Impact Story

Gather 2016 Keynote Speech: “Frustration Into Advocacy” by Marguerite Sheffer (Excerpt)

Impact Story



Marguerite Sheffer

Gather Keynote

November 3, 2016

Lokey School of Business Gathering Hall, Mills College


Thank you for being here. My name is Marguerite Sheffer, and I am proud to be a Humanities teacher at Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, a small OUSD public school. Our department is entering Year 2 of inquiry work. I have been part of Mills Teacher Scholars for the last five years, starting back when there was just one Scholars group that met here in the Graduate School of Business when I was just in my third year of teaching.

Over those five years, Mills Teacher Scholars has changed how I talk about my work, how I define my job. I am a professional, among other professionals–even when we dress up as Pokemon for Halloween. I am a professional, even when I am unsure what to do next.  

A day in the life of a public school teacher is a day of frustration. It is a day without enough time, without sufficient materials, but crowded with vague and contradicting demands. We don’t get to cynically shrug off our work, though, since part of the frustration is that the time we spend with our students in our classroom is undeniably meaningful.

 Every teacher I know feels that our job is important, but that we are not doing enough, that we are not quite prepared. Our frustration often comes from the fact that we take our work seriously despite often ridiculous conditions–that we hold ourselves to a standard higher than that implied by the time, recognition, pay, training, and resources we are given.

Against this backdrop, Mills Teacher Scholars has empowered me to see my persistent questions and frustrations not as a shortcoming, but as a tool. Professionals  ask questions relentlessly. Professionals neither settle nor throw in the towel, but follow their frustrations down to the root in order to improve. In the view of Mills Teacher Scholars, teachers are consistently, defiantly professionals.

 Mills Teacher Scholars has helped me to turn my frustration into advocacy–for my classroom, for my school, and for my profession.

My first inquiry project began with frustration. I was working incredibly hard to teach students to read closely to analyze Macbeth, and things “looked” good:  students were engaged, they were using the sentence-stems, they were completing the paragraphs. However, the work my 11th graders were producing did not demonstrate evidence of learning. Their close reading paragraphs were formulaic and shallow. They recycled my model thesis and cited the same evidence we had annotated together in class. Each paper looked similar, and group-think does not yield strong analysis.  

Once a month, after I put up the last few chairs in the classroom and turned off the lights, I would sigh and pack 70-odd pieces of frustrating student work into my bag and bring them here, to this sunny, quiet, high-ceilinged room.

This austere room seemed worlds away from my crowded classroom. I would pull up a chair into my thinking group, my trio of teachers from other schools who were sacrificing their afternoons to sit together and hash out our questions. I would re-explain my context, starting from the beginning:  I teach 11th grade. We are working on close reading. Students are engaged, but not showing deep thinking. I’m stuck. I’m tired.   

My Mills Teacher Scholars colleagues pushed me to reconsider what exactly I was asking students to do:  What would it look like if they DID get it? Where ARE students meeting your expectations? What would a strong close reading paragraph LOOK like? With this push from my colleagues, I defined new “indicators of success:”  

1-Students can develop their own questions about what they are reading.

2-Students can develop an original claim to answer that question.

3-Students can back up that claim with textual evidence.

After stepping back and redefining “success” at close reading, I realized that my lessons didn’t give students opportunities to practice those skills. I wasn’t giving them a chance to ask their own questions.

 I re-arranged my unit plan to give more practice time and scaffolding for students to develop questions, to grapple with their own confusion. After this shift in practice, my students began to produce work that surprised me, and surprised them. In his reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ricardo wondered if Malcolm X’s father would be against civil rights if he were white. After reading The Woman Warrior, Alma asked why Mulan became popular despite challenging her culture’s gender norms.  

When students asked the questions, they zoomed in on areas of the text that were more complex.  Because they were asking their own questions, for clarification or curiosity, they were choosing richer passages to come back to in their discussions. Most exciting, their paragraphs were no longer boring because each student was crafting an original argument.

The steps of inquiry turned my frustrating student data into an opportunity for investigation and growth. My “problem” became a clue. Instead of shameful, my disappointing student work was now a necessary part of the process, something valuable for me. It was a treasure to bring back to my colleagues in this hall. It pushed me to try a new practice that was less teacher-centered and more student-driven–it pushed me into trying book circles with students at the helm.

Inquiry propelled me to enter a debate in the field on what the call for “close reading” from the Common Core standards means for students. As a result of my research, I now argue that to “closely read,” students need to generate their own questions and observations, not just respond to teacher prompts. Mills Teacher Scholars invited me to write a blog entry about my process and my findings. This blog entry made its way to Richard Beach, author of a textbook on the Common Core ELA standards. My initial confusion over the best definition of  “close reading” led me to advocate for and publish my own.  

In that blog I characterized my transformation from pedagogy-consumer into pedagogy-creator as turning “frustration into advocacy,” a phrase I keep returning to.  Mills Teacher Scholars prompts teachers to turn their frustration into public, professional advocacy.  

I stayed in teaching because I was still learning, and I was still learning because of Mills Teacher Scholars.  I believed that in spite of my failures and false starts, I was growing, and that I had something to give back to my community. This is the “inquiry stance.”

My experience in Mills Teacher Scholars prompted me to study teacher retention–to turn my frustration around this issue into advocacy, and to start by looking deeply at the causes of teacher attrition in OUSD.

I am now in my third year of doctoral studies here at Mills, looking at the potential of inquiry work to affect teacher definitions of professionalism, and their retention. My frustration–the fact that OUSD students see wave after wave of new teachers, often with just weeks of training under their belt–is my new starting place.  

Currently in OUSD, one out of four teachers leaves the classroom each year.  More distressingly, the data confirms what is already clear to those on the ground–that Oakland teacher retention is negatively correlated with student need; meaning that the schools most in need of experienced teachers suffer the highest turnover.

At this point in my research, I have reviewed many studies positing that effective professional development nudges teachers towards the inquiry stance. Still other studies find that people who have an internalized locus of control–meaning they believe that their work can impact the conditions around them–demonstrate higher levels of job commitment. One particularly striking finding comes from a quantitative study on teacher job satisfaction by Michael Moore and John Hoffman. They find that “a teacher’s positive self-perception of his or her professional identity appears to override his or her dissatisfaction with poor working conditions.”

This is exactly what Mills Teacher Scholars has done for me: create a positive perception of my own professional identity. Professionalism is my shield, protecting me from burnout, from the impact of those “poor working conditions.”  It is also my sword, in the fight to improve those conditions.

So, at the moments when my work is hardest, I continue to return to Mills Teacher Scholars, where I am empowered to turn my frustration into advocacy, and am reminded that struggle is an integral part of our work.   

Mills Teacher Scholars pushes us to think deeply. This push helps us to clarify for ourselves what we believe is worth thinking deeply about–what is worth fighting for.  

The more deeply I investigate, the more focused my advocacy becomes. Since participating in Mills Teacher Scholars, I have become an advocate for student voice and choice, for small schools and small learning communities. Through my own research I advocate for the professionalization of teaching to increase teacher retention.  

Our work is so important that it needs to be done as a community–but community doesn’t mean we should simply pat ourselves on the back over a job well done, or complain and commiserate. We are colleagues in the work of embracing our frustration, insisting that even though the job is difficult and never done, we are the ones to do it, together.