Classroom Culture and Rigor with Andrew Sharos

Nov 30, 2021

Welcome back to the Sustainable Teacher Podcast, I am your host, Mandy Rice, a ten year teacher turned biggest teacher supporter in building sustainable classrooms so you can stay there longer, and today on the show we have Andrew Sharos, the author of Finding Lifelines and All 4s and 5s, a teacher then administrator, and now an administrator and teacher and school supporter, providing professional development and support to schools around the country.

In today’s episode, Andrew and I are talking about his book, All 4s and 5s, whose title is referring to the highest scores a student can get on the AP Exam.  For those who don’t know, AP stands for Advanced Placement, and is a global curriculum in over 30 courses run by an organization called CollegeBoard, and at the end of each course, in the month of May, across the world, hundreds of thousands of students take a summative test to prove how much they learned in that course.  That test is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, and most college and universities will accept a three or higher for at least some, in some cases a substantial, amount of college credit.

I personally took two AP courses and tests, AP U.S. History and AP Psychology, got a 4 on both of them, earning the equivalent of 4 college courses of credit saving my family and I thousands of dollars.

But here’s the thing.... This episode and this book we’ll be chatting about is NOT, I repeat, is NOT exclusively for Advanced Placement teachers.  No, not at all.

This episode and Andrew’s book is for any teacher who wants to build a classroom culture that is not each kid against each other, but instead is, as Andrew explains it, us together versus the test.

If you are an educator who wants to understand and master the technique that allows you to rise above just being a top expert in your content, yet allows you to still get great student outcomes, then this episode is for you.

And stay tuned until the end when I talk about a giveaway you won’t want to miss.

Here we go.



Hello, Andrew and welcome to the sustainable teacher. 

Andrew: Hey Mandy, how are you?

Mandy: Good. How's it going? Thanks so much for being here. 

Andrew: I'm happy to be here. Anytime we could talk a little flip classroom, talk a little bit about our books and our work. We're always excited to share things with teachers, so I'm, happy to be here.

Mandy: That's awesome. Yeah. I'm really glad to have you, to just another perspective for listeners that are teachers and like I said, looking to get a new perspective and I'm really, really excited, but let's start off with you introducing yourself. Tell us about all things, Andrew.

Andrew: Sure. I've been an educator for 16 years now. I started off in a social studies classroom much like yourself. More of an AP US history guy and regular history, some sociology. I've been assistant Dean for a year, an assistant principal, kinda involved more on the macro-level of our AP program. We do some professional development for new teachers and I've been really fortunate over the last seven or eight years to kinda work with teachers in schools around the country, sort of centered around two of the books that I wrote. I wrote one book about the greatest thing I've done in education. And I wrote the other book about the worst thing I've done in education, and that was being a new teacher. But hopefully I say that humbly knowing that I've been really lucky to work at the suburban district here in Chicago of my whole career and work with some amazing kids, awesome parents and really, really good colleagues. So I've been very fortunate to take that message to a greater audience too. 

Mandy: That's awesome that you've been able to have quite a few roles in the same district and seeing the different impacts that can happen because of those. And we're gonna get to talking more about your book, All fours and fives. And yes, you've written two and we'll be sure that we have links for listeners down in the show notes, when you scroll down, you can see those. But we definitely wanna talk about those books, but first tell listeners about your work that you do, like you said with teachers around the country, what does that look like? So you're an assistant principal right now, right? 

Andrew: Yeah. But I think a lot of it really appeals to the work that we do in the classroom with instructional method. So when I took over the AP program I guess it would be probably a decade ago, our school had a 1.9 class average for that class that we taught. And within three years we had a 4.45 class average, the highest test scores in the state of Illinois. Our district won the AP school district of the year award. And it was like, oh my gosh, how did all this stuff happen? So we had to sort of middling maybe below average AP program with lower pass rates and all of a sudden it just like exploded. So I share this personal story that I tore my ACL playing basketball. Everybody else when you're on the shelf for a couple weeks, like you binge watch Netflix.

This is like pre pandemic. So I did that the first time. Got back, I tore my ACL again, playing basketball. My wife told me if I did it a third time, she wouldn't take care of me the third time. And so I used the two weeks that time to sit down and just write down about all the things that we did that I thought made us successful. So how could you do this with a similar group of students with a similar group of challenges that you have, in your community or with the students and their skill sets and their content knowledge, like anybody can achieve high academic greatness or complete high academic work if they're well supported. And so the second time I went through this it turned into a book.

It was kinda love at first sight with the publisher. I picked the right one and hopefully they feel the same about me and they published for the smallest audience they had ever published for. And you know this as an AP teacher, right? We have a bond that as soon as you and I started talking, we already knew that there were certain things, a certain language that you and I can speak to each other because we've been through that journey. And so for those people who speak that language, they were so passionate that the hundred thousand of us around the country that do this, had this book out there. And it wasn't about how much money they were gonna spend and in maybe some cases how much they were gonna lose on it. They wanted to make sure that this got in front of teachers like you and I. I was very fortunate and hopefully other teachers feel the same way after getting their eyes on it. 

Mandy: That's really cool that you found a publisher that was more about, we need to get this message in front of them. And I wanna talk about that message. So your book, All fours and fives and I love the stories that you share, particularly the one where you talk about your AP teacher and the conversation that he had with you. Do you mind just kind of giving a glimpse of that? 

Andrew: Okay. Well you didn't tell me this question was coming, so now they are really authentic answers.

Mandy: I know right. What was name, Mr. Finch? He told you not to take the AP exam. Oh my goodness. 

Andrew: But he was right. He was right. I was a sophomore and a sophomore shouldn't take APUS history, but I did it anyway. Cause it was sort of that peer thing. Like, all my friends are doing it. I gotta be like in that crowd. And then I do look around at the other 28 kids in the class and you're like I might be like the least smart kid in here, which is fine. And maturity wise too as a sophomore, you're around a bunch of other juniors and I just didn't have it all figured out yet. And now there's all sorts of research on, if you get a two on the exam, it's a decent score. And it means college completion will be a better chance in four years. And also like, you're gonna go through this experience that hopefully a two as a sophomore leads to a three or a four as a junior or senior. But I was so discouraged after taking that class. I never took another one. And so I used pseudonyms for all the people in the book. So you almost caught me with the real name of the teacher. Who's still a friend of mine today. 

Mandy: That's so cool.

Andrew: I sent him a copy of the book and I was hoping that the way I portrayed him was fair. And it was nice because we're still in touch. And it wasn't a great experience for me, but really not through any fault of his. And he sent me an email back and he said he really enjoyed reading it. He's passed it along to other people. And he signed his email, Mr. Finch, the pseudonym that I used for him in the book. 

Mandy: That's super cool. I bring that up because it's cool that you had that experience and yet went on to teach the course and have such impact with your kids. So maybe it wasn't an awful or bad experience in AP because it really fueled you as an educator later on. And I think that's cool that we can see that in hindsight. We can see that in hindsight and that's a cool experience.

Andrew: Well, there's no doubt it's part of the story. I think that helps motivate my students that like, wait, I can do better than you did when you were in high school. I think that's cool. Like all of us know, especially if you teach gifted students that you've got, seven to eight kids in every class that are smarter than you are, like today, not really smarter, but like they're smart. I think that's cool to kinda have that re revelation in front of your students. And then I also think like if we create the right competition, just because of who you are and where you come from or what all the data says about your socioeconomic background or what kids should be able to achieve that doesn't matter. Like it's all of us against the test. It's all of us against these kids at other schools. Like the same kids you'll be competing with for college entry and jobs. And I try to play to that edge in my kids in the community that we live in. I think it means even more when you're able to compete on that level. 

Mandy: That's awesome. So for everybody listening, yes, the book, All fours and fives refers to advanced placement, a series of courses, how many are there? There's a lot.

Andrew: 39.

Mandy: Something like that. Advanced placement courses put on through College Board, where they take a test at the end of the year and they can get anywhere from a one to a five public universities. And, well, this is at least in the state of Ohio where we are most public universities accepting a three or a higher for college credit. And it's like a $90 exam. Something like that. I think it was 75 when I took it.

Andrew: Inflation.

Mandy: So, for like a hundred bucks, less than a hundred bucks, you get thousands of dollars worth of college credit. And it really has become very much a subculture in the high school, secondary realm. But I don't want to deter anyone who's listening to say, well, I'm elementary, or I'll never teach AP because this is a book about culture. This is a book about classroom culture and what it is to, like you just said, and I love how you said this throughout the book over and over again. It's not me versus you. It's not you versus your peers. It's a us versus the test and that classroom culture that welcomes some healthy competition and yet camaraderie and like just gang together and let's do this together. Let's bring each other up, is gonna impact classrooms, not just AP ones. And so that is really cool. 

So what I want to do is give you some time to tell us about well three things, three things you can share from the book that you think will resonate with teachers listening in, whether that's about AP specific courses or about classroom culture because AP courses aren't the only ones that have a high stake test at the end of it. Talk to us about that.

Andrew: Well, I love the setup. I think just in talking about the expansive nature of the message, you gotta like do publicity for me or something because I think that was perfect. I dunno if I could say that [13:11 inaudible]. I would say like, I gave this book to my former principal and he was always the most supportive person in the world of me and my work, whether that was teaching or being an administrator or sharing my message with other people. And he said, you wanna know something, you really whiff on the title on this book, I said, what do you mean? He goes, this book is not about AP, it's about teaching. And you can take those two letters off the front of everything that we talk about in the book. And it's about creating a culture that is unique and different, but also has really high expectations for kids. 

And I think culture is a word that we're hearing a lot inside of education right now, certainly outside of education, corporate America and social media and sports teams. They're always talking about their program culture, their team culture, their organizational culture. And that's really shifted in the last couple years. We're at home, we've lost some of the culture. The kids have been remote learning. We've lost some of the culture. We're working from our living rooms on desktops. Like there's no office culture. And I think, when you think about it, you can feel culture if you're aware of it. You can sense it if you're in the presence of it. You can hear it if you're listening for it and you can see it, even if there aren't words spoken.

Culture is like the oxygen of your classroom and without oxygen you can't breathe. And I think when you look at an elementary school teacher, a middle school teacher, a college professor, it doesn't matter what level it is, the gap between our talents, in teaching skills teaching or having content knowledge ad the way that we deliver it is razor thin. Most of us know what we're talking about. And most of us know how to get it to kids. It really is razor thin. Some are a little stronger than others, more experienced. The larger gaps in teachers, I think comes in, who can create something unique and different in a classroom culture. And you said it, it's about us. There's no me, there's no I, it's about a teacher's relationship with every individual student and a teacher's relationship with that class. And those aren't the same things. And we have to work on both of them. But culture is the driver. 

Mandy: So as you're talking, all I'm thinking is teachers are leaders. And I totally agree with you. We could teach just about anybody, how to deliver content in an effective way. 

Andrew: Yeah how to teach in front of the kids. 

Mandy: Yeah. Right. We can teach somebody how to effectively get somebody to learn. Like the brain isn't that hard to figure out, maybe sometimes more than others.

Andrew: Well, you're the psych teacher. Someone said this to me once and it made a lot of sense. They said, here's the great secret to teaching. If you can get kids to do what you want them to do you're gonna be a great teacher. And it's like, that just means like, your instructional design is really good. Your content knowledge is probably there. The way that you get skills to kids is in place. But the hard part is, can you get them to do what you want them to do? And culture and relationships really drives it.

Mandy: Yes, that was a hard conversation I've had with multiple newer teachers about, I just want to like teach what I love. And they're recognizing, but I have to motivate people. And I don't know, I can't think of an occupation where you don't have to do something along those lines, especially in education and elsewhere too. But as an administrator, as an administrative assistant, like you have to be able to work with people and motivate them and get them doing things that you need them to do. And you know, teaching's not unique in that way, but if you can do that, you've got something, you've got something and that's huge in building classroom culture. So I'm glad we talked about that. That's Good. 

Andrew: It drives everything. I think if they start to use the words that you use, if they internalize the why, if they are on a mission. And you create that mission with your students, I think that everything else just becomes a lot easier. And we all have, I think weaknesses as teachers, we're maybe hypersensitive and aware of that. And I think those who drive a good classroom culture, it kind of covers for some of your weak. If you're a brand new teacher, or you're maybe less secure in your knowledge of the content or like the surrounding school or situation that you're in. Everything gets better when you're confident of the vibe in your classroom. 

Mandy: That's good. So with teacher on a mission, we have a couple of membership programs for teachers. Three of them, actually, two of them being for AP teachers and the reason why we have those, is so that they, A. Can get confident in the content. They get that kind of content coaching. But something that we tell them a lot and that we hope for them a lot, is that in taking care of kind of your to-do list of content, you can focus on the kids. You can kind of create that vibe with your students that is so influential. And so I'm thinking of them as we're talking about this a lot, because yes, the content's hard, it's a lot, it's rigorous. You'll get there though. You'll get the content eventually.

Andrew: The amount of time that we spend on that, planning for that, learning some of that and wait, you're telling me there's something that I can get more bang for my buck if I just do this really well, like this other stuff will start. And again, I don't mean to minimize how tough it is to get ready for an 800 vocab word class, like AP psych [18:54 inaudible]. So not to minimize that, but I think the value really is in the attention I think that we give being intentional about creating that classroom culture.

Mandy: Yes. Yeah. Oh, that's huge. Yeah. And I agree with you, not to minimize the content or to say that if you know nothing about it, you can still be effective. No, not really. But it is also okay to say, you know what? I don't know that. So let's explore it a little bit more or we're gonna focus here, but let's make sure that we get back to this area that I don't know a whole lot about. It's okay to do that too, that's awesome. So that's definitely one of the three things that you said you were gonna share is about culture and that's huge. A huge part of this book that surpasses advanced placement courses, for sure. But what are a couple others that you would suggest to listeners who are teaching AP courses or really any course with that big test at the end?

Andrew: You want me to talk Xs and OS for a little bit?

Mandy: I want some practical.

Andrew: That's not my jam, but hopefully I surprise you a little bit. So I think one thing is really to look at your homework policy. I mean, I think that's something that we've reevaluated a lot in the last couple years and what we're asking kids to do outside of class. But to be fair, this conversation was happening five years ago, 10 years ago, when kids are committed after school, we want them to have good social emotional habits and health, their families are important. And so if we can simplify homework to one thing that is irreplaceable for kids to do with consistency, I think that's super important. And I think it's a positive way to approach your kids and saying like, I'm not gonna make you do anything that doesn't matter, or doesn't have value to it. So, Hey, we finish questions one and two today, can you do questions three, four, and five at home? No, like, let's stop doing that. You've gotta do this group work outside where you're gonna zoom with somebody else or get on Google Hangout and get this group project. No, it's not necessarily. 

Mandy: It's so complex. 

Andrew: Listen, I'm talking to flip classroom google. We can use our class time to do a lot of that stuff, but could you read these five pages and take notes on it every night for me, because I'm your teacher. But you're your history teacher. You gotta get a little bit of this stuff on your own and then I'll take care of the rest. I think once we sort of signed that informal contract with kids that like please do this one thing for me with regularity, I will take everything else off your plate.

Mandy: Yes. And that's a cool conversation to have because your kids immediately become aware of, wow, they've been thinking about this. He's been thinking about my time in the evenings, making sure that it's gonna be effective. And really thinking about not just how it's gonna be effective, but like I got other stuff and so they can get on that bandwagon of, oh, okay. So you're just gonna have me do this one thing only throughout the school year, whether that's every night or not, but this is what you're committing to homework looking like, and it's simple, straightforward. It's the same thing every time. 

Andrew: But Mandy, you mentioned the words us and we earlier and how we use those in the book. And this isn't just about the kids. This is the first call I've had with you where there hasn't been a kid running around in the background either on my end or your end. Listen, I don't have time to be doing this stuff outside of school either. And so let's get this done. In class let's do this with regularity, maybe a little bit of homework where it's consistent, but your life outside of school is just as important as ours, as a teacher, as an educator. We have to take care of the caretakers. And so, it's important too, that we kind of simplify what our lives are like outside of our teaching too.

Mandy: That's so good. And I don't know about you, but ever since becoming a parent homework has kind of changed in my mind. Before I was a parent teaching an AP course, I'm like hardcore, like, nope, you're gonna do homework and you gotta do this and that. And then I was like, wait, do I want my own children coming home with, 45 minutes to an hour of homework for every one of their classes?

Andrew: Remember we're young parents. We're caught in this, like I'm actually doing the homework for my child. I'm looking over their shoulder to make sure that they get the right answer. Imagine right. And years from now, as our kids grow up, when they do have four or five hours of homework, and I wanna like go to church on Sunday and then like go for a hike as a family, that's gonna bother me.

Mandy: Yes. It will me too.

Andrew: Reassessing that, like you said, from the lens of a parent, but also from the lens of an educator. Not to say that we lower expectations. The rigor is there, but rigor doesn't necessarily mean more work. 

Mandy: Yes. Oh, that's good. Rigor can be there and it doesn't automatically mean more work. I love that.

Andrew: Barbara Blackburn rigor is not a four letter word. It's a good book that she did.

Mandy: That's awesome. That's awesome. Okay. What's the other one that you had that's about feedback? 

Andrew: Well, I think it kind of feeds into this homework idea that we spend so much time grading and we spend so much time putting comments on the side of Google docs and trying to get kids formal, informal, formative, whatever you wanna call it, summative feedback. We get caught up in this time suck of like giving feedback to kids. Here's the problem. We do that really well. And then their investment in reading that feedback is not always as strong as ours in giving it. So let me turn to the back page and see like what grade I got. 

Feedback has to be two things. And I think I've learned this in working with student focus groups around the country, is it's either gotta be personal or it's to be efficient. And by personal, I mean, when I started to sit down with kids and read their writing out loud, do a writing conference or kind of sit elbow to elbow in a student desk and just read their stuff out loud and talk to them, I could give them more in a five or 10 minute conference about their work than I ever could writing on a Google doc or pouring a red pen onto paper. 

And not everyone has time to do personal feedback for every single assignment. I get that. So if it's not personal, it better be efficient. We have to find ways of doing, peer editing. We have to find ways of putting up samples of student work from previous years, where the whole class could decide like, oh yeah, they did that really well in their writing, or there is where you went wrong in that math problem. So they're doing some self-assessment and some group assessment where they can see some of those strengths and weaknesses in their peers writing and their peers problem solving because we can't do it all on our own. 

Mandy: Absolutely. So I'm teaching a course at a local university, the intro to educational technology. And we're talking about feedback and we're talking about assessments being used to enhance learning. Like what do you do after you get the test back? And I told them, the worst thing you can do for a student with their test is to put a grade on it because that's all they're going to see. Of course you have to go with the grade on it. But you've gotta build that into the culture of your room that we don't just look at this grade, ask everybody else what they got and then throw it away and move on. You've gotta create that culture that, no, this is an opportunity for me to learn. Just like your notes or whatever you ask them to do for homework. It's valuable. It contributes to this process of learning. Tests are the same way. 

And I love how you said that. Just sitting down with a kid and reading their writing out loud. I absolutely did that. And I'm so glad that I verified that that's a good thing because I did that and I was like, I almost felt kind of harsh in doing it, but it was so effective. I'm like, yeah, we're just gonna keep doing this and I'm gonna make sure that I'm nice too. And not just like hammering a kid every time, but that's really cool. 

Andrew: Well, it's funny, you mentioned that. I think the only criticism I've gotten of this book, to this point was someone will come up to me and they'll be like, I do a lot of the stuff that you're talking about in this book already. I do that and I appreciate that criticism, if you wanna call it that or constructive feedback. Yes it provides people affirmation that there are other people out there that are practicing some of the same things and seeing good results from it.

Mandy: Yeah, that's really helpful, it's either personal or it's incredibly efficient, otherwise they're not going to read it.

Andrew: Different goals. Personally I really wanna give you some good feedback that you can't get any other way, but efficient. Being mindful of our own time.

Mandy: And when it's personal, it can be that much more effective and you probably don't have to be that personal with them very many more times throughout the year. This isn't like an every single week or every single unit kind of thing.

Andrew: No you're inside my classroom planning now. This is a five to six times a year thing. On the highest stakes assignments or tasks or whatever you're allowing students to do. 

Mandy: Absolutely. Alright. So everybody listening, you gotta get a copy of this and I'm actually going to give away a copy. So be sure to read in the show notes and I'll let you know, but you need to share the podcast episode. All you have to do is take a screenshot of it and put it on social media, tagging me and you'll be answered and I'm going to give away one of Andrew's books, All fours and fives, and I'm super, super excited to do that. But before we kind of wrap up and say goodbye, I do want you to tell us about how schools have used the book and what you teach inside it. So what is that professional development conference, what does that look like.

Andrew: It's been so much fun. I think it's just been a great way to connect with other people that do what we do every single day. So some schools will do a book study and that's kind of a low stakes way of like diving into the PD where they can kind of make sense of it from their lens and from their school. And so I'm happy to like hop on zoom and introduce it. Check in, in the middle or I can kind of wrap it up at the very end. 

Some schools will do like a one day professional development around it. We've done some zoom recently but we're also starting to return to in person. So I've been very for fortunate to be around the country a little bit this fall talking about the book again and really now through the lens of what learning looks like two years removed from everything.

It's cool, people will reach out and they'll say, Hey, I'm in the middle of Oklahoma. We're some of the lowest paid teachers in the country and we're on strike right now for better wages. And while we're on strike, like we're reading your book together and it's giving us hope and it's giving us excitement and I had a student last week from the Charleston area in South Carolina, he's doing AP research project on what are the factors that lead some schools to higher AP test scores and some of the program supports. And we're going through his like qualitative research together and he's using me as a resource. And so we have a monthly zoom chat where we kind of talk and here's some random kid at this school in Charleston. And Ethan's a great guy, we're gonna have a great project together.

So, yeah, I mean, we run conferences for schools. If you have five or six schools in your area who wanna get together and run something in the summer we'll pop in for a day or two of PD. And then sometimes we'll do like year long contracts where schools really are focusing on building their program. So it's not just about individual teacher, but it's about identification, outreach, support and how to build support for the teachers and the kids in the room. It's been fun. It's really all about connecting. And I love trying to get to know a little bit more about these other schools and what they're doing successfully. It helps us back here too. 

Mandy: Absolutely. That's awesome. Alright, Andrew, where can teachers find you and keep in touch? 

Andrew: Well you mentioned Twitter. So if people are tagging you, you might as well tag me too, and I can retweet it. But it's @Andrew Sharos AP. [email protected] is my email address. And then Andrewsharos.com is the website. Pretty much everything you need to know.

Mandy: Simple as that. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking some time to sit down and chat with me. Awesome job, kudos to you on identifying that classroom culture and how kids feel in your room is just as, if not more important than their score at the end of the year. 

Andrew: Student outcomes are about students not outcomes, right? 

Mandy: Absolutely, that's awesome. Alright thanks Andrew and have a great one. 

Andrew: Alright, Mandy. Thank you. Bye

If Andrew’s interview and this episode doesn’t make you want to grab a copy of the book, I don’t know what will.  Head over to Andrew’s website, Andrewsharos.com, click on the Books page and grab yourself a copy.

Better yet, how about I give someone listening today a copy?  I’m going to do just that!  I’m going to give away two copies of Andrew’s book, so to enter in that giveaway, take a screenshot of the podcast as you’re listening right now, post it on social media whether that’s as a post or in a story, tagging @Teachonam1ssion (Instagram, Facebook) and @AndrewSharosAP, and I’ll give two teachers a copy on December 15th, 2021.  Be sure to see our social media handles that are linked in the show notes so that you’re sure to tag the correct people, and I can’t wait to announce on social media who our winners are.

Alright teacher-friend, I’ll see you same time, next week.  Bye for now.

P.S. Before you go! I have to tell you about an awesome opportunity that I've guided over 500 teachers through, and is now available to you!  Ever wanted to flip your classroom?  How about flipping before next semester?  Well, if you want it, we can do it, together 😀.  Head over to my totally free Flipped Classroom Masterclass to learn how (and receive CEUs for the training) by signing up here.  Hurry, because it won't be available for free for long.  See you there!


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