Happy holidays to our readers and bloggers – we hope for a peaceful and joyful time for all of you.

Speaking of joyful, I had a wonderful day as a student in the Salem-Keizer School District earlier this month and want to share some highlights with you.  First of all, let me thank the students, teachers, instructional coaches, principals, and other colleagues in the school district who let me listen in, watch, and learn about a day as a learner in this impressive district. I was impressed by the commitment to learning that I saw at all levels.

I began in a kindergarten classroom at Washington Elementary School where we worked on letters and holiday stories.  The enthusiasm of these young learners was infectious – while they welcomed me into their circle, they were much more interested in what they were learning and I saw full engagement with a masterful teacher, Mrs. Ivins, who kept them learning while also making sure they were respecting each other and mastering their personal space!  Instructional coach Jessica Brenden helped me understand the intense team-based professional development that goes on at Washington and her role in helping the teachers monitor their impact and adjust their teaching to the learning styles of the children.  Principal Linda St. Pierre joined us right after PE class (which was a challenge for me) and I could actually feel her leadership presence in the few minutes I had with her – I also had a wonderful experience  in second grade, Mrs. Ediger-Collins’ class, being read to by a young lady who had her big and small words down pat!

My favorite part of the day took place at Houck Middle School.  Principal Sue Rieke-Smith took time out of her day to tour with me and share the different teaching approaches in the building – from a classroom of computer-based learning being led on that day by a student teacher to science and social studies classes, I pondered how engaged the students were and how difficult the content was (meaning I think I’ve forgotten a lot of what I once used to know from my K-12 studies…).  I also wonder how well I will be able to help my 2-year old daughter with her homework once she starts formal school….is there a refresher class for older parents with premature memory loss?

Lunch with the leadership students and National Junior Honor Society students was the highlight of the day – they told me school was pretty good but could be better if they had more time outside.  Homework seemed to be manageable to them, which was impressive because each of them seemed to be involved in multiple activities as well as school.  They confirmed what I usually hear from students – they like high expectations. Some thought expectations at Houck were right on target; others thought they could be higher.  My student host, Keyiah McClain, told me that she really liked school and enjoyed learning, all the while dancing because she is planning to attend Julliard!  Her own expectations of herself were infectious – and clearly nurtured and supported by the team around her at Houck.

Finally, I ended my day at McKay High School and saw how elementary and middle schoolers grow up to be independent thinkers and curious learners as they mature into their social world – this is a place on fire with lots of activities and energy.  Erik Jespersen, an Assistant Principal in his first year at McKay, toured me through science and English classes.  We saw a first-year teacher as well as some seasoned veterans – my take away was that life gets a lot more complicated when you get to high school and the distractions multiply, competing with the priority you need to have on learning.  It takes creative, strong teachers to help keep the focus on the work and the future. Fortunately, McKay seems to be filled with those top-notch educators!

Gathering input from students is becoming a more important part of evaluating teacher performance across the nation – earlier this month research results were released by the Gates Foundation on indicators around effective teaching.  Researchers found that teachers whose students described them as skillful at maintaining classroom order, at focusing their instruction and at helping their students learn from their mistakes are often the same teachers whose students learn the most in the course of a year, as measured by gains on standardized test scores. In the Gates research thousands of students filled out confidential questionnaires about the learning environment that their teachers create.  Classrooms where a majority of students said they agreed with the statement, “Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” tended to be led by teachers with high value-added scores.  The same was true for teachers whose students agreed with the statements, “In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes,” and “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in this class.” Bottom line – our children know effective teaching when they experience it.  We need to capture their input going forward.  Like so many things, if we focus on the kids rather than the system or the adults in the system, we will learn a great deal about what to do more of in the future.

I left Salem truly humbled by the power of the professionals I saw guiding Salem’s children.  I’m from a family of educators and I don’t think there is any harder or more important job in the world than supporting our young people down the path to their hopefully bright futures. I can tell that this is a district that puts a priority on making sure that each of its professionals has the support and depth they need to make that journey as fulfilling as possible for our children.  Thank you to superintendent Sandy Husk for her leadership, and to all the teachers, leaders and professional staff who make this district successful every day.

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