Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Compare & Contrast: PGCPS and MCPS

Ever since starting my new position in MCPS at the end of August, I've been mentally noting all the differences between PGCPS and MCPS. While the differences are the most striking, of course there's also similarities between the two. Below are just some of my notes!

Interview Process

("Interview" for PGCPS.) When I was interviewed in PGCPS, I was asked zero questions and asked the principal two questions. It was also a group interview, and none of us got asked any questions.

When I was interviewed in MCPS, I received a sheet of five or six questions and I was interviewed by the principal, two assistant principals, and the department chair. This to me shows that the principal of the school makes decisions with others' opinions in mind and that s/he trusts his/her staff. I was also able to ask a lot of questions myself.

Both interview processes were pretty casual.

Being Hired

I was ecstatic to be hired in both situations (employment > unemployment), but there was a remarkable difference of others' reaction in my hiring/acceptance of the position.

In MCPS, the principal, the department chair, the front office secretaries, and the principal's secretary all told me that they were so excited that I was joining the team and that they were so happy that I was choosing to come to their school.

No such reaction from PGCPS, but in all fairness, as a fellow, you kind of accept the first job offer so it's not like you have other choices and are "choosing" that school.

Service Week

The first day of service week in MCPS, the school support staff and admin had set out a breakfast for teachers. At least five teachers approached me during the first thirty minutes of breakfast to welcome me to the school and introduce themselves. While this was happening, everyone else around me was greeting each other and catching up on what they did over the summer. My first thought was, "Why is everybody hugging each other?"

In PGCPS, not just during service week, it doesn't really seem like people like each other all that much. Teachers generally stick to their departments and there are clear cliques. So far this week, I have sat with a different group of people during every meeting and it seems that most people spread out as well.

Also, we've had a schedule of events and for the most part, we've really stuck to it. I honestly feel that the staff at my school are respectful of others' time. I haven't always felt that way in PGCPS.

What really strikes me the most, and this might just be my department, but a good amount of people in the department are really trying to help out the newbies. They meet with us, keep up with emails, answer questions... it feels like we are really working as a team. There's seven biology teachers, and three of us are new, which I like, because we're all very enthused about what we're about to embark on.


In PGCPS, I spent my first week cutting butcher paper to cover my bulletin boards and make other wall decorations. We also would get our box of paper that would have to last a semester (first school) or a quarter (second school). In SPED, we all got to get supplies that were ordered with Medicaid money from the previous year. In math, we got some content-related supplies (protractors and compasses), but no pencils, colored pencils, etc. It may be that I should have just asked.

In MCPS, there aren't rolls and rolls of butcher paper :( People don't use it here :( I was shocked, actually, to find out. I've seen teachers cover their boards with fabric or construction paper. Personally, in my lab room, I only have one bulletin board. The rest is cabinets or empty wall space, but it's hard to get much to stick to the cinderblock walls. Though I was sad about the lack of butcher paper, we do have unlimited copies at MCPS. We don't have to log in to print and we don't bring our own paper. I got some supplies from the business manager so far, but I mostly brought all my stuff in, from prior experience. AND THERE ARE STAPLES IN THE COPY MACHINE! It seems like such a minute detail, but stapling 100+ packets together can be time consuming.

...more to come as I wrap up this week and then the next!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

This Blog is About to Get Interesting.

I am very excited to announce that I have accepted a high school biology position in Montgomery County Public Schools for the 2012-2013 school year. Though I have been teaching mathematics for the past two years, my favorite subject in school has always been science and now I get to talk about how crazy it is that things we can't even see manage our very existence. What is even more crazy is that my new school is a mere ten miles away from my old school, but I expect the experience to be very different. No matter what is to come, I hope that I am able to learn and grow as a teacher (and person) from my interactions from my colleagues and students. I hope that I do not forget what I have learned from Prince George's County or why education reform and equity is of utmost importance. I know I won't forget the students I had the opportunity to work with and I wish them happy and fulfilling lives. Finally, I also hope that I can work towards becoming the type of teacher that inspires and influences students to work hard, be nice, think!, and rise above it.

I imagine that the content of this blog will be changing, but look forward to sharing all the crazy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rich Kids Need Good Teachers, Too.

I've spent all summer unemployed, but pretty steadily optimistic at the prospect of employment in a school/district that, to put it bluntly, doesn't suck. And by that, I mean that I left PG quite selfishly. While I care about the kids - a lot - and what I was doing day to day - again, a lot - I was so incredibly unhappy. The only thing sustaining me was that I was glad that it was me, and not some teacher from the dance of the lemons/pass the trash, that was in that temporary teaching those nuggets. Had I not been at the school, things would, of course, have carried on as usual. And while I don't think that my presence was life-changing for anyone, but myself, I would like to think that I had a good influence on almost all of my kids, fostered positive relationships, and will be remembered fondly, if thought of, in the coming years. But when I made the decision to leave PG, I didn't care so much about the positive that had occurred during my stay. I left for me. I left despite coming into teaching with that typical TFA attitude that our schools needed teachers who weren't horrendous and that good education could change the world. I still feel this way. But, I didn't know how hard it would be to try to be a good teacher in a truly toxic system. I would venture to say that if I had stayed 10 years in PG, I would have little job satisfaction and I might have become one of those teachers who stops trying. I guess I will never know. In some ways, I don't want to know - especially if the outcome were positive and I could have become one of those kick butt teachers in PG (there are some, so that's a nice thing to say about PG, though PG definitely doesn't treat them well - work on that y'all - you need all the non-burnt out teachers you can get). That scenario would have been the ideal. New teacher goes into a low-performing school and inspires high achievement and positive attitudes. That's the stuff movies are made of. No one wants to make movies about the rich, well-to-do kids who get into college. There's no twist. And almost no plot, because you "know" the ending.

Which brings us to the now.

I've been offered a position at one of the most prestigious public high schools in the state, and in the country. The position is for ninth grade and AP biology - the dream. The majority of the student body is caucasian - about 60% - and the location of the school is in one of the most affluential cities in the state/county (think Forbes richest cities). I've been told that the school has virtually no discipline problems and that kids are constantly asking questions about the content they're learning about in class. The resource teacher I interviewed with told me that the staff is constantly collaborating. The admin team expressed that they felt that the school atmosphere was extremely positive. So basically almost the complete opposite of what I've experienced over the past two years. But, not to speak badly of my students. I feel lucky to have had some really great kids - I practically liked all of them - who tried in class and usually didn't steal my things. I was blessed to never be cursed out or yelled at by parents or students. In relative terms, I was treated very well by the kids in PG, and had the county not been an impossible mess, I probably would have stayed longer.

So, yes, great, fancy new school, biology position, what's the problem, you big whiner?

I feel like taking the job would make me a sell out. The problem with our education system is that we have schools that have students who don't have good teachers, administrators, etc. Most kids aren't born hating school, being purposefully disruptive, or with the intention of entering a life of crime (no kids for this last one). A good education is supposed to say, HEY! Stick with me and I can open you doors to places you want to go. Not places you have to go because all the other doors/windows are locked. A good education, in essence, is supposed to be the foundation to a high-functioning society. Kids go through school, learn about themselves and the world, and grow up to be able to contribute to it positively with the skills they have learned through their experiences and courses of study.

Sometimes, well, often, this whole educate the future process is too slow. Some kids don't have 12+ years to devote to study before they can get some tangible, concrete rewards. Some kids have horrible teachers, because they live in an area where those before them couldn't wait, didn't wait, etc. and no one wants to teach in an unsafe, crime-ridden town or city. Not forever, any way. And when no one wants to work there, there is a constant revolving door of people with good intentions, but no intentions to set down roots and really make an impact.

These kids at this school aren't likely to ever face the decision of entering a life of crime. Most will go to college and some will enter a profession after high school. They would likely be "alright" in life no matter what type of teacher they had in high school.

These kids are not the reason I felt so compelled to be involved in public school education. But I know that rich kids need good teachers, too. Everybody does. It's just that, when you know there's not enough, and I'm no Bill Nye or Ms. Frizzle (not yet, anyway), it becomes an issue of equity. Who needs the resources more? When this is your philosophy - and this is mine - you do have to give up the "shiny" sometimes. But, the hope is that the reward of being somewhere that really needs you makes you feel even more shiny on the inside.

And I understand, that not 100% of the students at this school are fulfilling their potential. While 95%+ of caucasian kids are passing the state tests for algebra, English, and biology, the minority students are performing as low as 72% (which is not low, really, cause I've seen low, but that is a notable gap  between white and non-white students). So in that way, I feel like I have a challenge - this is a great school, but it's not yet great for all students, or at least 90%+ of the students (perfect is impossible).

If I had only been offered this position, obviously, I'd take it. Employment trumps educational philosophy. I'd rather teach somewhere than teach no where, almost. But I also have been offered another awesome opportunity (cue the OH, boohoo, I have two job offers, my life is so hard) in Baltimore City. ( left PG for that?!) 1. It's a charter school. Really up and coming. On a totally awesome path. I'd be teaching 6th and 7th grade math (not the dream, but I can appreciate the importance of a good math education). 2. The kids are definitely not going to be as behaviorally challenged as "typical" Baltimore City students. I'm told that a minute percentage of kids got suspended last year (less than 5%).

What I love about charter schools is that they're known to be experimental in a positive manner and that they usually support their staff very well. Even more, I love that they serve the same population as the other public schools, but these students/their families have taken the additional step to provide their kids with a better education/future. Originally, I wanted to work with middle-class students, like myself, but kids in urban schools would be the second choice, if I had a ranking. I feel that taking the position here would be truer to my educational philosophy and goal.

But I have this nagging thought that I'm turning down this other really fantastic school. In both schools, I feel that I could learn and grow a lot. Both schools seem warm and very supportive (although I have terrible judgment based on first impressions - though with students - I know better). I probably wouldn't learn the same things from both schools, the experience would be very different, and I'm pondering if the impact will be, too. And then I think of those TFA teachers who leave the profession to do more lucrative, less mentally and emotionally exhausting, more thankful jobs. Going for the ranked public school makes me feel like I'm doing that. Like there was no point in me getting alternative certified, because I'm working with the same kids who have a steady flow of qualified teachers every year.

If I take this school's position, I will probably never leave to go back to an urban or charter school, because I probably won't be constantly reminded of our failing education system. If I take the charter school's position, I probably won't stay forever and then will probably move into a school in this county (although, the hope was somewhere less affluent. I wanted to make an okay school a good school, not a great school even better). I imagine that the job security at the county school will be nicer. I really don't want to school hop anymore. I want to put down some roots and really be a part of my school's community. I wouldn't ever be a part of the Baltimore City community, not the way it is now, anyway. If I ever have kids, we'd move to the suburbs, and that's the community I'd work to contribute to. But this is the time to not have any roots, if there was ever such a time... So as you can tell, I've ramble on for over an hour and still haven't come to a conclusion of what I'm going to do. Hmm, sounds like the usual.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Thought-Provoking, Inspiring Post

Another post in the same week? Wow, I'm really unemployed.

In my unemployment, with periods of the teasing possibility of employment, I have had a lot of time to think and make hypothetical decisions. What I mean by that is, at points this summer, I had two schools that were interviewing me and I would think about if I could potentially accept job offers and if both offered me a job, which I would take. (However, despite interviewing, none have offered me any jobs. This post is supposed to be inspiring so I won't dwell on that rejection.)

My first two schools were both charter schools, both for the 6th grade. At one, I would be the 6th grade science teacher. At the other, I would be the 6th grade math/science inclusion (SPED) teacher. Both schools seem great and on a good path, but I leaned towards the first because I didn't really want to be a co-teacher to anyone. I'm a little bit (a lot of bit) on the type A side and I have always had a very specific way of decorating and organizing (and running) my classroom. At the beginning of this summer, I really wanted to focus on working character development into my classroom. I thought of the characteristics most important to me that I envisioned all of my students working to embody and how they would be evaluated on those characteristics. It can be kind of difficult to explain that to another teacher who's had a different plan in their heads. After teaching in PG County, I've come to believe that character education is exceedingly important in schools. Few kids are going to remember how to find the area of a circle, but many more will learn how to properly interact with one another in a positive manner.

I digress - back to my main dilemma. I came into teaching for one reason: Alternative Breaks. As a quick summary, Alternative Breaks is a service organization (that I think is only in colleges) that organizes trips for students that focus on service and awareness of social issues. At my college, we had trips focused on issues such as the justice system, immigration, healthcare, environmental conservation, and urban/rural education. My first year of involvement, I participated in two trips (immigration/border awareness and environmental conservation). I had a lot of fun on these trips, learned a ton about the issues, as well as myself, and met many inspiring people. But, I couldn't get this itching feeling off of me. Alternative Breaks is great, but I couldn't stop thinking about how many social issues there were in the U.S. alone and how we could go about solving them (or at least approaching/formulating a feasible solution).

The following year, I participated in two trips focused on rural education. During these trips, I came to believe that  education was the "magic bullet" to a lot of these social problems. For example, our incarceration rate in the U.S. is pretty ridiculous. In Pennsylvania, 1 in 10 prisoners is a high school dropout. We also spend a lot more on prisoners annually than students. And students that seek more education are less likely to be involved in serious crimes. Because they have other options. Another example is with conservation - if people were properly taught about pollution and if our infrastructure was better integrated in sustainability, then maybe we wouldn't have experienced the hottest month (July 2012) on record.

In short, a solid, well-rounded, holistic education is the closest thing to a societal magic bullet that we'll ever have. This is what, I believe, makes the difference between progress and decline. I left Prince George's County because I didn't feel that we provided our students a well-rounded education by any means. We stressed being able to pass a test and not learning the process and perseverance that it takes to learn the material. Students took the state standardized tests up to four times a year in an attempt to meet that expectation so that they could graduate. Students were pretty much taking the same test over and over and over again, and yet still failed. What does that say about our education system? Not good things. If students knew remotely how to reason, they'd be halfway to passing their tests.

I don't want to preach about the magic of education too much (and how I think that all teachers are magical - not saying myself, remember, I don't yet consider myself to be a "real" teacher), but I guess what I'm trying to say is that we have this powerful tool that if sculpted and supported properly, could alleviate many of our societal issues. But we're not sculpting or supporting. Education cuts are not a new thing. And everyone is running towards raising achievement scores and competition among states to do better than one another. It's really disconcerting. We can do better.

In my mind, if we took the time to sculpt a really good curriculum, filled with humanities, the arts, and character education, we have a powerful tool in our hands. We need to come together to provide our students more than how to calculate x or y. Students need to learn how to work with others, solve problems, think logically, formulate their own opinions, express those opinions clearly, and contribute to society (and that's the short list of life skills). So how do we integrate these components? I'm not sure yet but - I'm working on it - and what I do know is, somehow, we must.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Square One

So a couple months ago, I was all "In your face, PG, I'm outta here!" I submitted my resignation and took my certification and walked ran out of the county. Since then, I have not ventured into PG, with the exception of College Park, where I went to school and am currently camp counseling.

And now, here I am - August - almost wishing that I didn't leave that black hole of education and character.

I know what you're thinking. Geez, harsh words for PG.

Well, you try teaching there for two years.

But, still, it was better than unemployment. (As I type those words, I wonder if I'm telling the truth.) Due to my family infrastructure, unemployment doesn't mean homelessness (thank goodness), it means that I'll move back in with my parents as I make attempts to plot my course from here. It's still not plan A, though. Plan A was to find a good school that I could spend the next few years really learning and growing at, and rediscovering my belief that public education can be good and can mold students into positive forces of society. Plan A was to give teaching the chance that PG never did or could.

After applying to two public school systems and two charter schools, I have been rejected by both charters (though on a positive note, made it through to two interviews for both, which is better than last year - which begs the question, am I becoming a better teacher or a better actor?) and haven't yet heard anything from the public school systems. School for the masses starts in just under three weeks. Of course I'm trying to stay optimistic about the possibilities, but at my core, that's not really who I am. I'm an anxiety-ridden, obsessive compulsive mess. I'm about ready to take the first job offered to me.

On the one hand, I'm glad to have had the option of leaving a job that I was truly unhappy at. At times I was so unhappy that I think my feelings were borderline depressive and passive-suicidal. No one should ever work a job where they feel that unhappy. And yet, so many individuals out there, I'm sure, do for the sake of their family and the duties they must fulfill. On the other, I would have liked the option of living independently from my parents and all that comes with that. And of course, I had some fun plans for this school year on integrating science content and character development.

I still want to teach for at least the next couple of years and I will definitely spend the next weeks applying to more charters, but as of yet, it's looking like I will spend the next year deciding if I want to apply to teach again or completely abandoning the profession to re-explore career possibilities in the sciences. Finding life purpose is exhausting.