in which i give a talk on the profession of teaching

IM&E hosted a thing at Berkeley October 12-14. I was working with middle grades folks and asked to give the final plenary talk entitled ‘Call to Action’. I chose to talk about the profession of teaching and how I think we get more teachers engaging with teaching as professionals. I’ve tried to type up what I said in the talk based on my copious notes, powerpoint, and memory below the cut. I know it’s not exact and I suspect my memory is editing to make me sound better, but I don’t have a video recording (thank Gauss) so it will have to do. I’ll warn you it’s longish, but I would love to hear your thoughts on professionalize and education in the comments.

Oh, and this is the tweet that spurred much of my ideas for the talk. Or rather, had me re-writing much of my ideas for the talk.

A Call to Action
IM&E Conference, Berkeley, Ca
October 14, 2012

I want to take everyone back in time to remember their early teaching years. Especially that first year. Was it crazy? Manic? Did you go to bed on Friday after getting home and not wake until Saturday? I remember the first time the fire alarm went off and I just stopped and stared at the blinking light in confusion.

Now that you’re back in that first year, I want you to think back to that first time the principal drops in and takes a seat.

How’s your heart rate doing with that memory?

Over the years you get used to it. I was fortunate enough to have an admin who I trusted completely to take the right side—that of the student—when we would have the sit-down meetings in the office in the days following the observation. Feedback is difficult, especially when it’s about a passion. Suggestions for growth are painful to listen to, but how else do we get better? And positive feedback from my Admin? To be told how you are doing good with the work you care about so much? Wondrous.

But that isn’t unique to teaching. That’s part of being a professional. Amateurs practice their craft where no one can see. Or hear. Or comment. Or help.

Teachers are not amateurs. But the system often treats them as such.

Those observations? Officially they were twice a year unless I asked specifically for someone to come in. Occasionally there would be 5-minute pop-ins. Most feedback I received on a daily basis was from students asking about meeting after school or before school or during lunch or for less homework or more time or nap day. And let us never forget the ever-popular ‘class outside!’ As a teacher from Seattle, that one still doesn’t make sense to me.

Day after day that is type of feedback that teachers hear the most. It’s very easy as a teacher to bury yourself in those voices. To wrap yourself in your classroom and devote all of your focus to your students. The work becomes entirely about the kids, safely contained in a room, with a door that is often closed. You can be a good teacher that way. But I think it’s very hard to do so.

The day I received the most feedback from my students I had changed one thing. Just one. I straightened my hair… Every period almost every student commented on it. It was crazy.

Yesterday I was having such a great time talking with everyone here and during lunch I sent out a tweet that said this:


Chris from Pennsylvania responded with this:


‘They must be willing.’ Admins, coaches, colleagues—all voices that can drown in the sea of student voices.

Timon from Canada said:

To which Chris responded:

How do you get teachers to see the value of professional engagement? My favorite comment came from Sadie, who is in Hawaii.

I believe many teachers don’t see the value in engaging as a professionals because they have no idea what that means. How do you value something you have never seen? Yesterday Donna said that CCSSM are a chance for teachers to “reclaim power as professionals.” She spoke of the potential of “[sharing] ideas across the miles.”

Today I want to show you what happens when teachers do stand up and claim their professional identity and how the online world is everything the staff lunch room should be. I would like to note that everything I am about to share with you was posted in the last week—I did not go mining through posts to find the best stuff. My goal in sharing this world with you is twofold: I want you to join it and add to the professional online world of education—sometimes referred to as the Edutwitterblogosphere—and I want you to show these things to the teachers in your sphere of influence. I want every teacher to understand the power of professional engagement and what it can mean for themselves and, most importantly, their students.

Let’s start with Fawn Nguyen.

This is her blog. Yes, bloggers like amusing titles. To me, this post is an example of blogging at its finest. Fawn has taken a video originally created as a 3-act by Dan Meyer, a former teacher and current grad student at Stanford. If you’ve not heard of 3-acts, give me a bit and I’ll share with you a place you can go and check them out. They are very cool.

This post details the entire first day of Fawn’s lesson. How she introduced the lesson, student dialogue, links to the worksheets she used, pictures of student work. At the end are her thoughts on what she plans to do tomorrow to bring the lesson to a close. My second favorite piece is the list of six reasons she believes this lesson worked for her students. And a thank you to Dan.

But don’t stop reading. General rules of the internet say to never, ever read the comments. That does not apply to teacher blogs. My favorite part of teacher blogs are often the comments. Fawn has exposed herself and her classroom to anyone who comes along to comment on. The first person to do so is Dan Meyer himself, thanking her for the report and phrasing her ratios approach as he was thinking Pythagorean Theorem. Thanking her for taking his work and doing some great with it. Other comments are from teachers showing appreciation for her work and her replies to them.

Fawn blogs regularly, and by that I mean 2-3 times per month, maybe more on occasion. If she’s getting comments on each of those posts from other teachers, think about what that means with respect to the student voices. She’s there for her kids, but she’s also listening to other education professionals and making her lessons better. Trying new things can be scary, but how many teachers could read something as thorough as her breakdown of that day and think ‘you know, what she did makes sense. I could do that with my kids.” And that’s how engagement starts.

This is Kate’s blog. She’s currently teaching in Argentina and taught in New York for many years. In the online teacher world, she’s kind of a big deal among high school math bloggers. She posted this on Friday. It’s not a lesson, it’s just something she did in her class. And idea. Using two laser pointers attached to a large board-compass, she’s drawn two green stars on either side of her whiteboard. Students have to hold the compass steady and figure out where in the classroom they can stand that puts both lasers on the starts. I’m not going to ruin the punch line, but if you go home from here and have access to lasers and you do not try this I am revoking your math geek card.

The Global Math Department is now in session and headed up by Megan Hayes-Golding of Georgia. She organizes individuals or small groups to present on a topic each week on Tuesday at 9 Easter, 6 Pacific. Last week Chris Robinson, Andrew Stadel, and Dan Meyer presented about the creation and utilization of 3-acts in the math classroom. If you create a log in for the site you can go back and watch old presentations. The week before was a variety of teachers talking about their favorite things. The week before that was on mathematics and art and featured a trio of teachers from St. Ann’s in New York City and how they started a math art class at their school and the math art day they started that the whole school participates in. Right before their part you can see me talking about my use of origami in the classroom over the years. Next Tuesday is Shawn Cornally of Iowa discussing standards based grading. You should check it out.

Tweeps—internet slang combining the words twitter and peeps—come from all over. This is a map made a while ago and doesn’t represent everyone, but it’s a nice way to see if there is anyone near you. If you look at the upper right green symbol on the map that is me. On the link for the conference I’ll be sharing the link to this map and to a document that has a spreadsheet of educators, their twitter handles, their blogs, and a column of what they focus on. You can use that column to find, in example, other algebra 1 teachers to follow or K-5 specialists. There are not a lot of K-5 math folk on there, so I am hopeful some of you here today will consider putting your names and blogs on there.

180 Blogs are teachers taking a picture of their classrooms all 180 days of the school year and posting it along with a short info blurb. It’s mostly science folk. For now. This is a picture of the math classroom of Bowman Dickson, who teaches in Jordan. His students took a test today, so he posted what the classroom looked like yesterday. If you are wondering why his students were taking a test on a Sunday, it’s because his week is Sunday-Thursday, which the weekend Friday and Saturday. How could you use something like this in your own district? Do you know some teachers comfortable with exposing their practice that you could start something local—get teachers sharing across schools? Get teachers interested in what their colleagues are doing?

Ah, Pinterest. Stop laughing. For those of you unfamiliar, the word Pinterest comes from pin and interest. When you log in you get to create boards where you can pin things you find from around the internet that interest you. Yes, it is home to recipes and hair styles. It’s also home to a growing group of educators sharing neat classroom ideas they find around the web along with pictures of things they are doing in their own rooms. An former colleague of mine, Stephanie, has created boards for each type of class she teaches to remember all the ideas she comes across. I follow her on Pinterest, so I can look at her boards for ideas any time. Sharing things you find that enhance your practice? That’s being a professional. is run by Michael Pershan. It’s relatively new, but already has about a hundred submissions. If you see an interesting mistake a student has made, you can snap a picture and send it to the website where it will get categorized both by topic and by CCSSM grade bands. The thing I love about this website is that anyone can comment on what they think the mistake was. Think about how pre-service teachers could use this. No one goes into math teaching with the innate ability to understand student mistakes. I remember many times in my early years where I would be grading and end up just staring at a student’s solution. I took to nudging more experienced math teachers and asking for help only to be amazed when they could glance at the page and tell me just what the student had done and recommend how to help the student’s understanding. It was like magic. What if departments used something like this? Just five minutes spent on an error that someone brings in? Can you imagine how great those five minutes of professional discourse would be at building a stronger department?

I could keep going with references. These are just a few of my current favorite things that came up on my radar this past week. I know of groups of administrators on twitter who have chats regularly. I know of teachers who do a book study with a different chapter each week they discuss in 140 characters or less. But I want you to think about the impact sites like these have on the people that create them or engage with them. Those student voices I talked about earlier? The ones that drown out everything else? They have a place in teaching. They need to be listened to. But they cannot be the only voice.

As Chris said, if we are going to help teachers create the best classroom experiences for their students that they can then that means we need to help teachers be willing to seek out others in the profession and engage at that level. Get them reading blogs of teachers just like them. Help them see that, yeah, trying new stuff can be daunting, but look at some of these payoffs. Look at all the footsteps for you to follow. Having someone I don’t know outside of that they are a teacher post on my blog that they loved my lesson and took my plan and tweaked it for their students and it went great is an amazing feeling. Knowing that other teachers out there are struggling with how to implement the CCSSM just like me and that they’re posting about what they are learning in trainings and reading their thoughts on the Standards for Mathematical Practice makes me feel like part of a group; not alone in my room.

So what are you going to do with what you have learned here? How are you going to help teachers become engaged members of the professional community? As Bill McCallum said yesterday, the “standards don’t implement themselves.”

And I want to emphasize that I believe Sadie is spot on when she names fear as the biggest hold back  Who can blame teachers in this age of value added and high stakes testing?

The web has given teachers the forum to publicly reclaim and elevate the profession of education. We have a space for all teachers to engage as professionals. Online I talk daily with teachers from around the country and sometimes beyond. Nothing I have accomplished has been done in isolation. Not my National Boards certification, not my student-nominated Teacher of the Year award from my school. My students call me Ms. Black. My friends call me Ashli. I blog at Learning to Fold. I tweet under the name @mythagon. I hope to see you online sometime. Come join the conversation.

7 thoughts on “in which i give a talk on the profession of teaching

  1. Pingback: Update: Diigo in Education group (weekly) | ChalkTech

    • Thank you for the comments, Sybilla! I like the way you speak of teachers being “governed internally by peer recognition”–I think that’s a critical piece of professional interaction and I see blogs and twitter as helping to make that happen.


  2. Hi Ashli, I’m incredibly humbled to receive your kind mention at your talk. It is this very community you speak of that has helped me grow leaps and bounds. I’m indebted to my fellow bloggers and tweeps to help me learn ways to become a better teacher. But it’s so important that we continue to reach out and spread the word like you are doing. Thank you so much!


  3. “Help them see that, yeah, trying new stuff can be daunting, but look at some of these payoffs.”

    I love this post. And I think you’re right on–the thing keeping us from trying new things is usually fear. Yes, sometimes my ideas are much better in theory than in reality. But sometimes I have an idea that’s half-way decent. And then the next go-around that idea becomes a little better. And then someone else picks up that idea and tweaks it and makes it much, MUCH better. Like you said, that’s learning and collaboration at its best.

    I’m reminded of what a dear professor/mentor told me when I first started teaching: “Do the right things before you do them right.” In other words, just try. And then fix what you need to. Eventually, it may turn out to be a masterpiece.


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