Part 1 of our conversation with Deborah Ball, founder of TeachingWorks.

Here is the transcript.

– Hi, I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena and welcome to today’s #PLtogether Lounge Talk. My guest for this episode is Deborah Ball. Deborah is a professor and former dean at the University of Michigan School of Education. She’s currently the founder of TeachingWorks and she still has role which some folks are, I guess, maybe less familiar with which she is still an elementary math teacher. She’s still actively teaches math every single year. Hello, Deborah, thanks so much for joining us.

– Great to see you Adam, thanks for inviting me.

– Absolutely, absolutely. So some folks may be new to learning about TeachingWorks. Can you give us a bit more information about the organization?

– Yeah. TeachingWorks is an organization that’s devoted to improving basically the quality of beginning teaching. There’s so many teachers who are in their first couple of years of teaching in this country and depending on sort of where they got prepared, it’s pretty likely that they lack skills or lack familiarity with children or communities. There’s just a lot to learn in your first couple of years. And so we’ve been working with partners, to define better, you know, what is the essential knowledge and skill that someone needs to be able to adapt to their environment and teach the children that they encounter in their first couple of years to develop actual practices of teaching, not just like commitments to teaching, which of course are deeply important, but the ability to pull things off. In many ways this got oriented around our concern for children, that children are the ones who receive first-year teachers. And while we might take a teacher as learner kind of approach to viewing the development of one skill as a teacher, they’re actually real children sitting in the classrooms of people who are figuring it out. And, you know, in most professions we realize that when a first-year professional or trades person is doing the work, the person who’s the client, whether they’re a patient or somebody who hires them for services, whatever it is, those people deserve to have high-quality work, even from a beginner. And so we chose to take that as a very serious mandate to think more about what is the preparation that beginning teachers would need. And our partners are typically people who work with beginning teachers, either they’re teacher educators in programs or they’re people who work in K12 districts who either run residency programs or they’re mentoring new teachers, but our eyes are on beginning teachers and inside of that, we prioritize three things. We prioritize the ways in which teaching we see as a powerful lever for interrupting persistent inequities in schooling. There’s so much that we could say about the systemic injustices in our society, but we have really come to appreciate, from many people’s work, how powerful teaching can be to either continue to reproduce those same sorts of harms that have been caused for so long or to actually interrupt them at the micro level, and so we take equity very, very seriously. And combined with that, so these aren’t really separate, we think a lot about the content knowledge that teachers need in order to understand what their children are saying to connect to things that children already know. We take content knowledge in a very expansive and flexible way very seriously. And finally, and I’ve already mentioned this, we think a lot about teaching as a practice. It’s not just what you know, or something very abstract. It’s actually the ability to listen to a child, to talk to a child, to communicate with a family, to lead a discussion of a group. So we think a lot about practice and TeachingWorks is an organization devoted to a variety of activities and resource development to support the improvement of the preparation of beginning teachers and the support they receive when they begin to teach.

– You mentioned the idea of adapting to the context in which you find yourself teaching and I think that idea is going to be helpful to revisit today. Before we jump in on how things are changing and all those challenges. You know, I think we can acknowledge that there’s a lot, that’s changing, there’s a lot of uncertainty but let’s start on a high note. Give us an example of a teacher or a teaching intern that you’ve heard about since, you know, the shelter-in-place orders began and schools started closing, you know, what’s something that’s keeping you inspired as an example of how teachers are really adapting to the moment?

– I guess I would talk about a couple of things. One thing that has really inspired me are the teacher candidates with whom I personally work that who were in classes I was teaching when we from one minute to the next one online, and you know, many of them have a variety of situations that they then entered as they left the campus and left their normal circumstances. They were caring for parents, they were caring for children, they were dealing with many things in their communities and their amazing dedication to continuing their professional preparation, even if it was late at night or, you know, on weekends, the way they took advantage of asynchronous opportunities that I had to sort of hurriedly learn how to design, just really inspired me because it really showed me that the people who entered teaching at this time in our country are people who are really committed to becoming very high-quality beginning teachers and just watching their commitment and dedication was really inspiring to me. In many ways I have more individual connections with them over the last six or seven weeks because we were working in this very unfamiliar way that was asynchronous. And yet still, they were part of a community together. There are also lots of stories I could tell about local teachers whom I’ve had opportunity to learn about what they were up to from a colleague of mine who has been deliberately learning how to record much more accessible attuned explanations of mathematical ideas that families all over town can access and use, that aren’t so distant from the children of our community that aren’t formal or, you know, somehow abstract, but actually feel like they’re communicating with children. And that took a huge amount work for my colleague to learn how to do that. I’ve seen teachers developing much more sensitive compilations of things that children could do at home that don’t just shift all of the school curriculum with all of its certainly strengths, but also many of its problems just stuffing it all onto Zoom. Isn’t the kind of thing we wanna see and I’ve seen people really quickly learn to rethink what we’re learning at home, with home, in resources at home, what that can look like and how that can span the range of home context that children are in. And just learning about what people are so rapidly learning to do inspires me, partly because of what it shows across all these stories is how quickly it’s possible to learn to do new things. I really credit Na’ilah Nasir and Megan Bang at the Spencer Foundation, who fairly early in this period put out an amazing statement on their website describing just the real terror of how groups of people in our country are being disproportionately harmed, black and brown people, low-income communities. And near the end of this statement where they named all the different groups of people and the ways in which their heart was just hurting for how difficult this period is and how much harm is being created. They ended on a really high note about noticing that in such a short period of time, so much change has happened. You know, I think we can all name examples of that. And that, that was in some sense hopeful. Like if change really can happen that quickly, what does that mean for our ordinary, whatever that means, ordinary practice, because we so often see change is slow, things go back to the way they were or we’re not capable of making change, but a lot of pretty critical change happened pretty quickly and there’s much more to do and some of the change wasn’t good. But it does feel inspiring that maybe some of the systems we thought were just rigid and impermeable to change, maybe aren’t that impermeable. So I’m trying to carry that forward to think, what do I need to learn that might enable change that would actually be positive? COVID, no COVID, post COVID there’s so many variables that I don’t think I understand at this point, but the notion that change is possible is something I’m really taking to heart and trying to think really hard about over the next weeks.

– I like that you’re really kind of in some ways, calling out and challenging some of our assumptions around organizational change and the types of changes that are possible, because I think before this, you know, like you were hinting at, we’d say, “oh, we can’t, we can’t do that.” You know that, the we can’t do that was holding us back from a lot of the things that we just had to, I guess, get up and do this you know, to meet the needs at the moment. To borrow a phrase that I know you and your colleagues use, there’s this phrase that, you know, “the goal of teacher education programs is to basically “come to a place at the end of that program “where you have a well-started beginner.” I really like that phrase rate because it, I mean, this is me pitching your phrase, I guess, but it really embodies the idea that you don’t learn to be a teacher and then suddenly you’re done learning. You are ready to take on, you know, that next set of responsibilities for that next context that you find yourself in. So, you know, in some ways I feel like everybody’s a beginner again, you know, for the most part, teachers have not been trained or ready to, or accustomed to doing any sort of distance teaching. So I guess, how do teachers become well-started beginners given the context of this current challenge?

– So interesting the way you frame that, first of all, I don’t take credit for that phrase. I’m not sure who we should credit for it, but it isn’t very useful thing to consider. And I think of it as occupying a space between something of a cop out of saying, well, teachers have to be lifelong learners that way therefore, we don’t really have to worry about what they’re able to do at the beginning. As I said before, I think that we really do have to worry about the children who are in classrooms of beginning teachers. But you’re also signaling something which I experienced as a teacher myself over so many years is that one is always having to learn new things as a teacher, which is one of the things that attracted me to teaching was the ways in which I could, you know, be somebody trying to make change societaly and that I would always have new things to learn. And I guess that has been as evidenced in the last several weeks as ever to me. I think that in many ways, the ways that we think about communities, about children, about learning about content, carry us into this period. It’s not like everything is off the table. It’s what is it that we already know that now has to be adapted into this environment? For example, we know increasingly that relationships between teachers and children, between teachers and families, among children are critically important in children’s development. And much of the harm that goes on in school comes about as a function of either inattention to relationships or really bad relationships. So if we take that seriously, what’s possible in terms of relationship building when we’re not in face-to-face contact with children and how as we work on that will that improve our practice when we are in face-to-face connection with children and families, and what is it that carries across these different contexts that we need to really think more and more about? So for example, what’s possible in terms of communicating with an individual child using something like Zoom or any of the various platforms that people are using, are there new ways for teachers and children to build some connections because of the way that you can really give the impression that you’re really listening, you’re really watching? There’s something about how we have to act and listen in this environment that feels different and yet still pulls in some of those same commitments that we know we should be enacting. How do we think about that when we’re dealing with children for whom this was very unfamiliar compared to children living what’s familiar, what do we think about language of our culture? All of the issues that we should always be thinking about with relationship building are really in the foreground right now. And so on one hand, we can take the fact that we know those are important and hone our skills around that learn new ways to build relationships. But also I think some of the things that we’ll all learn will be things we can take with us as the world opens back up in whatever form it will look like post COVID. And I think additionally to that, we know that because the experiences that children and families are having are so various right now, everything from losing family members and being sick, to being isolated, to doing, I mean, it’s just almost impossible to put our arms around the range of ways across class and race and ethnicity and geography that families are experiencing this. So the relational work of teaching is really in the foreground and I think will be something that will improve practice going forward over time, as we figure out how to do that now. So that’s one example of the kind of learning that we need to do. I am concerned a bit about the fact that we will have a preponderance of new teachers entering the workforce over the summer and into the fall who didn’t actually get to complete their professional training. And that creates a new urgency around the question of how we support beginners as they transition from their initial preparation into classrooms. It was not only did they not, were they not often able to complete some of the time they would have spent with children or in classrooms or working with families or in communities because the semester was just aborted in most places, but also they’ll enter into schools and classrooms under conditions we can’t even predict right now. Will they almost immediately be teaching entirely online and remotely? Will they be navigating face-to-face interaction that’s intermittent? Will they have to help learn how they’re going to build relationships with children who suffered great harm and loss and trauma during this period and children who experienced other things? There will be an extreme learning curve for beginning teachers and so those of us who are in schools or who work in schools who have experienced learning across critical periods will have particular responsibilities in supporting the beginning teachers who enter the workforce this year. And I think it’s fair to say that those people will be predominantly hired in communities of color and low-income communities, because that’s where new teachers are mostly hired. So there’s some critical social concerns for us to exercise as a profession right now, as we think about professional learning in the COVID and whatever post COVID time will look like. I think your question is really, really timely and important.

– There’s something in what you just kind of described between the teacher and the student. But then I actually heard you describe again, in relation to the system that supports the teacher. And it was really this kind of careful consideration of the relationship. And if I can, I think it’s almost like you were saying, relationships matter more than ever, but we’re really having to confront this notion of how we’ve kind of defined the relationship through the idea of presence, right? That, like, we had like a one-to-one, kind of, matching there between, I care about you so I’m here physically for you, and now finding new ways to say, look like I am here for you. I care about you and I’m here for you in different ways. And it sounds like that’s gonna be true for the teacher and the student relationship, as well as the system around the teachers and supporting them to be successful in their classrooms.

– Yeah, and I think that’s right.

– Well, these are teacher, sorry, teacher lounge. These are #PLtogether Lounge Talk. So, we wrap up this first one, but we will continue again together and create another talk for everybody. But I wanna end this first one with, I’m calling the extra credit question. So you’re at home, everybody’s at home, what’s one thing that’s changed or adapted for you since COVID started?

– Well, I’ve been thinking a lot differently about time because I live about 10 miles from work and I’ve been in my car maybe four times since the middle of March. So on one hand, I’m also just seeing things in my environment differently because I’m walking more, I’m just not driving all over the place. I think a lot about the environment, but in particular, just my own personal time space and my sense of time, just to be very blunt about it. I’ve cut 90 minutes out of my day, every day, that was basically commuting time, parking, driving, and just rethinking what that means for the shape of a day and how I should be spending my time, and the gratitude I have that I am safely sheltered. I’m thinking about, you know, how do I make decisions about how to use the time there’s in some sense, that removal of commuting time was a gift that caused me to rethink, you know, what’s the shape of my day and my day really has a rather different shape. I certainly spend an awful lot of time on Zoom, I think many of us are doing that, but still the overall arc of my day feels and looks different. So I’m trying to think of things that are important for me to do for myself, for my family, for people in my community, for broader consideration that I can use that rethinking of time for. And I hope that’s something that I might like take with me past this very constrained way of living into what will seem like, you know, the more interactive commuting, busy sort of travel life I haven’t traveled. Like, you know, they’re just things that might make me rethink what my priorities are that feel like a real opportunity to me right now.

– Great, thanks. Well, Deborah, if people are interested in learning more about TeachingWorks or any of your current projects, where should they go for that information?

– Yeah, so the TeachingWorks website, which is just has all of the current resources. We have a resource library that’s filled with videos and lesson plans and materials for use that works with teachers. We also have learning opportunities that will be virtual all summer, particularly between the middle of July and the beginning of August that people may wanna take a look at that are designed for teachers and teacher educators and those who support teachers. So I encourage people to go to our website and take a look at the different things that might be resources both at this time and going forward. Thanks for that, for asking me that.

– Yeah, thanks so much Deborah for joining us for #Pltogether and for participating in our Lounge Talks.

– Thank you Adam.