Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Teacher cycles


November is a tough month for me. 

Never mind that we had a death in the family, the school environment alone is enough to make November more than challenging.  To start, November is the beginning of basketball season.  This means that my days go from 6:30a.m. - 4 p.m., to 6:30 a.m. - 7:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on game days).  That doesn't include the time I will spend at home taking care of prep and homework.  This makes the days very long and the time with my wife very short, which creates other strains that end up wearing and tearing on my psyche. 

But the thing that really gets at me is the doubt in my abilities by this point in the school year.  When you think about it, a teacher has been going non-stop for months and the only thing to show for success are grades, which are often fairly lousy.  Whether the general public believes it or not, this wears down on teachers, even really good ones.  The end of October is the end of the quarter, so teachers have a fairly good idea where the students stand in terms of academics.  Often, they don't stand on much because the low grades are very apparent.  After all the work, all the toiling, all the conferences and phone calls, some students are not getting "it".  The passion that was evident in the beginning starts to wane as the question enters the mind, "What am I doing wrong"?  Then the phone calls come from enraged parents that allow their kids to get away with murder, questioning your morality for giving too many quizzes, or insisting that the problem is the teacher because Johnny has "never had a problem with any other teacher".  Add to that the faculty meetings where administrators tell you to raise test scores for those borderline kids (that show up half the time), and to prepare for more cuts in education, and give other tidbits of cherry news that raise morale.  Top it with the usual social pressures from the media, government officials, and pundits couldn't teach a kid to tie shoes and the month of November brings a teacher to the point of "Why am I here"?

I still deal with this, although I'm past the point of the whole "Why..." thing.  I get stressed, eat, gain weight, and become a bit of a curmudgeon.  My temper becomes short and answer every phone call from a counselor with "What now", while dreading most parent conferences because I'm done with being blamed for the child's lack of ability to show up to class.  However the time this lasts is growing shorter and shorter, mostly because I look upon myself and ask "Am I really doing everything I can with the resources I have"?  In most aspects, the answer is yes.  I think my lessons are engaging, I'm teaching the information that is required, and I'm trying to make these kids prepared to be productive members of society.  Sure, things can get tweaked here and there to make it better, but what can I  and what can't I control?  That's why I have stopped losing sleep at night.  I have 14 kids on short term independent study, and I can't control that.  While it's going to look really bad when I have a substantial grouping of bad grades, that's not an issue that I can simply reach into the ether of the universe and change.  And no matter how hard I work, it won't matter.  So I focus on the things that matter, primarily in the classroom.  When the November doldrums hit, I ask myself:

1.  Am I really giving my best effort in the classroom?  Most of the time the answer is "yes", but basketball sometimes interferes with my energy in the classroom.  To change that I went to the theory of Diminishing Marginal Utility in terms of basketball.  I don't practice on weekends, I don't do two-a-days, and I make reasonable practice times for vacations.  In practice I focus much more on what we need to work on, making practice more efficient, not practice a lot, which makes me worn out.  In essence, I treat practice like the classroom, and have garnered better results from both the court and the classroom environments.

2.  Am I really prepared?  Classroom management, confident teaching, and quality of instruction all go up when teachers are prepped.  It becomes doubly important when doubt sinks in.  The flow will be better and the good knowledge will flow much better when preparation is evident.

3.  Is that homework really necessary?   In the end, you have to grade it, and often you will do more benefit to yourself if you go home and rest, not grade work.  Keep the class high intensity, but make the practice something that the kids can grade the next day, or have them study for a quiz.  Seriously, nothing makes you feel worse than the knowledge that the impending evening is nothing but grading.

4.  Is the classroom lesson really engaging?  Good student engagement gets me out of the rut pretty quickly.  Watching students get fully involved and buy into a lesson is a clear sign that education is going on, which in turn fulls up the teacher's tank to get through the day, or maybe even shake off the doldrums entirely.  In fact, I might take a little more risk during down times because the end reward is that much better.  If part of the lesson fails during 1st period, I'm excited for the next period and do my best to make adjustments so the mistakes don't happen again. 

5.  Am I forgetting what's really important?  Let's face it, if teachers were actually valued in society, would the pay we get really be that big of a deal?  I would like more money, but I would love some acknowledgement that teachers are not the only problem with education, and are more aligned with the solution.  Saying that, there is a point at which you might consider ignoring nay-sayers for awhile, even those you work with.  Stop listening to public complaining, stop listening to the media, ignoring the idiots in government, and hell, maybe you need to become a little bit of a hermit if the school atmosphere is too negative.  I omit certain blogs from my daily reading list when times get tough.  I'll pick on Joanne Jacobs in particular, whose blog was one of the first I started to read years ago, before it became outrageously popular.  Now it's an outrageously popular place to beat the shit out of public education, including teachers.  Like most media types that haven't a clue about what teaching is, Jacobs generalizes teachers as lazy, whiney, and not really out for the best interest of the kids.  Do you really need to read criticism from someone who doesn't know what you are going through?

So November comes and goes, and the month of December brings basketball tournaments, "Christmas cheer", and the statements "I'm going on vacation.  Can I make up the Final"?  My mood shifts to more from somber to more up beat as I realize that my teaching is actually quite good, and my focus to the classroom starts paying off for those that realize that I'm not going to change the way I do things to accommodate their social lives.  Reflection also starts to creep into my thoughts as I start to figure out ways to make things better for next semester as well. 

Just remember, moments of doubt are going to occur, but don't let them totally ruin the experience of good teaching.

Question for the masses

I came upon the following quote from a social networking group that was set up to honor a teacher.  It goes back to the issues behind "love of learning" vs. "fundamentals, fundamentals" that I wrote about previously. 

Mr./Ms. T brought a different brand of English to little ...... ...... High School. The class wasn't about writing essays and learning grammar, it was about bonding and expressing ideas. This group is for those that were lucky enough to experience his teaching.

Do you have a problem with this, or were the students lucky to have the teacher? 

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Finland, Finland, Finland..........


For the last two years, education pundits have been trying to compare the education system of Finland with that of the United States.  With strong gains in Math and Science, the argument has come out that it should be impossible to have the lowly Finns be so much better in core subjects than the high and mighty Americans.  So waves of people have went to the Great Reindeer North to learn how to incorporate Finnish ed to the U.S. system. 

Obviously the situation is more complex than that, but the best summary of the situation can be found at the Quick and the Ed.   

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What I've learned since I last posted


-That the President has pretty damn good reflexes and, regardless of what Michael Moore says, an ability to act quickly.  Not only does he evade the shoe, but check out how he calmly waves off the Secret Service and keeps are tense situation from becoming a circus.  If only he would have done that post-9/11.

-That I'm doing something right in the classroom.  I got an award from the students this month and it made me beam for quite a while.

-That I'm doing something wrong on the basketball court, because I wasn't around for one and a half games last week.

-That I miss teaching American Government terribly and while U.S. History is fine, the CA standards for the subject are full of shit.  The person that actually finds that the Second Vatican Council is necessary for a basic understanding of U.S. History is a loon. 

-That PLC's, while well intentioned, are leading to a point where everything is scripted and no real teaching will happen.  I watched a video where everything in a math PLC was common assessments, common pacing, and everything looked hunky dory.  Of course, no mention was made of ELL students, IEP's, excessive absences, family trips to Disneyland, or the simply fact that some students don't always work on the textbook pace.

-That the Spam Teacher mentioned in a previous post complained to students about that little e-mail asking him to stop.  Those students then told me that Mr. Spam complained to them that I sent a rude e-mail.  Uncool.

-I'm tired.  I need a recharge.  I need a vacation.  

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sir Spam-a-lot



A teacher at our school has been sending out various e-mails to everyone on the school server.  Some are complaints, some a "inspirational" stories, some are wisecracks, you get the idea.  They occur about once a week.  On a day that that had received an ridiculous amount of crap on my e-mail server, I received another "inspirational story" from the teacher.  I wrote back and asked that the teacher stop sending spam.  The response I got was this:

This is a story about four eMailers named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody all send SPAM.


There was some interesting SPAM to be sent. Everybody was sure Somebody would send it. Anybody could have sent it, but Nobody sent it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could send it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t send it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody sent what Anybody could have sent.

The moral of the story: Somebody sends email to other teachers and Anybody with a little training can send email. Everybody can send “non-spam” emails, but Nobody trains them and there is no faculty lounge to communicate with each other so Mr. Somebody gets an email that Nobody qualifies as SPAM except Mr. Somebody. Now Nobody would bring Mr. Somebody’s name into this logical story except Mr. Somebody sent SPAM to Everybody, explaining he does not have time for Anybody’s SPAM which is quite illogical; sending SPAM when Nobody, including Mr. Somebody, has no time for SPAM. Wow, imagine that!

Everybody and Anybody would stop sending SPAM if Mr. Somebody would show us how a positive, encouraging teacher letter is SPAM. Since Anybody can send emails and Nobody teaches the difference between SPAM and non-SPAM, I can promise nothing to Anybody, Everybody, Somebody, and Nobody (including Mr. Somebody).

Onward Everybody.

PS. I heard Mr. Somebody got a can of Spam wrapped as a present. Everybody who sent the present signed it. Nobody told me it was going to happen, and I am hurt because Anybody could have brought this present to my attention and let me sign it with Everybody… Oh well, Nobody to blame. (Smile Mr. Somebody. Anybody needs to lighten up a little especially when Everybody is working so hard, Nobody is taking time to smell the roses, and Somebody like our colleagues are watching/reading… Everybody needs to teach Mr. Somebody about the little "X" icon which translates into "delete.”)

If you haven't figured it out, I am "Mr. Somebody", and yes, a group of teachers gift wrapped a can of SPAM and gave it to me as a way of saying "chill out". 

This is an example of the technological divide that is evident in our school.  People that are new to e-mail don't realize that people that have been using it for 13 years can get irritated after going through meaningless correspondence over and over and over again.  I read three dozen teacher blogs a day, trust me, I know something about inspirational teaching.  I don't need e-mails of chain letters that I saw years ago about stories that are old news to inspire me.   

And for those techies that say "What about the e-mail filter"?  Can't filter in district e-mail (I believe)?  That means that while I get to smell the roses, I have to smell the crap too.

Finally, a little definition:

Spamming is the abuse of electronic messaging systems to indiscriminately send unsolicited bulk messages.

Where Michelle Rhee lost me



I've made no bones about my respect for Washington D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, the woman who unions might fear the most in this country.  I've enjoyed the passion that she has for teacher accountability, while at the same time making the idea of paying teachers their worth a reality.  It is a model that seems like the right direction for public education to take in building a good system. 

The problem is that in a recent interview with Time Magazine, Rhee seemed less concerned about educating kids and more concerned with managing a perception of what teaches do in the classroom.  While the good managing is fine, the need for making the kids the priority was lost when a statement (THE statement that has people talking all over the blogsphere) made it out of her mouth and onto the pages of the magazine.

  "The thing that kills me about education is that it's so touchy-feely," she tells me (the Time correspondent) one afternoon in her office. Then she raises her chin and does what I come to recognize as her standard imitation of people she doesn't respect. Sometimes she uses this voice to imitate teachers; other times, politicians or parents. Never students. "People say, 'Well, you know, test scores don't take into account creativity and the love of learning,'" she says with a drippy, grating voice, lowering her eyelids halfway. Then she snaps back to herself. "I'm like, 'You know what? I don't give a crap.' Don't get me wrong. Creativity is good and whatever. But if the children don't know how to read, I don't care how creative you are. You're not doing your job."

Michelle is correct, if kids can't read then teachers are not doing their job.  However, the idea that teachers should ignore the focus on "The Love of Learning" is pretty much dead wrong and equals bad teaching.  Rule number one of getting kids to comprehend and retain information; make the information relevant to the student and get them to buy in to the idea that learning the information has a purpose in there life.  Meaning get them into the frame of mind that learning is actually important and relevant to their lives.  Once you accomplish that, students will take the task of learning as a personal endeavor, not something that is resisted because useless knowledge (including learning to read) is rammed down their throats.  I would argue that without the idea of "The Love of Learning", what we are doing as teachers is pointless.  Without the want to read, the student isn't going to read, period.  Throwing two tests a year at the kid and drilling the teacher on State Standards isn't going to change that.

I also see that the name "The Love of Learning" is probably conjuring the wrong image to the American public, and Michelle Rhee is using it to her advantage to weed out teachers that ignore Standards and focus on "touchy-feely" education.  She does have a point that those teachers that ignore Standards have to either change or go, but she gives off the visual that every teacher that likes the idea of relevant information is some kind of pot-smoking hippy with a tie-dyed t-shirt.  Who finds the "Love of Learning" relevant, according to Rhee?  Well, it's probably a teacher who is some ex-1960's Haight Ashbury reject who couldn't get a job in the dog-eat-dog corporate society and decided to change the world by influencing little children.  The teacher probably doesn't lesson plan very well and gets all their ideas from Democracy Now and snippets from National Public Radio, both of which are listened to at the commune the teacher inhabits. 

While such teachers may exists, it is bad form to grossly generalize teachers in that context.  I don't think the issue is "be creative" or "teach to learn", the issue is getting the kids to learn using creative, relevant, and proven methods to create educated members of society.  I have yet to see Standardized Tests as a proven method to promote an educated populace, by the way.  So, in my opinion, Michelle Rhee did not come off looking like the Jack Welch I was hoping for in managing education.  I still like her ideas in terms of confronting the union and demanding that good teachers get the benefits from hard work and successful students, but her method of dealing with employees seems less like those of a motivating, respectful figurehead, and more like a Bob Nardelli clone; a condescending gas bag with little working knowledge of what needs to be done in the trenches for the overall goals of educating kids to be met.

Pity, I liked a lot of what she had to say.  I'm hoping that she reins in the hyper-aggressiveness and starts acting like a good manager, and a good educator.