8 Questions for Amy Fast, Ed.D

Teacher-turned-administrator and author Amy Fast talks about the mission of public education, "working inspired," the value of student feedback, and more.

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In her 2015 book It's the Mission, Not the Mandates: Defining the Purpose of Public Education, Dr. Amy Fast argues that the American public education system has never truly defined its mission—and that real change is impossible without a common and inspiring purpose. As former elementary teacher and current high school vice principal with 17 years of experience in education under her belt, we thought she would be a perfect candidate to answer a few of our biggest questions.

DR. Amy Fast

1. In the first chapter of your book, you assert: “Most of us would argue that successful, happy people possess much more than just academic prowess. Thus, teachers struggle to employ a curriculum that consists mostly of test preparation when many of their students are void of the basic social and intrapersonal skills—referred to as ‘soft skills’—necessary to make it in life.”

What “soft skills” do you think are most critical for students to develop, and how can teachers add them to their teaching?

Fast: I recently read an article titled, "A Plan to Kill High School Transcripts... and Transform College Admissions." In it, the author discusses a group called "The Mastery Transcript Consortium" that proposes changing the entire way we assess students via competency-based education rather than seat time. Rather than mastery of traditional subjects being the end goal for students, subjects are the vehicle through which students master skills such as analytical and creative thinking; complex communication; leadership and teamwork; digital and quantitative literacy; global perspective; adaptability; initiative; and risk taking; integrity and ethical decision-making; and habits of mind.

This idea excites me so much and is congruent with many of the ideas I discuss in my book. What we know for sure is that academic achievement is not the biggest piece of the success puzzle. Granted, knowledge is extremely important, but it's only one of many components of success in life and in the work force.

If I had to pick only two attributes that my own children would possess by the time they enter "the real world," they would be hope/intrinsic drive and self-awareness. Individuals that possess these two traits are not only successful, but they are world-changers. However, we don't focus on them very much in schools because up until now, we weren't really sure how to measure them.

2. In the book, you also talk about low morale among teachers and how fewer and fewer educators see teaching as a “mission” or a passion… how do you work to combat this in your own school? What do you feel are the key support tools teachers need to succeed?

Fast: Well, first, I work with some inspiring and passionate educators, so it's not just our administrative team that keeps the mission and excitement alive in our school—the teachers and support staff keep it alive for us as well. That being said, our team is extremely committed to focusing on what matters for students.

There's an expression in education: "What gets tested gets taught." A lot of the demoralization in the field of education comes from a generalized frustration from educators that those who are out of the classroom and making the rules and assigning the measures are out of touch with what really matters for students. At our school, we of course value measures of academic achievement, but see that as "effect" data. We put much more weight on our "cause" data, which we see as our staff and student perception data.

For instance, if students are under-performing in math, we can guess at the reasons why, or we can ask the students themselves: Do they feel the classes are relevant to their lives? Do they think they are too hard? Too easy? Do they feel like their teachers care about them and their success?

Student perception surveys are more accurate reflections of teacher effectiveness than supervisor observations, and answers to these questions give clarity to the work that needs to be done. It just so happens that we have amazing educators at our school, and thus, our students survey responses are generally extremely affirming. This helps with morale.

In addition, our administrative team believes in assuming best intentions in both students and staff. We believe in highlighting and harnessing the strengths of our staff rather than simply shoring up deficits. This is the expectation we have regarding how our students are treated, so why wouldn't we extend the same respect to our staff? Teaching is hard work, and to do it well, staff have to not just work hard, but work inspired. So, we utilize research outside the field of education to ensure we're fueling their intrinsic drive as much as possible. In all the work we do, we try to make sure that it fosters staff autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If it doesn't, we reevaluate our practices.

3. You recently tweeted, “Twice now I've put a student with severe behaviors into advanced courses as a solution & twice now it's worked.The implications are numerous.” Can you expand on this a bit? How long did it take for this solution to start working, and what are some of the aforementioned implications?

Fast: Because of confidentiality reasons, I can't elaborate too much, but in both instances, the results were immediate and significant. I think in most cases, students are way more capable than we give them credit for. In each of these cases, I was working with a student who had been overtly defiant and disrespectful. They were in basic or remedial classes and were clearly living up to their labels. So, I decided to give them a different label.

"It's amazing the effect that expectations and labels have on students—whether positive or negative, students generally live up to them."

Don't get me wrong, each still received a consequence—but that didn't address the root of the problem, which was that each of these students felt that the only thing that made them significant or unique was the hell that they could raise. :) So, I found another way for each of them to matter. Granted, I put them in advanced classes in areas of their strengths, but even then, one of them was in special education and would have never been in an advanced class otherwise. It's amazing the effect that expectations and labels have on students—whether positive or negative, students generally live up to them.

The implications to me are clear. Here are just a few:

  1. We need to raise the bar for students, as many students are more capable than we know.
  2. Every kid deserves to have a "thing" that they're known for. If we don't surface that thing, they'll create one, and the ways they find to feel significant aren't always productive or positive.
  3. Students tend to mirror those they spend time with. If we want to improve their behavior, we should probably start by placing them in classes around peers that model those positive behaviors.

4. As a teacher turned administrator, how do you use your experience in the classroom to inform the work you currently do as a vice principal?

Fast: I would hope that most individuals who find themselves in administration first spent many years in the classroom. This year will be my 17th year in education. I started in elementary, where I taught both in 4th and 5th grade for 10 years. Then, I became an instructional coach, where I worked side-by-side with teachers to model lessons, observe, provide feedback, write curriculum, design assessments, and more.

I'm a pretty restless person, so about 11 or so years in, I decided to get my doctorate. I wrapped my admin license into that work without ever really thinking that I'd pursue administration. However, I have a hard time not being involved in exciting change and big ideas, so when I was approached to apply for the assistant principal job at our high school, I couldn't turn it down.

In my building, leadership isn't really hierarchical, so I'm still very much an educator, and most of our teachers are very much school leaders. My job description just is a bit different. Going into my third year as vice principal, I would hope that my colleagues would say that I haven't lost touch with the challenges and rewards of classroom teaching.

5. What advice do you have for teachers who want to follow your career path into administration?

Fast: Most importantly, make sure you have a solid WHY. Those with a broken why, no matter how charming or competent, will never succeed in this job. Second, be prepared for the amount of time you have to devote to the work. I'm lucky to have a supportive husband who is also the best dad ever to our children when I'm not home.

There are also a handful of female administrators in our district who are under 40 years old and who serve as a great support system for one another. Our husbands also commiserate together about the housework they have to do, the dinners they have to cook, etc.—in fact, they're thinking of starting a support group called HOPS (Husbands of Principals). In this job, a good sense of humor doesn't hurt either!

6. Many education experts struggle to succinctly define the mission of public education. How would you define it?

Fast: I'm what you'd call a Social Reconstructionist, which means that I believe one of the primary functions of education is to mold and improve society. However, I also believe that society will not improve without first improving the lives of the individuals it's comprised of. I believe the role of education is to equip and inspire people to utilize their full potentials in pursuit of a noble purpose.

"I don't care how great of a job my students get some day if they're not happy, or aren't good people, or aren't contributing to their communities in some meaningful way."

I am extremely hesitant to embrace any mission that is shortsighted—primarily those that are conceived solely to improve the economy. I don't care how great of a job my students get some day if they're not happy, or aren't good people, or aren't contributing to their communities in some meaningful way. If that happens, I don't feel that we've done our job as educators.

7. How has the teaching/education profession changed since you first entered it?

Fast: Oh, wow. Well, my first year was the roll-out of NCLB, and while there are many legitimate criticisms of standardization, I do feel that components of that legislation made me a better teacher. I had to think critically about what students needed most, I had to raise my expectations of all students, and people actually paid attention to the work I was doing in my classroom. Those aren't bad things.

I think, though, since then we've slowly been embracing a more nuanced definition of student success—one that values multiple measures. In addition, I think we're starting to acknowledge that no matter how much we want teaching to be a science that we can prescribe and replicate, it's also very much an art, and it's a human profession that hinges on human connection and emotions.

8. Follow up: Crystal ball, 20 years from now, what do you see as the best-case and worst-case scenarios for public education?

Fast: Worst case? The opportunity and achievement gap has increased because we've continued to see the field of education as a means to an economic end. Students may be passing tests, but they're bored, apathetic, disenfranchised, and unaware of their own strengths, passions, and potentials.

Best case? Students' passions determine the learning. We begin to place more weight on student voice as a measure of our effectiveness. Students have a real purpose for their learning and that learning positively affects their communities as a result. Because the work they do is so relevant and engaging, we can actually increase the challenge, and we're graduating more skilled and driven students than ever.

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Author Bio:

Dr. Amy Fast is a teacher, instructional coach, professional developer, and educational leader for the McMinnville School District in Oregon. Follow her on Twitter at @fastcranny.

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