My Manifesto

In the Washington Post this week, you may have seen an op/ed piece authored by a number of superintendents, chancellors, chief executives, and the like about “How to Fix our schools.” Notably, no teacher was listed in their 16-name byline. And, coincidentally enough, it mostly centered on reducing teachers’ rights and increasing administrators’ rights. As a former teacher and education professional, here’s my point by point response.

The Washington Post Op/Ed

Laura

· Teacher Quality has the biggest impact upon student achievement.

  • Agreed

· Teacher promotion and retention is based upon archaic rules of seniority and academic credentials. The widespread policy of “last in, first out” makes it hard to hold on the new, enthusiastic educators and ignores the one thing that should matter most: performance.

  • · How do we measure teacher performance? With student test scores? What about a teacher that has the most challenging students (and I seen have principals funnel the most discipline-challenging kids into the classrooms of teachers they wanted to get rid of). Where’s the accountability for the students and parents in that?
  • Without an objective measure of teacher performance, without seniority rules, promotion becomes based on favoritism with the principal – without tenured teachers, everyone is afraid to stand up to a principal that may not be making the right decisions. This happens.
  • You can have all the enthusiasm, good intentions, and love of children in the world – you can commit hours of extra time, which is what I did my first year. But enthusiasm does not equal skill. Practice equals skills, which is why we promote those who have been around longer. I worked fewer hours my second year than my first, and I got better results, in terms of MCAS scores.

· These archaic rules contribute to the inability to hire new quality teachers.

  • · The teacher labor force is set. I heartily agree that there is a kind of quality-teacher labor shortage – or, if there were more quality teachers, then we would have more flexibility. If you lay off all the teachers in Malden, where are they going to go? There’s no influx of new teachers waiting to take their spots. They’ll just get rehired in a neighboring town.
  • The solution is to make it easier to enter the teaching profession, so that we have more high quality candidates. University teacher preparation programs are one of the biggest rackets around. For those who don’t know:
    • To be a certified teacher and teacher in a public school – which includes charters – you have to complete a state recognized university preparation program, which are costly both in terms of time and money.
    • These preparation programs have candidates student teach at the end – so you don’t even know if you’ll enjoy teaching before you invest all that money.
    • The state doesn’t honor non-traditional paths of gaining teaching experience, such as the Breakthrough Collaborative or teaching in non-profits or private schools.
    • All this means that smart people, including those with teaching experience, are blocked from entering the teaching profession, limiting our hiring options and denying kids access to high quality teachers.

· District leaders need the authority to use financial incentives to attract and retain the best teacher.

  • Teachers are not necessarily motivated by profit. Can I get some comments from friends in the human services profession? People are motivated by different things, which often determines their profession:
    • Profit-motivated individuals work in sales.
    • Product-motivated individuals, such as writers and carpenters, get satisfaction from creating tangible, high quality finished work.
    • Knowledge-motivated people, like scientists, are driven by discovering new things.
    • Social-impact motivated people, like teachers and social workers, are driven by the difference they can create in the world and in individual people’s lives.
    • Each of these types need different kinds of incentives.
  • I already worked as hard as I could as a teacher, because I knew I could help these kids cross the barrier to a high school diploma. If I’m already working at capacity, how is rewarding me financially going to have any impact on my work?
  • Not every successful enterprise has to have a business model, and I don’t know why we keep insisting on forcing this model onto organizations unnaturally. The business model is good for businesses. The university model is good for universities. My Vice President in China, an Australian man, once said that industries have just as much to learn from non-profits.

· Financial incentives will help us retain quality teachers.

  • Teachers leave more often because of poor working conditions, not because of finances. These working conditions are:
    • Student Discipline. It takes a while to learn how to deal with challenging students. Parents and administrators often provide no support in this regard, failing to back up teachers’ decisions and stick to a behavior plan. There’s loads of professional development around notebooks, reading strategies, cross-cultural sensitivity, but very little around behavior management, the most fundamental skill.
    • Lack of Resources. Please keep your performance bonus. Instead, give me a copy machine that works so I don’t argue with my co-workers, provide me with notebooks and dry erase markers that work, text books that are level appropriate, white boards that don’t fall on me during the lesson. There is so much unnecessary stress around material; providing resources is one lesson that schools can learn from the for-profit world. No one has to take up a collection for paper clips at companies.
    • Poor Leadership. Micro-management, individual harassment, lack of recognition, not being treated as a professional – all the problems of a modern work place happen in schools, but they are felt so much more acutely by teachers, whose lives often revolve around their school.

We must also make charter schools a truly viable option.

  • Charter Schools are Laboratories – they aren’t solutions. Charter Schools were created for the scientist-teacher. They free schools from traditional rules so that they could experiment to see what works in education. Those individual lessons should be brought into mainstream schools. As with any experiment, they find things that don’t work, too, and we shouldn’t be replicated that.
  • Three out of five charter schools do not outperform mainstream schools. Two of those three underperform. This is to be expected, since they are experimental schools. But they aren’t an alternative to mainstream schools.
  • Charter Schools aren’t sustainable. They often have an influx of cash that isn’t part of the city budget, they have teachers who work an abundance of over time, and in some districts without lottery systems, they take the best students. These aren’t replicable.

· We can’t expect teachers to meet the needs of 25 to 30 students in a classroom.

  • Class size matters – in the US. When Matt and I taught middle school on the weekends in China, we had 50 to 60 students in a classroom – but they were all perfectly behaved, actually did pair-and-share conversation activities with their partners, were eager to learn and on task. I certainly didn’t change as a teacher – clearly it is something that parents and schools are doing to instill a sense of personal responsibility for learning and behavioral norms. It takes a village to raise a child – and that village isn’t just teachers; it includes parents.

· We must use technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction.

  • I agree. Project-based work is in the vogue, and standardized testing is the ugly step child of “authentic assessment.” Imagine, however, if, throughout the year instead of right before summer vacation like the MCAS, we could quickly determine how much students understand, and aggregate that data to impact our re-teaching. Standardized interim assessments let us do that efficiently, without demanding too much time on learning or teacher preparation time. This is the kind of work I’m doing with the Achievement Network.

Finally, with all this talk of teacher accountability, what about principal accountability? What about parent accountability? We must all work together and support one another to educate our next generation of citizens.

 

The Washington Post Op/Ed

Laura

· Teacher Quality has the biggest impact upon student achievement.

· Agreed

· Teacher promotion and retention is based upon archaic rules of seniority and academic credentials. The widespread policy of “last in, first out” makes it hard to hold on the new, enthusiastic educators and ignores the one thing that should matter most: performance.

· How do we measure teacher performance? With student test scores? What about a teacher that has the most challenging students (and I have seen principals funnel the most discipline-challenging kids into the classrooms of teachers they wanted to get rid of). Where’s the accountability for the students and parents in that?

· Without an objective measure of teacher performance, without seniority rules, promotion becomes based on favoritism with the principal – without tenured teachers, everyone is afraid to stand up to a principal that may not be making the right decisions. This happens.

· You can have all the enthusiasm, good intentions, and love of children in the world – you can commit hours of extra time, which is what I did my first year. But enthusiasm does not equal skill. Practice equals skills, which is why we promote those who have been around longer. I worked fewer hours my second year than my first, and I got better results, in terms of MCAS scores.

· These archaic rules contribute to the inability to hire new quality teachers.

· The teacher labor force is set. I heartily agree that there is a kind of quality-teacher labor shortage – or, if there were more quality teachers, then we would have more flexibility. If you lay off all the teachers in Malden, where are they going to go? There’s no influx of new teachers waiting to take their spots. They’ll just get rehired in a neighboring town.

· The solution is to make it easier to enter the teaching profession, so that we have more high quality candidates. University teacher preparation programs are one of the biggest rackets around. For those who don’t know:

o To be a certified teacher and teacher in a public school – which includes charters – you have to complete a state recognized university preparation program, which are costly both in terms of time and money.

o These preparation programs have candidates student teach at the end – so you don’t even know if you’ll enjoy teaching before you invest all that money.

o The state doesn’t honor non-traditional paths of gaining teaching experience, such as the Breakthrough Collaborative or teaching in non-profits or private schools.

o All this means that smart people, including those with teaching experience, are blocked from entering the teaching profession, limiting our hiring options and denying kids access to high quality teachers.

· District leaders need the authority to use financial incentives to attract and retain the best teachers.

· Teachers are not necessarily motivated by profit. Can I get some comments from friends in the human services profession? People are motivated by different things, which often determines their profession:

o Profit-motivated individuals work in sales

o Product-motivated individuals, such as writers and carpenters, get satisfaction from creating tangible, high quality finished work.

o Knowledge-motivated people, like scientists, are driven by discovering new things.

o Social-impact motivated people, like teachers and social workers, are driven by the difference they can create in the world and in individual people’s lives.

Each of these types need different kinds of incentives.

· I already worked as hard as I could as a teacher, because I knew I could help these kids cross the barrier to a high school diploma. If I’m already working at capacity, how is rewarding me financially going to have any impact on my work?

· Not every successful enterprise has to have a business model, and I don’t know why we keep insisting on forcing this model onto organizations unnaturally. The business model is good for businesses. The university model is good for universities. My Vice President in China, an Australian man, once said that industries have just as much to learn from non-profits.

· Financial incentives will help us retain quality teachers.

· Teachers leave more often because of poor working conditions, not because of finances. These working conditions are:

o Student Discipline. It takes a while to learn how to deal with challenging students. Parents and administrators often provide no support in this regard, failing to back up teachers’ decisions and stick to a behavior plan. There’s loads of professional development around notebooks, reading strategies, cross-cultural sensitivity, but very little around behavior management, the most fundamental skill.

o Lack of Resources. Please keep your performance bonus. Instead, give me a copy machine that works so I don’t argue with my co-workers, provide me with notebooks and dry erase markers that work, text books that are level appropriate, white boards that don’t fall on me during the lesson. There is so much unnecessary stress around material; providing resources is one lesson that schools can learn from the for-profit world. No one has to take up a collection for paper clips at companies.

o Poor Leadership. Micro-management, individual harassment, lack of recognition, not being treated as a professional – all the problems of a modern work place happen in schools, but they are felt so much more acutely by teachers, whose lives often revolve around their school.

· We must also make charter schools a truly viable option.

· Charter Schools are Laboratories – they aren’t solutions. Charter Schools were created for the scientist-teacher. They free schools from traditional rules so that they could experiment to see what works in education. Those individual lessons should be brought into mainstream schools. As with any experiment, they find things that don’t work, too, and we shouldn’t be replicated that.

· Three out of five charter schools do not outperform mainstream schools. Two of those three underperform. This is to be expected, since they are experimental schools. But they aren’t an alternative to mainstream schools.

· Charter Schools aren’t sustainable. They often have an influx of cash that isn’t part of the city budget, they have teachers who work an abundance of over time, and in some districts without lottery systems, they take the best students. These aren’t replicable.

· We can’t expect teachers to meet the needs of 25 to 30 students in a classroom.

· Class size matters – in the US. When Matt and I taught middle school on the weekends in China, we had 50 to 60 students in a classroom – but they were all perfectly behaved, actually did pair-and-share conversation activities with their partners, were eager to learn and on task. I certainly didn’t change as a teacher – clearly it is something that parents and schools are doing to instill a sense of personal responsibility for learning and behavioral norms. It takes a village to raise a child – and that village isn’t just teachers; it includes parents.

· We must use technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction.

· I agree. Project-based work is in the vogue, and standardized testing is the ugly step child of “authentic assessment.” Imagine, however, if, throughout the year instead of right before summer vacation like the MCAS, we could quickly determine how much students understand, and aggregate that data to impact our re-teaching. Standardized interim assessments let us do that efficiently, without demanding too much time on learning or teacher preparation time. This is the kind of work I’m doing with the Achievement Network.

Vacation All Year: Part 3 and 4

Two more tips on keeping your life like a vacation, even after you move back to the real world.

2. Celebrate During the Week
When my husband and I house sat for my in-laws mid-week, we took full advantage of their beautiful deck overlooking the ocean. Although it was a Monday night, we turned dinner into an event and invited all of our friends over. Because it was a week night, we knew many of our invitees wouldn’t be able to make it, but by keeping the hours flexible – people dropped in any time between five to nine – giving plenty of notice so people could schedule us in, and turning it into an event complete with Google and Facebook invites, we had a hugely successful dinner party. We kept the preparation low maintenance, too: sangria tossed together on a Sunday, a barley and chickpea salad with herbs and balsamic vinegar, pasta and marinara sauce, make-your-own grilled veggie skewers, veggie dogs and burgers to toss on the grill, supplemented by dishes that the guests brought, left guests’ tummies satisfied and the hosts free to chat. The best part was on Tuesday, I felt as refreshed as if it were Monday morning – as if I had cheated time out of an extra weekend.

3. Meet New People
One of my most memorable experiences in Asia took place in less than a day. On the overnight train to Batou, in Inner Mongolia, home of the sand dunes, my friend, my husband, and I found ourselves in different cars. As I usually did in China, I found a Chinese person and asked in my very poor Chinese, “What is this stop called?” and waited until I heard the name of my stop. A middle aged Chinese man, finding me funny, struck up a conversation with me – he with no English at all, and me with my 200 word vocabulary, mostly composed of food, colors, taxi directions, numbers – the kind of stuff you learn in first semester high school French. He ended up driving us all the way out to the sand dunes and including us on a family vacation with his son and a friend. As we rode on camels, flew over the dunes in sand cruisers, and slid down the down on the sand slide, I was amazed at the ways in which people from completely different cultures, with no language, find ways to connect with each other.

Us with our Foster Family For A Day in Inner Mongolia

Us with our Foster Family For A Day in Inner Mongolia

Think of your first year of college. Though it seemed to fly by, it also seemed incredibly packed with miniature memories, so that when you thought back on it, it seemed to have been two years. Think of all the different people you met every day. Somehow, the excitement about coming to know new people, puzzling how to related to them, lengthens our lives.

Nowadays, it seems that meeting people, especially if you are a busy young professional, is about going to “socials” at pubs with cash bars and free fried food, organized by Alumni Association X or Professional Society Z. The awkwardness of meeting people is still present, and there is little common ground except an abstract idea of “networking” – ie, let’s see what we need from each other. A business card swapping party. Other organizations, however, are starting to organize events around doing something. In Boston, the Young Non-profit Professionals Network organizes volunteer events like bike path clearing, as well as hikes, so that participants are able to make safe conversation around the joint experience of service or physical work and may even in fact find out more about each other that just their position and place of work.
Matt on the YNPN Hike
There are other ways of meeting new people – taking a graduate class that involves lots of discussion, starting a new job. One solution that takes less commitment is to reconnect with old colleagues and friends by inviting them to events. My husband and I invited both of our friends to our dinner part on our in-laws deck, along with my colleagues from both my current job and past jobs. I like to think that I’m helping to slow down time for them as they’re given the opportunity to meet new people. An organization I used to belong to holds an annual “Invite Someone No One Else Knows Party” that is always a huge success.

Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers; friends lay around every corner. Include new people in the activities of your traditional group of friends – you’ll find more about them and help them slow down their lives as well.

Keep the Vacation Rolling: Part 2 of 4

1. Change Your Scenery.
One of the reasons why vacation days seem to last forever is because they are filled with new experiences. Think how slow time moved as a child as every experience was new – your first day of school lasted forever, the first time you went to a pool seemed so long, and a sleep over at a new friend’s house seemed to stretch until time had no meaning. You observe more when things are new, so your brain slows down – kind of why detailed dreams seem to last forever, though they are really a matter of minutes.

Some people are experts at watching for vacation deals and are lucky enough to hop on a plane to change their scenery; I’ve never had a schedule flexible enough to take advantage of these tempting offers (though I do love to window shop). Luckily, there’s a way that you can change your scenery without hopping on a plane – in fact, without spending a nickel of money or an hour of vacation time.

My husband and I, because of our well-known love for cats and dogs and his affinity for plants, are often called upon to be house sitters. Just sleeping in another bed, showering in a different bathroom, and taking a different route to work makes me feel as if I’m staying in a bed and breakfast. Even chores are more fun and interesting. Grocery shopping, for example, has a new purpose because we’re planning on what to cook for the week, rather than just stocking our culinary coffers.
House Sitting Yard
In the summer, house sitting gigs abound. If you let it know that you like house sitting because you like taking care of pets and animals, friends, family, and co-workers will seize the opportunity. If you’re without vacationing friends and family (which I find hard to believe), you can also post on Craigslist and other forums.

Another way to fix a change in scenery without spending a vacation day is to use your weekends for camping or visiting friends and family with a place for you to stay – preferably someone with a pool, near the beach, or near a fun city! Two days in the wilderness or exploring a new town can feel like three or four days. Keep the preparation to a minimum – you do not need four kerosene burners – and if you’re looking to invite others, let them know well in advanced; weekends fill up quickly.

Or, you could just move!
Our New Apartment!
Watch out for Tip 2 in a couple of days!

Keeping the Working Honeymoon After Glow: Part 1

Two weeks after my husband and I were married, we flew out of Boston into a two year working honeymoon adventure. With my husband just out of law school, we realized that the only time for a round the world adventure would be now – before children, before a house, before a career he couldn’t afford to take a year off from. To finance our adventure, we took teaching jobs in China, complete with eight weeks of paid vacation and salaries that both covered our student loans and allowed us to live the high life – eating out every night, drinks every weekend, international travel trips – thanks to the low cost of living in Asia.

From Tai Xing

Before arriving in Shanghai, we detoured to Washington State, where we crashed on the floor of one of my husband’s law school buddies and hiked the national forests, kayaked in the bay, and toured Seattle.

From Seattle

Our Asian vacations took us to the Phillipines, to Thailand – twice – and all across China, from the rice paddies of Szechuan to desert dunes of Inner Mongolia, from the cosmopolitan Beijing to ancient Luoyang’s mammoth stone carved Buddhas.

Even the workweek in our hometown of Nanjing felt like a vacation. New experiences filled every second: new friends, new food, new languages, and new challenges as we learned the languages, the city, and the culture. A year in Boston felt like six months; a week in China felt like four.

After two years, however, we began missing our families and the comforts of home. Our baby niece and nephew grew taller in every picture. We also knew my husband would have to launch his career as a lawyer in the US soon, before we ended up settling in Asia for good.

Our first week back in the US before I began my new job seemed like a vacation: a beautiful blue sky welcomed us back, the summer weather of New England beckoned us to revisit our favorite hiking trails, and welcome home parties filled our schedule. I knew before long, however, that routines would start to take over, to bring us back to a life where days slipped through our fingers like sand.
Beautiful Blue Skies in Boston
How do you keep that vacation glow? How do you slow down life so that every moment is meaningful? And our biggest question, how do you manage that on a budget? American vacations are expensive, and our priorities had switched to investing in my husband’s law firm and saving for a house.

As we move into our fourth month back in the Western World, and summer vacations all around the country end, I’m eager to share the tricks I’ve learned to keep feeling like you’re on vacation all year long. Stay tuned in this four-part series!

Guest Blogger!

I was a guest blogger on a travel website, but you had to scroll all the way down to view my article, so I’m just going to print the article here. (I’m still learning about how to size the pictures, as you can tell!)Here’s the link to the article, Cheap Airfare Enjoy!

China – a mammoth of a country, an enigma to Western eyes with its chaotic energy, ancient
history, and intricate language. China is one of the few countries where a Westerner can still
experience the same awe and wonder as at Magellan’s first sight.

Where do you start if you’re looking to explore this behemoth of a nation? Travel books are
stuffed full with itineraries, but how can you possibly prioritize? Here’s what when to throw out
the travel book advice

Don’t Worry About Tourist Traps
Many travelers to China are keen to see the “real China.” With such a diverse country, there really is no such thing, and it bears remembering that Chinese tourists vastly out number Westerners – any where you go is the real China. My husband and I went to the “touristy” section of the Great Wall and had a blast feeding sun bears carrots after our sufficiently grueling hike over the world wonder. Our hotel booked us tickets to a beautiful, exciting Kung Fu Show, part acrobats, part Broadway musical, and we understood the legend more deeply because of the English translation. I’ll never forget my Willy Wonka-esque experience taking the “Tourist Light Seeing Tunnel” under the Pudong River in Shanghai. Embrace your inner tourist.
Shanghai Bund Light Sight-Seeing Tunnel
Don’t Be Afraid of Scams Around Every Corner
Asia is filled with “free tour taxis” who will drag you to pearl markets and silk “museums.” Don’t let this discourage you from engaging with some of the locals. One off-season farmer took us on a bicycle tour through the karst mountains and water buffalo farms of Yangshuo. In Datong, a taxi driver took us on a tour that included side trips to old parts of the Great Wall, small farming villages, and into the cave-home of an old man who grew marijuana outside his front door. Because of the language barrier, these part-time entrepreneurs offered us access to so much more of China.
Cave House, Datong
Don’t Ask Chinese People Where You Should Go
In contrast, don’t listen to locals’ advice on where to go, either for traveling or for eating. Most Chinese will answer with what they think Westerners will like. In their infinite hospitality, they will guide you to sub-par Western restaurants rather than the local dumpling shop. Go to see China, not a Westernized version, and embrace her frustrating, dirty, crazy side along with all the excitement she has to offer.
Yangshuo Water Buffalo

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Nanjing Cooking Club

We had the second meeting of the Nanjing Cooking Club this Sunday. Last meeting, we tackled dumplings. This meeting, we went for more Western Fair: pumpkin muffins and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies.

Both recipes have been (liberally) adapted from the Cooking Light website. Here’s the recipe for the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. It’s actually a million recipes in one, depending upon how careful you are with the measurements: too little or too much flour can take the cookie from thick and cake like to thin and crunchy – but always yummy!

For those without ovens, these can also be made in a toaster oven or with the microwave on the grill (convection) setting, but they must be small, the size of a silver dollar; otherwise, the edges will burn while the middles are gooey.

Laura’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Very sensitive to the amount of flour, and how you measure it – the cookies vary from thin and chewy to thick and cake-like. But always yummy.

Do not half. Doubling is ok.

• ½ cup granulated sugar
• ½ cup packed brown sugar
• ¼ cup creamy peanut butter
• 2 Tablespoons water
• 2 Tablespoons canola oil
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 large egg
• 1 1/3 cup flour (6 oz by weight)
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• ½ teaspoon baking soda
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 2 packages mini chocolate bars, chopped up into chips. About 2/3 cup.
1. Mix together sugars, peanut butter, water, oil, vanilla, and egg.
2. In separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt thoroughly.
3. Combine dry and wet ingredients. Stir just until combined.
4. Add chocolate chips.
5. Spoon 1 Tablespoon of batter for each cookie on tin foil or parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees F/ 177 degrees Celsius for 10-12 minutes, or until golden. Remove from hot pan by lifting tin foil off the baking surface and placing on table.

For those without measuring cups, 1 cup is equal to 16 Tablespoons and 1 Tablespoon is 3 teaspoons. In metric units, 1 cup is about 237 ml, and a teaspoon is about 5 ml.

Hope yours are as yummy as ours!