Teaching as team sport

A gues post by Robert Barkley

Yes, you read that title right. Traditional schools are structured and managed as if teachers were individual performers. Evidence and common sense say that's far from being the case.

Given the recent furor over the Chicago teacher strike and the accompanying union bashing that dominates the mainstream media, we'd do well to give thought to what can be learned from successful schools around the globe.

We talk much about American exceptionalism. A key element of that exceptionalism is our deep-seated belief in the merits of competition. So thoroughly have we adopted the notion that market forces inevitably lead to superior performance, we have great difficulty accepting the fact that schools that emphasize collegial relationships, encourage shared faculty planning, and make use of cooperative approaches to designing and implementing teaching and learning strategies, routinely outpace those that stress competition.

Most teachers know this intuitively, although too few articulate it well. Professional organizations, unions, school administrators, and schools of education are also familiar with the research and conclusions based on experience, but are no more successful than individual teachers at getting the message across. The narrow preoccupation with raising test scores at the expense of all else seems to have so rattled educators they can’t get their sensible messages out.

The need to work together is a major reason why private sector pressure to rate and pay teachers on the basis of test scores and other individual performance measures is a huge mistake. Predictably—given political reliance on corporate funding for campaigns—neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to listen to educators. Vouchers, choice, charters, merit pay, school closings and “turnarounds,” and other silver bullets being fired by politicians and rich entrepreneurs block dialogue that could be productive if they came to the issues open to the possibility that the hundreds of thousands who actually do the work might just possibly know something about how to do it best.

Corporate fascination with competitiveness notwithstanding, in teaching and learning, competitiveness is almost always counterproductive. It blocks a host of useful strategies for evaluating performance, gets in the way of freely sharing good ideas, and wastes the benefits of knowing one is part of a team, the work of which will inevitably be smarter than that of individual members.

It’s ironic that teamwork—an idea the merit of which is taken for granted on factory floors and playing fields, in neighborhoods and families, and just about everywhere else that humans try to be productive—is seen as counterproductive in classrooms. Within companies managers want employees to collaborate with colleagues. An accountant sitting next to a fellow accountant is required to work with that person. No one wants the two of them to compete, withhold trade secrets, and crush the other by the end of the day.

Finding scapegoats, fixing blame for poor performance on a percentage of teachers or on a few individuals, has an appealing simplicity about it, but it’s a lazy, simplistic, misguided approach to improving system performance. As management experts have been pointing out for decades, if a system isn’t performing, it almost always means there’s a system problem. Since teachers have almost no control over the systems of which they are a part, it’s necessary to make the most of a bad situation, and the easiest way to do that is to capitalize on their collective wisdom. If they’re being forced to compete against each other, there’s no such thing as collective wisdom.

For a generation, under the banner of standards and accountability, teachers have been criticized, scorned, denigrated, maligned, blamed. Accountability in education as indicated by standardized test scores is no more about individual teacher performance than accountability in health care as indicated by patient temperatures is about individual nurse performance.

I’m not making excuses for poor educator performance. Teachers should be held accountable for identifying, understanding, and applying practices that produce the highest level of student achievement. Administrators should be held accountable for creating an environment that encourages the identification, understanding and sharing of effective practices. Schools of education should be held accountable for whatever improves the institution.

But the new reformers aren't interested in improvement, just replacement. Management experts say, "Don't fix blame; fix the system." Just about everyone in the system would love to help do that if given the opportunity, but the opportunity hasn’t been offered, so nothing of consequence changes.

Case in point: The Chicago teachers’ strike. Rahm Emanuel, like the rest of the current “reformers,” came to the table having bought the conventional wisdom in Washington and state capitols that educators either don’t know what to do or aren’t willing to do it. He obviously went to Chicago with the same tired suspicion of teachers, the same belief that they’re the problem rather than the key to a real solution, the same confrontational, competitive stance.

Will we ever learn? Don’t hold your breath.

Robert Barkley, Jr., is retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association, a thirty-five year veteran of NEA and NEA affiliate staff work. He is the author of Quality in Education: A Primer for Collaborative Visionary Educational Leaders, Leadership In Education: A Handbook for School Superintendents and Teacher Union Presidents, and Lessons for a New Reality: Guidance for Superintendent/Teacher Organization Collaboration. He may be reached at

Education jargon: What ‘no excuses’ and other terms really mean

The Washington Post has a fun look at what some of the more recent jargon used by corporate education reformers actually means.

In many states teacher evaluations will now include the results of value-added assessments.

Meaning: Teachers will be judged in part by comparing students’ current test scores to those of the previous year. To what extent the teacher is responsible for the gains—or lack thereof—is debatable.

Our newly published reading program is research-based.

Meaning: Perhaps only one study supports the program’s methods, and that may be a study conducted by the author or publisher. Another possibility is that the program only superficially follows the methodology found effective by many studies.

We should be educating the whole child.

Meaning: The writer disapproves of current educational reforms that minimize social, moral, physical, and imaginative learning in favor of a sole focus on academic learning.

All schools in America should be showing high student achievement.

Meaning: Achievement means only improved test scores, which could be the result of intensive test preparation, student sub-group manipulation, or cheating. Moreover, achievement and learning are not synonymous.

The new Common Core Standards are more rigorous than state standards.

Meaning: The CCSS are more difficult than those of most states, but not necessarily more appropriate for the designated grade levels or more in line with college or workplace expectations.

We are a “ no excuses ” school!

Meaning: The school has a strict set of rules and practices for teachers and students. Those who cannot or will not comply are asked to leave. The system is impractical for large public schools where total conformity cannot be enforced.

A team of experts has reviewed the new standards and found them appropriate for children of this age.

Meaning: The experts selected were college professors, think tank members, and private sector consultants who may never have taught children or spent any time observing in classrooms. Very likely, no practicing teachers were considered “expert” enough to be included in the team.

We need to reform our failing schools .

Meaning: A school’s principal and teachers are to blame for students’ low test scores. They need to be removed or the school should be closed.

States should closely monitor and limit the proliferation of for-profit schools.

Meaning: You can’t trust schools run by businesses.

The Department of Education has given many states NCLB waivers.

Meaning: The DOE has allowed some states to substitute their own plans for school improvement for the requirements of NCLB, as long as those plans are just as demanding or even more so.

Crisis and recovery in Chardon

We were lucky enough to snag a copy of OEA's latest "Ohio Schools" magazine. Reading through it yesterday, we came to this incredibly powerful and moving piece on the Chardon shootings. Here it is.


On February 27, a 17-year-old student sat down at a cafeteria table at Chardon High School and pulled a gun from a bag. Then he stood up and began shooting. Minutes later, those at the 1,100-student school said they heard screams, as the first 911 calls were made, teachers locked down classrooms, and students started sending text messages to friends and parents.

Student Daniel Parmertor, 16, died of his wounds hours after the shooting. Student Russell King Jr., 17, died early February 28; and Demetrius Hewlin, 16, died later that day. Wounded students, Joy Rickers, 18, and Nick Walczak survived that attack.

The defendant in the shootings, T.J. Lane, a sophomore at Lake Academy, an alternative high school for at-risk students, was arrested after being chased out of the cafeteria by a teacher. He later confessed to authorities that he fired 10 rounds from a .22-caliber pistol and had chosen his victims at random.

Lane has been charged as a juvenile with three counts of aggravated murder, two counts of aggravated attempted murder and one count of felonious assault. His next scheduled court hearing is on April 3, when the judge will determine whether he should be tried as an adult. Under Ohio law, if the Geauga County Prosecutor can show probable cause that Lane committed the crimes he is charged with, the teen's case will move to adult court where Lane could be sentenced to life in prison without parole if convicted.


As the students, educators and residents of Chardon have struggled to understand the nation's deadliest shooting at a high school in six years, each has been part of the critical recovery effort that began on February 27 and will continue for a long time to come.

The response to the tragedy involved the collaborative and careful response of first responders, school administrators, the Chardon Education Association (Local President Tammy Segulin), Chardon Association of Classified Employees (Local President Ferd Wolfe) and Auburn Career & Technical Association (Local President Bob Hill), OEA Labor Relations Consultants (LRCs) Todd Jaeck and Kim Lane (Mentor office) and the OEA Crisis Response Team.

Immediately following the shootings on February 27, high school students were evacuated one room at time with assistance from law enforcement. Parents were notified to report to Maple Elementary School via ConnectEd and staff organized a sign- out procedure to reunite students with their parents. Parents of the injured students were privately notified.

Later that morning, Chardon High School staff met with the administration and law enforcement for updates on the injured and on the suspect.

On February 28, a District Response Team including building administrators, the district communications director, heads of law enforcement, mental health professionals, local clergy and local association representatives assembled to outline plans for the remainder of the school week.

Two days after the deadly shooting the district called faculty and staff together for updates from the administration and law enforcement and for grief counseling. On March 1, staff returned to the school buildings and parents and students were invited to return to the high school for a walk- through and to meet with counselors. On March 2, all schools reopened.

As the Chardon tragedy unfolded, 0EA's 16-member Crisis Response Team began its work with locals and made preparations to meet with staff when they returned to work. A group of OEA staff and one school counselor, the Crisis Response Team is trained to provide intervention services for education staff in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or violent incident that occurs while students are in school or that is otherwise related to a school or campus site.

Although school staff and students had practiced lockdown drills and evacuation procedures with local law enforcement during the past three years, they had hoped that these would remain drills. Local leaders like Chardon Education Association President Segulin explained that they had never practiced how to handle the aftermath of a real crisis.

On March 5, team members Kim Lane, Bill Pearsol, Cindy Petersen, Tom Williams, Lori Morgan and therapy dog, Bella—assisted teachers and education support professionals at Chardon High School and at the Auburn Career Center as they began the healing process. Key to their work was offering resources and emotional support to help restore a sense of safety and security within the schools and community.

"Many of the members were still in a state of disbelief and running on pure adrenaline," Lane said. "Individually, they shared their feelings of anger, grief and a sense of helplessness."

The following week, Crisis Response Team members Lane, Betty Elling, Suzanne Kaszar, Morgan and Bella continued to assist staff at both the high school and middle school as the reality of the incident was beginning to sink in.

"Many times a major crisis starts to emotionally break down a staff to the point where members leave the building or profession altogether," Segulin said. "Members of the Crisis Response Team were stationed in several of our buildings and were able to discuss personal matters as well as reassure members that being together is an important part of the staff's long term healing and cohesion. Students eventually graduate and move on, yet the school staff that remains must foster the positive growth and healing well after the tragedy."

Through the end of the school year, local law enforcement will be present at the high school and grief counselors and therapy dogs will be on site to assist students and staff. Substitute teachers will also be available for any teacher who needs time away from the classroom.

Segulin shared the gratitude of the locals for the help of the OEA Crisis Response Team, LRCs Jaeck and Lane, OEA Communications and Political Action Consultant Gary Carlile and the NEA for their assistance and resources. She said the NEA Crisis Guide, has proven especially beneficial and that the Chardon administrative team, communications director, mental health professionals and teachers have since incorporated its guidelines and ideas into their crisis plan.

"While there is no perfect model for handling a crisis," Segulin said, "the guidelines provide a meaningful and thoughtful approach to helping Chardon heal and memorialize our fallen and injured students."


For those who teach and work and learn in Chardon, an unspeakable tragedy has been met with an unprecedented outpouring of compassion and support from both neighboring and distant schools and communities and from the nation at large.

Messages have arrived daily from people around the world. Sympathy cards and words of encouragement line student lockers, signed banners stretch through the school and flowers and potted plants offer color and cheer. A red-and-black paper chain made by Chardon elementary school students extends down each hallway.

For staff, Segulin said, "We had no idea that simply being together was most important on our grief journey." They are grateful to fellow teachers and community agencies that provided breakfasts, lunches and goodies that allowed them to replenish their bodies, sit down with one another, listen and make plans for the future.

No one knew whether students would be strong enough to face their fears and return to the building. "That was dispelled three days later when the Class of 2012 and their parents led a school-wide march from the Chardon town square to the school as a symbol of solidarity," Segulin said.

Neighbors lined the streets, cheering as the students entered the building and cafeteria with tears streaming down their faces. Staff greeted them with applause and hugs. "Parents thanked us for keeping their children safe," Segulin said, "as we thanked the students for having the courage to come back."

Bringing Out the Me in Team

A great first person account of how high stakes test based evaluations destroys team work in schools

Test scores are the new epicenter for the war over education. On one side are politicians and reformers advocating test scores to evaluate teachers. On the other side are teachers and unions arguing for more comprehensive evaluations rather than relying on scores alone. In a society that values results, reformers are gaining the upper hand. In report after report, districts and states have adopted evaluations primarily based on student achievement on end of grade tests. The results, the reformers argue, will retain the best teachers while removing the bad ones. It is a system that has worked in the private sector and could revolutionize our schools.

Despite the mountain of evidence against using test scores in this way (a nice summary here), I have to admit, there seems to be a bit of logic to the argument. A talented teacher like my wife would be rewarded in a system like this, while lesser teachers would soon be removed. In theory, it seems reasonable. . . until I saw it in action.

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