Encouraged by an Educator: An Interview with Bob Hill, Part 1

Photo Credit Joe Thorn

Photo Credit Joe Thorn

I love getting out of the office to work. Partly because of undiagnosed ADD and partly because of the people I meet. One of my favorite places to hang out and work (... and sometimes play) is the local cigar shop (don't judge ... and if you have to, take it else where). One of the people I've gotten to know over the past year is Bob Hill. One of the things I appreciate most about Bob is his passion for education.

Recently I started a causal conversation with Bob on this topic that was well within his wheel house. I started this conversation because I wanted a better understanding of how teachers effect the process of education. I asked Bob five questions via email and he came back with over 5 pages of response. Here is what he said and why I interviewed him.

Pat: Tell me about your background in education.

Bob: I’ve been an educator for 47 years. I began teaching 5th grade in 1968 in a rural school in Southeast Indiana. During my first decade as a teacher I taught 4th-6th grades in an elementary setting and 7th and 8th grade social studies and language arts in an urban middle school.  After leaving the classroom I spent my second decade as an educator working as a high school assistant principal, principal, and as a curriculum coordinator in Springfield (IL) Public Schools. In those roles I directly supervised teachers and teaching. Subsequent to being a principal I became Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction -- a position that made me responsible for teaching and learning at all grade levels in a district of 15,000+ students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Much of my work in this role was related to planning and implementing professional learning for teachers and principals.

In my third decade as an educator I served as Superintendent of Schools in Springfield, retiring in 2002. I then moved to the position of Director of Education Initiatives at the Ball Foundation. There, I recruited a team of nine professionals who ran partnerships in six mid-size urban school districts in five states. Our work was concentrated on building the capacity of all educators in those systems to most effectively support the teaching and learning of thousands of students, including large number of English Language learners.

I retired from Ball in 2012 and worked on the start-up of the National Center for Literacy Education, an organization devoted to supporting teachers in their quest to be effective teachers of literacy across the entire curricula of Pre-K through 12th grade education.  I now serve as a consultant for the Consortium of Educational Change where I carry on work closely related to that we created at the Ball Foundation.

I also remain very active in the movement to transform the American teachers’ unions and to professionalize the education profession. I am a fervent advocate for all teachers and for the profession and still tell people that I am a teacher -- my chosen profession of nearly 50 years.

Before Bob attempted to give me answers to my remaining questions, he added this as context

Over the course of the past 50 years I have observed and participated in three distinct blocks of time where the emphasis on the roles of teachers continues to evolve. When I began teaching in the 1968 and for a period of time until the mid-1970’s the American public held the expectation that some students would excel, some would make adequate progress, and others would struggle with school. An accepted part of the job was to participate in a “sorting and selecting” of students. Doing so was okay because the American workforce had jobs for people of varying skill sets and levels of education.

As the economy of the U.S. began to be viewed as more global and nature and American workers were now seen as competing in an international workforce, the role of teachers began to be redefined. The focus of research and practice was on a more prescribed way of teaching (based on research) that produced an emphasis on lesson design, time on task, and comparisons of U.S. students to those in other countries. Policymakers and educators began to embrace the use of “business” metrics in determining the quality of outputs of schools -- student learning. Included in this emphasis was a conversation about the cost effectiveness of American education and various approaches to it. The system that had long been established for sorting and selecting began to be called into question in the prop wash of the civil rights movement, the movement for gender equity, and in the comparison of American students to those in other countries. Adjustment to the new expectations have been steady over time, but also very slow. The system was good at sorting and selecting -- what it was designed to do -- and the trained workforce came under fire for not being very good at delivering on a drastically different set of expectations.  

The third generation of the evolution of teaching practice began to emerge in response to those changing expectations. Despite the fact that many schools and districts became competent in the methods introduced during the second phase of this evolution, student academic performance continued to go down or at best to stay stagnant, most notably for students living in poverty (which included many students of color).  Teachers are now expected to possess the skills introduced in the second phase described above, but the measure of process success now has moved from a focus on teaching to a focus on student learning. This is what the standards movement and the common core is all about. Ideas like differentiated instruction and response to intervention for struggling learners are now common expectations for teachers. Once again, large numbers of the work force are asked to use skills sets and knowledge to which they had limited or no access to as they prepared for their careers.

Commitment to children is as high among teachers as at any time in my career.  Teaching skills are superior overall to those that existed when I became a teacher. Our expectation that every student can and will be college and career ready at the end of 12th grade is a bar that is infinitely higher than the one set in the days of sorting and selecting. Teachers are caught in a very tough spot. Frankly, society’s expectations for them are unrealistic. They are asked to reinvent the vehicle without being able to stop for repairs and retooling.

This is why I value my friendship with Bob. His passion for education is apparent. Check back in next week when get into teaching elementary age students, middle and high school students, and the role of parents.