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Transforming Education Today: Third in a series

TRANSFORMING EDUCATION TODAY
(Third in a Series of Interviews with Leaders in Education)
Featuring Dr. James Upperman

Note from Chuck Cascio: Given the difficult issues facing educators today in the USA, I am presenting a series in which I contact established educators and request their insights, in their own words, on a number of vitally important education issues. Readers who would like to comment on the views expressed may email me at chuckwrites@yahoo.com. My Twitter handle is @ChuckCascio. Not all comments will be responded to by me and/or the individuals interviewed, but all will be read and, if appropriate, forwarded to others engaged in meaningful education reform. I am pleased to present as the third interview in this series of the views of Dr. James Upperman, whose profile follows:

Dr. James “Jim” Upperman was a teacher, principal, superintendent of schools and university professor during his 33 years in public education in Virginia. He completed his undergraduate degree at Bridgewater, VA, College, where he was a Dean’s List student and All American basketball player. Jim earned his M.Ed. from the University of Virginia in 1973, and his Ed.D. at Virginia Tech in 1995. As an Associate Professor at George Mason University from 2001-2017, Jim taught licensure classes in leadership studies in the masters and doctoral programs. In 1976, he was honored by the Virginia Jaycees as the “Outstanding Young Man of Virginia” and in 1999 was selected as the Northern Virginia Region Superintendent of the Year.

 

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 >>>Recalling your own life as a student, going back as far as you would like, what do you remember as the most positive and most negative educational influences for you personally?

 I’ll always remember the long and scary early AM jaunt from the high school bus drop off to the locker room during my freshman year, when the list was posted with names of those who had made the basketball team. Observing the disappointment on the faces of others was difficult as I silently celebrated my own authentic surprise: A teacher/coach had selected ME to be a part of the team! I played very few minutes that first year but it didn’t matter. From that point forward, goal-setting became the norm for me and remains a major part of who I am today.

>>>Can you identify an educator (or educators) who provided you with uniquely positive insights into subject matter as well as teaching style? If so, please explain what made them unique.

I had so many exceptional teachers…but three high school educators had an indelible impact on my life. Ms. Cacciapaglia, Spanish teacher, taught me that language learning was both challenging and exciting, and might someday open doors that could change my life. Her skills in teaching a new language were in evidence as she moved through the classroom, maintaining eye contact as she repeated the sounds and rhythms that she expected us to master. I’ll always remember Tom Christie, business teacher and head baseball coach, who demanded excellence, persistence and attention to detail from all of those with whom he worked. It’s quite revealing that the personal letter he wrote to my parents after my senior year is still today one of my prized possessions.  And Clint Hannah, business teacher and head basketball coach, became personally invested in my development as an athlete and an individual, nurturing my growth during four years under his leadership and influence. 

>>>What do you see as the major challenges in education today?

One of the greatest challenges moving forward will be the recruitment, development and retention of school leaders and classroom teachers.  Wish it weren’t so, but the culture wars being  fought in our communities are here to stay. School board members and superintendents are now publicly threatened in unprecedented frequency, and their hires are squarely in the cross hairs of the chaos dividing our country. In a recent National Association of Secondary School Principals study, four in ten school principals stated that they would leave their current posts within three years. Hiring personnel is difficult enough, but the focus moving forward must be on development and retention. Resources to support great teaching should be differentiated and focused. And successful teachers should be publicly embraced and celebrated. Those master teachers and leaders who are the backbone of public schooling must be emboldened and supported, lest they become an endangered species. 

>>>Are standardized testing and traditional roles to teaching and evaluating in need of transformation and, if so, what should they look like?

It’s astonishing that we devote so little discussion to the evaluation methodologies employed in schools today. The undeniable moments when schools reconnect with taxpaying parents most often occur when content area tests are graded, when statewide testing results are released, and when grade-point averages are calculated. Therefore, schools must devote additional resources to the design of clear, measurable rubrics that reflect the learning targets in each classroom. It is essential that locally designed and developed evaluation methods are connected to statewide learning benchmarks that encourage transparency and comparison. 

If we expect student achievement to improve across the country, national standards that are state-supported must become a reality. Just as engaged students learn from each other in dynamic classrooms, the best teachers and schools grow by understanding and replicating best practices. 

>>>Who should have the final say in what is taught in schools?

Love this question! This has recently re-emerged as a hot button, campaign issue in my state (Virginia) as well as others across the country. It is widely accepted that public schools must be responsive to the public, and should incorporate practices that involve parents in meaningful ways.WHAT is taught in the classroom should be driven by curricula that are jointly developed by learning specialists, administrators, teachers, and, yes, parents who serve on such committees in many districts.  Decisions regarding WHEN and HOW approved curriculum is taught should be the domain of teachers, who observe and understand the strengths and deficiencies of the students in their care.

I proudly remember the kindergarten teacher whose class I visited during the first year of my superintendency. Her learning environment was electric, with so many balls in the air that it was impossible to imagine that kids with such varied experiences and skills could thrive and grow. But learn and thrive they did, a fact I know because I observed this cohort of students throughout my twelve years as CEO. This group of students was doing much more than mastering tests. As they moved through the system, they were becoming student leaders in clubs and other organizations. 

It was clear to me that one exceptional, highly creative teacher had worked her magic to leave a mark on those that she touched. And she did it her way, involving parents and the community as a whole in the growth of her students. Parents became her cheerleaders, encouraging and enabling her as she continued to touch lives. This exceptional teacher is far from the only one. Many more teachers like her are out there stimulating learning every day, and they must be encouraged, recognized, and supported by school leaders and communities.

Copyright: Chuck Cascio and James Upperman; all rights reserved.

Send your thoughts to chuckwrites@yahoo.com