Monday, December 27, 2010

Don't blame teachers, assholes.

Modern educational "reformers" such as Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, David Guggenheim, Bill Gates, and Barack Obama tend to place great importance and blame teachers for poor test scores. A new PISA report shows that the US has stagnated when compared to the rest of the developed world, ranking below countries such as Poland, Portugal, and the Czech Republic. Most of the "reformers" believe the solution would involve firing those 'bad' teachers and principals. That is moronic. People who know about education, who have been teachers and not just read about it, examined the data and found interesting correlations educators have known all along.

The NEA (yeah, the union) broke down the numbers based on poverty. What the NEA found was striking. When you separate American schools based on poverty rates and compare them to other countries of a similar poverty rate, American students outperform everybody. Countries with a 10% poverty rate scored lower than American students in schools with a 10% poverty rate. The US was #1. Countries with a 20% poverty rate score lower than American schools with a 20% poverty rate. It is only when you get into high poverty schools that American students begin to underperform other countries. Our system takes a huge variety of of students and performs amazingly well. More tests, so called accountability, and firing bad teachers will not solve anything. Lets look at home grown successes, not racially homogeneous unimpoverished countries such as Finland or Japan. In addition, be mindful of numbers. Only 35% of students in Shanghai are allowed to go to school. We have to take everybody, and we still kick their ass. Take that China.

See the articles for yourself.
PISA Results
High Test Scores, Low Ability

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Since I've started my teaching career, and especially in the last three years at my current school, I have taught and been involved in a multitude of resume fattening opportunities. I have taught sheltered, special education, honors, expelled, and regular education courses in seven subjects. Training in ESL, MYP, and Constructing Meaning have given me some credit hours and tools for teaching. I have been assistant department chair, department chair, and union representative. My test scores and relationships with administration and teachers are exquisite, even though I believe test scores are meaningless numbers; "Fuzzy Math" according to George. Best of all, I'm still young and cheap to hire. Next year my school is offering me their final fat opportunity, IB.

The International Baccalaureate program is similar to AP in that they are challenging courses, taught at a very high level. If a student passes an IB exam they will receive college credit. The IB program offers almost a whole year of college credit if the student is able to pass the very difficult examinations. My school decided I should teach the senior level History of the Americas course, meaning I would be the final step for those students. That is a very big responsibility. My students from last year are already excited at the possibility of having me as their teacher again. To top that all off, the district will fly me to Lake Tahoe for training this summer. I had told my administration I would never volunteer to take on that extra work and responsibility if I still had 6 classes and 3 preps again. I hope to bring that down to two preps, and with the new schedule for next year, 5 classes. Administration wants me to keep teaching 10th grade Honors US History, so the students are ready for IB. That would be my ideal schedule. Hopefully that can happen.

My dilemma is deciding on whether I want to stay. Why stay in a district that values its employees as little as mine. This is the age when teachers pick their district, when you are young, marketable, and won't lose many salary years in a move. I have two teachers that are going to be principals next year. One may even be starting a charter school. Wouldn't it be nice to have the backing of administration, and not have to defend yourself from parents and bosses at the same time? I hate charters. But I also hate being treated like an automaton by the district. The only thing keeping me at my school are the kids. In no other school do you have the kind of opportunities to change lives. I shall have to wait and see how the chips fall second semester.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Difficult Conversations

You are never just a teacher. I also double as a counselor, mentor, monitor, authoritarian, and administrator. Sometimes, teachers and school are the most stable aspects of some kid's lives. I unwittingly get thrown into roles I am neither trained or completely comfortable with. For example, when I taught law, students would ask me about their "cousins" because they got in trouble over immigration, driving, or any other aspect of the law. I wasn't qualified or trained.

On Tuesday, I had a student come to me crying because she didn't have anybody else to turn to. I consider that quite the vote of confidence, but also rather frightening. Who did I think I was helping Lesley make important life decisions? First, her mother was suicidal to the point that Lesley had to miss most of a semester to take care of and monitor her. Because of this, her parents were getting a divorce. Her cousin in Mexico who was taking care of her grandparents got onto a list of the drug cartels. And to top it all of, her brothers and cousins living with her had gotten themselves into some Latin street gangs. She believed one of her cousins was behind, or knew who was involved in a drive by shooting at one of our schools the previous week. The shooting put an innocent girl in critical condition. She had been taken out of the room to talk to our building SROs, but didn't know whether to share what she knew.

This was one of the few times I considered giving out my personal contact information in case she needed somebody to talk to, or to be someplace else. I only considered. Dan, one of my coworkers stepped in and helped a student. He sent a student to California for a wrestling camp, fundraising, an bankrolling the whole operation himself. He taught the kid how to weight lift and work out. Dan did this because he cared, and the student's deadbeat parents refused to lift a finger for their son. The deadbeat dad got jealous, and called the school and police on Dan. He was escorted out of he building by police, and not allowed in until he was proven innocent. That is how our society rewards teachers who go above and beyond. That story was in the back of my mind when I decided I couldn't get personally involved.

The most I could do was to offer my paltry advice. Because Lesley was spending so much time taking care of and advising other people, I recommended she find time to do something for herself. She needed to escape the frame of mind she was in, otherwise she would be an enabler. Lesley rattled off a list of hobbies and activities she would like to do. I told her what I do. She seemed to appreciate and enjoy that suggestion. However she interpreted that advice, Lesley has been in class ever since. I sure do hope playing psychiatrist for 50 minutes did some good. I wish I could have done more. That seems to be a continual theme.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I have never been one of those teachers that looked forward to weekends or breaks. I used to silently mock those who treat the school like Office Space. Teaching the kids is awesome, and I wouldn't do anything else. This year, however, is different, and it's not the kids. Some people just take the joy out of life.

I'm done with the patronizing condescension. I'm done with the bullshit 'reforms.' I'm done with amateurs fucking up our kid's education. What hurts more than the morons causing the damage is having good teachers made to feel ineffective because they are stretched to thin. We care, and when we can't do our job, it kills. I'm done. Is it winter break yet?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Teachers have private lives?

It never ceases to amaze me the comments and questions of students. They tend to believe that you were born and reside in the school. Once they find out you have private life the inquisition begins. Every time I have a haircut "You got a haircut? When was that? Where do you go? My cousin cuts hair too!" This week I also got, "Hey mister, you're a vegetarian right? Do you eat animal crackers?" The small bits of comedy are what helps keep me going.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


With all the drama going around lately, it occurred to me that my mind was so far away from where I wanted it to be. Teaching got put on cruise control and took a back seat to insult and injury. There is only so much that the brain can hone in on at once. I tried my hardest to be very deliberate in my thinking and interactions. I needed to refocus my efforts back on teaching and ignore the cesspool of agitation swirling about. Ignore the union meeting, the imposed all day PD, and the "learning walk." I purposely ignored and avoided other teachers all week, didn't talk about school with coworkers, and hunkered down in my bunker. I needed to remember why I decided to teach.

This week I had some classroom victories. I wrapped up my unit on unionization with my sheltered an honors students. My goal with the sheltered students was to get them to understand the robber baron vs. labor union fight, and how each side tried to get what they wanted. The vocabulary was tough for them, but in the end my Nepali, Congolese, and Latin students got it. Small but important victory.

For my honors students, I prescribed a reading by Howard Zinn from A People's History of the United States. We contrasted Zinn and the textbook, followed up by a 50 minute discussion on the role of public schools. I asked: Created to form the new industrial worker and teach obedience, do schools still pursue the same goal, or do they attempt to create independent thinking citizens? Students were split, with most believing that school is what you make it, or by teacher. Thankfully, they said my class taught them to think and challenge.

The following day the students organized their own chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) using democratic values of that union. Students had to conduct the 1912 strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts and decide on the real life problems that arose during that strike, and resolve them through democratic cooperation and the ideals of the IWW. In the end the students had an unfacilitated discussion about the IWW, how to win, and had to use Eugene Debs' quote to explain the ideals and leadership model of the IWW, versus the corporate leadership model.
Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage.He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if i could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.
This lesson really boils down to what I do. Create citizens ready to participate in a democratic society; independent thinking, questioning critical thinkers, who challenge misused authority, and lead, don't follow. This was one of many lessons on that topic. American history provides so many opportunities to teach the same message. Teaching this week was awesome, and I look forward to the rest of the year.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Don't feel much like writing. Extremely demoralizing week and year in general. I shall expound later.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Administration #2

Here is what I created. As department chair, these are real conversations I have been in. This is the reality of education from the eyes of administration.


Teachers are always blamed for an educational system that is more often than not created by those around them, administrators, or community. One teacher who is going through exactly the same kind of crap that our school is going through, created this video and put it on YouTube.

Focus walks are one of the school "reforms" that are designed to get teachers to see their coworkers techniques and styles. It is intended to improve instruction. However, the problem is that they are too structured and controlled, and provide little feedback to either party. I have often said that administrators are incompetent and incorrectly apply business models to education. This video portrays their repression and ignorance. This is real, what we actually have to deal with.

This video is about collaborative planning, which is teachers planning units, common formative and summative assessments. Like focus walks, they are too strictly controlled, and in our case, used to divide and criticize. When one teacher's students score well on the assessment, and another teacher's students don't, the data is used as an excuse to criticize, instead of learn and grow. Our building works under the "gotcha" system, and the current climate is one of terrorism from fools.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


This time of year always turns into a blur. The relief and brief bits of green from the summer turn brown again. Life decays, what was once fresh and new is now old. The light begins to diminish, and once again you begin to live in a cave. Sun up on your way to work, sun down on the way back.

I always feel a strange pull this time of year. Even though I love teaching and love my job, I feel the strange need to escape, and get away from civilization. To cherish the last bits of non-frozen tundra. Perhaps it's because you know there is a long hard winter coming. The next time that you'll see green is the end of the school year.
Three animals enjoying the last weeks without snow.

Disregarding my presence.

Bring on the melancholy of winter.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Teach on TV

The recent rise of interest in "saving our schools" has spawned two TV reality shows, Teach: Tony Danza, and School Pride. I remember the exasperation when Teach was first revealed. I don't need another person to tell me how to do my job. There's enough assholes in America today pontificating on the subject, despite lacking credentials or teaching certification. The idea behind the show is that Tony Danza will teach in an inner city school, learn how the system operates, and somehow teach his students and viewers about the reality in public education today. Surprisingly, it's doing a decent job.

Like all first year teachers, Danza is terrible. Also like all first year teachers, he cares deeply about the students, and takes much of his failures to heart. Instead of being edited to show the dysfunction of the school system, the focus is on Danza. He stumbles his way through lessons, absorbs criticism from teachers and students, meets and angers parents, feels overwhelmed, and fears he is being ineffective. I enjoy this show because it reveals much of what first year teachers go through, and that teaching is a skill not learned by books and colleges, but through actually doing it. Danza himself quotes the study that shows 10,000 hours of doing anything can make you an expert. The principal tells Danza she wouldn't expect herself to dance or act after a short lesson on techniques, because they are difficult skills to learn. Danza should not expect the same of teaching for himself. Teach shows how Michelle Rhee, Davis Guggenheim, Barack Obama, or Arne Duncan would perform, how they criticize something they are unable to do. Teach shows how those leading "reform" would perform in reality. Education is not something a novice can stumble into and change. You need to know what you're doing first. You need your 10,000 hours.

My experience differs a bit from Danza's. What I found remarkable about Teach was that it appears as though Danza teaches only one class, and he has a teaching coach in the room every period. Most new teachers don't have it nearly as easy. The students seem well behaved, perhaps chosen as the TV class, assisting Danza with simple but important classroom management. He has already met dozens of parents. On back to school night I met the 3 parents of my 180 students. The "trouble students" seem like half my class. Nonetheless, I enjoy the show, and hope it continues to humanize the teaching profession, and show the reality of its difficulties.

School Pride is a new show, where outsiders come into an urban school with buckets of money, and fix up the school. The show gets corporate donors to sponsor classrooms. For example, the Microsoft Science Lab, Starter Sports Complex, and People Magazine Reading Room were shown prominently in the show, and called answers to our education problems. Corporate sponsorship is not the answer to school funding. Private advertising does not belong in public school. If your school doesn't have enough money, raise taxes or issue a bond or mill levy. We must invest in our future, not sell our kids short. No amount of paint will make up for slashed education budgets.

My fear is that people will watch these shows and believe themselves to be instant experts on the subject. The pattern of all the school "reform" talk these days continues to give voice to the novices, and none to the teachers. For any meaningful reform to happen, the pattern needs to be reversed.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Burning the holy book.

The idea that you can use one source to gain all of your information is illogical. In what is supposed to be a rigorous learning environment, textbooks rarely are reliable enough to be used alone. In college, you have multiple texts for each class, on top of supplemental articles and readings from the professors. Why is it that in secondary education, textbooks are viewed as something holy, necessary, and indisputable. After my school administration insisted I dumb down my text, I made the conscious decision to have the students assassinate the textbook to their face.

This year my administration decided to get involved in the nuts and bolts of teaching, despite having less teaching experience than me. That says a lot. The situation reminds me of the time before I landed my first full-time teaching job, where I served as a para educator under some terribly uninspiring teachers. My administrator noticed I was using the AP book American Pageant for my honors US History students, as opposed to The Americans. He argued that American Pageant was district approved for AP classes only, not honors MYP. I had used the textbook last year because IB teachers requested the students have more rigor in their text, so that they are ready for the IB program. I wasn't about to die for a textbook, after all, they are only one source, so I complied and asked my students to change their books. The only time the textbook is used, is for homework. It would be insulting to have the students read the textbook in class. So now the students read a textbook below their reading level, as opposed to above it. The one factor that was incontestable, and struck me as something administrators could not ignore, was the absurdity of my honors and sheltered students both using the same text. Not their problem apparently.

I have been focusing on the bias of sources, and and the value of understanding bias. So far we have assessed the bias of the History Channel and district tests. For my formal observation I created a lesson to compare the bias of the textbook with the reality shown in primary sources. I wanted to show administration that even the students could see the stupidity of the decision to switch texts. The topic I picked revolved around the Civil War, being our current unit of study. I could have chosen Columbus, unionization, progressive movements, WWI, immigration, or any time period or topic. The students examined the textbook, and another source I got from the Zinn Education Project. At the end I asked the students, what is the bias of the textbook, what is the bias of the other source? Which source do you find most valid, and give examples to support your reasoning? What is the value of knowing the bias of the textbook?

The students lit it up. "The textbook disencourages people taking action to make change. The textbook maintains the status-quo. The textbook is biased by minimizing the actions of common people. The textbook tells us to wait for those in power to help, instead of helping ourselves." They nailed the bias. Administration watched, dumbstruck. "We need to know the bias of the textbook because we shouldn't believe everything we read. We need to know the bias so we know what our school is trying to teach us. The value of knowing the bias is to help us understand power." Those are all real quotes. I was surprised. Perhaps I created a class of revolutionaries. They saw The Americans was hardly worth the paper it was printed on, and assassinated it. A valuable lesson in the teaching of history and its effects on how we see ourselves.

Afterward, my administration was in awe. They loved the lesson for obvious reasons. My reason for having them view the lesson was completely lost on them, it went right over their head. Dim people. I figured it wouldn't be smart to point that out the them, considering I'm still not tenured. That lesson helped win over the students completely. They are now fascinated with historiography, bias, and historical perspective. Students respect the textbook as much as I do, something we have in common against the continuous dumbing down of our curriculum, mandated from above.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Race to the Bottom

To add insult to injury, my state's bid for Race to the Top funding was denied, even after our state forced serious concessions from its teachers. Teachers in my state are no longer guaranteed tenure or non-probationary status. This was done in order to increase the probability of winning Race to the Top funds.

We continue to need three years of positive reviews in order to gain non-probationary status, but administration can now strip a teacher of that status after two years of unsatisfactory reviews. Essentially, administrators can no easily remove anybody they want.

Arne Duncan decided that stripping teachers of tenure protection wasn't enough. The unions had to kowtow, and capitulate in order to receive the money. Our unions refused to participate. As usual, those that don't teach think they know it all, and feel they can tell teachers how to do their job. So now we are vulnerable to the changing tides of administration, with no benefit whatsoever.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Two extremes that make (or don't) the day, cont...

After a student asked for white-out I responded "No amount of white-out can cover up the stain of ignorance." I was messing with her, she understood and enjoyed the gentle mocking.

On the other hand, another student said "My dad hits me when I don't cook." Shit.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Oh, the things kids know

Yesterday I was teaching about about advantages the Union had in the Civil War. I was discussing the telegraph, and how it worked. One student raised their hand and asked, "So, phone sex must have been pretty boring back in the day?" Wow.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Mister, that's racist!"

The school I teach in is incredibly diverse. Not diverse as in mostly Latino or Black, I have students from every continent in my classroom. Our school is attempting to become what is called a 90/90/90 school, meaning 90% "minority", 90% free reduced lunch, and 90% proficient on ACT and state tests. Right now we are 90/90/30. Long way to go.

Because of our immense diversity, it leads to an eclectic mixed group, who are very aware of racism and prejudice. Some of them have a heightened victim complex, which I try to combat with lessons on people power which I described in my last post. Everybody can claim the victim somewhere in their history. Even the English, with all that Mayflower religious persecution business. Because I teach history, racism is an undeniable driver in many actions of our nations past. The students always yell "Hey mister, that's racist" over some historical event or article. No duh!

The problem is that the students transfer that idea to their teachers and administration. "You're just moving me because I'm ______." It takes awhile to break through such blind idiocy, but the end is inevitable. I usually respond by "Yes, I am racist. I hate all people who are not me equally." After that the kids chuckle, and mock the accusatory outburst of the student calling me racist. Sometimes the students call something racist as a joke. Sometimes I mock them by doing the same. They enjoy the back and forth. What they don't understand though, is the effect of seriously calling somebody racist. It forces that person to be defensive. Its ridiculous, and a constant battle. This is so common in our school, that I named my trivia team at the local pub, "Hey mister, that's racist." One of our other teachers was at that trivia game. When rankings were called out, they knew immediately which team was ours.

There are only two times in my teaching career that I have been dumbfounded to the point of silence over a student comment. One of those happened this week at parent-teacher conferences. I was conferring with a Latina student and her parents. She was translating for me. Suddenly she asked me "Mister, why do we have to study this stuff if it is over 150 years ago, it doesn't matter?" When students ask me that in class, I take the time to explain the importance of understanding your history in order to understand the power of the individual. The necessity of progress, and to compare where we came from to now. The students are always very satisfied with the empowering message. When this student asked me at conferences, I had 30 seconds. I had to think of something quick. I was not satisfied with what I came up with. I said "So you understand you don't have to be content being ruled by backwards rich dudes anymore, you can make history."

Her response shocked me. She said, "I hate white dudes." I was shocked, but not dumbfounded yet. I looked at her with exasperation and confusion. I said "Hey, I'm a white dude." She responded with "You're not white, mister."

I was aghast. If there was such thing as a racist compliment, that was it. This was the attitude I battled from students. They all saw me as a white dude, till I became "honorably" not White. It was like the day the students asked me who I voted for, and one student said "He voted for McCain because he's white." I didn't, and I became "honorably" non-White to them. In their minds, White means the enemy, the oppressor, a person to be reviled. Additionally shocking was how cavalierly it rolled off her tongue.

Am I a victim? Hell no. I understand what she meant. She knows that Whites have had a traditional advantage in this country. Students just need to understand that its not all Whites, not even most Whites actively participated in injustices in our history, although benefiting by association. There is a rich, long history of multi-racial movements fighting against those in power. Now I have to figure out a way to combat her misperception. The only way I can think of now is to increase the amount of time I spend on the multi-racial aspect of our equal rights struggles.

On the teaching of half truths

Recently I've become troubled by a dillema involving my US History courses. Currently I teacher honors and sheltered US history, among others. The gap between what I am able to teach to my honors students is massive, compared to the basics I seem to be forced to teach to my sheltered kids. That gap has forced me to teach half truths to my students, and I am struggling to find a way to introduce historical dilemmas, and empowering topics.

The way I have approached abolitionism and the Civil War is to emphasize the importance of slaves freeing themselves as opposed to being freed by Lincoln. After all, Lincoln was not the "Great Emancipator" that legend has made him out to be. He was brave, and eventually did the right thing, but it was only after a tremendous amount of pressure by abolitionists like Douglass, and the slaves themselves. The curriculum is designed to empower the students, and help them understand change comes from below, not above. How people change and improve their lives, and eventually force government to do what is right, is a continual theme in US history.

My honors students summed up Lincoln as essentially somebody who believes in the superiority of whites, but believes slavery is immoral. This is best summed up in Lincoln's own words.
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.
Debate with Stephen Douglas 18 September 1858

In spite of Lincoln saying this in a debate, where most politicians will stretch truth to be elected, it is backed up by other similar comments from Lincoln's past. What Lincoln intended to do about slavery is best summed up by him here:
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.
Letter to Horace Greeley, The Liberator editor, 22 August 1862

Once my students realized Lincoln and the Civil War were not all about abolition of slavery, we examined how the slaves were freed. We studied slave sabotage and desertion to Union lines. We read letters from generals asking to use the freedmen as soldiers, and Lincoln denying their requests. It wasn't until those numbers became so enormous, and Lincoln saw political advantage to abolition, that he made official what had already happened.

I can't teach that to my sheltered students though. Some of them cannot even communicate with me beyond a good morning, or my name is Muganguzi, Modeste, Geeta, Govinda, Minh, or Javier. This difficulty caused me to teach that the Civil War was between North and South over slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. Everything must be concrete, without ambiguity. The reason is two fold: time, and comprehension. Our district has us on strict pacing guides, with district wide exams that we are evaluated on as teachers. It is difficult enough to get the students to understand who John Brown was, and that the South had slavery, not the North. How can I teach about the intricacies of Lincoln's position, and that it wasn't him alone that freed the slaves?

I feel as though I am doing these students a disservice, but I don't know how to carry out such a curriculum with so many difficulties and handicaps in the way. My sheltered students can benefit greatly in learning on the power of the people to make and force change. They are used to everything being top down onto them. I want them to know that anything from school policy to immigration policy can be controlled by them, not the other way around. That is the message of history, not hero worship and benevolent government.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

You know you're doing something right when...

You get invited to your student's quinceaneras.
Students give up sports to be in your class.
Former students come back to school just to see you.
Facebook groups are made about you.
Students come to your class that are not on your roster.
ELL students in your class go from intermediate to advanced in one year.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Reality check, part two

Teaching history is rarely what most people imagine. Many people decide to teach history through some interest in the subject, naive sense of ease, or some other reason unrelated to activism and intellectual pursuit. A district in-service last week roused my ire and disbelief in a way that I have not felt in years. During the in-service I turned to a co-worker and said, "I thought we were beyond this kind of shit." Apparently I was wrong.

The teaching of history for patriotic advancement and nationalistic purpose is a long established blemish on my profession. Many social studies teachers were first a coach, and second a teacher. History books have traditionally been written from a perspective that promotes military service, national sacrifice, and blind patriotism. The unsavory bits of American history have been ignored and passed over, in preference to jingoistic tales of valor. Lately, there has been a serious push to improve our curriculum, teach truth, objectivity, and critical thinking over recitation, wars, and heroes.

The Medal of Honor curriculum was unveiled to us last week. All US History teachers in the district were taken from their planning, and placed in an all day blast from the past. We received a grant for this curriculum, probably because of our fearless superintendent. According to the mission statement, the curriculum teaches the "ideals of courage, sacrifice and selflessness embodied in the Medal of Honor, and their application in daily life to promote character development and responsible citizenship." Responsible citizenship meaning military enrollment. Courage, sacrifice, and selflessness through military worship.

I could have asked the obvious. Where does this fit into our pacing guide? Where does this fit into district curriculum? Where does this fit into state and national standards? When will I have time for this? No, those questions dodge the obvious. I asked why are we worshiping the military? What is the real value of this with our students? What is the opportunity cost of teaching blind patriotism over citizen activism? How do I teach about a Vietnam veteran's valor to my Viet kids? Where is the high order and critical thinking? This is very basic. I thought we were beyond this?

In the curriculum, one lesson asks the students to color countries where medals of honor were won. Names of conflicts were given, students had to find the country. Included was the "Philippine Insurrection, Mexican Incident, Cambodia, and Guatemala" to name a few. The "Philippine Insurrection" took place after conquering the islands in the Spanish-American War in the early 20th century. The motive was clear, as stated by Senator Albert Beveridge:

Mr. President...The Philippines are ours forever...And just beyond the Philippines are China's illimitable markets. We will not retreat from either... We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world... The Pacific is our ocean... Where shall we turn for consumers of our surplus? Geography answers the question. China is our natural customer... The Philippines give us a base at the door of all the east... Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans of Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals.

The Philippinos had a different idea. Independence. We killed over half a million in order to maintain our base for trade with Asia. It was ok though, we were only "dealing with Orientals..." The "Mexican Incident" refers to our occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914. It was a way to influence the Mexican government for more favorable trade. It crippled their economy, killed hundreds, and led to the eventual overthrow of their president. Cambodia and Guatemala are Cold War conflicts where over a million people perished.

My concern with the lesson was, that by simply coloring in those countries, and knowing that the men who won medals of honor there were good Americans, what does that teach our students? That those wars were good? That we were righteous? I know what it doesn't teach, citizenship. Questioning your government, and understanding your history are indelibly linked. The curriculum and lesson teach students how to be unquestioning nationalists. If this lesson was proposed in Europe, the people would label it militaristic. The curriculum does not promote responsible citizenship, it teaches jingoism. It is a disservice to my students.

Another lesson taught Toby Keith as a primary source around the Iraq invasion, labeled Operation Iraqi Freedom. There was no anti-war voice.

Frighteningly, many teachers sat there and ate it up. I fear for our students. If we teach self-sacrifice and citizenship through personal valor in questionable wars, what damage is that doing to our students and country? Why couldn't it tell the story of ordinary men and women who stood up and challenged sexism, racism, and abusive government? What is the opportunity cost? Should I teach my students to be activists, and stand up for what is right? Or should I teach blind patriotism? It was a reality check that reminded me of the tremendous power that I can wield, and the seriousness and importance of what I teach. It made me remember why I became a teacher.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reality Check

At the end of every summer, I have a recurring nightmare. It is the first day of school, the kids walk in, and I realize I have planned nothing. I freeze, no syllabus, no roster, nothing. Kids get restless, and the year is over for me. I hate that dream. Not only is it unrealistic and annoying, but the fact that I can't get rid of it despite knowing how bogus it is. Perhaps it is merely a reflection of the anxiety I feel going back to work.

Today, summer is officially over, the first day back at school. As usual my next week is taken up by 36 1/2 hours of meetings, and 3 1/2 hours of working. Perhaps I won't get a syllabus done. I don't mind meetings if they are productive, but so far the meetings have been preaching about how teachers can make a difference, and if you only did this, this this, and that, you too could be teacher of the year. I find speakers and topics like that to be quite insulting. What is this amateur hour? Wait, you're selling a book... I understand. The next week will be sit, share, sit, share, eat, sit, leave. I will have to stay late to get any real work done, but how is that any different than the rest of the school year.

This year we have 20% more work, and 33% less plan, plus extra duty. I feel like we should have more time to prepare our lessons before students come in the door. The stress is hitting me already. However, I am reminded by the 14 bullets shot into my neighbors house last night, and the pulsing rotors of the flight for life helicopter skimming our roof that some people don't have it so good.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Teach for America

I have been following the conversations and debates raging around the value and contributions of Teach for America to the public education system. Like all teachers, they are a mixed bag of success and failure. I discovered that my school participates in the program, and has a number of TFA teachers. What I don't understand, is how my "poor, urban, and needy" school developed a shortage of qualified and motivated applicants. Quite to the contrary, I've never worked with a better staff, and for every opening we have numerous applicants. We don't need TFA, but the program is billed as putting teachers in schools where teachers don't want to be.

This New York Times debate sums up the arguments pretty well. I havn't been terribly impressed with what I've seen from our TFA teachers, that is why I happen to agree most with Patrick Welsh. I also somewhat resent the thought that Ivy League graduates think they can take a short course on teaching, and outperform more experienced and serious teachers. However, it is a mixed bag, and each TFA graduate should be evaluated independent of the program.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Dear Democrats,

In 2006 and 2008 my students and I were excited for you. George Bush turned out to be a failure in all things, including education. As a result, teachers and young adults backed you, the Democrats, assisting in your ascendancy in the House and Presidency.

However, its not like you earned it. During Bush's tenure you voted for tax cuts to the wealthy, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were fed up though, and you promised change. In 2006, you captured the House. You laid low. Obama captured the hope of my students, and myself. Ever since, we have been breathlessly awaiting change. That is why you were elected, and that is what you have not done.

In education, you have championed Race to the Top. A thinly veiled attack on teacher unions and tenure. You wrapped your program around "reform" and "accountability." It is terribly ironic that you are unable to demonstrate either of those yourself. You have been unaccountable to those that put you in office, and you have reformed nothing. Race to the Top turns states into prostitutes, whoring themselves out for a one time lump sum. How does that bring long-term reform and change?

In health care, you gave insurance corporations over 30 million new customers. The cost controls you put in were mediocre at best, giving big Pharma and HMOs the ability to plunder the peoples bank accounts, and restrict consumer spending. How can I support our consumer economy when 19% of my income goes towards unused insurance. Most of my students are on free and reduced lunch, how can low income families afford a health care mandate? Who's interests have you been looking out for, the corporations, or our people? Now that our corporate citizens are free to spend at will (Citizens United v FCC) I expect more of the same: no accountability, no reform.

Your stimulus was a joke to everybody but road construction workers. Big banks and too big to fail live on. Glass-Steagall is still gone, banks continue to make record profits, derivatives reform is dead, and CEOs continue to have golden parachutes. Meanwhile in the Congress, the unemployed are losing their assistance because the Democrats are too weak to make a stand and demand Republicans fillibuster on TV. I thought that making a Republican defend pushing the poor off welfare in a time like this would be politically advantageous (see Jim Bunning). Are you really that dumb? All of your "reforms" remind me of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. Small reforms designed to get the people to believe the status quo has changed, when in reality nothing has. Big corporations backed the Sherman Antitrust Act, and they back current proposals. It concerns us, shouldn't that concern you?

BP continues to pollute, and greenhouse gas emissions are uncontrolled. The lesser of two evils defines you well. A broken clock is still right twice a day, but that doesn't mean you're getting my vote anymore. You could have reformed, created a dominant Democratic Party for decades, and brought our country back from the brink of irrelevance. Your base of low income and middle class voters, minorities, and teachers are fed up with your inaction. I see through your smoke and mirrors. You demand accountability from others but cannot reform yourself. Its not me, its you. Goodbye. See you in November.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Power Off

Teaching takes over your life. You work long, think about it at home, and work over break. It is a never ending burden or blessing, depending on your mood. I had a fantastic year, and I hope next is even better. Every break from school is different, and it takes you different amounts of time to fully embrace that vacation. If I forget about teaching, I'm on vacation. Sometimes that never happens during winter or spring breaks. For this summer, it took 3 weeks. Now I have 5 off.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My 'illegal' students

How many people in the US can claim they know an illegal alien? How about 20? Teaching Law and Civics exposes you to a huge number of 'illegal' students. I doubt most Minutemen and Tea-Baggers (that used to be sexual) know any. The human stories of my students would change their outlook.

Most of my 'illegal' students have compelling stories. They share their story with people they trust. Others out themselves with their line of questioning, the nervous look, and the fact that they only ask immigration questions when we are away from other students. "Mister, what do you think of the DREAM Act?" "Do you think the government will do anything about immigration?" "What do you think of illegal immigrants?" "How does somebody get papers?" "Why do Republicans hate us?" Every time I hear one of those questions it breaks my heart. I've heard so many stories. The recent Arizona Stasi law has made all of them uneasy. I thought I would share a few of their stories.

Mayra, One of my female students came out of the closet in her family history assignment. She told the story of her mother, who was smuggled across the border by a coyote, jumped off an overpass, rolled away from incoming traffic, and rode to safety in the trunk of a car. Her family is illegal, and worries everyday. Her family's history has instilled in her a respect for the standard of living they now enjoy, and a love of our country. She struggles with language, but has more perseverance than a dozen native born white kids. She takes nothing for granted. College is available, but money is not, especially if you are "out of state."

A freshman student of mine, Javier, outed himself after asking me nervously about the DREAM Act. I gave my honest opinion, how it should be passed, and how it would benefit our country. He is an A student, speaks 3 languages. He wants to be an engineer. His family fears being pulled over, being arrested, and returning to Mexico. They come from Juarez.

Daniel, one of my graduating seniors was born and lived in Mexico one month. He has spent his entire life in the US. Daniel is also an A student, and speaks 3 languages fluently. In my law class, he taught constitutional law to Somalis, Iranians, and native students. The other month he was pulled over and his car impounded. His family no longer has a car to get to work. College is an option to him also, but he cannot afford "out of state" tuition. Daniel would like to be a lawyer or teacher. Daniel says he may have to go to Mexico for college, and get stuck there. What a loss for our country.

All of these students are more American than Mexican. They embrace our culture, take nothing for granted, and want nothing more than to live the American dream. My 'illegal' students are more accomplished, and want to rise higher than the vast majority of my native students. For these kids, being deported would mean being sent to a foreign country.

In civics, one of my test questions was to examine the Arizona law, and argue whether it was or was not a likely violation of the14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause. Because my native students know 'illegal' students, they knew better than the government of Arizona. Not only is it likely illegal, but wrong. If you are exposed to people who are demonized for no reason, reality wins over fallacy. For some people, citizenship is something given and taken for granted. For my 'illegal' students, it is something dreamt of, and used to its fullest. These are Americans in every sense but the law. Our country should embrace them. They are the American dream.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


"Mister, how do you spell incompetent?"

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Federal Prostitutes

Barack Obama rode into the Whitehouse with the backing of teachers around the country. He has taught, he has seen poor schools, he understands our issues. Little did we know that George W. Bush would turn out to be a better education president. With Bush, reforms were half-hearted, underfunded, and not taken seriously. Obama's reforms have one important difference, money. The federal Race to the Top fund is causing states and districts to whore themselves out for a share of the money. The effect on education will be tremendous.

As stated by the Race to the Top website, $4 billion dollars is available:

Through Race to the Top, we are asking States to advance reforms around four specific areas:

  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
  • Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform. Race to the Top winners will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow as they too are hard at work on reforms that can transform our schools for decades to come.

Essentially what Race to the Top is asking states to do for a share of the money, is to adopt the charter school model. All of this despite the fact that charter schools show no significant improvements over public schools. Charter schools who do perform better than their public counterparts succeed for reasons unrelated to their model. Charter schools are allowed to be selective in whom they take. If you only accept English speaking, non-special education, and moderately proficient students, of course you will outperform a public school who must take anybody.

One major component of the charter school model is "teacher accountability". Charter schools hold their teachers accountable to student growth on tests and assessments. Obviously, teachers must be able to demonstrate real growth and success with their students. The devil is with the details. How do you measure growth, and is the data valid and reliable? Testing 101 requires that assessments be valid, test what is taught, and reliable, no variables. Charter schools can guarantee reliability because they control who attends. Public schools do not. My district went from 20% non-English speaking, to 60% in 10 years. Our test scores leveled off, did not decline. I doubt a charter could match that. The validity of state and district tests is an obvious issue. My school is 80% non-white, whereas another in the district is 30%. What is taught in one school, may not be relevant in another. I chose to teach about homosexuality and the law. I felt as though that would be enriching and relevant to students growing up in such a diverse society. The other school chose to teach about Reagan and macroeconomics. No schools are the same, what is taught is not the same, and the students are not the same. How can the state use one test to guage growth for all schools. The assessments are not valid or reliable for the students, and teachers should not be held captive by the test taking abilities to teenagers.

Union busting is a major hidden reward in receiving Race for the Top funds. States that have stripped their teachers of tenure protection have won the first round. Tenure guarantees due process to teachers before they are fired. The problem is that administrators come and go as frequently as El Nino. One may like you, others won't. Tenure is meant to protect teachers from arbitrary reprimands or firings by administration. It allows teachers to take risks in the classroom, try new methods, and experiment. Tenure also attracts people such as myself to education. You are not paid well initially, and professional development, licensing, and education come out of pocket, but are required to keep your job. Tenure makes the stress and initial hardship of teaching much more bearable. If they are serious about attracting the best and brightest to education, stripping tenure is not the way to go.

More testing, and teacher busting is not the answer. This will drive away teachers, and take more time away from learning. What is the answer? Each school is different, but reducing class size, parent and student involvement, teacher training and development, and teacher-led reform and instruction always get results. Does this cost money? Yes. However, if states are willing to whore themselves out for money, why can't they do it for something that works.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Two extremes that make the day

I had the students read about the Truman Doctrine and compare whether our new foreign policy was "A radical departure, or a continuation of existing American foreign policy, but with a new face." The students unanimously agreed it was a continuation, using their background knowledge about the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt Corollary, US imperialism, WWI, and WWII. "We were just protecting our interests, helping capitalism expand worldwide." What are our interests? How is that beneficial? "Trade, money, control." Wow, they know more about the world than they know.

On the more comedic side of teaching, I was curious if the students understood why the Soviet mutual protection organization was called the Warsaw Pact. A student responded "Because they see the war!" War-saw...genius.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

"Vacation Time"

A lot of people assume teachers have tons of vacation time. I ran some calculations based on the hours I work. Interestingly enough, I work enough to cover all of my "vacation time." Averaging 40 hours a week, every week. What isn't included in that calculation is what I've been doing with my spring break, grading papers. All good teachers use "vacation time" to work, go to graduate classes, or for professional development Am I complaining? No. I chose education, not business school for a reason.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Teaching 101

With spring break rapidly approaching, many teachers in the building decided that they were unable to get anything done with the students, and end up babysitting them with a movie or pointless lesson. I've never prescribed to that idea, and have always thought it absurd.

On Friday the students asked why we were working, and that they were mentally checking out. I asked what they were doing in their other classes. They told me ridiculous lessons, and Disney movies. They whined and asked why we were working. I responded, "It is my job to provide you with the very best education, and that is what I am going to do. To lay back would be a great disservice to you. I have more respect for you than to waste your time, and to subject you to that."

The students looked at me, smiled, and accepted my rationale. They worked hard for the rest of the period. That is how you keep the student's respect. They so badly don't want to be patronized and treated as elementary students. So much of what we do in school is about respect. It's not that hard, but a lot of people don't get it. Respect the student, respect the job, and for fuck's sake, have some self respect. Be a teacher.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

National Dialogue

It is a strange feeling to be involved in a profession that has recently become the topic of intense discussion and dispute. Everybody calls the system broken, antiquated, or corrupt. They all have an opinion, and they all seem to agree on one thing. Teachers are not effective.

Hey! That's my profession. Have you ever taught in a public school? So what do you know?

So much of the debate lately has focused on standards and qualified teachers. The emerging consensus is blame, and regulation. I am not a bank. Pundits and politicians really seem to have no clue when it comes to education. This is what it's like:

About 30% of teacher's time is taken up by administrative and 'non-contact' duties. We have IEP, SLC, RTI, SBG, NHD, NHS, PD, IA, SPED, ESL, and department meeting. Any student who is special ed (SPED) or has english as a second language (ESL) has to have an individualized education program (IEP). These are mandated by law, and require teachers to make modifications to lessons to help these students learn. This started out as a grand idea, where students who used to be in contained classrooms were immersed into a regular education classroom. Problem is, immersion works when the ratio of regular to SPED/ESL is 80/20 or 70/30. Now it's 50/50. We don't teach regular ed any more. It's modified. All of those IEPs take time to create, review, and follow. Do teachers have time to do that effectively? No.

We also must meet in our small learning communities (SLC) and plan response to intervetion (RTI) techniques for students who are struggling. If a student is failing, teachers must intervene and create a non-legal form of IEP. This is designed to help legitimately struggling students, but too often is wasted on students who are not putting in the effort. In addition, to increase rigor and help students succeed, we run National Honor Society (NHS) and spend all year on National History Day (NHD). Those are some necessities to prepare students for college, and reward exemplary students.

Grading is now different. We must use standards based grading (SBG), which gives grades only according to how well students perform on assessments. Teachers must create those assessments and allign them with district standards, pacing guides, and state standards. State standards drive curriculum. Late work is accepted so long as the student can show they have mastered a standard. Responsibility, study and work habits used to be built into grading. Now they don't matter. Finally, teachers must attend professional development (PD) which is often nothing more than some six-figure making pep-talk professional who wants you to read their book, or do something differently. PD is a waste 90% of the time. However, they do teach you patience. All of this does not include meetings with students, parents, administrators, and other special programs (MYP, IB, AP) teachers such as myself do.

Planning and grading take the bulk of time. No good teacher just recycles old lessons over and over again. Students change, so must you. Everything must be engaging and uses their body and mind. Technology is not just common, but expected. Assessment takes time. If you want students to write well, that takes time to grade. I am accountable if those students go to the next grade level unprepared. All lesson plans include modifications for IEPs, ESL, and SPED students, include rigor for advanced students, align to state and district standards, and keep up with the pacing guide.

Now I get to teach! This is the most important, and most time consuming part of the day. Teaching is where I can reach 80-90% of my 150-180 students. My teaching must be rigorous, but also allow students on IEPs to succeed. I have classes of 35-40 students I must engage in meaningful ways. It doesn't matter if they walk in without breakfast, on two hours of sleep, without knowing English, have mental problems, or had something happen at home. Time to learn, I can counsel them later. Each class is different, depending on the moon stage, and their proximity to lunch. They are to learn knowledge and skills as decided by district and state. Anything else is deemed unnecessary. Psychological services I provide free of charge to the students during planning periods. Next year, I get one less of those.

You can't fit that into 40/hrs a week. The vast majority of teachers work enough hours to get their two month summer break, plus some. I am dedicated, hard working, and passionate about what I do. I am a professional, please treat me as such. My compensation for all that work is $37,000, minus an outrageously expensive health plan. How can teaching expect to attract the best people with salaries so low?

The two guiding ideas our there now is holding teachers accountable for student learning, and creating national standards. How is mandating national standards going to improve a student's reading, writing, or critical thinking skills? Standards and testing have always appeared to me as a facade for rigor and effectiveness. Those 'reforms' do little to help the student, and slow me down. Holding teachers accountable for student learning (read: test scores) is ridiculous. Students come to us from all over the spectrum, and we do our best. There are other factors at work in contributing to a student's success.

Where is the parent's role in this? Studies show the #1 indicator of success is by having supportive parents. There is only so much I can do if the student is not provided for at home. School doesn't matter when your parents are divorcing, you don't have food, mom is dying, or dad is unemployed. The real standard of living in this country has been going down. Is it any surprise that our schools are following?

Reforming education requires a comprehensive approach. People need stability before they can focus on academics. Simply blaming teachers is ignorant and short sighted, and will do nothing more than drive more people away from a profession that desperately needs driven and committed people.

Have teachers been asked how to reform the system? It doesn't feel like it, we are only blamed. The media and the President need to be very careful on how they discuss education reform. It cannot be a witch hunt, or blame game. If society wants to hold me accountable for failure, how about success too.

We don't blame doctors for obesity and heart disease because it is up to the individual to take advantage of advice and resources. There is personal responsibility involved. How is education any different?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Being a pissant

This week has been one of the toughest I've had since I started teaching. Usually the absurd gets in line and comes at you one at a time, but not this time. This whole week has felt like I've been jousting with an army of mental midgets, morons who have no comprehension of what the impact of their antics may be. My spirit right now feels much like the economy, depressed.

Budget cuts are expected in tough financial times, my district being no exception. You can have two kinds of cuts: equitable, or harebrained. The Board of Education, in their infinite wisdom, opted for the latter. Instead of cutting equally, using attrition, and slashing non-educational administrators, they have opted to make our lives much more difficult. Hundreds of teachers, including myself, attended a Board of Education meeting to give our input. They filibustered us for two and a half hours before we could speak. We spoke for two hours, they decided in 5 minutes, with a prepared statement.

On top of pay and benefit cuts, I will now loose a planning period, and replace that with a class. It could be the same course I already teach, or something completely different. Also class size will go up by 1, meaning 5. The number of students I will teach will go up from 150 to over 180. The amount of time I have to plan and grade will decrease by 33%. I will have an average of 8 minutes to spend with every student, every week. I will spend a minimum of 15 hours every week grading essays alone. That is 39 hours a week already. Leaving me one hour to grade everything else, and plan thoughtful and engaging lessons. Of course I will spend more time than that planning. People know teachers work more than 40 hours a week, so they take advantage. Now I'm sure I'll be working 55-60, instead of my usual 50-55. All of this ordained by people who have no history of classroom instruction, or awareness about how a school works. This in addition to making 4x what I make. Unfortunately, next year I will probably be forced to give more worksheets out of necessity for survival. That's not why I or anybody else decided to go into teaching.

On top of this we have state standardized tests this week! Where would we be without those test scores telling us whether our students are advanced, proficient, partially proficient, or unsatisfactory. Definitely couldn't have figured it out based on the work in my classroom. Since all the teachers have been working hard this year, I am sure our scores will go up. Next year, with the scheduling changes, they will go down. Guess who is going to be blamed?

I already see a story line based on local reports of the school board meeting. "Teachers Protest Extra Class," not "Budget Cuts Threaten Quality." The comment section on the stories is indicative of what is to come. Apparently teachers are lazy, make too much, work 40 hours a week, and only take up teaching for the fat check and benefits. Honestly, when I hear people say that, it makes me feel violent. To disparage an entire group of dedicated, overworked people for no reason but anecdotal stories of the few worthless teachers is disingenuous and exceedingly ignorant. But, that is how it will be played. Student success, according to most, and the school board, rests entirely on the teachers.

The coup d'etat this week was the helecopter mom, buying the lies of her son, accusing me of incompetence and going around me to administration in an attempt to get me in trouble. "No I didn't loose his work, he never turned it in. I understand, but it has been 3 weeks. Please could we not challenge each other's professionality? I have been more than understanding." Situations like that make we want to quit. One misunderstanding can get you fired. I had to loose my planning time, sit down with the principal, and get a written confession out of the son. What had I done wrong? Nothing. God forbid we have due dates, standards and expectations. I don't challenge your parenting skills (although, on second thought), don't challenge my teaching.

It's really incredible, on top of all the stupidity this week, it takes very little to put it in perspective. It's not every day you get to be gunned down by an iPod app as a form of compliment, get a fan page that is updated on weekends, or see amazing educational progress. One of the teachers put it best while speaking to the board, "I don't see myself as accountable to the board, not to the principal, not to the community, nor to the parents, or to myself. I am only accountable to the students. Thats why I am here."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Teachers drink

One thing I have learned as fact, is that teachers drink, maybe more than other professions. Why? I have some guesses, and I'm sure it's different for each teacher, but one overriding factor must be the stress and weight of the job.

Many teachers, like their students, get stuck. They become so immersed in their job that they are unable to have a functional life outside of school. They are not like the drunk stereotype of teachers we think of. Those who have given up, hate the job, and have resorted to keeping a bottle in the desk. I'm talking about those who are so dedicated to helping out others, that they forget about their own lives. When they come home, they drink. They are like addicts, they can't stop teaching, and it causes them to become melancholy.

I added a picture to this blog. A reminder to myself. I love this job, and I love having my own life too. A quick reminder of the importance of balance.

Feigning Knowledge

I have a friend who seemed to know everything. Whether we were talking about politics, football, wildflowers, or couches he had a story that seemed to show expert knowledge about the topic. One day I figured him out. He was able to convince the people around him of his expertise on topics he often had very limited experience in. I don't know where he learned that talent, but it is a tactic used by all teachers, and one I had to pick up quickly.

He reminds me of my students, who often pretend to be experts on something they have extremely limited understanding of. They pick up tid bits of information from parents and friends, and regurgitate it verbatim as holy truth. When confronted with contradictory information students sometimes suffer from cognitive dissonance. I don't work that way. I need to have more understanding of something before I share an opinion.

This is why I was terrified when my school asked me to teach subjects that I had limited understanding of. I was shocked that the school would arbitrarily give out classes within departments without placing teachers in their strength. I was asked to teach Law and Ancient History. These are classes I had never taken in college, or done much outside research. On top of that, you can't make me care about Ancient Egypt, I really just don't care. I didn't know where to start. Worst of all, students are like raptors. They smell anxiety, nervousness, and fear. How was I going to hide this?

I found out two factors that allowed me to teach what I don't know. Student surveys during my student teaching, and from my first years told me that the students believed I was an expert at what I taught. Students always believe you are an expert unless proven wrong. How else could you be a teacher? I realized all I needed to do was carry the same air of confidence with my weaknesses as my strengths. Confidence can take you far in the classroom.

The second factor I found out was that I did not have to be an expert. So long as I had a unit plan, with a clear objective, and I stayed one step ahead of the students, everything would be ok. I could still go into depth and do involved, fun lessons. So long as I was confident, prepared, and one step ahead, the students would have no idea that I resented the subject or had a serious lack of knowledge.

With teaching, knowledge is not everything anyway. Sure, most teachers are smart, but whats most important is that they know how to structure lessons to help people learn and retain knowledge and skills. Kids don't care about minute details and serious intellectual controversy within a field. Yes, I had some flops, and some great successes, but what's most important is that you don't let it faze you, and that you keep coming back day after day. Teaching those courses taught me that you really don't have to be a college professor to teach. In reality, all you do need is organization, diverse strategies, passion, and most of all, confidence.

Let me tell you about dark matter...

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Privacy is a constant concern and battle for teachers. Keeping public and private life separate is a constant battle. I believe that it is professional to keep those two worlds apart. To be successful in the classroom, your private life should not be on display. To have an enjoyable private life, you shouldn't bring work home with you. I think most people feel similar about their own jobs. Not living near school gives me some of that privacy, being about to go out without having to worry about running into students. I really don't want to see them when I'm out to eat, at a movie, or coming out of a bar.

I often say that teachers have a mask or classroom persona. My classroom persona is very different than how I am in reality. Students are extraordinarily curious. They keep pushing for more information, trying to find new ways to connect the seemingly random dots of information that they've already figured out. My classroom persona is a
defense mechanism to protect my privacy while at the same time giving the students enough that they believe they know me.

I use facebook to share pictures and keep up with distant friends. I used to have my profile on total lockdown, but facebook recently changed the privacy settings so that anybody can see your profile picture. This opened myself, and I'm sure all other teachers to a barrage of facebook friend invites from students.

This week as students were pouring into class I hear, "Hey Mister, I saw you on facebook!" Uh,oh. Not again. I readied my typical answer that I cannot accept their friend invite for this and that reason, but no offense intended. "Yeah, they started a fan page!" A fan page is what you join if you like the Pittsburg Steelers, Peter's Chinese Restaurant, or Barack Obama. It's somewhere you show support for whatever you're a fan of, and talk to others who feel the same. Wow, I thought, how flattering. I looked at the page and found it acceptable. No real information, just classroom tid bits that the kids enjoyed. I was feeling really good. Who else has their own fan page? None of the other teachers do. They have fan pages about how much they are hated, not how they are "boss," meaning awesome. So on facebook I put on my profile that the kids had made a fan page of me. A friend told me "Wow, you must be doing something right."

There is a Seinfeld episode that comes to mind. George tries to keep his life with his fiance Susan, separate from his life with Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine. In one episode his worlds collide, leading him to claim it's "killing independent George." Unfortunately my worlds collided. Some of my friends thought it would be fun to join my fan page. They said these kids need to know the real thing. They didn't understand. I spent days convincing people that it was for the kids only.

As George said about himself, "A George divided against itself cannot stand!"
I was used to my students trying to intrude into my private life, and I never thought that people would try to pry into my professional life. In a strange reversal I found myself battling to keep my private life from infiltrating my public life. The worlds are not a ven diagram. They must remain separate and unequal.