Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ideal vs. Real/Powerful vs. Powerless

Being bipolar is practically a sub-job of a teacher. You kind of have to be up and down all the time. Your world is constantly in flux:

The copier is working. The copier is not working. The kids feel like listening. The kids do not feel like listening. Your colleagues are productive. Your colleagues are not productive. Your administration appreciates you. Your administration does not appreciate you. The school's power is on. The school's power is off. Therefore there is no school tomorrow. Wait, just kidding, yes there is! (Wait, just kidding again, no the power's out again, so now that you and all students have arrived, school is canceled... true story in the life of PG County.)

No one day is like the other. Although we teachers follow a bell schedule, that is about the only consistency that we experience in our careers. Because we interact with so many people and machines throughout the course of a day (and we know machines are purposely temperamental sometimes!) and because those factors play a role in how our day is shaped, teaching is anything but a monotonous job. Which is not so great for me, as a slightly obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive, mildly to moderately anxious person.

I love routine. I can't give it to myself so well, but I appreciate when I am in that type of environment. Predictability is my best friend.

In some ways, teaching is completely the wrong career for me because I can drive myself insane with my need for order and for following "process" to things. (What is the correct process to follow for lesson planning? Grading? I need a formula.) However, lucky for me, I am okay with sacrificing small bits of my sanity for my love of actually teaching and working with students.

But I can only sacrifice so much. This got me to thinking: what is the difference between how I want things to be and how they are? And how can I close that contentment gap? (Teaching is full of different kinds of gaps...)

Well, for one, I hate how powerless I feel about the state of education and my ability to improve it. I'm one teacher of six classes in a school of probably 200 staff. There are 200 schools in PG County. Thousands of schools in the state of Maryland. And tens of thousands (?) of schools in the country. I'm just one. I don't make the decisions on curriculum organization (I'm sorry, PG, but you all have no concept of flow of topics.), I don't get to have my say on how ridiculous NCLB is and I don't get to fail the students that need to repeat a grade or class so that they aren't the twelfth grader on the cusp of graduation who can't read past a sixth grade level and doesn't know how to add or subtract fractions. Teaching can be a lot of these I CAN'Ts. And the I CAN'Ts... well, they suck. We are little. We don't make the big decisions. Yet, we have the most important job of any person in the education field. We're in the trenches. We see the reality. We work, every day, with those who touch the future. And for some reason, the higher up's decide that they don't really need our input when making important decisions such as NCLB.

Which, brings me, briefly, to this: don't you think it'd be a good idea to have governments poll the general public on decisions prior to making them? For example, at grocery store check outs, where you can usually donate to a charity or something like that. Those screens should also say "NCLB - good idea or bad idea?" "Tax cuts for the wealthy: yes or no?" "Should we change the food pyramid to something that doesn't look utterly confusing?"

Anyway, so yes - we have a lot of "I see students every day, I am a teacher, and yet I can't make any of the decisions that help to govern our schools." This probably won't change anytime soon - but don't worry - in 2024, I can run for president. So, as a new teacher, you can either 1. give up because of the I CAN'Ts - which I want to, all the time or 2. you can focus on the I CANs.

Today, I'm choosing the latter. Tomorrow, who knows. Like I said: bipolar.

The U.S. is not going to be this orderly, utopian (...economically sound) society any time soon. I'm not going to be president any time soon. But for now, I'm president of my little classroom and that's a start. I can run my classroom as I so please (mostly) and that at least, can be to the level of order that I require. So let's discuss: what do I need to have the "utopian" classroom and how do I get my current classroom there?

In my opinion, the well-oiled teacher would:

- Have a year plan - simple, just unit names so you can identify connections and create flow between and among units
- Plan by units for a high level of cohesiveness and succinctness portrayed in lessons in order to increase student success
- Plan activities that engage most or all students on a regular basis
- Have all copies created at the start of the week
- Be animated and interesting to listen to
- Go over HW
- Properly close out every lesson to tie up loose ends
- Incorporate life skills and lessons into the class. I like to give my students weekly drills on math topics that they have covered before (all the way back to elementary school) to keep them sharp. The curriculum as includes SAT Questions of the Week, which I like. But, I also want to include discussions about songs that I think have good messages. And I've also been obsessed with Hey, Arnold and other cartoons from my childhood because they main characters are portrayed as elementary and middle schoolers, yet the characters act WAY beyond their years. My kids could really learn a thing or two from Ginger Foutley or TJ Detweiler.
- Grade papers in a timely manner and return them at least weekly - with proper feedback - all the while updating online grades or providing grade sheets
- Offer outside of class help
- Be open for student conversations, questions and concerns

And, the well-oiled students would:

- Come to class on time
- Come to class prepared
- Listen, attentively. Participate, productively
- Complete assignments in a timely manner
- Help and be kind to classmates
- Clean up before leaving class
- Complete HW, ask questions if necessary
- Be a productive member of society: help their parents or siblings at home, volunteer, recycle...

And, the well-oiled room of knowledge would:
- Be clean and organized
- Have helpful charts and posters posted
- Have Harry Potter paraphernalia

So, step 1 is to outline what you want. Step 2 is to outline how you get there. I'll have to get back to you on that. Step 3: just do it. (Thanks, Nike.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Musings on my Drive Home

It's a new school year!

I'm at a new school!

It's a high school!

I teach 8x the students I did last year!

I'm back, changing the world one student at a time - starting much earlier in the morning (7:45) and ending with enough daylight left to visit the bank or the post office (2:25). With one week of a new school year under my belt - my last year of commitment to Prince George's County - I thought it would be appropriate to talk about how I feel about the Teaching Fellows Program halfway through it.

I would like to start with this: my program's situation is "unique." Of all of the Teaching Fellows Programs across the United States, mine had to be the one that basically shut down after summer institute, leaving all cohort members to essentially handle ourselves and not have any of the supports promised to us when we agreed to enroll. I'm not entirely sure, but I think a similar situation occurred with Twin Cities Teaching Fellows, because in the middle of the application process, and in the middle of the school year, their website shut down and the branch said that they were not training any new teachers. So, while my program's situation may be "unique," as so eloquently stated by DCTF which has taken our program over until our cohort "graduates," it is certainly not unheard of. So there's one thing: you're ready to change the world. You want to teach. So you enroll in this alternative certification program. And then, you get in! You get "trained!" And then they pop you in a school and tell you that they're peace-ing out. Good luck, though!!

Did the program's demise really make a difference in my experience and training as a new teacher, though? Well, I guess I'll never really know. But what I do know is that the shut down of PGCTF caused a lot more headaches than necessary for a group of fourty or so people set on plunging themselves into a hard-to-staff school district with the support of people who have been in the business of training new teachers for several years. Literally, the program shut down within the first two months of school starting. Our program staff evacuated (I understand, they had to find other jobs) and we were left with a bunch of substitutes that we did not know and that did not know us. We all stopped asking the program for support, instead, we turned to each other. Additionally, as a SPED fellow, we were told that by the end of our first year, we would be certified as SPED teachers. Well, it's the end of my first year. And I have no certification whatsoever to my name. These small miscommunications (?) build up to a lot of frustration against a program many people left their homes and uprooted their families for. So before you say YES to The New Teacher Project's offer of enrollment, think about whether or not you can handle this teaching adventure mostly on your own. TNTP provides summer "training" - overly idealistic and shallow (though no amount of teacher training will ever prepare you for the real world of teaching) and a cohort of generally hard-working, passionate people that you will grow close to, as well as content seminars during the school year - still too idealistic and mostly busywork - to get you to your certification, but mostly everything else is on you.

Let's back it up though. Let's look at the Teaching Fellows Program as a whole. It's a great concept, Michelle Rhee. You take these career changers and fresh-faced, optimistic college graduates who want to become teachers to serve lower performing areas and you let them. After eight weeks, they're allowed to start teaching - they're allowed to begin changing the world almost immediately - and they're going to keep creating that change with their optimism and commitment to service for two years. After that, hopefully they'll love it so much that they'll stay and become lifelong teachers and over time, the ratio of "effective" teachers to "ineffective" teachers will grow. Those formally lower performing areas will start to see increases in their test scores and therefore, in their students' achievement levels.

But does it work??

I say no.

I appreciate my experience in this program. I truly, truly do. I've met fantastic people and I love teaching. No other alternative certification program, except for perhaps TFA, would ever get me into classrooms as quickly and deeply as I have been allowed. And, my appreciation for teachers and for education has grown immensely. But here is what I believe to the core: fourty-some outsiders cannot come to a county of nearly 900,000 people and change its culture. Most of us aren't from here. Most of us don't live here. Most of us shudder at the idea of living in the county or sending any of our children to the county's schools. We're not a part of the community.

I'm not saying that we can't make positive changes. Most, if not all, of us have made ripples in our students' and schools' lives. However, I feel that positive, permanent, progressive change must come from within. As outsiders, we see a problem and want to swoop in to change it. But, I think that other things need to occur first: the insiders must be open to and want the change and the insiders must also contribute to the change. I'm not saying that PG County residents don't care about the progress of their community. However, it seems that the majority of the people that I have worked with don't really choose to act.

I work in a county where an overwhelming majority of my high school students cannot tell elapsing time, where most students fail their AP tests, where most students opt to take environmental science instead of chemistry because it is an easier course, where class sizes can go high as 50 students in a classroom... etc, etc.

The county's education system is undoubtedly broken. But no one is up in arms about the low quality of education that most students receive here. Instead, we look for quick fixes and fancy jargon. We coax our students into performing.

"We use the workshop model." means we introduce the lesson, we work on the lesson and then we conclude the lesson.

"We offer staff a wide array of professional development opportunities." At one of the most recent trainings I attended, two of my colleagues were sleeping. And for most of my PDs, I would have to say that I learned absolutely nothing useful for the 4 to 7 hours that I attended.

"We are piloting the FIRST program." means we pay teachers money to be observed and to be teaching in a high-need area - even if they are not making observable progress with their students.

"We use PBIS." means that we pay students with points when they do what we want them to so that they can buy or win things.

In PG County, it doesn't seem like "children come first." It seems like "Let's make it look like children come first." If PG County, or any another place that TNTP or TFA sends teachers, is to truly make progress, what we need is a culture change first. Schools - all schools - need to challenge students to take a large part in succeeding in their education. All involved in the education of students need to stop acting like it's the teachers' job to beg a student to listen, learn or participate. Parents especially need to be an example of curiosity, motivation and persistence. I understand that where I come from is different and so I bring my own ideology to my classroom. But my students should not be shocked about getting homework everyday, about carrying their books to class, about taking notes or taking a quiz or test that is not multiple choice or more than 25 questions long. I should not have to be okay with the fact that all the students that I failed last year moved onto high school. And I should not have to be okay with the fact that some of my teenage students do not know 7 x 6, how to read an analog clock, or how to carry during addition without a calculator. Or that on the third day of school several students were already suspended.

The expectations for students in this county are overall, very low and the kids, they live up to them just fine.

In summary, this is a very uplifting blog. I would like to reiterate that I love my job. Students, no matter where they come from, are mostly delightful to work with. Being a teacher has come to define the person I am today. But, I feel as a person a part of something so big and influential as the education system, things need to change. A lot. Until they do, our future as a country does not look so bright.

So, please, students: your time is NOW. If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

And parents, be unwavering in expectations of your students as well as in the support you provide to them. Raise them to be concerned for their society and for themselves.

And teachers, myself included, push your students and push yourself to not accept the circumstances and the rules forced upon us by others, many of which haven't a clue about educating a child.

And administrators and lawmakers, work to support those directly in the trenches: the students, the parents and the teachers. No matter where we learn and teach, our job is difficult (and so are yours). Ask yourselves: are you helping or are you thwarting? Are those real solutions or are they duct tape solutions? (And while duct tape can do practically anything, it's also the lazy man's way out.) I really hope that I can witness the rebirth of our education system, because the way it is now, the "good" districts have it good and the "bad" districts have it terrible.