Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Teacher Efficiency

I am literally the. world's. slowest. teacher.

It's a combination of things - I'm lazy and I procrastinate. But, also, I'm a perfectionist. Is that weird? Being lazy and a perfectionist? Maybe I'm lazy and I procrastinate, because I know it will take so long to get it perfect.

Writing a lesson plan or grading a test can literally take me days of work. This is not normal behavior. I marvel at the teachers who seem to have everything down and fly through their work. (Even though - snarky comment ahead - I know their work is not as beautiful as mine ;) Humbling comment follow up: but does it really need to be beautiful when students will look at it for less than 24 hours in total time?)

Anyway, I've been teaching for five years and I become more crazy about perfection each year to a fault. I don't think this will change. I'm neurotic and I know. There is conflicting information on whether neurotic people will live longer or shorter lives. However, I'm neurotic and not dumb and know something has to change if not my neuroticism. Here's what that change looks like for better efficiency:

1. Multiple choice quizzes and tests. If the MCATs can judge applicants on their medical knowledge and their aptitude for medical school through multiple choice, so can I. Grading time will not make me cry. If you search "writing better multiple choice questions," BYU and Vanderbilt have some useful tips if you're concerned about the quality of your multiple choice questions.

2. Rubrics. They take time to write, but make grading so much easier!

3. Try to grade something quickly after you receive them back - it's harder and harder to get back to it after a long time has passed.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the value of teachers

people don't look at their macbooks or iphones and say, "i wish steve jobs didn't work 12+ hour days." and i'm no steve jobs, but i'm tired of people telling me to stop working so long at school and, basically, to get a life. life is this journey around the sun that begs you to give those trips meaning. for some, that's having kids or finding a life companion, but for me, it's the legacy i hope to leave through my work. this priority may change if/when i decide to have kids and/ find a life companion, but i am perfectly happy with leaving my own, personal mark that i made with my own blood (i'm clumsy), sweat (the a/c at school doesn't always work), and tears (i have issues). i can't help but to wonder how much of people's well-intentioned, "get out of your classroom/it's terrible that you work so hard," has to do with the fact that i'm a woman and am "wasting away my youth" not finding a man or bearing children. but i'm a little busy, because i happen to have exactly 186 of them this year. or maybe it's because i'm not inventing the next iphone. but i promise you, if i do this right, what i'm making has the potential to be so. much. better.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

If I Ran the Zoo #1: Teacher Tenure

When I was in a elementary school, I collected Dr. Seuss books. One of them was called If I Ran the Zoo and I think it's an appropriate name for this series, where I hope to talk about current topics in education and my opinion on them as a generally competent, relatively new teacher.

Teacher Tenure

The facts:

1. There are incompetent teachers. There are teachers who hate teaching. I have worked with them. They are teaching someone's children.
2. The incompetent/lazy/bad attitude teachers I worked with were veteran teachers with tenure.
3. Most teachers WANT to become better at teaching.
         3a. Most of these teachers are actively WORKING to become better at teaching.

My opinion:

The teacher evaluation system is not good. I'm sure it's different from place to place, but here's what I've experienced: in PG, as a non-tenured teacher, I was observed once every quarter for about 40 minutes; in Montgomery County, as a non-tenured teacher, I am observed once every semester for about 40 minutes. In PG, the four evaluations did not always happen one per quarter (sometimes it was two or three rapid succession evaluations in the same quarter closer to the end of the evaluation window) or the four evaluations did not happen (maybe two or three). You're supposed to have a pre- and post-conference, but again, this does not always happen - in PG or Montgomery County.

If I ran the zoo:

1. Administrators would be in classrooms more than just enough to do the evaluations. Why? Because people who run the school should know what's going on in the school. I know some teachers are against this, because they feel that some admin are vindictive and are going to try to catch them doing something wrong. (And yes, some teachers are against this, because they ARE doing something wrong.) Heck, I don't love the idea of it either, because it makes me nervous to talk in front of adults. However, I feel that it's a necessary evil. We will get used to having people peeking in.

I would say that at least once a week, I'd like each administrator to drop in a classroom, even just for two minutes. When I worked in PG, I worked in portables/temporaries - NO ONE ever came to visit me unless it was for an evaluation. I literally could have not taught for all those other days. Now in Montgomery County, inside the school, administrators have come into my classroom maybe two times other than evaluations. This past year, the leadership team (admin + department chairs) started to pop into classrooms once a week, however any conversation that they had about my classroom was never shared with me (save a thank you email for allowing their presence).

These visits aren't meant to be evaluative, they're just so you as an administrator can talk about all the great stuff going on in your school and actually be believed that you know what's going on in the school. It's also so the lazy teachers might be pushed to get it together, if not only for the two minutes you're in there. But again, non-evaluative, because you wouldn't be in there the whole class. Just enough to see students ask a question or work on an activity or learn something quick about pre-calculus.

2. Teachers would be given a class off (NOT a planning period) once a quarter or so to go observe another teacher's class. I do this, but I've always used my planning periods. A teacher might say that going to see another teacher's class is a waste of time... not. No good teacher will say this. Because no teacher is perfect. But learning from someone else will get us a little bit closer. Plus, I've always left invigorated and inspired. I've learned something about their content and I've left with an increased amount of respect for that teacher and increased feeling of community.

So I'm not sure if I'd have a sub in all those classes for a period, that would probably be the easiest. But we could also do a study period for all those classes. For example, all science teachers would have off period 1, send their kids to the cafeteria, library, or computer lab, etc. and a sub, team of subs, or administrator would hold down the fort for that 45 minutes. Okay, so I'm not sure on the logistics, but I don't run a school yet ;) All I know is that there is value in learning from each other.

3. Teacher tenure would be awarded for teachers who have been teaching for 5+ years. I say this, because so many people have told me that they didn't feel they were competent teachers until the 4-5 year range. Non-tenured teachers should be evaluated 4 times a year - once each semester by an administrator and once each semester by a department chair. Tenured teachers, twice a year, by department chairs. New to school teachers? First year, you will be evaluated as often as a non-tenured teacher.

Also I kind of think pre-conferences are a waste of time. Only post-conference necessary, and that must occur within a week of the observation.

What if a teacher was not up to snuff? In the post-conference, next improving steps should be talked about and provided in a check list. Another evaluation should be had that year, either already planned or additional.

What if a teacher was still not where they should be? They should be assigned to a mentor teacher in the school who will help and evaluate them for the next school year. Upon this mentor teacher's recommendation, this teacher may or may not be kept. I'm not an expert on tenure (I am just getting it!) or evaluations, but I hope this all seems legitimately reasonable. In short, there should be checks and balances, a one-year remediation program, and protection for teachers who feel that they are being bullied by administrators who don't like them. We need to try to help teachers before firing them.

I agree that unions and tenure and paperwork have made it difficult to fire bad teachers. However, I also think that most teachers are not bad.

I agree that bad teachers seem to be concentrated in poorer school districts. However, being able to fire all these bad teachers does not mean that good teachers will magically flock to these schools. Teacher tenure is NOT why these schools have higher percentages of bad teachers.

4. I wouldn't be against parent/student surveys on teachers. Not open-ended. That could get disastrous. The majority of parents or students will be honest. They will cancel out the crazy.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Test Bias

This is still one of my favorite videos about education. It's good for a laugh when you're feeling stressed out!

I HAVE Thoughts

Long time no see, internet void!

I was largely unable to blog this past year because teaching was kicking my butt so much that my head couldn't form coherent thoughts, much less will my fingers to type them out. In a short overview: I taught; Most kids were great, more kids than the previous year just couldn't muster enough of an attention span; The school environment had a weight on it, things felt more stressful and unfriendly this year; I survived and I still enjoy my job. Throughout the year, topics that I wanted to blog about kept coming up, but like I said, my brain was mush.

Now it's August and school is upon us! I guess the most useful thing I could blog about is advice for new teachers, so let's have a go:

1. It will never be perfect. I'm a perfectionist. My co-workers have joked that, after we plan an activity, they have to leave me alone for six hours so that I can format it. This is true. I will take every minute of that six hours. However, there will STILL be typos, things you wish you added, or ways you could have better worded something. Accept this. (I finally have!) Accept good enough. (And edit it with all those changes after for next year, but it STILL won't be perfect!)

2. Speaking of accepting good enough, know that so LITTLE of what you do has the ability to ruin a kid's life. Earlier in my teaching career, I told my kids some incorrect things (maybe a math rule or a science theory) and I was too insecure to say that I made a mistake. I didn't want them to think I was incompetent as I thought I was. But then I toiled over how this mistake would ruin their ability to understand the concept in the future. (What if they said something in their next class confidently, only to be told they were incorrect? - I have done this before when a student said, "But last year, Ms. So-and-so said...") Mini piece of advice 2a: Own up to your mistakes, as I've gotten older, I've gotten more comfortable with saying, "Sorry, guys, what I just told you was false." 2b: You will probably not ruin them or their ability to learn anything else on the topic, because of your misstep. One of the great things about teaching is that it FEELS SO IMPORTANT. And it is. We play a huge role in shaping our kids, BUT we have to try a little harder (or a little less, I guess) if we really want them to have a bad experience.

3. Do not stay up late to grade today's quizzes. Feedback, data, feedback, data. Sometimes it feels like people think we're computers. Students and admin are often all about instant feedback and data. Sometimes I just want to be like, YOU KNOW I HAVE TO READ THIS CHICKEN SCRATCH BEFORE I CAN GRADE IT AND WRITE COMMENTS ABOUT IT RIGHT?!

YES. Feedback and data are important. You and the students need to know where they're at. However, if you spread your grading over another day or two, you will: 1. keep your sanity, 2. provide better feedback, 3. be less likely to penalize students for small errors because you're not grumpy, 4. but also, be less likely to lower your standards because you're not sleepy, and 5. teach your students not only that you ARE NOT a computer, but also, that patience is a virtue. Making that decision to take the pressure off of myself has allowed me to be in my fifth year of teaching with nary a wrinkle or gray hair ;) (Just kidding, I just have great genes.)

4. Be you. New teachers, I did at least, want to 'fit in.' That can be that they want to be taken seriously or that they want to be the popular, funny teacher. One of the things I worried about most was being taken seriously. I started teaching when I was 21. I'm 5'2" (although my doctor recently said I'm 5'1 and a half! so maybe I didn't get wrinkles or gray hairs, but I'm compressing the pads that surround my joints). And I have the same face that I had when I was in 5th grade. I tried to act very seriously when I started, but in actuality I'm not a very serious person. I make jokes in my head all the time, I'm sarcastic, and honestly, very young at heart. It was exhausting trying to be that serious person I wasn't. Being able to make science or Harry Potter jokes in class has allowed me to enjoy my job so much more and the kids know that I'm being genuine. I'm certainly not the most popular or the funniest teacher, but I have added something valuable to my community.

If you are concerned with being taken seriously when necessary, (which I still am, because my personality causes me to yell out, "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?" and "WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE THIS?" in the middle of class when I'm not looking to be taken particularly serious) be the teacher who kids know is xyz (e.g. fun and joking) when you're not in trouble, but firm, consistent, and fair when you are in trouble. I'm still working on this, but I do think it's working for me. Consistency is key, though, so remind yourself of this even when you're exhausted and just want to let the kid slide.

5. Eat lunch. Do all the stuff that makes you feel good and that is good for your health. It will make you a happier person and a better teacher. Also pack snacks. I snack during planning and after-school. :) No fuel in the belly, no fire in the brain!

6. You teach in a school, not in a classroom. You will likely get bogged down by a. how hard this job is, b. how tiring this job is, c. how needy this job is, etc. You are not alone. The thing that never fails to invigorate me as a teacher is reminding myself why I do it. You can remind yourself of this in a number of ways: 1. Talk to parents. Shoot an email with a compliment or concern. They likely will thank you and remind you that they value you; 2. Talk to your kids. Shoot an email with a compliment or concern. They likely will thank you and remind you that they value you; 3. Go to a school event. Anything - plays, sports games, concerts, etc. (Except high school dances. I fear those will not invigorate me, only embarrass me.) These events will also allow you to see your kids in a different light and value them for skills you didn't know they had.

I'm sure there's a lot more advice I could shell out, but these were the first things to come to mind. I hope you notice, soon to be new teacher or alien species who randomly came upon this blip in the interwebs, that my advice wasn't about how to plan or grade or even teach. All of that comes in due time, this stuff though will help you keep enough energy to hang in there long enough to master the other stuff.