Friday, May 29, 2009

Empowerment and Self-Worth

An education headline reads "Do Teachers Lack Power and Self-Worth?"

If the article is as thought-provoking as the headline, there will probably be another post coming. However, two events occurred yesterday that answer the questions with a resounding "YES!"

In our staff meeting yesterday, Fearless Leader (okay, Lame Duck) informed us that the district was working on a new marketing plan because we are losing so many students to charter schools. She asked for input but, as usual, did not listen to or record any of our comments, and I highly doubt that she transmitted any information to whomever instructed her to ask.

Most of our comments sounded remarkably familiar, considering how often student loss comes up in conversation. We said, as usual, that if district schools were better, marketing would not be a problem. Our school has a waiting list longer than our incoming class roster, and district personnel work really hard to get their kids into our classes. We don't send out any marketing beyond what all of the middle schools do, but we have no problem getting students to sign up for the admission lottery. If a school has high expectations, quality teachers, and a strong community, nobody will feel the need to drive across town to a charter schools.

For the record, I don't have anything against charter schools. They're doing good things.

One major step toward raising student success is increasing teacher quality. This district has seen a number of passionate, intelligent, hard-working employees, but the lack of respect for teachers drives many people to the welcoming arms of neighboring school districts. Here are just a few examples of this lack of respect:
  • I already mentioned the farce at the staff meeting. Especially before the change in district administration, teachers never had any reason to believe that "They" listened to our input.
  • Contract negotiations have never gone smoothly. If teachers were paid a decent salary, the profession might attract more quality individuals and create real competition for jobs, and we can't have that! Teaching is a mission, and calling, and only doormats need apply.
  • Last night, we had our awards banquet. District personnel gave the typical speeches "Appreciate blah blah blah dedication blah blah blah children blah blah blah future blah blah blah please bus your own tables before the program starts blah blah blah..." REALLY? Somehow, I doubt the Cisco employees bus their own tables at their awards banquets, and if the same request were made of Apple or Adobe employees, the foolish person would be laughed out of the building.
Students at our school are proud of what we have, and they talk about it. The same phenomonen would undoubtedly transpire in our school district if everyone felt the same pride for their schools.

Now, we have seen changes in the district recently, and the marketing plan has already produced a brochure highlighting the district's best assets, small schools. We've also seen an increased interest in supporting the "pockets of excellence" throughout the district, rather than the previous policy of crushing innovation in order to retain every ounce of power possible. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and the new bigwigs are going to have to work twice as hard to overcome the almost-irreparable damage done by the previous administration. When everyone has the resources and support to innovate and achieve, then we'll have something to market. I'm confident that we'll get there, but it's going to take more than asinine queries from a Lame Duck.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Note on Anonymity

If a deep desire to know my true identity keeps you awake at night, you will find it easier to discover clues. Recent changes in the administration at both the school and district levels, as well as that magical thing called tenure (which I gained in November), have made me slightly less paranoid.


How much did you spend in your classroom?

Originally created 6/30/08

Every year around the middle of August, the teacher discussion boards buzz with numbers, lists, and ways to find bargains on carpet squares and border paper. Otherwise sane professionals throw these numbers and lists and hints around, on the one hand looking for ways to save money, but on the other hand straining to show their devotion to their students. We teachers have the strange idea that, in order to truly care, we must make the $250 tax credit become a laughable portion of what we actually spend.

During my first few years of my career, I was unjustly required to purchase most of my own classroom supplies. Technically, the secretary provided essential items, like staples and chalk, but the glares I received when asking for these items, much less paper, post-it notes, or, when I was feeling extremely greedy, an extra pair of scissors, almost gave me nightmares. I became a bandit, a street urchin, sneaking paper from the copy room and begging scissors from the librarian. I picked up pencils off the floor and almost lost control when a kid swiped my post-its.

As frustrating as it was to have to scrimp and hoard, the situation was actually a symptom of a bigger disease. At that school, teachers were not valued and their voices were not heard. That job wore me down and, to quote another teacher I know, killed my spirit.

Now, I'm in a school where people listen to each other. If I need a box of staples, or border paper, or anything else, I walk to the office. If it's not there, I ask for it, and it arrives in an Office Depot order the next day. The admin. assistant doesn't count our copies or limit our pens; she trusts us to be responsible adults and avoid wasting resources. Interestingly enough, this is also a school where teachers' voices are heard and we are valued as professional educators.

If teachers are truly spending $1,000 or more, there are two distinct possibilities. First, as I've outlined above, the school doesn't value teachers enough to give them basic supplies and a few extras. The second possibility could irritate some people.

On the aforementioned discussion boards, many teachers are purchasing items that, quite frankly, may not be necessary. Does a classroom really need professionally printed attendance cards? Perfectly coordinated bulletin board items? Customized sticky notes? Yes, a teacher can improve a classroom by adding personal touches, but if someone is spending that much time and money (and broadcasting it on chatboards), they may need to take a second look at their teaching strategies. The classroom environment is important, but it shouldn't make up for a lack of security or competence. Instead of creating huge printing orders and spending hours looking for stuff, we need to create quality lessons, respond to our students' needs, and advance the profession through research and collaboration. We can show our devotion to our students without depleting our savings accounts.

If your school does not support you, speak up. If it can't provide you with the materials you need, improvise or do without. If you don't have better ways to spend your time and money, become an interior decorator.

Update 5/24/09: we had an unsupportive principal this year. This person had many problems, the least of which...of course...the desire to count our copies and limit our supplies. Someday I'll have to write more about the connection between supporting teachers and providing the supplies they need.

The Cost of a Highly Qualified Teacher

Originally created 6/28/08

No, it's not. It's the cost to a highly-qualified teacher.

This could be a cute mastercard commercial, but it's really not. A random comment from a fellow CTEL-taker today inspired me to count up the cost of becoming a highly qualified teacher. Yes, these figures are generalizations, and reflect my personal journey to teacherhood. People who don't move won't have to pay as much.

College education: $100,000 more or less
7 separate 3-hour tests that prove how much I know: $1,000 (plus 21 hours...)
Co-pays for doctor visits for classroom-acquired illnesses: $900. Seriously.
Certificate fees: $300 and counting (plus fingerprinting fees, however much those are)

And yet, I will never have the opportunity for promotion, unless I want to become a principal (which I don't). My top salary will be less than what some of my friends made a few years ago without a college degree. My brother will forever think of me as a loser, Jay Leno will always equate teachers with pedophiles, and I'll always be in the profession that is blamed for our nation's woes.

*update: I paid another $110 in certificate fees in November 2008.