Ecological Advice for New Teachers

By HitroMilanese (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s some nice ecologically minded advice for first year teachers from middle school teacher Jennifer Gonzalez. She takes the idea of ecological guilds and applies them to two possible archetypes that might be encountered by new teachers: marigolds (allies) and walnuts (toxic):

Marigolds exist in our schools as well – encouraging, supporting and nurturing growing teachers on their way to maturity. If you can find at least one marigold in your school and stay close to them, you will grow. Find more than one and you will positively thrive. …

While seeking out your marigolds, you’ll need to take note of the walnut trees. Successful gardeners avoid planting vegetables anywhere near walnut trees, which give off a toxic substance that can inhibit growth, wilt, and ultimately kill nearby vegetable plants. And sadly, if your school is like most, walnut trees will be abundant. They may not seem dangerous at first. In fact, some may appear to be good teachers – happy, social, well-organized. But here are some signs that you should keep your distance: Their take on the kids is negative. Their take on the administration is negative. Being around them makes you feel insecure, discouraged, overwhelmed, or embarrassed.

Sound advice. Forming a guild and finding your positive niche within a school is fundamental to your professional growth and sustainability.

During my first year teaching, I remember asking my Fellows advisor—a 35 year veteran teacher in the South Bronx—what it was that kept her going in those first challenging years as a new teacher. She spoke about a group of colleagues that she could cry with, eat lunch with, and share resources with. She maintains contact with most of those colleagues to this day.

You’ll most likely find this is a common theme. Teaching, especially in high needs schools in communities facing great challenges, is an incredibly difficult profession, and there is little beyond experience that can prepare you for it (and hence why apprenticeship is such an important model). It can be spiritually, emotionally, and cognitively demanding in a minute-by-minute manner.

Isolation can be a damaging reality of many public schools. Forming positive professional social networks is a critical key to thriving.

If you are a new teacher gaining your foal footing, make sure to form your guild!


Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers.” Cult of Pedagogy. N.p., 29 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Aug. 2015. <;.

More on Guilds

Human Guilds: Cultivating Inclusion and Adaptivity

Guilds and Diversity in Schools & Ecosystems

The Mirage of a Mirage: On the New TNTP Report on PD


Today I went down to DC* for TNTP’s release of their Mirage report on the (non)impact of professional development on teacher effectiveness. TNTP presented an overview of the findings, then journalist Amanda Ripley facilitated an interesting panel with USED’s John King, teacher Jennifer Corroy Parras, DC’s Kaya Henderson, and AIR researcher Dr. Michael Garet.

The big story is that teacher PD is 1) enormously expensive, yet 2) there’s no silver bullet. In other words, teaching is complex (glad ed reform world is beginning to acknowledge this), so we still are very far from knowing what improves teacher practice at scale, yet we’re investing a lot of time, energy, and money in it willy nilly.

There are a lot of aspects to explore, and the panel touched on a number of them. Ripley provided some nice framing of the systemic issues, such as that most PD (and US system of ed at large) is disjointed and incoherent, and that there is a general lack of clarity around what effective teaching looks like, accompanied by high expectations. She noted that this lack of clarity and high expectations for teachers parallels student experiences in our educational system, with both teachers and students leveling off in performance after an initial 5 years.

Both John King and Kaya Henderson pointed out that an oft missing link in PD is a focus on curriculum, a point on which I strongly concur. Curriculum provides the frame, the backbone, the structure that daily guides student and teacher experiences in the classroom. Without that structure and purpose, we are left with the incoherent gloop that Ripley first referred to.

TNTP’s report is incredibly insightful and useful–if enervating–material. I feel like it’s also important to define the kind of PD which the report mainly seems to abide by. I’ll admit that I haven’t yet dived too deep into the report, but from an initial scan of the survey questions and findings, I obtained the distinct impression that they mostly mean “PD” as in a specific dosage or frequency of a prescribed intervention that results in a change in an individual’s teacher practice within the classroom (and which should then ideally translate into improved student outcomes).

When I think of PD, I think of teachers sitting together around a table and collaborating to design common assessments, curriculum, resources, and examining student work and data. This was a component of TNTP’s teacher survey (noted as informal & formal collaboration, and peer time), but the report notes that an equal amount of such time was dedicated to this in both “improvers” and “non-improvers.” But I think there’s one key aspect of such collaborative time that we need to delineate, and which I believe could distinguish between those two populations: how teacher collaboration and planning time connects to a school-wide system.

Let me give some specific examples of what I mean to make this tangible:

  • A bi-weekly 8th grade-level team meeting working to horizontally (within the grade) align curriculum and assessments and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills
  • A weekly ELA department team meeting working to vertically align curriculum and assessments (and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills)
  • A PBIS system of agreed upon (developed both school-wide and via grade-level teams) infractions, consequences, and rewards
  • An established vision for utilizing advisory time to provide social-psychological interventions, accompanied by planning time to design these interventions, and time to analyze and assess their impact

You could go into both an effective and ineffective school and witness such use of collaborative time–but the key is how that teacher collaboration ties into a coherent, school-wide system.**

Admittedly, though, this all goes back to the great complexity not only of teaching, but of working in a school. There are so many variables behind what goes into anything remotely approximating either “PD” or “teacher practice” that it is difficult to define what we’re looking for, and even more difficult to do well consistently and to replicate and scale across different contexts.

I came back to NYC with three takeaways that best summarize my thoughts from the TNTP report . We would do well to consider the following in education reform:

  1. Coherency (in curriculum & assessment, first and foremost)
  2. Clarity (in expectations, feedback, and roles for teachers and students)
  3. Hard work (and more hard work)

*Thanks to Educators 4 Excellence for this opportunity

**I think this is what may have contributed to the differences between the charter and district schools in this study. The charter network was more effective in supporting their teachers effectiveness and growth over time. Charter schools often have much tighter and coherent school-wide structures and systems tied to assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

Professional Dialogue and Continuous Improvement

I read the latest issue of American Educator yesterday, and I noticed that some of the takeaways from an article by Claude Goldenberg on how to best serve English Learners stressed the creation of school conditions that echo a few of the points I made in my last post on data:

We must create settings in schools where teachers have the time and space to:

Systematically study with colleagues the CCSS or whatever standards or learning goals teachers are expected to follow; 

• Specify and articulate what these standards and goals mean for curriculum and instruction in their classrooms;

• Implement curriculum, and plan and carry out instruction, based on these understandings;

Systematically collect student work indicating student progress toward desired outcomes;

Analyze and evaluate student work with colleagues to help determine what is working and what is not; and

• Repeat the above continuously and systematically, throughout and across school years. (bold added)

Professional dialogue. Study authentic student work. Continuous improvement in practice and curriculum.

More on Teacher Data Reports

With the ongoing controversy that’s occurring right now in NY due to the public release of teacher data reports (good on GothamSchools, by the way, for staying true to their professional values and refusing to publish these deeply flawed reports), I’d like to forward a couple of articles I wrote a while ago about this very matter.

Here is my post for Education Nation in September, in which I delineate an important distinction of teacher accountability that is almost always ignored:

It is . . .  imperative that when we talk about accountability we specify whether we are discussing professional accountability to the ethical and technical standards of the teaching profession, or to public accountability as public employees. If we are referring to the first, then we can talk about individual teachers. If we are referring to the latter, then we should refer up the chain of command. [Emphasis added]

Here is an op/ed I wrote for Times Union in January, in which I point out that the implementation of teacher evaluations in NY State has been fumbled by Albany because they failed to take into greater consideration classroom-based perspectives:

. . . the process of evaluating teachers must be tied directly and explicitly to the establishment of a professional learning community within each school and district. 
A professional learning community is designed to engage teachers and administrators in continuous dialogue, feedback and support in order to improve teacher performance and, consequently, student learning. Without that, any evaluation process will inevitably devolve into checklists (no matter how advanced the instrument), ‘gotcha’ feedback, and more meaningless paperwork that has no impact on learning. . .
 Policymakers are far removed from the realities and challenges of the classroom. They understandably place great emphasis on measures that are easily definable and quantifiable. But teachers know that ground-level implementation of any policy measure must take into consideration the context of a school and community in order to be implemented with fidelity. [Emphasis added]

For more on the recommendations that I and other teachers made with The VIVA Project last January, you can view our report on The VIVA Project website.