January 2nd, 2012

A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word but differs in meaning. Homophones may or may not differ in spelling (right/write, tire/tire). The above photograph is of a letter, sent to me by the Chicago Board of Education, confirming my resignation, and misspelling a homophone.

It’s hard for me to write these words: I am not a teacher anymore. I resigned from the Board and am now a coach of new teachers at turnaround schools. A turnaround is defined by Mass Insight as “a dramatic and comprehensive intervention in a low-performing school that: a) produces significant gains in achievement within two years; and b) readies the school for the longer process of transformation into a high-performance organization.” The stakes are high, and the teachers I coach are under a lot of scrutiny and pressure.

Transitioning from teacher to coach is like going from being a superhero to being the person who massages the superhero before she changes into her world-saving cape and leaps into the air. My bosses don’t see me as a masseuse; they believe that coaching is the lever to raise teacher and student performance. A lever amplifies an input force to provide a greater output force. So yes a lever can uplift you, but there’s force involved.

In 2010, results from a Tennessee experiment “Project Star,” showed that teachers are the largest determining factor of student achievement. This conclusion has become a panacea in the current national debate on school reform. Much like a homophone, this statement can crown or crucify a teacher depending on its context and how it is spelled out. The belief that teachers are highly influential could serve to improve the regard and increase the support of teachers. However, in today’s climate of accountability and measurement, it seems to be used more often as an weapon for teacher bashing. Teachers are blamed for the failing of our schools, and current school reform policy purports that the way to fix our schools is by fixing our inadequate teachers.

This is not to say that there aren’t incompetent, clock-punching teachers in our system. There certainly are. In fact, one of the reasons turnaround schools exist is because it is close to impossible to fire tenured teachers. The union supports its constituents regardless of the quality of their instruction.

My colleagues and I share a sense of urgency to close the achievement gap by training, coaching, and supporting teachers who work in schools that have been failing for decades. We don’t point to challenging factors as excuses. As a lever, I amplify a force that my teachers and their administrators already exert. But I’d like to pause from pushing for a moment, and point out five things that teacher-haters and policy makers sometimes overlook or forget:

Teachers have to do everything.
In most fields, there are separate positions for employees involved in design, implementation, and evaluation. Teachers have to do all three of these. When people unfamiliar with the work of a teacher express envy over a 3:00 dismissal, they are overlooking that the 8-3 portion of the day is only one-third of the teacher’s work. Most teachers I know come to school very early to prepare their materials and classrooms, and leave very late after assessing student work and restructuring lessons based on the assessment data. Most teachers I know spend at least half of their weekends planning lessons and doing paperwork, and a good deal of their evenings communicating with families. Most teachers I know spend a significant portion of their winter, spring, and summer “vacations” engaging in professional development or working on curriculum.

Teachers are working within a system that is outdated.
This RSA animate of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk makes a compelling case for a complete paradigm shift in education. Robinson explains how compulsory public education was established during the industrial revolution and based on a factory model. This model no longer serves today’s students, but rather causes their capacity for divergent thinking to deteriorate. He states: “This isn’t because teachers want it this way… it’s just because it happens that way… because it’s in the gene pool of education.”

The people who are telling us that students are failing are the same people who are getting paid to test our students.
Gene Lyons recently noted in his column that public schools are doing better than Michelle Rhee and other “reformers” want us to think. Just a few weeks ago, Kevin Drum interpreted the results of the NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment, a measure of academic progress in big-city school districts. He notes: “These urban kids have improved their math and reading performance by anywhere from half a grade level to a full grade level in just eight years. There are plenty of nits to pick with data like this, and I’ve picked some of them in the past. Still, why is it that progress like this so rarely gets reported? It’s fairly impressive, no?” This is not to say that the achievement gap has been closed or that our scores aren’t lagging behind those of other countries, but doesn’t it seem strange that all we hear about is the dismal state of American education? And doesn’t it seem strange that it’s all based on standardized tests scores, and that these tests are manufactured by the same companies that manufacture the test preparation materials and programs?

Teaching to the test is obligatory and not fun.
Most teachers I know want their students to be critical thinkers, productive members of society, and creative and happy individuals. Most teachers I know would like to teach holistically, to tap into their students’ passions, and inspire them to better our world. However, teachers are under such incredible pressure from their administrators (who are under pressure from district level administrators) to raise test scores, that their curriculum, management, and instruction begins to reflect those of standardized tests. When I first entered the field in 2000, project-based, experiential learning was in vogue. Now it is the norm for schools to hold mock tests, test-prep rallies, and completely restructure their curricula in service of the test. The myriad of tools to collect and analyze data can be helpful to target students’ individual needs and differentiate instruction, but it also begets more testing. We test to prepare for tests which are meant to be indicators of performance on other tests. And we teach our students that they come to school to learn how to take tests, and then to take them, and take them some more.

Teachers can not single-handedly combat all social ills.
They should try, and they do try. And many of them hold themselves so accountable that they are consumed by guilt. They can’t fall asleep at night, worrying about the children they can’t reach. One teacher thinks about the child whose father suckerpunched him in front of school security cameras, on whom she had to call DCFS. She thinks about her students with early onset diabetes, who can’t exercise outside because it’s not safe, and can’t exercise inside because it’s too small. She thinks about the parents who couldn’t come to the conference because they work three jobs. The parents who avoid school functions because they are illegal immigrants. She thinks about how she has thirty-two students reading at a range of of eight grade levels, about the mom who asks her child to read to her while she cooks versus the mom who is functionally illiterate. She doesn’t blame her students or their parents. She puts the onus back on herself. She asks herself, “What more can I do?”


As a coach, how can I make my teachers feel supported, not blamed? Wikipedia tells me: “The ideal lever does not dissipate or store energy, which means there is no friction in the hinge or bending in the beam. In this case, the power into the lever equals the power out, and the ratio of output to input force is given by the ratio of the distances from the fulcrum to the points of application of these forces. This is known as the law of the lever.

Jim Knight‘s article What Good Coaches Do, published this October in Educational Leadership, makes the case for coaches and teachers interacting equally as partners. He describes seven partnership principles: equality, choice, voice, reflection, praxis, and reciprocity. He stresses the importance of coaches enrolling teachers authentically in the coaching process, identifying goals, listening, asking questions. Coaches also explain practices and provide feedback; but in a partnership model, this involves a collaborative exploration of data.

I am particularly influenced by Knight’s explanation of dialogue in the coaching process. Based on Paolo Friere‘s description of dialogue as a “mutually humanizing” form of communication, Knight suggests entering into coaching dialogue with humility, temporarily withholding our opinion to hear others, and engaging in a radical honesty. “That is, rather than covering up the flaws in our argument or hiding our ignorance, in dialogue we display the gaps in our thinking for everyone to see. If we want to learn, we can’t hide behind a dishonest veneer of expertise”. The loud voices in the political debate on school reform should consider that advice. Sadly absent from the dialogue is the voice of our teachers.

The charge of my new experience is to listen to the voices of the teachers.


For those of you who are disappointed that this post was not a rant on the misuse of homophones, below are some favorite homophones from A-Y:

awful/offal, bald/balled/bawled, chic/sheik, discussed/disgust, eight/ate, fairy/ferry (not a problem in the northeast where we can actually pronounce the short e sound), guise/guys, heroin/heroine (feel free to debate this on the basis of its etymology), I’d/eyed, jinks/jinx, kernel/colonel, liable/libel, morning/mourning, not/knot, overseas/oversees, principle/principal, queue/cue, roomer/rumor, sects/sex (feel free to debate on this on the basis of pronunciation), taught/taut, use/ewes, vain/vane/vein, whacks/wax, you’re/your. There are no homophones that start with Z.


5 comments to “Homophones”

  1. Stephanie Tsakeris says:
    January 2nd, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Katie, I love this! It reminds me of our many after school chats. I appreciate your ability to describe the struggles that so many urban school teachers face. I’m excited to see what path this blog leads you to. A book, perhaps!?

  2. Thanks, Steph… maybe a documentary- hint hint!

  3. Briefly- it was brilliant, provocative, important and I laughed out loud at the ending. m

  4. As a mother of two, THANK YOU KATIE, i appreciate you!

  5. Katie, you are amazing for many, many reasons. Tonight as I read your blog- I am reminded of what a gift you embody in your writing. Reading your thoughts tonight, nine months after they were written, was timely for many, many reasons. I have been engaged in a book club where the text, I believe, views coaching as the process of asking of a series of pointed questions in order to have a teacher arrive quickly to a predetermined answer and outcome (always controlled by the coach..) To have coaching be seen as a tool of “efficiency” (while the wisdom that comes from time to process and the habits of mind developed over time hang on by a tiny thread..if at all.) What is the tipping point when that wonderful nugget, whether it be content or process, turns into the very dysfunctional system it was created to uproot?

    I appreciated your mention of when inquiry-based learning used to be the norm, and implications of the stark contrast today. Your words couldn’t be more relevant as I think of our city’s teachers and students heading back to the classroom- a day after this monumental strike. As a teacher, coach, activist, parent, friend- thank you for your work.

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