Schools are not steam shovels…. or businesses

I read an article for a course last week that compared schools and steam shovels. Steam shovels emerged as a disruption to the pulley shovel system that used to be used in construction. The authors felt that those shovels were a good historical data point to use when talking about how online learning might disrupt education in the Unite States. To add insult to injury, the authors moved on to comparing schools to steam engines, personal computers, and electric cars. On the face of it the entire thing seems ridiculous but, unfortunately, it isn’t.

We have stopped seeing schools as Horace Mann’s great equalizers or the places where, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “tender minds [are imbued] with Principles of Rectitude and Morality” and instead have started seeing them as businesses. We demand annual accountability reports in the form of testing that resemble share holder reports. We turn to business leaders to “improve” our schools from Betsy DeVos as the Department of Education to all of the superintendents emerging from the Broad Center Academies. We demand transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility from schools just like we do from businesses. We try to apply lessons from Fortune 500 companies to the classroom. Is it any wonder that authors have started feeling comfortable equating schools and shovels?

The problem is that schools are not businesses. Businesses turn out widgets. Schools turn out the future of our world. The stakes aren’t exactly the same. Businesses can refuse to serve customers. Schools can’t. Businesses make decisions based on the bottom line. Schools make decisions based on a complex web of needs and priorities that include figuring out what type of world we want to live in. Businesses can change course midstream. Schools can’t—have you seen the chaos that comes when teachers are switched out mid-year due to layoffs or school numbers? Can you imagine what would happen if you changed curriculum mid-year? The school calendar with only a few months notice? Businesses are responsible to only a few stakeholders—their customers, shareholders, and employees. Schools are responsible to everyone—and everyone has an opinion and a right to have that opinion heard.

I could keep going but the bottom line is that schools are not businesses. What works for a business is probably not going to work for a school. What is true for a business is probably not true for a school. Yes, both have people and organizational structure and finite resources. But that doesn’t make them the same. Approaching schools like they are a corporation is a recipe for disaster.

And yet, in the age of Trump and DeVos, the voice of dissenters is getting weaker. The voices of those who think that schools and steam shovels belong in the same sentence are getting louder.

I don’t know how we change that—how we elevate our dissenting voices—but I know that we need to try.

Here is the article if you are interested:

Christensen, C., Horn, M.B. & Staker, H. (2013).  Is K- 12 blended learning disruptive?    An       introduction to the  theory of hybrids. Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

The Bleaching of the Teaching Force

I wrote this last fall, but it feels more relevant than ever in light of  current events.

Before this year I don’t think I had ever thought through any negative consequences to Brown vs the Board of Education. It just seemed so clear cut in my head—school segregation was bad and the end of segregation was good.

I never thought about what happened to the staff from the schools. But now I keep running across references to these negative side effects and have to wonder why I never thought about them before.

I mean I knew that there were Black teachers and principals and coaches and such in the segregated schools. I just never thought about what happened to their jobs when the schools integrated. I never thought through the idea that integration often meant the closing of the Black schools and the loss of jobs within communities. Over 38,000 Black teachers and administrators lost their jobs. That means that almost half of Black teachers and administrators lost their jobs in the 1960s. In the 1970s, the number of Black public school teachers in Mississippi fell by 9% while the number of white teachers rose 12% (Anderson, 2014). As Anderson says in her article on the disappearance of black teachers, “White administrators weeded them out as “poorly qualified” – even with impeccable credentials – and moved to rid their districts of Black teachers who supported the civil rights movement.”

Schools might have been integrated by the court decision but the teaching ranks certainly weren’t—and still aren’t. As of 2008 the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the teaching force is 83% white and only 6.7% black. I have been reading articles for years about the Whiteness of the teaching population and how that is problem in a diverse society, yet I never connected it back to desegregation. How much of the current shortage of black teachers is directly related to the massive lay offs of black teachers in the 1960s? My guess is a lot.

If we want a more diverse teaching force, we need to start reading history more critically. Racism didn’t end with Brown vs the Board of Education—and it was racism that pushed those black teachers out of the teaching force.

Anderson, M. (2014). Sixty years after Brown vs the Board of Education black teachers are disappearing—again. Ebony News. Retrieved from:

National Center for Education Statistics (2008). Characteristics of public, private, and bureau of Indian education elementary and secondary school teachers in the United States: Results from the 2007-2008 schools and staffing survey. Retrieved from:

Take a creative pause…


Have you hit the end of school year blues yet? That moment where teachers feel like they have run out of inspiration and students have started the summer count down? That moment where graduate students realize that there is not enough caffeine in the world to get them through those last few weeks? This is panic time and, as a first year graduate student, I am staring at a pile of projects and a list of assignments and I feel fresh out of ideas. My creativity is gone and dead, buried under a pile of work a foot high and a mile wide.

For those of you in my boat, who need that creative boost and inspiration to get through the last little bit of the year, I have good news. There is actually a creativity strategy called a “creative pause.” Just think of how wonderful that word sounds right now– pause. Pause implies peace, quiet, a moment of rest and, frankly, right now that sounds almost as good as a massage. Notice that I said almost there. I am not that crazy (yet).

The brainchild of Dr.Edward de Bono, a creative pause is that moment where, mid-project or idea, you just slow down and let the idea sink in. This isn’t a desperate, scrambling for an idea activity, but just a pause of thirty seconds or more to let an idea sit in your head. Maybe another solution will slip into your brain, maybe a way to improve your idea, or maybe you will just have that second of calm in the middle of your day.

Like mindfulness, a creative pause is not a quest for the next great innovation but a chance to rest and restore. How often have you suddenly hit on the solution to a problem in the shower? A new idea in your sleep? A new way of seeing something while you are out for a walk? And how many great ideas and solutions come while you are desperately staring at your computer, hyped on caffeine and anxiety? If you are like me, than the truly great ideas are the ones that come when you are away from the computer and the truly desperate, bottom of the barrel ones, are the ones that come in the anxiety and caffeine fueled haze of the computer death stare.

Starko (2010) has described a creative pause as “an opportunity for focus and change” (p.141) while Cameron Moll (2008)  writes “that deliberate interruptions, whether short or an unknown period of time, maybe helpful to problem solving.” And even if that small, creative pause doesn’t give you your next great idea maybe this will happen to you: “With no goals to meet or specific desires to fulfill, a creative pause is a simple addition to a busy day that can completely shift your outlook and mood.” (Pfannkuch, 2014).

So as the end of the year heats up and stress builds up, remember to, every now and then, take a creative pause. Give yourself permission to walk away from the problem and to just let the ideas sit while you do something else. And, just maybe with a little luck, maybe a great idea or a new way to solve a problem will come to you.



Moll, C. (November, 2008). Why thinking in the shower may be an ideal model for “creative pause.” Retrieved from

Pfannkuch, K. (June, 2014). Blending a creative pause into your lifestyle. Retrieved from

Starko, A. (2010). Creativity in the Classroom: School of Curious Delight, 4th ed. New York, NY: Routledge.  


How do you get better without feedback?


Burnout in special education part 5

I have never met a perfect teacher. If you have then I am really, really impressed and would love to meet this person. We all have areas where we excel and areas where we need to improve. The problem is that it is really hard to improve without feedback.

In some ways special education teachers get feedback every day. They might have kids who lose it if the lesson is awful, assistants who roll their eyes when the teacher says something really dumb, and parents who get angry in meetings when the teacher messes up. They also might have moments where they see lightbulbs turn on for kids, assistants tell them that was a great lesson, and parents who thank them and are appreciative.

While all of those things are feedback, they are general feedback and have never been the best way to help me make specific changes in my teaching practice. What I needed was more specific feedback—feedback like that lesson probably wouldn’t have fallen apart if you scaffolded that activity more, maybe next time you could try….Or feedback like, next time in the meeting try starting with the strengths—the parents seemed kind of overwhelmed by all of their kid’s challenges and it might have gone better if they also felt like they were hearing their strengths. That type of feedback is what really helped me grow but it was far, far too rare.

Administrators might give some feedback but it is rarely specific and formative enough to make a difference. Most administrators don’t really know special education and it is hard for them to know what to look for. In addition, most are busy enough that classroom observations are rare. While there are ways to solve that problem (train principals more in special education and spread out their other responsibilities so they can observe more) I still prefer getting feedback from my peers. There are things my peers will notice that other people would miss—the type of nitty gritty observations that can boost my practice.

You might walk in and watch my guided reading lesson for five minutes and immediately think, “Wow, I love they way she got their attention but man those questions really aren’t going to increase the depth of the kids thinking.” The problem is we don’t have mechanisms or norms set up for you to pass those insights along to me. You might have a super simple suggestion that could make me a much better teacher but if you never visit my classroom while I am teaching or never get the chance to actually talk to me about my teaching, I will miss out.

Teachers generally don’t visit each others classrooms. They are too busy teaching. That makes feedback a lot harder. Most teachers I know are sponges—if they walk into someone else’s room they immediately see three or four things they want to take back and try and at least that many that are uh-ohs. Teachers need a chance to observe each other and to share with each other what the notice that is working and what needs to improve. They also need norms that make it okay to share both the bad and the good. I went into a teacher’s classroom every who desperately, really really desperately, needed organization. I couldn’t talk with her about it though because that wasn’t our norm. We don’t have norms of commenting on each other’s teaching nor time to watch each other teach and that makes it harder for all us to grow as educators.


How are you supposed to teach without materials?


Burnout in special education part 4

One of the biggest issues that I faced as a special education teacher was lack of materials. I started out working with upper elementary students with behavior problems. Then all of the sudden  I was working with lower elementary students with learning disabilities. I had nothing to use to teach them. I had no programs, no books, and no idea of what I was supposed to do. I went door to door to every kindergarten class at my school begging for workbooks, suggestions, and whatever they could spare.

I wish my experience was unique but I have heard it echoed time and time again when I have spoken with colleagues. I have visited classrooms where the teachers teach with worksheets because that is what they have. We talk about using research based materials in the special education classrooms but who exactly is buying and providing these materials? At least in my school district my principal was supposed to provide me with materials and she often didn’t have thousands to spare on the expensive, research based materials that I needed.

At some schools special education teachers aren’t even given general education curriculum materials, leaving them with nothing. If a school district has purchased enough materials for classroom teachers then special education teachers who don’t take attendance in the morning will be left out.

You could argue that a good special education teacher will create their own materials but that argument is based on absolute ignorance of everything else a teacher has to do—and ignorance of the sheer complexity of all of the disabilities that a teacher has to deal with. No one can create unique materials for every disability and group they might see AND do assessments AND run IEPs AND meet with parents AND meet with teachers AND teach AND work with aides AND give kids the individual attention they need AND problem solve all of the odd things that happen every day AND work with assistants AND ever, ever sleep. That long list of ANDs is a huge reason why special education teachers burn out.

It just seems so simple really—give special education teachers access to the materials they need to do their job well. Give them access to research based interventions, to text books and curriculums, and to all of the other teaching material that they need to actually do their job. If we stopped making the teachers reinvent the wheel every year maybe they would stop quitting special education.

What actually is a special education teacher’s job?


Burnout in special education part 3

In the research that they did on special education teacher burnout, Brunsting and Sreckovic (2014) found that role ambiguity and role conflict were significant factors in explaining the burnout. If you talk to anyone who worked in special education they will most likely say, “Duhh.”

I mean who has taught special education and NOT been confused about exactly what they were supposed to be doing. If you worked in a resource role, you probably had to figure out things like if you were in charge of differentiated homework or making modified versions of all assignments for every classroom. If you worked in a self-contained classroom, you probably had to figure out how much time you were supposed to put into creating amazing lessons and how much time you were supposed to put into your case management. If you worked in a co-taught environment, you probably had to figure out what exactly made your role different than that of an instructional aide. Regardless of your role you probably had to figure out how much parent contact really was your job, how much materials you were supposed to create for assistants, and if you were even anybody’s supervisor anyhow.

My point is that I don’t know anyone who started in special education with a clear job description that actually listed, in any concrete way, their responsibilities. What your responsibilities are seem to change enormously from school site to school site and most people, and principals, often seem to just make it up on the fly.

How are you supposed to do your job well when no one, not your boss nor your co-workers, actually knows what your job exactly is? I have met special education teachers who did response to intervention and thought that was their job while I have met others who thought they weren’t supposed to even go near it. I have met new teachers who were told that their job included covering class and older teachers who would never have done it.

At least general education comes with a playbook—you fundamentally are responsible for the kids you teach and their scores on state tests. There is some ambiguity for sure but nothing like special education where everything from the amount of time you spend testing and case managing to the amount of time you spend working with kids seems variable.

One of the simplest ways, in my mind, to reducing special education teacher burnout is to start writing clear job descriptions so people actually know what they are supposed to be doing and what really isn’t actually a part of their job.


Brunsting, N. and Sreckovia, M. (2014). Special education teacher burnout: A synthesis of research from 1979 to 2013. Education and Treatment of Children, 37(4), 681-712.


What does success mean in special education?


Blog Series on Special Education Teacher Burnout Part 2

A problem that I had in teaching special education was knowing what success looked like. Standardized test scores didn’t give me information about my kids. I did my own assessments but they only told me where a kid was—not whether she had made enough growth. The challenge is that every kid with a disability is unique. One kids might just have a little bit of difficulty with short term memory while another kid has major difficulties with short term memory, long term memory, and processing auditory information.  It is going to be a lot easier for the first kid to catch up to grade level than for the second kid—the second kid has a few more hurdles to jump to get there. So how was I supposed to know if a kid had made enough growth? How was I supposed to know if I was pushing that kid enough?

People will tell you that the child needs to meet her IEP goals for the year. But those goals are written by us, by teachers and parents, and how do we know how high to set the bar? Kids don’t learn the same and there is a fine line between not pushing a kid far enough and pushing them to the point of frustration. My friend has a son with Down syndrome. He had three years of teachers who told her that he would learn in his own time, when he was ready. The fourth year he had a teacher who told her that her son was going to learn it now, on the teacher’s timeline. Her son learned more that one year than in the previous three years combined.

We know we need to set the bar high but in practice it is really challenging to know how high to set it. One of the oddest things about visiting different special education classrooms is seeing how differently the bars are set. In one room the teacher has every student working on life skills while in another every student is working on reading—and the disabilities seem the same between the two rooms. We don’t have clear guidelines on where to set the bar and that causes a lot of confusion for teachers and frustration for families.

More broadly, we don’t have good vision of what success means in the long run. Some people talk about gaining independence while others talk about making people college and career ready while others discuss improving outcomes. Are we aiming to get our kids into college? To get them living on their own? To get them to be successful socially? Obviously the answer is going to vary based on the individual children but we need more discussions about our broad vision for our students. If we want better outcomes for our students and less frustration for teachers, we need to start talking about what we are aiming for and then work backwards to what we need to be doing right now in the classroom.

Burn out in special education teachers


I wish I could say that everyone who enters special education stays but the fact is most people leave. They either go to general education, go to administration, or leave teaching entirely. The truth is that special education teachers have higher rates of burnout than other teachers.

I also wish I could say that the findings on special education teacher burnout surprised me but they don’t—they make all too much sense. This is going to be the first of a short series of blog posts on factors causing burn out—and some things I think we could do about it. Students with special needs deserve passionate, committed, competent teachers who are happy to be there working with them. They don’t deserve overworked, frustrated teachers who too often burn out or check out before they get the chance to really figure out how to do the job.

So let’s start figuring out how to reduce burnout and improve the teaching experience for special education teachers and their students.

Here are some of the topics I will be hitting in the blogs:

Vision: What is success in special education? What are we aiming for?

Job description: Do teachers or principals even know what their actual job duties and responsibilities are?

Resources: What materials do teachers need to be successful?

Feedback: How do teachers find out what they need to work on and what they are doing well on?

Rewards: What reinforcement do teachers get for being fantastic?

By the way, these issues come straight out of a needs assessment I did for a performance improvement class. The frameworks for performance improvement are pretty fantastic so I will be using them a lot in this blog! There are obviously a lot of other issues in causing burn out including stress, lack of support, and amount of work— which I will hit on later but the issues above are going to be where we start.

New descriptive writing handout is up!

I finally got around to uploading the updated, much less ugly, version of my descriptive writing handout to Teachers Pay Teachers. Its free and if you haven’t downloaded it yet, check it out. I promise the new version is much nicer looking 🙂

All moved!

I am excited to put up some of my new content and get back to work! I quit my job as a special education teacher last month so I could go back to school for my doctorate in education. The last few months have been hectic but I have some great new material coming– including some handouts for parents on easy things to do at home to increase reading comprehension and math problem solving.

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