers are perceived and supported. Prioritizing teacher well-being and giving higher rates of recognition and positive feedback to teachers versus criticism and judgment helps set a positive tone,” Herman explains.

More broadly, improved workplace conditions, greater autonomy in the classroom, and a voice in decision-making can also go a long way in giving teachers the professional respect that is so pervasive in high-achieving countries.

The recent strikes and walkouts of educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Colorado has forced the nation to take a hard look at not only the underfunding of public education, but also how their profession has been denigrated. This kind of national attention, says Herman, can help society acknowledge that undervaluing the teaching profession harms students.

“I’m surprised that few people seem to connect the dots back to their own children. When I think of my daughter, for instance, I know that I don’t want her to spend an entire day with an adult who is feeling overwhelmed, underappreciated, and mistreated,” Herman explains. “That’s a bad setup for everyone. I hope we are calling attention to the fact that teachers need our support, as parents, as community members, as policy makers, and as private citizens. When teachers are neglected, our children are neglected.”

How to Survive Year-End Stress
No matter where you teach, what grade, subject, or school, you will experience this end-of-year insanity. How can you deal with it and stay sane?
Don’t Be Afraid to Say “No”
While taking risks and responsibilities is important for career development, managing yourself and your time is just as crucial. All educators—from new to experienced—are susceptible to burnout.
Lean On Me: How Mentors Help First-Year Teachers
The inability to keep teachers teaching costs districts $7.3 billion a year. Mentors can help.

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