Dr. Ellen Bernstein is the President of the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers. In this interview, she discusses the importance of teacher input in the planning process for the Common Core, as well as the need for sufficient time to prepare for the new standards.
This whole project is about the Common Core State Standards and how to adapt those standards and ensure that English language learners have access to the same standards that the general population is expected to have access to. So what kind of teaching strategies, what kind of lesson plans, how do you start from the standard, and then be, make sure that you adapt lesson plans and have other strategies and materials so that English language learners have access.
So it ended up being a partnership between WETA, the public TV station; and Albuquerque Teachers Federation with support from the AFT Innovation Grant and it's been wonderful. We sent out applications to the teachers in Albuquerque and said, "If you have expertise in teaching English language learners and you're in first, fourth or eighth grade, please apply."
At that point in time most of the teachers in Albuquerque hadn't even ever heard of the Common Core State Standards, you know, the whole initiative was so new. And we ended up attracting just an amazing cadre of teachers working together to create what I think are exemplary materials for other teachers in the nation.
Professional development and ATF
One of the things that we've been building for years in our union is the idea that unionism and professionalism are one in the same; that we always focus on the practical needs of the people we represent, things like their working conditions and their salaries. Those are important and we will never ignore them, but in addition one of the things that is equally as important are the professional needs and the support for the kind of intellectual engagement in the work of teaching that every teacher craves.
So over the past decade or more we've been developing and adding on to this great infrastructure that is a whole part of our union where we employ teachers to teach other teachers about a variety of things, cutting-edge research in the field. We support them to get their national board certification. We focus on many different things and it's all teacher designed and teacher led and then we attract other teachers to come and learn with us.
Since we already had this professional development infrastructure in place, it was an easy fit to add on the Common Core and the focus on English language learners. So we just developed another part of a program that we're very used to working with.
I'm interested in this for a couple of reasons. One, because paramount is teacher expertise and teacher voice in anything that is expected to make a change in public education. It is only from the teacher's perspective that the changes will make a positive difference and be able to be used by other teachers.
So my first interest as a union president when this opportunity came our way was to ensure that teachers' voices are first and foremost in this reform effort. There are a lot of companies out there that are going to sell materials to districts and to teachers that don't involve teachers. So I know I'm tired and I think everybody I represent is tired of things being done to teachers rather than coming from teachers and our expertise.
And then of course in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there are a lot of teachers in this district that have expertise both in teaching English language learners and also in bilingual education. So I knew based on our history as a district and the way that we've been teaching here for a very long time that there were a lot of people with expertise in all of those areas.
Teacher ownership of Common Core State Standards
One of the reasons I personally am excited about the Common Core is because of the way they're written. For decades I've been listening to experts in education from this country and other countries talk about how in American education we have this tradition of teaching very thin but very broadly so every single grade level we're repeating and repeating and repeating. And especially in the last decade we've relied just on facts and skills and we haven't tried to build in our students the kind of understanding that is necessary to apply knowledge later in multiple situations.
So the Common Core is written with the idea that we're no longer going to go thin and wide, we're going to go deep and we're going to go deep with very few concepts. We're going to use facts and skills to support the conceptual understanding so they no longer become the means and the end but they really support student understanding. Now, if we can make that transition in American education, that is exciting to me.
And the only way that that's going to be successful is if teachers own this. Textbook companies can't own this. Politicians cannot own this. We cannot be public policied into teaching the right way. Teachers have to own this. So essential in that, I have decided, is union ownership and teacher engagement of the possibility of the Common Core to go beyond what the assumptions are.
I think every single district, every single union president has to understand that this is going to be really chaotic and messy; that we're shifting, if we do it right, we're shifting everything about norms in public education and it's going to be a benefit to every single future kid, every student we ever teach. But if we expect every, if we expect teachers to teach to high stakes tests and implement these standards well and shift the way they teach to be deep and take time for understanding, then it will be a failure because those are competing agendas.
We have to let teachers own this and the systems have to put up with the transition and the chaos and stop putting high stakes on these current tests and pressure on teachers to do it all perfectly right away.
One of the great things about this partnership is that in addition to the expertise of the teachers, we have brought in the expertise of Diane August, who has such a deep background and broad knowledge in English language learners and the Common Core. So bringing together her expertise along with the expertise of the teachers ensures that what we're producing for WETA is that wonderful mix of research and practice coming together that's essential for all classroom teaching.
Challenges of Common Core
One of the things that surprised me about this project is how much I've learned about how teachers have been asked to think about their practice in the last 10 years, 12 years since No Child Left Behind. I found out how fortunate I was to transition from my elementary classroom into the role of union president before No Child Left Behind where I had a lot of efficacy.
I had an incredible amount of autonomy and creativity that I was able to apply to my practice. When we started working with the Common Core Standards and we started struggling with, "What does it mean when you start with the standard and not the program that you've been told to teach with?" You start planning with a standard and you use multiple resources to support the learning activities that are focused on a standard.
I found that the teachers for the most part, that were so carefully selected for their insights and their creativity and their expertise, were in a box. The system that they had been working in, even the ones, you know, whether they'd been teaching 3 years or 33 years, they saw these ways of teaching that really they had to unlearn.
We had to start deconstructing that box of fidelity to a program, covering the curriculum. And we had to revisit something that I was so fortunate to learn when I was teaching and that is standards-based education is not standardized. When you have good, well-written standards, not lists of discreet skills but really deep conceptual understanding that are grade-level appropriate and you start with that and you bring in your creativity and your expertise and so many different resources and that can include the ones your district bought and told you to use for the last 10 years, but it doesn't exclude others.
And really kind of grappling with that I found to be harder than I ever expected.
What I noticed that the teachers found really challenging was at the beginning when we started, their frame of reference was the school district. And I was asking them to think way beyond what their school does and their principal allows and the district says they have to do. I was asking them to go way beyond the confines of their everyday life.
And it was so hard because the majority, in fact all of the teachers that are working in the project, had never had that opportunity. They had never dreamed of teaching and what lessons would look like if they weren't bound by other people's rules, if they were only asked, "Tie it to the standard." And what I saw especially in some of the newer teachers was this, "But we have to do this," and then the challenge of, "No, you don't have to because you're not doing this according to those rules. You're doing this according to best practice." And just the tension between what they live in and what could be took a while to get over.
This project has given these teachers a chance to work together and learn together. I don't think any of us ever expected to learn this much. And every single time, there is just like this, "Okay. We finished this part." Kind of like the settling down and moving on. It's like, "Oh. Let's revisit it. Let's rethink. Let's learn more and push, just push ourselves a little more to think even deeper about this work."
And so I think what the teachers enjoyed was working with their colleagues, struggling with their colleagues. And I think if you ask them in a year or two years, they're going to talk about the learning. They may feel a little tired right now, but they will talk about how much they learned.
One of the things I've noticed working with this cadre of 16 teachers over this whole year is even though occasionally there's an epiphany or, "Aha. I connected to something I had learned or something I had heard," really what this is, is slow and steady work. Slow kind of engaging but difficult work.
So as the teachers have struggled with, "How do I plan a lesson that starts with the standard? How do I create the strategies that truly engage kids, give them access to complex text, but how do I ensure that access to the complex text isn't the endpoint to the lesson but a means to access complex thinking?" That has been just constant, steady progress towards putting that in a lesson, putting that in a series of lessons.
Advice for teachers on Common Core
As teachers across the nation start to read, which I think a lot of them have, but as teachers across the nation start to read the math and the English language arts standards, there are two things. One, if you're feeling overwhelmed, just keep reading and thing about what is essential for the students I teach to really know, understand, and do and look for that in the standards. Look for the way the standards are written to support that.
Secondly, rethink what you hold dear to your heart as, "But I always do it that way. But I like teaching this unit on time in this grade and they have time in this grade." It's okay. We're going to have to let go of some of that, of what we're used to. But they're written in a way to support deep conceptual understanding so we have to embrace that.
And another thing, when there's a huge shift like this in everything that we've gotten used to about public ed., and this has that potential, people tend to reassure people, "Oh, don't worry. It's really not that much of a change. You just keep doing what you've always done. You just, you know, do it a little bit differently."
If as teachers we listen to that and we think that we don't have to really reflect on our practice and rethink our assumptions and demand that the system and the policies do the same thing, then we're kidding ourselves. And these standards and the way they're written will not have the positive impact on public education that they could have.
Making time for Common Core
One of the things I'm asking my district right now on behalf of the teachers is let's really look at everything we're asking teachers to do and take something off their plates so they can focus on the Common Core. If we don't allow that focus, it will be over -- it will be overwhelming anyway because it's a huge shift in the way we have been conceiving education in America, you know, since I was a kid. Since everybody was a kid.
So what I would like to tell all teachers is keep breathing and think about your best dream for how to teach. Not coverage teaching, not transmission teaching where you open the kid's head and you pour in the right amount and you move them down the assembly line, but teaching for understanding. The kind of engagement and hands-on practice that sometimes we only kind of remember or we don't do any more.
Think of your best dreams for projects that you'd want to do that involve lots of different content area -- areas and really kids working collaboratively in groups. Think of the language development inherent in all of that. Think of the deep understanding necessary to do that and dream like that so that as you're working on changing your practice and working with the Common Core, you've got that dream and then you've got it to keep you kind of going 'cause this is a lot of work to shift the way we practice now to the way we want to practice.
Results of the project
The district came to me maybe a month or two ago and said, "We're very worried about this elementary school. It's really, you know, the school has a lot of diversity, a lot of poverty. There are a lot of English language learners. We don't think the kids there are doing well. We want to rethink this school. Would you like to do this with us?" And so the idea we came up with was instead of implementing the Common Core like the state is mandating K-3, we're going to do K-5. So it's school-wide Common Core implementation next year.
It's going to be a magnet school, hopefully a demonstration school so other teachers from around the rest of the district can come and watch. And it's going to focus on English language learners. So we've got this Common Core Standards demonstration focus on English language learners magnet school. And it's very exciting because there's going to be new leadership. We're going to advertise for teachers to either, you know, who want to stay there or to come into that school.
They're going to have more time. It's an extra-time school so that they can work collaboratively to really think deeply about their practice and be, you know, someplace where, you know, that practice is an exemplar for the rest of the district as they work on these shifts in their instructional practice. And then we're going to look at community supports and wraparound services. You know, this is a school where the kids are very transient. The parents have to move very often.
So what will it take for example to have a whole separate bus just for this elementary that goes throughout the city picking up the kids regardless of where they live and bringing them back to their home school? So we're just, we're excited. We're playing with ideas, but the core of the school will be Common Core-English language learners.
Born and raised in Albuquerque, NM, Dr. Ellen Bernstein began her career in public education as a sign language interpreter prior to becoming a classroom teacher and taught in the Albuquerque Public Schools for a total of 17 years. Over the course of her teaching career, Dr. Bernstein developed expertise in multi-age level teaching and inclusion and became a National Board Certified teacher.
Throughout her teaching career, Dr. Bernstein has been a union activist and worked her way through the ranks of involvement and leadership before being elected ATF President, an office which she has now held for 11 years. Her doctoral dissertation examined the close link between unionism and professionalism, and as ATF President, Dr. Bernstein has shown a strong commitment to building effective, teacher-led professional development structures within the union such as the ATF Teacher Leadership Foundation.
Dr. Bernstein continues to expand her role as a unionist and advocate for public education. She is active in the American Federation of Teachers as a member of the AFT Program and Policy Council. She has most recently taken on the role of co-director of the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) and has participated in district-wide planning for the Common Core State Standards funded by the Gates Foundation.
This project is a collaboration between the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers and Colorín Colorado, and is funded by the American Federation of Teachers Innovation Fund.