Monday, December 9, 2013

Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy Theory

I love the Oliver Stone movie JFK. I first saw it when I was in my twenties, and it gave me the exquisite sensation of “knowing too much” that only a well-made film or an A&E mafia documentary can achieve. The film operates on one of many conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and its conclusions make sense in the context of the film. In reality, of course, its conclusions do not all hold up, but for the 2.5-hour ride in the theater (surrounded by the smell of stale popcorn, the friend or date who brought you, and the mysteries of the dark), you believe. You absolutely believe.

Conspiracy theories are sexy. They are mysterious, complex, and brooding. They make film (and books and television and family reunions) fun. As with JFK, however, they rarely hold up in the light of day. In schools (surrounded by the smell of overcooked leafy greens, the faces of America’s youth, and the mysteries of large-scale HVAC), we are quick to believe conspiracy theories, too, and it is time we knock it off.

One aspect of education culture (maybe not solely education culture) that is increasingly on my mind is the tendency to create conspiracy theories. This tendency is, I believe, one of the most damaging parts of our education culture’s approach to problems and is a direct result of the enormity, complexity, and frustrating nature of the important job we do.

I am an English teacher, which means that I am all about symbolism, but when one sees symbolism in everything, one becomes paranoid. In education, I see a tendency to view everything as symbolic of something else and to try to connect all of one’s workplace frustrations to each other in a way that fosters negativity, a destructive sense of martyrdom, and a whole slew of (for lack of a better word) douchebaggery.

Exhibit A: A student in class demonstrates undesirable behavioral characteristics: he is slow to engage in classroom activities, he is slow to turn in work, and he does not vocalize much interest in academics. His parents are concerned and frustrated by his grades and attitude and contact his teachers to express such and to see what help we can provide. There is a tendency, when we are discussing this student with colleagues, to stray from the behavior at hand and start making connections that may or may not exist:

·         “Kids these days just don’t care! “ (note: the student now represents all kids),
·         “Parents just look for someone else to blame!” (note: his parents now represent all parents), and
·         “Well, these policies from the school board like [insert loathed policy-of-the-day here] make the kids feel like they don’t even have to try!” (note: he now not only represents all kids, but also he represents every perceived failing of all school policy).

That student’s individual problems are lost in this discussion, a discussion that increasingly becomes less about the student and more about the stresses that the teacher feels.

Exhibit B: The school system has implemented a new online grading system. As with all technology adoptions, this one involves changes, updates, slowdowns, and occasional last-minute fiascos. There is a tendency, when discussing these issues with colleagues, to stray from the technology issues at hand and start making connections that do not exist:

·         “The system just wants us to have more stress—because we don’t already have ENOUGH!” (note: the system is always characterized as the villain, even when the villain is clearly the online grading program or our limited experience in troubleshooting its issues),
·         “Why don’t they figure out all of these problems before they have us start using it?! Why do we always do things without ever investigating them first?!” (note: the grading system tech support and the school system are supposed to be able to predict every issue that crops up with new technology and prevent them from happening before users ever use it, and normal tech issues are representative of every new initiative that the complainer has not supported), and
·         “Well, with [insert loathed grading policy-of-the-day], why do we even bother to put in grades? What does it even matter? We’re sending the kids on a road to nowhere anyway!” (note: the grading system is no longer simply a grading system—it now represents all that is wrong with education).

Developing proficiency with technology is lost in this discussion, a discussion that increasingly becomes less about the technology and—again—more about the stresses that the teacher feels.

This tendency bothers me more the older I grow. We are in a complicated profession with game-changing nuances surrounding every issue. Trying to connect all of life’s difficulties into one big “They’re out to get us” is not only pointless and false, but also (and much more importantly) it undermines ever getting to the root of our problems, such as those with that disengaged student. It undermines ever learning how to make the online grading system work best for us. It thwarts growing as educators, and it thwarts fostering a positive professional culture.

It is easy, when difficult situations mount (and when dealing with America’s children and families, they mount quickly), to see all of those issues as meshing into a global conspiracy, but they do not. They do not mesh. The world is tricky and messy and complex and nuanced. A conspiracy theory makes the problem simple. A conspiracy theory gives us good guys and bad guys. (We teachers are always the good guys in these discussions, and somehow—even when the problem is clearly coming from the state or the feds or even the planet Mars—the local school system is always the bad guy.) A conspiracy theory makes one feel like a martyr to some unnamed noble cause.

Well, we are not martyrs, distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys takes more than a broken copy machine, and nothing about this job is simple. To engage in that reductive thinking is not only destructive; it is childish. The really bad news? Even if those conspiracy theories were to turn out to be true, they are completely beside the point. We still must help that disengaged student. We still must enter grades. Our ethical and professional challenges remain. Heaping on the conspiracy theories is one way that we make it all worse.  

To do right by kids and to keep our collective sanity, we must address issues as they appear on their own merits. We must address people as individuals. We must not look for every issue to be representative of every other issue. I care not how handsome Kevin Costner looks in those 1960s eyeglasses or how many tears I shed when he makes the "dying king" speech. That film is a narrative that was written to connect the dots in a way that is not wholly supported by facts, and I will not apply that same mentality to my profession. We are not Oliver Stone, and school is not JFK

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Snow Days and Snow Don'ts

While inclement weather is rarely predictable in our part of the nation, reactions to it are as sure as the rising sun. After 46 years on the planet and 33 of those spent as either a student or teacher in schools, I can count on human beings to be steadfast in how they respond to Mother Nature’s fury. In fact, I have found that human patterns are so fixed in this area that they now constitute rules:

Rule 1. Thou shalt have snow before all other gods. Teachers and students start dreaming of snow days in August. It’s wrong, but it’s true. We should dream of power outages (we don’t have to make up cancelled days due to power outages), but we don’t.

Rule 2. Thou shalt make no actual progress on school work on a snow day. We all think we’ll use the snow day to “get ahead” or “catch up” on work. If you have children at home, forget it. Thou shalt play in the snow. Thou shalt make cocoa. Thou shalt make piles of cinnamon toast. This is all as it should be. We pay the piper on snow days by shaving days off of other breaks, so it’s a break. Spend it like one.

Rule 3. Thou shalt take one’s school superintendent’s name in vain. In perhaps another example of the trenches mentality among educators that I mentioned last week, citizens tend to think that the road conditions outside their personal window are the only road conditions in play. They don’t realize that some parts of their district received more or less precipitation than they did, that some parts of their district are more or less remote than their parts are, that some parts of their district have been plowed sooner or later than theirs have been. If we close when the malcontent doesn’t want us to close, he or she will wax nostalgic about his or her childhood in Antarctica, where they never closed schools for snow. If we don’t close when the malcontent wants us to close, then the superintendent of schools is a soulless miscreant who hates children and pokes kittens with fire batons. Which people fall into these two categories changes from day to day and, sometimes, hour to hour.

Rule 4. Thou shalt remember the snow day superstitions and keep them holy. If you don’t have lesson plans ready for the next day, you will not get a snow day. If you are showered, dressed, have packed lunches, and have everything ready for class down to the laminated cut-outs of student names for a cooperative learning activity that you’re super excited about, closure will come.

Rule 5. Thou shalt not honor thy neighbor’s job by shutting up about one’s own. When teachers complain openly on social media about having to go back to school after a snow day (or, worse, after several snow days in a row), they show a profound insensitivity to people in jobs where snow days rarely or never happen (i.e., almost every other job). I am always embarrassed by this and wish my colleagues would shut their ungrateful gobs.

Rule 6. Thou shalt become murderous on two-hour delay days. At 5:00 in the morning, a two-hour delay feels right. It feels leisurely. It feels like a break. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You will come to work distracted and off your game, and students come in angry that they didn’t get the entire day off. If everyone survives the day, pat yourselves on the back.  

Rule 7. Thou shalt psychologically commit to a school closure before its time. Here is the scenario for the perfect school closing: Snow falls Wednesday night. The forecasted levels are so severe that the closing call comes on Wednesday night, allowing one to sleep in on Thursday. The call cancels schools for both days: 4-day weekend! Such a phenomenon actually happens every several years, which has unfortunately set this as the standard for all closure days. School superintendents are expected not only to make these difficult decisions regarding opening and closure under intense public scrutiny but are also expected to have winter weather crystal balls before anything actually happens. I never want to be a school superintendent. They can’t win.

Rule 8. Thou shalt not deal with the reality of make-up days. The school calendar lists the potential snow make-up days for the entire year before the school year even begins. These days usually are highlighted in some undeniably large, graphically illustrated way on the heavily distributed calendar, and yet people still make airline reservations on those days as if they are regular vacation days. College-educated people make airline reservations on those days (and they clearly do not understand that merely by booking a flight on those days that they have guaranteed they will lose those days to snow, even though EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS [see Rule 4]). This phenomenon demonstrates that a college education is no vaccine against stupidity.

Rule 9. Thou shalt covet other county’s snow days. If our county is sunny with temps in the 70s but the neighboring county closes because it has a wintry mix and temps in the teens, our folks in swimsuits and flip-flops will cry foul. I can’t explain this.

Rule 10. Thou shalt bear false witness by helping to spread delay/closure rumors on social media. Typically closure rumors will start a week before any weather event is likely to occur. This is the Curse of the Long-Range Forecast, and it always disappoints. I ignore all long-range forecasts. My wedding day taught me that.

In the end, teachers have a job that gives us the occasional, unexpected day off. Enjoy it when it happens, folks, and when it doesn’t--for the love of God--let it go. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

This Means War

On this Veterans Day, I am as grateful as ever for the people who serve their nation in its most awful hours and in its ugliest conflicts. In this post, I call on educators to see themselves in the same light in which we view servicemen and servicewomen, and I reference Watergate, my childhood, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Dwight David Eisenhower to do it. Happy Veterans Day!

The Pennsylvania Monument, Gettysburg Battlefield

I grew up in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Born in Arlington, VA, I moved with my family (like many others in the 1960s and 1970s) further and further from the city limits over the years, each move increasing the size of the house in tandem with the accrual of children and larger parental paychecks. The commuting heads of these households still worked primarily in town, even though “town” came to include not only DC proper but later Rosslyn, Bethesda, and the other burgeoning satellites of home base. When one grows up in Washington, one is surrounded by the government, by the military, by the US of A in every way. For me, hailing from Washington has always been a point of pride, despite what people who have little experience with that area think about the government, about bureaucrats, and about what it means to be “inside the beltway.”

I remember my Washingtonian childhood differently than that more common negative image of DC, a childhood where government workers were as passionately patriotic as any small-town dweller in the heartland. I remember my parents’ disgust at the Watergate scandal (traumatic for 8-year-old me at the time because the President’s resignation preempted the Tony Orlando and Dawn Show that night—Nixon couldn’t leave town quickly enough, as far as I was concerned). I remember my very Republican father taking his very Democratic 13-year-old daughter around to all of the presidential campaign headquarters during the primary season of 1980 so that I could have bumper stickers and campaign buttons for everybody, just in case. (John Anderson was my favorite at the time—10 points if you know who he was.)

I remember my father telling us about the parade outside his office window at the US Commerce Department during the celebration of the return of the Iranian hostages and bringing us home the yellow ribbons that everyone wore in the city (ribbons I then affixed to my Bermuda bag—another 10 points if you know that reference). I remember my mother being amused by and proud of the “ERA Yes!” button (you get another 10 points for that one, too) that 12-year-old me wore with my “The best man for the job is a woman” t-shirt. No matter how much traffic I must endure there to see my parents, I love that city. It is a part of me.

My family has military connections. My maternal grandfather was a World War II hero, a Bronze Star recipient who drove a jeep with no brakes behind enemy lines to transport his wounded buddies to safety. All of Grandpa’s siblings likewise served in that war, nobly and selflessly, as either soldier or nurse.

My paternal grandfather was born with a disability that left him unable to serve. His umbilical cord had wrapped around his tiny developing arm in utero, thus inhibiting its growth below the elbow. His son (my father) lost his hearing in one ear as a child and has terrible eyesight, thus preventing him from military service as well. Even though they could not serve, you will never know more patriotic men than those two. I have always thought that not serving in the military must have been a tremendous disappointment to my father, who (as family lore has it) once attempted to make a break for town as a toddler during the war so that he could “go kill Germans.”

Instead, my father spent nearly every year of his career working for the federal government (the last significant portion of his work life with the Department of the Navy), and our ultimate household destination placed us very near to the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia. Many men around town had crewcuts. High school friends marrying those bald-ish boys soon after graduation was not uncommon. Military life (although not my own life) was local, normal, and ubiquitous.

I toyed briefly with the idea of military service in middle school. I was unusually politically aware and active even in elementary school (to give you an idea of how intense I was, one of the childhood taunts I endured from my siblings was “Miss Poli-TICIAN!”), and I knew that I had a toughness that made me (as my seventh-grade friend, Mike, said), “the kind of girl I would trust with a gun.” Ultimately, I followed the call of teaching, and that was the right decision. The more time I spend in this profession, though, the more my militaristic inner child comes out, usually in the form of war metaphors.

On a daily basis, I use military language and compare elements of what we do in education to war. Sometimes I do this for comical effect, but often, it’s because the comparison fits. In a besieged public education system, we’ve got them all: friendly fire, trenches mentalities, underdeveloped exit strategies, comrades screwing the pooch. There’s an intensity to what we do, a fierceness in our loyalty to it, a level of risk in dealing with the future of a child’s life that all make these metaphors less hyperbolic than one might think. This is a war on the homefront, and it’s important to remember who one’s enemies are.

It’s easy in a crisis (a battle, an emergency, a bad professional development session) to see enemies where they do not exist or to identify the wrong enemy. In education, our enemies are, to my mind, clear: poverty, child abuse, and unequal opportunity. I have never encountered a student in danger of dropping out, ending up in prison, or doing permanent harm to the world who did not have these issues as the problem’s root in one form or another. This triumvirate, I posit, also constitutes three of the greatest threats to our democracy. They’re linked, you see: the things that crush our nation's children are the things that crush our nation.

The enemy is not the government or the President (yes, I said that when George W. Bush was president, too). The enemy is not the US Department of Education or one's state department of education. The enemy is not the local school system or parents. The enemy is not our school administrators or each other, and the enemy is not the kids. To help all students (and I mean all), we must focus on the real enemies: poverty, child abuse, and unequal opportunity. Falsely labeling the others above distracts us from the real problems, problems we can solve. Falsely labeling the others directs energy elsewhere that should be directed to the real battles. Thus, falsely labeling the others makes us part of the problem. The enemy, then, becomes us.

Last week, I made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg, PA. My dad took us to what felt like every single Civil War battlefield when we were kids, but I had never made it to Gettysburg. I spent that day walking around by myself, thinking, taking pictures. I took the courtesy shuttle to the nearby farm of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, their only real permanent address after a marital lifetime of living in military installations. I walked around by myself there, too, thinking, taking pictures. I don’t consider Eisenhower to have been a great president; that’s not a stinging criticism—by his own account, it wasn’t a role he really wanted or that suited him. I think he was certainly a great general and a great leader (he led the people who saved the world, for crying out loud). When I’m down or feel besieged myself, his quotes are the ones that I tape to my computer:

The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.

Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionaries and rebels–men and women who dared to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.
And, perhaps most appropriately,

Do not needlessly endanger your lives…until I give you the signal.
To serve our nation in public education, we must be as focused, tough, and decisive as any soldier in battle. We, too, save lives. We, too, preserve a way of life. We, too, liberate the innocent and crush their oppressors (poverty, child abuse, and unequal opportunity).

           The view from Eisenhower's farm, Gettysburg, PA

War metaphors work in education because of the enormity of what we do. It’s easy to lose focus under that kind of pressure, but we cannot. Issues will continually crop up that try to distract us from the real problems, and we then construe them to be the enemy (distractions such as policy changes, public perception, teacher evaluation, or who took the clementines out of your lunchbag in the faculty frig). Those problems may be legitimate concerns for others, and we may need to address them in some way, but we can never let our primary attention drift from the realm of what is genuinely, immediately threatening us and the students we serve. We must carry out the mission. We must face the enemy (once more, with feeling: poverty, child abuse, and unequal opportunity). Our country is counting on us, and we are equal to the task.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Things That Never Disappoint: Teacher Edition, Part I

I love TEDTalks. I use them as warm-ups, as extension activities, as brain breaks, whatever. One of my favorites is by Neil Pasricha, author of the book/blog, 1000 Awesome Things. He and I are philosophically similar, and students typically have plenty to say about his perspective and its relevance to their own lives. I've written before about my feelings concerning taking responsibility for one's own attitude on Jim Knight's blog, Radical Learners, and it's a philosophy that definitely causes folks either to embrace me or to shun me. Regardless, like Popeye, I am what I am, and I try to look for the good in every day, in every interaction, and in every situation. I don't always have success in this regard, but for me, that approach is the only way to live. So in the spirit of Neil Pasricha, here's a short list of some teacher things that I find awesome, and I don't think I'm alone.

10 Awesome Teacher Things
1.      The Zen-like sensation of lamination
2.      The disengaged kid who engages once he finds out you know who [Black Sabbath/Tupac Shakur/George Jones/Nirvana] is
3.      Unexpected candy and/or apples in teacher mailboxes
4.      When you run into a former student years later and call him or her by his or her name, and he or she says, “You remember me?” and you say, “Of course—you were a big deal, sweetie”
5.      Having grades entered and complete (this is a fleeting feeling and typically the closest that active duty teachers ever get to true inner peace)
6.      The school Internet server unexpectedly goes down on Friday night and does not come back online until Monday morning--OMG heaven!
7.      The quiet kid in the nutty class who always nods his head because he wants you to know that The Sane and The Stable are with you
8.      When there's a special Teacher Appreciation lunch, and you forget that it's that day, but then you get to school, and it's there! You get pizza instead of yogurt! And you must eat it because otherwise you're an ungrateful loser! Yes!
9.      Having all of your copying done for the next school day (collation and stapling, too = bonus)

10.  The moment when you meet the parents of a rascally student, and they introduce themselves by saying, “Hi, we’re ____________’s parents. And we’re sorry.” 

Keep on the sunny side of life, my friends. Better beats bitter every time.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Metaphorically Speaking

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to serve as part of a two-girl support crew for three of my friends who ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. The weather was gorgeous, the company was delightful, and the event was logistically flawed but nonetheless magnificent. On my way home in the car,  it occurred to me that teaching and marathons have more than a few commonalities.

Teaching is like running a marathon because…
  •       …even when you do it well, you will be in pain and agony, and you’re going to need to end the day wrapped up in a blanket watching bad movies and eating sugar.
  •       …without the right preparation and training, you may finish, but you’ll be sucking wind the whole time, and you may end up hurting people.
  •     …many folks are watching you, and they all simultaneously 1) admire you for trying and 2) think you’re an idiot.
  •       …if you don’t have a support team, you can still make it, but you’ll cry more, and you’ll probably end up in the hospital.
  •    …when all is said and done, what matters is not your time or your self-discipline or your sweat; what matters is the open-hearted courageousness of the attempt, the people you loved and who loved you through it, and the beautiful bits of humanity that you witnessed along the way. 
     So run! For crying out loud--run for your life! Go! Go! Go!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Supply Side

I first stepped into a teacher supply store when I was a senior in college. As part of my pre-service internship experience at a local high school, I had to create a classroom bulletin board for freshmen on propaganda. This was the late 1980s, and online shopping did not exist. I remember walking into that teacher store thinking that this made it official: I was a real teacher now. Secondary folks were never much of a market for teacher stores (they definitely catered to elementary folks), but those places were a lusty den of markers in every size and color, chalk as far as the eye could see, and paper products—oh, the paper products! In a teacher store, all teachers feel a sense of inner peace and order in a chaotic universe.

I bought one thing on that trip: a set of templates for making bulletin board letters. It came in a cardboard box the size of a Candyland game, and it included two styles of lettering: one plain and one fancy. I liked the plain. I have used those letters for countless endeavors over the years—school, yard sale posters, Sunday school, Christmas decorations, vacation Bible school, kids’ crafts—you name it. The box has lost its structure, and the whole mess lies flattened together in one scattered pile of shame, but I love it. It shall never leave me. I may end up in a long-term care facility someday, old, decrepit, lacking memory and solid food, but those letters are coming with me—because they may need a bulletin board there or something.

Teacher stores are rapidly going the way of the dinosaur. Online shopping (coupled with giant craft retailers like Michael’s and Walmart taking on some of the classic teacher supply load) has gutted the small teacher shop world. I am as guilty of using those newer resources as the next teacher, but I mourn the quietly disappearing teacher store. I mourn A+ Student! pencils, I mourn the wooden-apple A+ Teacher! jewelry, I mourn the 4-for-a-dollar rulers in every school color combination, not because I ever bought that stuff (OK, I bought the rulers)—but because I knew I could. I knew it was there. I knew there was a place that said, “You’re a teacher, and we dig it. Want some stuff?”

I miss you, teacher store, and I always will.

O Teacher Store! My Teacher Store!
(a truly terrible tribute with apologies to Walt Whitman)

O Teacher Store! My Teacher Store! Our fearful trip is done, The mall has weather'd every rack,
the supplies we sought are won, The laptop is near, the clicks I hear, the people online sharing, While follow eyes the steady keel, the parking lot grim and daring; But O bulletin board! Bulletin board! Bulletin board! O the bleeding drops of pen-red, Where on the deck my Teacher Store lies, Fallen cold and dead. O Teacher Store! My Teacher Store! Rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
         For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths—for you the schools
          For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces shouting;
             Here Teacher Store! Dear mother!
               This arm beneath your head!
                 It is some dream that at the mall,
                   You've fallen cold and dead.

          My Teacher Store does not answer, her lips are pale and still,
          My mother does not feel my arm, she has no pulse nor will,
          The mall is GameStop safe and sound, its journey closed and done,
          From fearful trip the craft store comes in with object won;
               Exult O sentence strips, and ring O art supplies!
                 But I with mournful tread,
                   Walk the sidewalk my Teacher Store lies,
                     Fallen cold and dead.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Too Young To Be a Curmudgeon: Married to the Mob

Author's Note: As promised, occasionally I will flip out unnecessarily, and none of us will see it coming. This week, a kind and loving husband in North Carolina wrote an editorial defending his wife against tyranny...and it really pissed me off. Enjoy the October entry for Too Young To Be A Curmudgeon!

When commiserating with my teacher-friends about our long-suffering spouses and all of the crazy things they do to support us, I often liken our profession to organized crime:  “Being in education is like being in the mob: people on the outside—they just don’t understand.” I am certain that the spouses of people in other tough, civic-minded jobs (law enforcement, social work, health care, the military, and so forth) share some of the same qualities: they accept the long hours, the money their spouses spend on job-related equipment, the fear for a spouse’s physical safety, the feeling of neglect on the weekends. Difficult jobs complicate lives.  The men and women who support their men and women in those jobs are a major factor in the success of their spouses’ careers and in the lives that those spouses’ jobs affect. We love them, and we can’t do it without them.

An editorial is making the rounds on Facebook and other Internet circles this week. In it, a banker-husband from North Carolina expresses his frustration at the way society and the teaching profession treat his teacher-wife and his happiness that she has decided to leave teaching for a private sector job. Two things are crystal clear to me after reading that essay: 1. The gentleman loves his teacher-wife very much. 2. I am so glad that my own banker-husband loves me very much and does not share his views.

I think that what bothers me about his piece is not what it says about the banker-husband’s feelings (he does not want to see his beloved frustrated and sad—any caring spouse can relate to that); what bothers me is what it says about his wife and her attitude in working with students and what she thinks teaching is. She certainly (and indirectly) pushed my buttons, and I stipulate that I may be making too many inferences here, but once something like this starts hitting the airwaves and undermines what we do as professionals, I am going to say something.

Here are the inferences I have drawn about his wife’s perspective based on his editorial:

1.      She feels victimized by various governmental and school board policies that make her job more difficult.
2.      She wants to teach classes that are grouped by ability level.
3.      She is frustrated that she has to do so much work outside of the school day (especially grading).
4.      She is upset that she did not get promised pay raises from her state government.
5.      She cries when she is really frustrated about her job.
6.      The other teachers want to leave, too, but they are trapped by their retirement savings.

I shall address each grievance briefly as if I am talking to said wife, my fallen comrade.

1.      You are no one’s victim. Policies affecting society have always been difficult to manage in any government job, and you have the power as a citizen and as a teacher to influence them. The minute you put yourself into the victim role (and your husband, out of his love for you and his desire to protect you, embraced that as well), you surrendered your autonomy and power to others. Teachers have been managing ridiculous mandates for much longer than 7 years, and working in any publicly funded profession is always going to involve that. You knew that during student teaching, and, likely, even after your first EDUC 101 class.

2.      Yes, differentiation is a huge, nightmarish task. Here’s the problem: there is no such thing as a classroom of kids at the same ability level. They are all different, and they always have been. We just never acknowledged this, especially during the Industrial Revolution, when preparing students for a factory world was our main goal. The term differentiation now simply acknowledges that fact. Our job has always been to meet students where they are and move them forward. That has always been what ethical teaching is, and it has always involved differentiation, even when we did not call it that. It has also always been a huge, nightmarish task. You knew that during student teaching (or you should have).

3.      You’re frustrated by grading on your own time? Welcome to the year 1905. People have been frustrated by grading since grades have existed. Why? Because grading sucks. Always has, always will. It’s one of the ugly parts of a tough job. You knew that during student teaching.

4.      Brace yourself: I agree with you on this one! If the state promised you pay raises, then you should get them. That said, you knew you were going into a publicly funded profession and that those professions are always at the political whim of the officials in place at the time. Budgets are political. Sometimes people don’t get pay raises. Perhaps you’ve heard of the government workers who are on unpaid furloughs during the government shutdown. The private sector jobs you covet? Perhaps you’ve heard that a lot of them haven’t been getting pay raises for the last decade or so either. Times are tough. Advocate for yourself with your public officials. Make noise. But remember: you knew that during student teaching.

5.      I cry when I’m frustrated, too. My BFFs cry when they get frustrated in their jobs whether they are in education or not. You are in a tough job, and it takes a psychological toll. Crying when that toll is overwhelming is actually a healthy thing to do. If you end up fearing that you are dealing with something like depression or an anxiety disorder, seek counseling. I am sincere in saying that. When I became overwhelmed, that’s what I did. Maintaining balance in your life is your responsibility, not your profession’s. I suspect you felt similarly overwhelmed often during student teaching, as most of us do, and I suspect that the veteran teachers in that situation empathized and let you know: “Yes, this is difficult. If you take one of these jobs, this is how it is.”

6.       Not all teachers want out. Some teachers want to stay in this profession, and some want to leave it. I think that’s on par with perhaps every other profession in the universe. The people who stay tend to be, in my experience, dedicated to kids, do not see themselves as victims, love doing most (but not all) of the tasks involved in this job, and have learned how to navigate their way through a difficult profession. Please do not lump us all into your whiny canoe. Scratch that—go ahead. Lump us all into your whiny canoe. We’ll do what teachers do: Make a plan to prevent the canoe from sinking and save everyone on board and then execute that plan despite all odds. You knew that during student teaching, too.

Why do I keep mentioning student teaching at the end of each of my responses? Teaching is one of the very few professions where you get an extended trial period to see whether or not you can cut it. All of the challenges of teaching are handed to you on a silver platter, and veteran teachers take great pains to make sure that novices feel supported but know the score. To say, seven years into the game, that you are the victim of that profession is childish and demeans those of us who said, “Yes, this is the most difficult thing I could ever choose to do, but kids matter. Kids are worth it, and I am going to try to take care of them and myself so that I can do right by them.” I, like your husband, am glad that you are going elsewhere. I never talk people into staying who want to leave. You want to leave? Go. We need people understand that this job is about students, not teachers. Student teaching has its limitations, but all of your complaints were evident from the start, and you chose this job anyway.

When I was student teaching, a member of that school’s English department (not my cooperating teacher but a revered member of the group) gave me advice that I have never forgotten. He said, “Teaching is the kind of job that you can literally devote your entire life to doing and never be done. You can grade all night, every night. You can never take a vacation, never stop working, never stop thinking about working, but because we are dealing with human beings, you will never feel ‘done.’ You will never feel the satisfaction of a job well done because you will never feel ‘finished.’ This will always be true, and it can consume your life. That’s why you need to go ahead and have a life. Have a family. Take breaks from work because you’re going to feel overwhelmed by it anyway, and you may as well have a well-rounded life while you do it. And remember: the job is always worth doing.”  Other veterans have told us all something similar when we were younger, and we took these jobs anyway. The choice was ours. No one is responsible for my life except me. That goes for you, too.

My responses to this teacher likely sound harsh, but I am fed up to here with teachers who see themselves as victims and who wear that victim crap as a badge of honor. You chose this profession, you choose your attitude in it every day, and you decide whether to remain in it or not. That’s what adults do—make choices. Being martyred by society or by people who love you doesn’t move any policy conversation forward, it doesn’t alleviate any of the stresses of the average school day, and it doesn’t make you a better person than anyone else. It’s OK that you can’t take the pressure anymore and need to get out. That may be the healthiest decision you’ve ever made. But you don’t get to portray the rest of us as hapless, put-upon weaklings on your way out the door.

As for my own banker-spouse, he knows why I do what I do, and he is on board with whatever I need to make it happen. He knows that my job is not about me—it’s about the children of our community. It’s about the future of this republic. He hugs me when I cry, he gets angry when public policy battles place schools in ever more precarious positions, and he wants everyone to be nice to me. But he knows what I signed on for (he was there during student teaching), and he knows how important my job is. Most critically, despite being an eyewitness to all of the slings and arrows of this career choice, he never, ever sees me as a victim of anything. He sees me persevere and teach well despite everything that tries to interfere. He thinks I kick ass. He gets it. Thank God. I love him, and I can’t do it without him.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I’ve got spirit; yes, I do. I’ve got spirit; how ‘bout you?

"Daisy Buchanan" (by request from my English 11 class)
on Blast from the Past Day, Spirit Week 2013

Some of a teacher’s professional responsibilities are clear. They are listed on the job description and in the negotiated agreement. They pop up now and again as “other duties as assigned.” Some responsibilities, however, are tacit. They require no contract, no paper trail, and no assignment. They just are. If one violates these unspoken rules, one receives no penalty, no demotion, no verbal reprimand. But everyone knows a ball has been dropped, that one has not risen to one’s highest levels of professional practice. One such responsibility is school spirit. You either have it, or you don’t, and the haves are in a much better instructional place than the have-nots.

Part of working in a school means being part of that school’s community. Community spirit is what holds the environment together when times are tough. Students understand this intuitively, but adults often treat school spirit as an afterthought, as mere silliness, an excuse to wear jeans on a Friday. School spirit is much more than that. The pep rallies, the school colors, the Spirit Weeks—they all serve a much larger purpose. They give everyone in the building a sense of connectness, a reason to be energized about waking up at 5:00 am, a reminder that our profession is a human one.

Not everyone takes school spirit as seriously as I do. Not everyone subconsciously shops for clothes in school colors out of habit. Not everyone tries to get her department to dress up together for Famous Duo Day by organizing group concepts like the Stepford Wives, O-Ren Ishii’s Crazy 88s assassination squad in Kill Bill, U.S. First Ladies, Hogwarts witches, and Twilight vampires. Clearly, I go too far. The street cred I get from students in doing so goes a long way, but not everyone needs to be one wig away from a Spirit Week 12-step program (especially if the school colors are hideous—if that’s the case, one must find other ways to be supportive).

But the connection matters. Coming to after-school events when I can matters. Showing up at the pep rally even though I could hide in my room and get grading done matters. Encouraging students to participate in clubs, sports, and spirit days matters. The more connected students feel to the school community, the more likely their attendance (both the showing-up kind and the paying-attention kind), the more likely their positive attitudes, and the more likely their success.

So I throw on the garish, double-knit athletic jersey that accentuates all that is middle-aged about my body. I will intentionally tease my hair, wear theatrical makeup that makes me break out, and wear painful (but costume-appropriate) shoes to make the kids laugh during Spirit Week. When I signed on to teach the children so that they could grow into fulfilled, intelligent, happy people, I also signed on to occasionally embarrass myself for their amusement. Silliness is my professional responsibility, and, America, I live to serve!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Common Knowledge, Part 5: The Finale

I made it! I rambled on about education policy for five days! I must say that this whole process is liberating and fantastic, and now that I’ve gotten all of that off my chest, I can move on with my life…until policy, policymakers, or the public piss me off again. But until then, happy weekend!

Education Reform Vocab List (Quiz today!)


Assessment: The activities that a teacher, school, state, or nation uses to gauge whether the desired learning outcomes occurred. When I was in medical publishing before I began teaching, we were always careful to edit for the distinction between an “assessment” (one measure of patient progress) and an “evaluation” (taking all of those measures together to synthesize them into a multifaceted report or discussion of patient progress). In education, the terms are used much more interchangeably (and that still annoys my medical-editor inner child), but hang on to that distinction because I’m going to argue for it later in this post.
Assessment takes many forms, and the two main categories that educators use to classify them are “formative” and “summative.” 

Formative assessments are those (typically) daily classroom assignments that students have received since time immemorial. Reading assignments, writing assignments, vocabulary assignments, grammar assignments, etc., constitute the daily nitty-gritty of the American English classroom. Summative assignments are those that typically come at the end of some unit of study. The “unit” need not be the broad, weeks-long variety. It could be the end of a two-day “mini-unit” on figurative language that occurs within a larger unit on, say, Native American literature. Tests, quizzes, major writing pieces, big projects, and so forth make up the English summative assignment world.

When we examine controversies in assessment, typically the one we all fixate on involves standardized assessment. Standardized assessment just means that the test questions and scoring procedures are the same for all test takers. The way that plays out most commonly in public debate involves U.S. student scores on a standardized test and how they compare to, say, Taiwanese students taking the same test, or perhaps students all across the state of Mississippi taking the same test as a graduation requirement. The two main types of standardized assessments differ greatly. Criterion-referenced tests involve a set of questions, each of which has a point value assigned to it. Thus, if the test has 100 questions, and a student misses 15 of them, then the student gets an 85. If the failure threshold is a 65, then every student could pass if he or she scored at least a 65. Easy, right? 

Then we have the other type, norm-referenced tests. Norm-referenced tests compare student results across a group of peers and distribute scores according to those comparisons (Ye Olde Bell Curve). Most of the standardized tests that bother educators and the public in terms of their fairness are tests that involve norm referencing, the SAT being perhaps the chief of that tribe. Here, the math gets fuzzier and, many claim, biased and unfair because the student does not receive a predetermined number of points for a set amount of knowledge.

The criterion- versus norm-referenced test issue became a serious concern during the early days of No Child Left Behind (NCLB, the law that never met a norm-referenced test it didn’t like). States were to use the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) as their guideline for how rigorous their new state tests were supposed to be. NAEP is a norm-referenced test, which means that the bell curve is going to involve a percentage of students who fail that test. Thus, if a state preferred to use a criterion-referenced test, then statistical comparisons for rigorousness between the NAEP and that state test are, needless to say, challenging. Of course, if a state chose a norm-referenced test, comparison against the NAEP is much easier, but to be similar in its level of difficulty, the state test would always have a percentage of failing students. Note: The state test would always have a percentage of failing students.

Our charge under NCLB was to make sure that 100% of students were passing the state tests by 2014, but for a test to pass muster with the U.S. Department of Education, it would always have a percentage of students who fail. See the problem? See why I came home after learning this fact in 2002 and nearly punched a wall? When schools say that NCLB “set us up to fail,” we’re speaking literally, not metaphorically. In the end, of course, some states got away with murder in terms of the “rigorousness” of their state tests anyway (not my state—mine held it together for the most part), and NCLB is on a respirator now, but still—note what this situation says about the lack of thought, logic and fairness in NCLB. It’s no joke.

Not all assessments are created equal, and not all standardized assessments are created equal. The reason standardized assessment is so common and compelling for lawmakers and the public is simple: it is down and dirty. You get a numerical result, and you have passing and failing scores. People like the simplicity of that, even people who rail against Race to the Top, NCLB, and so on like it. You don’t believe me? Watch any family when its child’s SAT scores arrive. They instantly believe those scores. They instantly value them. They rarely dispute their accuracy or rail against the College Board (but don’t worry—I’m drinking enough College Board haterade for all of you).

Standardized testing does give schools some information about learning; the PSAT in particular actually provides feedback to students, and I appreciate that. The problem is that teachers will tell you that classroom formative assessments and smaller classroom summative assessments are the most accurate reflection of student learning. Lawmakers don’t like that because they think there’s too much individual bias in that type of assessment, and it doesn’t boil down to one assignment, one score, one piece of math by which the student/school/state/nation lives or dies. Real assessment is multifaceted, multimodal, and occurs over time. This is not the case for standardized tests. The score seals your doom or carries you off to Harvard. I shouldn’t have to tell you that’s absurd, but this is education policy; it is historically absurd.

The word “testing” to label this controversy is misleading all on its own. We “test” kids all the time with the classroom assignments we use. It’s the big, high-stakes variety that has everyone upset, and that is because we know deep down inside that no one indicator says how well someone knows a particular concept or does a particular job. For so long, we have let those big tests be a part of our lives that, even though we know it’s wrong, we invest time, energy, and (most dangerously) confidence in their results.

Let’s examine, for example,  the SAT. Decades ago, a group of esteemed college presidents sat down together and said, “We need some sort of standardized indicator to tell us which students are most likely to be successful in college. We know that the 4.0 grade point average of a top student in a New York City private school is not the same as the 4.0 grade point average of a student in a Kentucky public school, and we need something to help us sort out this admissions issue.” Thus, the SAT was born, and thus have millions of students had their college eligibility and choices (and thus lives) affected by it.

The data have clearly shown, time and time again, that there is, in fact, a “best” indicator of college success. But it’s not the SAT. Guess what it is. Go ahead. Guess. It’s grade point average, the very measure the SAT was designed to trump. GPA is not a flawless indicator of college success, but it has remained the best one of all of the options in all the years since the test first arrived. (The logic behind that? A top achieving personality is going to achieve wherever he or she is and will work hard to meet whatever standards to which he or she is held.) But what do we do? We continue to let colleges make our kids bow to  the SAT. We continue to pay a zillion dollars in SAT review support. We continue to worship at the mighty dot-com altar of the College Board. Why? Because we have always done it that way, the stupidest reason for doing anything.

Thus is the whole ridiculous enchilada of assessment, grading, testing, all of it. The best information a teacher has for how a student is learning involves those daily classroom formative assessments. Big projects are great, but their real value is what we learn as students complete all of the small pieces along the way to the final product. “Tests” are fine, whatever, but I learn more from what a student is doing in the moment with me. In English, what is the best way to see how well a student is reading, writing, and thinking in one assessment? Student writing. No comparison. All the evidence is there. What is the first thing some states removed from their state tests because they were taking "too long to grade"? Student writing.

When my own state did so, my fellow English teachers and I lost our minds. The state told us that they could test student writing knowledge through multiple-choice questions. Really? What we knew from state testing up to that point was that the writing piece was saving our struggling student populations. Why? Because we can’t teach kids who have always shut down on multiple-choice tests their entire lives to suddenly understand all of the concepts we teach by discriminating among four short answer options, but we can teach writing, and we could teach writing so that students demonstrate their understanding of reading in it. Our struggling students were passing that state test in English because they could write and show what they knew. The writing was their ticket to graduation, as it should be. When they took writing away, we started developing more critical issues with pass rates for our struggling subgroups. It was a less valid test without writing, and it was taking kids down with it who, if they had a better assessment that included writing, would have passed.

This is why teachers get angry about assessment. The notion that we learn anything of serious value from those big standardized ones is nonsense, yet we continue to march to the beat of that drummer. At some point, I’ll write about grades, too, which is the same issue under a different textbook cover: we do these things this way because we have always done them that way. Doing the better thing is harder and more difficult to explain to the public, so we don’t do it. Well, I object. I want formative assessment to mean something. I want us to work from the standpoint of evaluation instead of assessment (I told you I’d bring those terms back). What are the student’s successes in multiple areas? What are the student’s struggles in multiple areas? Myself and my fellow teachers would welcome that tougher, more complex job of letting you know how well students are learning through an evaluation process. Stop trusting the College Board, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and all of the other corporate testing giants who have sold you this bill of goods on what your kids really know. Trust us (and trust yourselves and your kids) enough to let us do it the right way.

Lesson to learn from assessment:
Teachers don’t hate the way our nation wants us to handle assessment because we are terrible teachers who can’t raise students to high enough standards. We hate the way our nation wants us to handle assessment because it is not a true reflection of student progress, it ends up having too much power in determining a student’s life options, and it means nothing instructionally. Changing to a system of real evaluation would take everything we have in us to make it happen, which is why it likely will not happen. But I won’t play ball with false testing gods anymore, and I hope you won’t either.

Oh, hey! I promised you a quiz, didn’t I? Assessment pieces should be reflective of the instruction that occurred, they should be as authentic (real world tasks) as possible, and they should be multimodal, so here’s your quiz:

  1.   Whenever someone tries to sway you concerning important education issues from this point forward, get a second opinion, and a third. That includes not taking my word for anything.
  2. Advocate for public education funding with your elected representatives as often as you can. We always need the money, and your kids are always more important than your wars. Quit believing partisan arguments on this issue, and just make sure that we get the cash.
  3.   Whenever you want to start trashing teachers, schools, or policies as a whole, substitute the words “teachers,” “schools,” and “government” with the actual names of the people with whom you are angry. You’ll find this is much more accurate and helps to thwart conspiracy theories.

You’re saying, “Wait. This isn’t a real quiz. You can never even know if we did these things.” I’ll know, my friends. Believe me, if you do what I’ve asked, we’ll all know.

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