Saturday, February 14, 2009

To jump, or not to jump?

When I was applying for my first education job, I was surprised at how difficult it was to get an interview in the summer. School doesn't start until August or September, so why aren't people hiring in June or July? As it turns out, the process starts much earlier.

Last week, probationary/temporary teachers were notified of their "re-elect" status. Having just become a permanent teacher, I'm grateful that I no longer have to face the anxiety felt by those who could be terminated with no warning and, perhaps, no real reason.

Letters already went out informing teachers of early-retirement bonuses. Rumors are starting to fly about who is transferring where, and why. Teachers are crossing their fingers, hoping that their administrators will move on and torture someone else. (aside: i'm starting to get callouses on my knuckles).

The charter schools in the area are also making quiet inquiries as to which quality teachers may just have had enough of the frustration and foolishness. Being professionally attached to many such quality teachers, I'm in line for a few of these opportunities, and I have to admit that they sound attractive.

The hours would be longer, more would be expected, and I wouldn't have union protection, but the benefits I would receive in exchange must bring me pause. The promises of professional respect, the opportunity to become a leader, the undiscovered country of a place where people use time like it has value...

'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

But what happens when I step out of my current position? I've worked here for years, and I still believe that the vision is alive, buried somewhere under all the manure of district mandates and administrative mistakes. I know what to expect and what is expected of me. My teaching team works well together and provides the consistency that the kids need. The parents know me, and most of them trust me. The kids listen and learn and grown and change. Aside from the one individual who spitefully makes extra work at every opportunity, I'm in a good place.

And I've helped to build this good place. I wasn't on the original founding team, but I have made an impression on the school. From simple procedures to working documents to overall tone, my fingerprints are all over the school. How can I just ditch and go to another school, one that doesn't look and smell familiar? Am I ready to be the new person again, when I've so recently become comfortable (but not apathetic)? The new guy is never treated well; parents get upset with every change to procedure, kids are unsure and unwilling to take risks, and colleagues are less likely to accept and listen to new ideas.

Conscience is truly making a coward of me. The current that was driving me out of the school is turning awry, making eddies and whirlpools that lead me back to where I started. I'm circling and gyrating, wondering where I should go and what I should do.

It looks like I'll be staying. I've lost the name of action. More than that, I've realized that one person's incompetence should not drive me to professional suicide.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Reality of Teaching

Another day, another dollar,
another kid in a shirt with a collar,

and that's about the extent of my poetic capabilities. Not true; I can occasionally compose some decent work, but not today.

No, today was another in what is becoming a long line of days that go like this:

1st block: Awesome class, kids made a lot of progress in narrative writing. It's becoming less of a tedious task and more of a creative process.
2nd block: Awesome class, kids made a lot of progress. My ELL kids are starting to realize that they really do have the vocabulary they need to write well.
Advisory: Kids handed in homework, fewer missing assignments than last week, some students earned free dress (the reward for turning in all work on time) who haven't earned it in a really long time. Yay!
After school: Talked with kids, answered questions, accepted late work, checked out books to read over the break next week, made a few copies, talked to a few teachers, packed up my stuff.
Staff meeting: Had my time wasted, had my teaching unfairly assessed and called into question (along with the rest of the staff), was shown disrespect when I attempted to contribute to a discussion in which contributions were requested, was ignored when I attempted to add to another discussion at an appropriate time, left the school almost in tears because there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

I used to love staff meetings. Yes, truly! Information was dispensed in a way that recognized that teachers are capable of reading and understanding important items without having them read out loud to them with ill-timed pauses "for contemplation" and foolish "comprehension" question. The bulk of the time was spent assessing our teaching practice, rather than having it judged by outsiders who just peek into the classroom. We read books and articles on best practices, analyzed all sorts of data, set goals and benchmarks, and planned activities that would extend our kids' understanding and application of knowledge. That's why we have a good school, with a waiting list almost as long as our roster. That's why our test scores are high. That's why our walls are covered with awards and recognitions, even though we've only been around a few years. That's why we've had to help our alumni choose high schools carefully, to avoid the schools that will be too easy. That's why our kids, not just their parents, want to be here.

Because so much of our time is wasted with triviality and disrespect, the future of our school is at risk, which means that the future of our students is even more uncertain. Right now, our students are working and learning and growing, but if we don't continue to improve our teaching practice, the kids won't have the quality instruction they need. A lack of quality means that we waste class time, which means that the kids are bored, so they're less engaged, so they don't learn as well, so they don't progress through the content to the point where they can draw conclusions and better understand reality.

Our students are, once again, at risk.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Advisory as Evidence

When the latest mound of paperwork was foisted upon me as being useful and relevant, I spoke up. I questioned why we had to complete stacks of complicated forms (in triplicate, of course), how they would be used, and what they thought they would accomplish, especially since I've never filled these out before and they'd be going into student files. After receiving a simplistic answer ("the district wants us to..."), I then asked when the principal was going to come and cover my class so that I could complete this paperwork. The response: "Do it during Advisory."

Yes, our school has jumped on the Advisory bandwagon, but we're one of the few places I've seen that actually run a semi-effective program.

Let's go back a few years into my past, before I jumped on Route 66 and found the Promised Land.

Early in the morning, students would arrive in my classroom for Advisory. Some of these students were vaguely known to me, while others weren't enrolled in any of my other classes. After a short stint of intercom-listening for announcements and the pledge, I would be left with 12 minutes. Twelve very empty minutes. The plan was that I'd help the students keep track of their homework, teach study skills, and take them through a character-development curriculum.

In 12 minutes.

After I made it clear that this process wasn't working for me, the school counselors helpfully photocopied an entire ream of...additional character-development curriculm. I'm still not sure why they thought killing more trees would help me use this 12 minutes effectively. Ensuing conversations uncovered the reality that these 12 minutes were really a catch-basin time, giving those chronically-tardy kids a chance to get to class on time.

12 wasted minutes a day. 60 minutes a week. 36 hours throughout the year. All this, for kids who wouldn't get up early enough to come to school. How long do you think it took them to realize that they could sleep in an extra 12 minutes?

Meanwhile, the few students who did arrive on time had established long before my arrival that "Advisory" was a synonym for "Social Hour/Naptime." It was lots of fun trying to convince them to do homework, breaking up fights, and pretending to teach about character. I eventually learned that it was just as effective to sit and grade while the kids fooled around, as long as I kept an ear open for conflict.

36 wasted hours, over the two years I was there. Yes, that's 72 hours - 3 full days - of headache-inducing, teeth-grinding frustration.

Now let's flash forward to the present.

We have an Advisory program that actually works both because of the time we invest and the culture of the school. We spend an entire hour every day, and two on rainy days when we don't have P.E., with our home cohorts. Instead of a hodge-podge of kids I may or may not know, I have a group of students who are mine for 2 other classes, and who have been in my Language Arts class for a year and a half. These are "my" kids. I'm the first contact for their parents, I'm the one who facilitates their Learner-Led conferences, and I'm the one who collects and monitors their homework for all of their classes. In this 5 hours per week (180 hours a year, for those of you who are keeping track), I teach real study skills, check every bit of their homework, and lead them through Social Justice projects.

Because of this Advisory class, our kids are able to fulfill our high expectations. They're mastering the standards and applying them to their lives. They're learning how to organize themselves, how to ask for help (which is an art!), and how to change the world.

Which is why I both laughed and cried when the principal said, "Just do it during Advisory." She truly thinks that Advisory is just another study hall? She really believes that I'm sitting around doing paperwork while the kids work silently? She honestly wants me to divide my attention between my students and these all-too-complicated NCR forms?

This is just more evidence that she doesn't understand the vision and mission of our school. We've been struggling with this all year. The first week back, I asked her, "why did you want to work in a small school? What about the model appealed to you?" Her answer? "Well, the size!" As if her job would be easier because the number of students is smaller. As if the only difference between our revolutionary model and the traditional school was the size of the building.

Our school isn't perfect, but we are one of the best opportunities in the area for our students. Our teachers and staff work hard, and our students accomplish more than many people could imagine. But how are we going to continue to innovate and research and collaborate and improve? We've already had so much busy work thrust upon us that we can barely breathe, and sometimes we're surprised when we go back and look at the founding documents of our own school. We're travelling a vastly different road, and it's not the best path.

How are we going to go anywhere if our "leader" doesn't even know who we are? How is it possible that now, just over halfway through the year, she has such a mistaken impression of one of our core programs? Is there any hope?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The last post was such a downer, I just can't leave on that note. So, for your edification, here's what I taught today.

We're working on narrative writing, and this lesson focused on dialogue. Now, this was just the introduction, so I didn't get to bring in all of the wonderful examples found in the wide world of Literature, but we'll get to do that on Thursday.

We started the writing lesson looking at some examples of short dialogue and talking about bits from one of their favorite stories, which happens to come from the author of one of my favorite book series. Then we read some sentences with and without punctuation to show why it's important. Of course, I pulled out one of my old favorites:

"A woman, without her man, is nothing."
"A woman. Without her, man is nothing."

Most of my girls preferred the second!

After a quick, painless practice exercise to remind everyone that the comma goes BEFORE the quotation marks, the kids worked on writing a conversation between two characters from a story they had read last week. When one pair had a hard time getting started, we assigned parts, with each kid pretending to be one of the characters. They took off! They were laughing and joking and working and writing and creating dialogue that worked and was interesting! We spent about 25 minutes working on the dialogue, and it took a few minutes to convince them that yes, they really had to stop, because it was time to go to lunch. It was one of those cheesy fuzzy moments that made me say, "even though this job can be total shit sometimes, it's worth it when I actually get to teach!"

(note the exclamation point BEFORE the quotation marks)

Next week we'll work on suspense. We really should work on persuasive writing, but, truth be told, I hate teaching persuasive writing! Adolescents really don't have the cognitive ability to put together a coherent argument, which is the foundation of all persuasion, and trying to teach them to organize thoughts that they don't have is like pulling teeth that aren't there. You just end up with sore gums. Yeah.

Lying, cheating, and stealing

Even though we're bogged down with ridiculous standards that nobody could possible teach in one single year, all teachers try to impart some moral fiber to their students. We don't (always) try to indoctrinate them with our crazy liberal agenda, but we do try to show them how to be good people.

So, after 7-8 years of this character instruction, why do our kids still lie, cheat, and steal?

I'm not talking about the girl who crossed the line just once because she wanted a better grade. No, she's past that, and she'll probably never forget it. Nor am I talking about the boy who once made a half-hearted attempt to convince me that he really did put his homework on my desk, knowing that I'd make him look in his backpack again anyway.

No, I'm talking about the kid who steals cash from a teacher's purse, who rummages through file cabinets looking for cell phones, or who accuses other students of cheating in retaliation for their refusal to give her answers during the final.

I'm talking about the boy who will ignore clear evidence that he copied a test and lie through his teeth to his parents, principal, and teachers.

And what about the kid who shoplifts from the gift shop on the class field trip?

These are only a few examples of actual situations I've endured. So, why do kids lie?

Some people try to tell me that it's part of their culture. Because so many people in their community are from a country that is the poster child for corrupt governments, they can't trust those in authority, and they learn that lying to anyone government-related is not only acceptable, but expected.

Others tell me that human nature is terrible and that, unless some divine force works on our souls, we will never even be capable of good.

Many people blame it on the parents, saying that dishonesty is a learned behavior, and there's not much a teacher can do in a few years to reverse the effects of a lifetime of deception.

I've learned that it doesn't really matter why kids lie, and that I need to be prepared for alternate versions of the truth at all times. It's changed my teaching practice; I've had to incorporate accountability into grades, create multiple versions of every exam, watch kids like a hawk, and lock up or leave at home anything that I can't afford to lose. I've learned that I have to be extremely consistent because even the nice kids lie. Above all, I've learned (okay, I'm trying to learn) not to take it personally when a kid lies.

Dr. House was right: Everybody lies. I just have to find a way to teach, assess, and survive in the tanged web they weave.

The Grand Introduction

In honor of an annoying Facebook fad, here are the 25 things you might want to know about me and this blog.

1. I teach middle school in Silicon Valley, California
2. My students are funny.
3. 7th grade is the best. In 6th grade, they're too much like children, and in 8th grade, they're working so hard at pretending to be adults that they're quite rude.
4. I still like 6th and 8th graders, they're just not as cool.
5. I'm a real person, too. I don't identify myself as a teacher, and I don't introduce myself that way. However, this blog is about teaching. If you want to know me, look on my other blogs.
6. Teaching would be the best job in the world if not for politics and stupidity.

7. My school district has way too much of both.
8. I'm going to try to keep this blog relatively anonymous in order to preserve my job.
9. Speaking of perserving my job, I have a new boss this year.
10. This new boss makes my life very difficult.
11. I'm going to try to avoid passing judgment on this boss. I'll state the actions and decisions, you decide whatever you will.
12. Speaking of politics, I often attend school board meetings.
13. I've been unofficially reprimanded for speaking at school board meetings.
14. I've always wondered why the school board was upset with what I said. It was a good question that wasn't answered anywhere else.
15. I've observed school board members wasting time at public meetings insulting each other.
16. I'm going to institute the same policy for district personnel as for school site management: observations, not responses.
17. I'll also tell about my students, because they're incredibly intuitive and entertaining, but I'm going to protect their privacy. I'll probably use initials or nicknames, but they'll be in code, just in case one of them runs across this site.
18. I tease my students, but try not to offend them.
19. My school is unique.
20. I am part of a teaching team that actually collaborates and researches and innovates and ________ (fill in your own corporate buzzword here 'cause dude, we do it).
21. My brother thinks I'm crazy for deciding to be a teacher.
22. Did I mention that 7th graders make me laugh?
23. Future posts will show more writing skill.
24. Future posts will be more thoughtful.
25. I don't just teach reading and writing, I introduce my students to reality.