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."