Thursday, June 7, 2012

Someone Should Write a Book about PG County

I'm alive! They didn't riot and I was not trampled in a stampede!

Tomorrow is the last day of the 2011-2012 school year. It also marks the end of my two year commitment to the county as a teaching fellow. While this whole fiasco was going on, every day felt long and tough. However, looking back, I can't believe that I taught children for that long. (And that someone LET me.) There is so much I want to talk about; this whole year, something would happen and I would note, "I need to include this in my blog." But I never got around to blogging, because 1. I prefer sleep and 2. blogging always depresses me. I always feel inadequate afterwards, but a passion is also reignited.

So, here I am now, and hey, anonymous one person who reads my blog :) - I have a lot to say! And I shall do so in a question-answer format... in which I write both the question and the answer.

1. Would you recommend Alternative Certification routes to other aspiring educators?

First thought: HECK, NO! After thought: Well, maybe, but there's A LOT to take into consideration. As a education minor in college, I would say that I mostly feel like the major/minor as it exists in colleges today is not very useful. Teaching is not an exact science and it can be really difficult to properly prepare someone to teach students. There's a lot of theory and thinking about teaching that is discussed, but the single-most important factor to teacher preparation is actually teaching. Few can read a book about teaching and then go do it well. Personally, I feel that alt-cert is nice in that you can major in another field and still become a teacher, in the same time that ed majors get into the profession. In some ways, ed majors have advantages - they have been exposed to techniques and such - but really, teaching is common sense to those who can teach. You don't need to spend a semester studying differentiation or multiple intelligences in order to know that some kids will need different work than others and some kids learn visually vs. others kinesthetically. As someone who thinks scientifically, I feel that teaching is an art of guess and check and experimentation.

The big drawback to alt-cert, though, is that a lot of the programs are a lot more non-sense than going through the required classes of an ed major/minor. I can honestly say that nothing I learned in ANY of my four alt-cert classes was applied to my classroom. Those classes were designed to completely ignore the realistic, struggling classrooms that achievement gaps offer. They assume that you have students who give a damn, don't come high to class, that you have a co-teacher to collaborate with, and that you have all the time in the world to teach a kid how to read when you're teaching upper-level math and the kid still needs to add one-digit numbers on their fingers. The classes were incredibly frustrating, because I knew that I had better things to be doing for the three hours every other week.

Coming out as an alt-cert teacher, though, I feel as competent as someone who was an ed major also teaching full-time for two years. Nothing can teach you more than actually being in the trenches and though alt-cert programs toss you in and shut the door, you come out feeling like you can do anything, because you had such a challenging start to your career. And if you survive these two years and still want to teach, you can rest assured that you are making this decision off of a solid foundation of crazy experiences. Just note though - as a teaching fellow - you're paying a couple of thousand dollars for people to pretend that your class loads are idyllic and for you to report that things are "going well and I'm confident in my abilities as a teacher," when you're secretly wondering what those felons* (I love my students, so I am allowed to call them as such) have stolen from your room today and if anyone actually learned anything while the ADHD student with no respect for education ran around that room throwing paper balls at their peers. It never felt like I got my money's worth - cause P.S. a month after being thrown into the classroom, we got an email from PGCTF to say that this branch of The New Teacher Project had been dissolved and therefore we got none of the support we were promised when we signed on - and felt like I was simply paying the county to be able to teach students despite my very limited experience in classroom teaching.

I've certainly met some fantastic people through this program and learned A TON by teaching in the trenches (imagine trying to win a war fighting with paperclips... you've got to be innovative and quickly so). I'm thankful for the experience, but I think in retrospect, I should have just gone for my master's in education.

2. Is PG County as bad as you thought it would be?

Before I was hired by PG County, I had shadowed two high school teachers (at different high schools), tutored elementary schoolers after school and taught a science workshop for kids grades 3 - 5. I wrote blogs on how I could see the problem with PG County: the teachers. The lazy, unhelpful, uninteresting teachers. If they had only tried, their students would have learned so much and there would be no problems in the entire county!

I had no idea.

While poor teachers are a rampant issue throughout the county (I have worked with teachers who leave their students outside of their classroom for upwards of 20 minutes while they are wandering the school, teachers who sit at their computers for the entire 85 minute period while their students youtube and tweet, and teachers who tell future students not to sign up for their class, because they are not going to teach the class well), they are not the only issue.

PG County's problems are worse than I could have ever imagined. The politicians are corrupt (e.g. Johnson and Alston) and county funds appear to be allocated very poorly. Schools are literally falling apart without the money or attention to repair them. Students in my geometry classes are unable to complete a 12x12 multiplication table on their own abilities. Students (several) who failed algebra were enrolled in my geometry class. Some students have taken their HSAs repeatedly and still fail to pass them. Not to mention, the disorganization of staff and faculty is at a ridiculous level. I honestly expected some days to drive into work and see that the school had spontaneously combusted from being such an honest disgrace. WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE EDUCATING THE FUTURE! There are no prepared bell schedules for early dismissal or two-hour delays! There are no teachers on hall-duty! There are students late to class, wandering in the hallways and administrators passing them by with not even a nod of acknowledgement! It constantly feels like every year the school has just been formed and routines and procedures have not yet been thought of or put into place. Consistency and leadership is lacking in the county. And because the adults are a poor example of molding a place of learning, the students follow suit.

I really did not feel supported in either of my positions. My classes were very large (my largest in high school at 40 students at one point) and I taught in a temporary/portable which students often express "isn't a good place to learning and it doesn't feel like [they're] in school." Most of the time I was outside with 30-some other students (some of which were two or three years younger than I) alone. I had 35 desks, some which were already broken. I had no phone to call for help if necessary (I had a PA, but in the case that things got out of hand, who could hear me over the chaos? I never called the office to ask for help, either, though. I knew that this was a beast I had to tame on my own.). I had no internet for the first three months of school and was teaching students via an old overhead (older than when I was in high school, at least). How would you expect success to come out of a place you prepared so poorly to educate students who were already struggling? I taught a very difficult demographic this year - ESOL, SPED (which made up more than 50% of my co-taught classes - sizes of 30+, sans co-teacher), and chronic repeaters/grade failers. Yet, I was placed outside of the school - alone - in a class too small with none of the resources provided to other classrooms. Whatever adult thought this was a good idea - shame on you.

And then come the students. There is a disproportionate amount of students who couldn't care less about getting an education. They walk the halls everyday, disrespect the adults in the school, and litter all over the building. Of course not one of these fine young people want to do us all a favor and stay home so the rest of us can work towards productivity. They come to school to socialize and get their free lunches. Yet most probably couldn't even spell "socialize". At my high school, we had a group of targeted "at-risk" students, who were supposed to be given extra support in order to achieve more. This group of students walked the halls more so than any other group and absolutely nothing appeared to be done about it.

During my first week of school, some students broke into my temp and sprayed the room down with the fire extinguisher. During one of the last weeks 2011, a student stole my cell phone. Over the course of the school year, students have broken my classroom blinds and torn down my window screens. Honestly, there is very little respect for the place where they are supposed to be learning. It can be very disheartening at times and I often felt like I was trying to teach a group of freshly released convicts math.

These kids have had this attitude forever, I'm sure, and those who are new to it are quickly influenced and infected by this attitude of apathy and entitlement. Sweet, hard-working ninth graders at the beginning of the year came in mid-year playing with electronics during class instead of listening or working on assignments. My experiences have been a huge advocate for the separation of grade levels. Anyway, this was a long rant, but YES. PG County has got serious issues - worse than you would imagine - and it's because the leadership in the county is poor and because many parents either 1. don't know how to involve themselves in supporting their students or 2. don't give a damn. Which is also why I'm coming away from this experience understanding the importance of contraception. GOP - women need access to contraceptives. Otherwise, people end up having unplanned children that they don't support into responsible, productive adults. Sometimes I just want to scream this off the mountaintops.

3. But... there were some good times... right?

Absolutely. Despite the fact that I was reduced to tears several times over the course of these two years and spent at least a year feeling unstable and slightly suicidal (don't worry about me, it's over now), I really have a soft-spot for the wide majority of my students. I feel bad for them. They have been taught that being dumb and not caring about their education is not only okay, but sometimes it's "cool." They have families that don't spend time with one another. Students have told me on several occasions that they don't speak to their siblings at home or in school. One day, I brought in board games to a class before winter break and a student asked me if I ran a daycare because I had so many games. I told him that my family liked to play games and he found it odd. Many of my students were very funny and even when I was angry with them, someone would make a comment that would make me lose my serious face and burst out in laughter. Some of my pre-cal students bought me a birthday present and sang happy birthday to me, to my embarrassment. And though I was overwhelmingly inadequate as a teacher for the high-needs demographic, and that's why I'm leaving PG, I had some really good lessons and activities that I hope reduced the negative effects that I brought onto my students by being their teacher.

This has been, without a doubt, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life - and I'm sure it will always be the most difficult thing I will ever do. The level of "brokeness" of the education system is daunting.

4. Any last thoughts for PG County?

Strive to be better. When your motto is "Children Come First," make it true. Work tirelessly to prepare an environment that is geared towards student achievement and growth. That is number 1. We don't need the best and newest technology. We need desks that our oddly tall students can all fit in and rooms that allow the students to spread out so that they're not sitting atop one another. We need smaller teacher to student ratios. We need to enforce rules that are important to the smooth operation of our school. We need to be positive by having all school members get involved in school events. We need to have our teachers work together to collaborate on lessons and issues. We need more accountability of students, teachers, administrators, and parents. We need to teach students content and character. We need to not dumb down the material or pass students along. But these changes will not come from "with out," through teachers like myself. I can't teach here. I'm not good enough. Not yet, anyway. This is not my best demographic. This is not my "forever community." The changes need to be fueled within, by people who live here and want to see improvements. They will need to start small. They will need to remediate instead of pushing kids into honors and AP classes for the sake of saying that there are kids in those classes. They need to stop lying to themselves first, though. Children don't come first in the county and it is not a livable community. Students here are being given a diploma when they read at the middle school level. There is a high crime and poverty rate. We stop those rates from growing when we properly educate our students and they attain the skills necessary to work jobs that are satisfying and will support their needs.

Education and the lack of it's reform devastates me on a regular basis. I became a teacher, because I felt that it was the single-most important contributing factor to the positive progression of our society. I honestly feel that many of the world's problems can be solved by having more students receive a proper, holistic education in academics and character. I feel incredibly guilty for abandoning PG County, but I know I would have never been able to dedicate myself to making things better here. I have no desire to be a member of the community here. There is too much opposition to my beliefs here and I cannot allow myself to live somewhere where I don't agree with the majority of the population on key issues, unless I work to affect opinions and change. I don't believe in being an idle member of a community, so I had to leave. I don't want to sound high and mighty, but you have to choose between 1. being a "martyr" and working to change a place that makes you want to physically bring harm to yourself and doesn't show much appreciation for your efforts or 2. happiness and affecting change in a community that you want to be apart of.

By no means am I giving up on public schools, though. I believe that they can do fantastic things and yield the power and innovation to turn around our school system. I hope that I can continue to affect change and I hope the same for all other teachers in the country.

I told my students that I don't consider myself a teacher. This isn't my forever job, though it is one of my biggest passions. I feel like an undercover spy sometimes in this job. So, when I say the following, I'm not talking about myself. Teaching the most valuable, respectable profession a person can hold. Teachers have so much power to influence ripples of change. It is a shame that the profession has difficulty attracting more qualified individuals, because unfortunately, some teachers are not qualified to hold their positions and they are damaging their students every day. Like I have before. Until we as a country accept the importance of the educator, we will continue to at the bottom of the ranks of the developed countries and we will continue to graduate students not ready to lead us into tomorrow. More thoughts to come as my grades are due tomorrow! :)