Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rescuer or Bystander? Syrian Refugees and Unlearned Lessons from the Holocaust

Originally, I wanted to write a piece encouraging teachers to use the resources of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in instruction (as part of what I indicated a few weeks ago would be a series on teaching resources that I like). Recent world events have changed the post a bit, but I am still linking as many USHMM resources to this piece as I can to encourage fellow teachers to examine and use them in class as much as possible. And in the spirit of Giving Tuesday, please consider donating either to the USHMM or to one of the fine charities linked in this piece.

One of my most prized possessions is a letter from Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to my students. Teachers who teach Wiesel’s books love him for many reasons, one of the key reasons being that, when students write him, he often writes back. In 2012, he wrote my kids back.

I cried when I opened the letter. I ran through the hallways of my school showing it to anyone and everyone. I made color copies of the letter for all of the students in the class. I placed a framed copy at each of their desks for them the next morning. I also gave one to our principal, who hung it in the main office. It was one of my happiest days at school.

Each year, in English 10, I use Wiesel’s memoir, Night, as the focus of one of our conceptual units. The units for English 10 are Cultures, Ethics, Movement, and Cycles. The book works well in any of those units, but my favorite place for it is in Ethics. The many ethical dilemmas surrounding World War II are immediately engaging for students. Those lessons are most interesting when the students focus not on the Nazi perpetrators and the horrors of their behaviors but rather when they focus on the bystanders, the people who knew what was happening and did not act to stop it.

My 10th graders recently finished reading the book, and as they read the first few chapters, I showed them clips from an Academy Award-winning documentary about Jewish children whose fate was different, the children of the Kindertransport.

I am always surprised that the Kindertransport remains a Holocaust footnote for most folks because the lesson that it teaches is perhaps the most important lesson we have to learn from historical tragedies: We can do something. In 1938, horrified by the events of Kristallnacht, citizens in Great Britain actively sought to save Jewish children from the Third Reich. They organized a life-saving rescue effort in which Jewish families in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland were allowed to send their children to the U.K. to live as foster children with British families or to live in youth hostels.

German Jewish refugee children from the Kindertransport, upon arrival in Harwich, UK, December 12, 1938. Source: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (www.ushmm.org)

Sure, politics reared its ugly head in the organizing of this endeavor: Only children were allowed to go because their parents (most of whom later died in the Holocaust after sending their children to England) were viewed as potential job-stealers in Britain. Also, rich children were typically the ones rescued because of the significant fees levied on their families by the Reich. Nonetheless, Great Britain did what no other country did during that time: It made the safety of the Europe’s children its business early on, it acted quickly, and it saved nearly 10,000 lives before Britain’s entry into World War II in 1939 ended the transports in 1940.

In 1938 and 1939, the organizers of the Kindertransport, including British hero Nicholas Winton, approached other countries, including the United States, to ask for their help in these rescues. No dice. In fact, the U.S. government responded that to participate would mean separating children from their families and that such an action was an affront to “the laws of God.” (I am not kidding.) The real reasons, of course, were the United States’ longstanding paranoia about immigrants (which continues today and is so ironic for citizens who extravagantly celebrated their ancestors’ immigration to the U.S. last week on Thanksgiving) and its also-longstanding anti-Semitism. 

The U.S. government (specifically the U.S. armed forces) acted heroically on the U.S. entry into the war in 1941, and we participated fully in liberating concentration camps at war’s end (my own grandfather was a soldier in that liberation), but we should feel shame for the action that our government did not take earlier. Our unwillingness to assist the Kindertransport coupled with the internment of Japanese Americans during wartime shows that the United States government did not always act heroically during that era. In fact, we sometimes acted egregiously, perhaps even unforgivably. We could have been better than that—better people, a better nation. We could have done more. But we did not.

Japanese American child en route to an internment camp, 1942. Source: Library of Congress (www.loc.gov)

If U.S. history has taught us anything, it has taught us that we never really learn from U.S. history. The specifics of historical incidents may change, and the bad guys’ names may change, but we typically make the same mistakes over and over again. We tend to be so mired in our day-to-day worries, the in-the-moment politics of an issue, our own prejudices (prejudices that we rationalize as completely different from the prejudices of previous generations because, well, we’re us, and we…could never be the bad guys?), that we don’t see when we are going down the same historical road.

For example, how does a nation that remembers Vietnam end up in a war in Iraq? How does a nation that remembers the stupidity of John F. Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith being an issue in his presidential campaign end up with a candidate now saying that people of the Muslim faith should never be president? How does a nation that knows how genocide starts refuse—so many times—to stop it from happening again? I don’t know why we don’t learn from history, but I do know this: we could learn from history. We can do something.

Here is a list of official, documented genocides in which we have dragged our heels or decided to “sit this one out” since the Holocaust:
  • 1975: Cambodia (U.S. response: “Let’s get the hell out and stay the hell out.”)
  • 1994: Rwanda (U.S. response: “Ew. We don’t want to get involved in that, so let’s cover up the fact that we even know it’s a genocide. No one will notice, right?” Then later, “Oh, sorry.”)
  • 1995: Bosnia (U.S. response: “Not our problem,” then “It’s the U.N.’s problem,” then “OK, now we get it. The Rwanda thing made us look bad. So yeah, OK, our problem.”)
  • 2003: Sudan (U.S. response: mostly, “Huh? Where? Oh. Let’s send resources to the Gulf region instead.”)
[For folks who want to interpret a political slant to this post, please note that two of these genocides occurred on the watch of Republican presidents, and two occurred on the watch of a Democratic president. This is bipartisan shame.]

Then there are other world crises, crises within countries with historic ethnic and/or religious tensions that escalate to worldwide notice. We’re often not sure whether an actual genocide is occurring, but even when the signs are bad (very, very bad), we are slow (or, again, completely unwilling) to intervene.

Honestly, how much do we care? Some Americans understandably express concern about the U.S. involving itself too much in the business of other sovereign nations. The complication is that, as the sole remaining superpower in the world, if we are going to “have our way” with other nations economically and strategically (the elements of “superpowerness” that our government seems never to shy away from), then we do not get to look the other way when governments spiral into the organized moral chaos of demagoguery that leads to genocide. We are the world’s default, de facto leader in countless situations, and we have a moral imperative to act like one.

Right now, our president has asked our nation to save 10,000 Syrian lives, the same number of Jewish children that Great Britain saved from Hitler and a tiny fraction of the millions fleeing Syria. My Facebook and Twitter feeds, like the national mood, are overwhelmed with posts related to this issue. As with the U.S. response to the Kindertransport in 1938, some of those posts are fueled by love and concern, but most are fueled by fear and some by straight-up ugliness.

Some folks will feel uncomfortable with me making comparisons of the Syrian refugee situation to Nazi Germany, but I urge you to examine the history of the early days of the Third Reich. It’s the same rhetoric, the same type of knee-jerk nationalism we see in situations like the current one involving Syrian refugees. We have presidential candidates trying to out-muscle-flex each other in advocating the use of torture and even in suggesting that we should identify and surveil Muslims in this country solely because of their religious affiliation. Casting all Muslims into the role of villain has not only become commonplace; it's become acceptable in a nation that touts its appreciation of religious freedom at every opportunity. What’s happening? What is this?

In my view, it's the same thing it's always been: it’s the same completely and utterly hateful bullshit from people who are willing to exploit longstanding religious and racial prejudices to get elected. It has worked for many a ruthless politician-turned-dictator, and it may be working now. To our knowledge, this situation with Syrian refugees is not yet genocide, but it bears more than a passing resemblance to how genocide begins. Historically, this rhetoric (and the climate that the rhetoric creates) is what the early stages of genocide look like. 

But we do have a choice. We can choose to protect human beings instead of sacrificing them. We can provide safety to people whose lives are in danger, or we can continue to foster a misguided illusion of safety from the evils of the world that, in reality, only escalates violence. If you choose to save lives, please consider
  • donating to one of the many organizations trying to stop this nightmare in its tracks. One of my new favorite charities is the International Rescue Committee because they assist Syrian refuges in settling in the United States. I hope that I would not have been an American who said no to the Kindertransport, and I won’t be that kind of American now.
  • using the resources of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in your classrooms, church organizations, and community activities. Their resources (both online and at the museum) are excellent and can help to explain these world events in a way that encourages action—but not the kind of action that results in targeting religious or ethnic groups for mistreatment.
  • using social media as a vehicle for compassion and understanding instead of arrogance and prejudice. I love social media, but I have nearly quit Facebook so many times over the past month. Instead of giving up on it, though, I’m going to post this piece and encourage action that values the lives of human beings. All human beings.
Every year I teach Elie Wiesel and Night. In those lessons, I have an annual nag telling me to be brave, to stand up to bullies in all forms. Those lessons tell me not to allow people to target and mistreat others and then try to call it “necessary” or “justifiable” or in the interest of “safety.” It is easy to get wrapped up in the moment, in the distrust of people whose cultures are mysterious to us, in the scorching rhetoric of ambitious candidates who care more about inflaming the public than serving the nation. It’s easy to do, but I simply refuse, and I hope you do, too. We can do something, so this time, let’s do it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Rock and Roll High School

This post is the first of a series I am writing on some of my favorite teacher resources. For my opening salvo, I discuss why the use of music in academic classrooms matters and how it connects to TeachRock.org, the coolest nerdy teacher thing I did on my summer vacation. Rock on, my friends!

One never knows where one’s fangirl silliness will take one in life. A few years ago, out of our mutual love for Tom Morello, Bruce Springsteen, and all things related to teaching and children, I became Twitter-friends (and co-founder of the hashtag #teachersfortommorello) with two educators in Australia. I have yet to meet them face-to-face, but I love them truly (Hi, Mary and Piera!), and they have made an important contribution to my teaching.
A photo of my Australian Twitter-friends, Mary and Piera (with their #teachersfortommorello sign) at a Bruce Springsteen show last year made the brucespringsteen.net website (source: brucespringsteen.net). 
About two years ago, Mary tweeted me that she had added me to a Twitter list of educators called “Teachers Who Rock.” This, of course, sounded hilarious (I am, after all, a 48-year-old English teacher in small-town America—I’m not exactly Debbie Harry or Lourde). That Twitter list led me to Teach Rock and Roll from the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation (@TeachRock). Always on the lookout for something new and fabulous, I decided to investigate.

Cynical Step 1: Is this thing legit? Well, the website sure looks solid. When I went out to the TeachRock.org website, I was struck by the professionalism of its splash page. It was organized, focused, functional, and modern, not like one of those hokey sites with links that go nowhere surrounded by cutesy apple graphics.  

TeachRock.org splash page
Cynical Step 2: Who’s behind this? In the politicized educational climate in which we live, I must be careful about agendas. I clicked on the “About” page on the Teach Rock site and saw a Founders Board listing. I appreciate an About page that names those to blame because searching for new online instructional resources is a lot like speed-dating: Hey, baby, you look cute and all, but please tell me inside of 5 minutes what the problem is. Just tell me now so that I don’t wander in innocently and then stumble out heartbroken, awash in the detritus of something completely appalling like “A new approach to test preparation from the people who brought you No Child Left Behind!” or “Endorsed by Michelle Rhee!” Just cut to the chase.

So here’s the Founders Board:
"About" page on TeachRock.org

Say WHAT?! Full disclosure: My level of fandom for this list would be embarrassing if it weren’t so clearly justifiable. Their professional accomplishments combined with their charitable endeavors over the years give them a combined appeal that most resources simply do not have. In addition, these artists are my artists. My favorites. They are my music, my movies, my television, my charitable concerns. They’re it for me. I want to listen to what they have to say.

Heartened by a clean website and dazzled by star power, I clicked on the link “For Teachers” at the top of the splash page. Therein lies a full explanation of their philosophy, approach, and materials. (Thoroughness goes a long way with this girl.)  

"For Teachers" page on TeachRock.org
Next I moved to the link labeled “Curriculum.” Here’s where things usually fall apart. The problem is that I am a curriculum snob. I want a concept-based, flexible approach with student needs as the focus. I am cheerful and open-minded about many things, but give me a one-size-fits-all traditional curriculum, and I will run screaming from your educational roach motel.

In addition, most online curriculum resources like to say that they are aligned with every possible educational standard and approach. Usually these resources are pushing one particular agenda and lying about the others, or they are trying so hard to be all things to all people that they end up being a reductive version of each of them. Imagine my surprise (and groupie-esque squeals) when I clicked on that link to find their materials to be simply and clearly organized around four macroconcepts. Fantastic!

"Curriculum" page on TeachRock.org
The fully developed lessons and materials within each macro actually are concept-based, do align with the Common Core State Standards, and are engaging, modifiable to various classroom contexts, and suited to differentiated instruction. My instant reaction to the Founders Board list was like one of those cartoon characters who has hearts where its eyeballs should be, but I had no idea that the materials would be so in sync with who I am not only as a fan but also as a teacher.

For years, I have used music in the classroom as an engagement tool. I use song lyrics to teach poetic devices, I use music from various eras to engage students in the time period of a piece of literature, and I use music as a way to get students to talk to me. Even the most stoic, disengaged, please-don’t-talk-to-me student will chat me up when I ask him about the music he likes.

In many ways, engaging students in talking about music is like this recent viral video on YouTube that I showed my students. See how Baby Christian responds once Mommy plays Pharrell on the iPhone.

Student engagement with music is like this.

Whenever I ask students what they care about the most, their answers are almost always some combination of their family, their friends, and their music. Sports sometimes make the cut or maybe a boyfriend or girlfriend, but music is a mainstay. Students who feel understood by no one feel understood by music. We know that, ultimately, deep learning is about making connections. Music can go a long way in helping students to connect with a lesson, a teacher, other students, instructed concepts, and even the rest of the world.

Teach Rock frames its curriculum around the history of rock and roll, but its resources are not limited to rock music. All forms of popular music are involved (because they, too, are all connected) in ways that can support not only in music and fine arts classes but also social studies and English classes.

For example, this year, I created modules in Blackboard for students in my English classes to enrich their understanding of the novels they were reading. For my ninth graders reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I used Teach Rock’s lesson on “The Blues: The Sound of Rural Poverty” to establish the setting of the book and to help students connect to Tom Robinson’s life more deeply. For my tenth graders reading The Road, I used sections of the lessons on “The Historical Roots of Hip-Hop” and “The Roots of Heavy Metal” to examine the forces that shape a culture to prepare students to discuss the obliteration of cultural norms in the book.

Not only were these lessons probably the deepest instruction I’ve ever done on those books in those particular areas, but also they demonstrated an important point: students engage with music even when the music in play is not their favorite type of music. Something about music is inherently engaging, inherently motivating, inherently humanizing (even primal, as Baby Christian demonstrates above), and students respond to that.

This past summer, I was lucky enough to attend a two-day workshop at Teach Rock headquarters in Manhattan. We examined specific lessons in the curriculum and those on the horizon, and we talked about music, music, music. In one session, the man who founded Little Kids Rock, David Wish, explained his organization’s approach to teaching music to kids. During his presentation, he needed volunteers who did not know how to play a guitar, and, at one point, that was me. He handed me an acoustic guitar, told me where to place my fingers, and told me to strum it. He then informed me that I had just played a G chord. When I discovered that I had played something on a guitar that was an actual, identifiable thing, I almost screamed like Roger Daltrey in "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Frankly, I felt like a badass guitar ninja, so much so that, when my husband picked me up from the train station that evening, I said, “So now I have to learn to play the guitar. It’s happening.” I felt the thrill of starting to learn and understand something that I thought I would never learn.

Mr. Wish is smart and talented, and I had been interested in what he was saying, but something changed in my level of engagement when he handed me the guitar. Sure, fear is a motivator, too, and I was afraid of embarrassing myself with a musical instrument, but the feeling of creating music (even just one chord) in that moment was incredible. After that one strum, I was riveted to the man. I heard every word he had to say. Music made that happen, and I want a piece of that action in my classroom.

Music, like learning, is about connection. It tethers us to each other and to the planet in a way that few things do. It is one of the universal bonds we all share in a world full of divisiveness. Instead of viewing music as something extracurricular, we need to view it as entirely curricular in engaging students in learning and in understanding the world. TeachRock.org helps teachers do that in new and instructionally sound ways that help us to be better, more responsive, more inclusive teachers.

I like my school system’s bring-your-own-electronic-device policy, but many teachers are exasperated by students’ phones and earbuds. They complain that students’ music causes kids not to pay attention and to be disrespectful. To me, their ubiquitous earbuds show that students want to connect with something that makes them feel understood, powerful, and alive when school often makes them feel confused, excluded, and stupid. Perhaps school and music don’t need to be at odds. Perhaps, by using music as an engagement tool instead of as a battlefield, we can make music about checking in to school instead of checking out. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Child's Play

or, What One High School Teacher Learned from the Elementary School

The best professional experience that I never liked involved teaching graduate courses for a university in Baltimore. Some people view teaching at the college level as the Holy Grail, and I tried it for several years, but I never felt like I was any good at it. I am so tired at the end of the school day that I never felt “on my game” in those evening classes, and I was happy when an online version made those sessions obsolete. Nevertheless, teaching those classes forever changed the way I teach.

The courses involved teaching reading in the content areas (courses that the state of Maryland requires as part of state teaching licensure), and I was able to teach the classes here in our county so that our teachers didn’t have to drive to Baltimore to get them. Most teachers do not have the chance to hear about other teachers’ experiences outside of our own buildings, but I saw those differing perspectives every week—teachers at all grade levels, in all content areas—sometimes even administrators and system leaders who wanted to maintain their teaching certificates, too.

Because of those teacher-students (and administrator-students) taking those courses, I now have friends in all 29 of our school buildings and in the central office. The breadth of those contacts has given me a breadth in perspective as well. The work that those teacher-students completed for the course involved preparing classroom materials for their real students, all of them, at every level, in each of our buildings. What a gift to have that access to so many instructional methods.

Each semester culminated with a project in which my teacher-students created a full “reading lesson” for students in their content area, taught it to their actual students, and then presented the lesson to the class. Imagine—each semester I was able to see how teachers handle the instruction of different types of texts for different types of learners, to see their classroom materials, to see classroom photos, to hear about their students, to hear their instructional perspectives. And I was paid to do it!

All of this preamble is a long-winded way for me to say that, honestly, I fell in love during those courses….

I fell in love with elementary school teachers.

I mean, the penmanship alone! To die for.

The never-ending color-coding! Have mercy.

The cute and efficient ways of organizing everything from boxes of crayons to folders, folders, folders!

Is there nothing these folks can’t do?

Elementary school teachers have a knack for breaking things down, for categorizing and classifying and simplifying everything, whether they are teaching a complex concept like fractions or organizing classrooms into games for Field Day.

Elementary school teachers teach me a great deal. Some of my normal classroom routines come directly from those lesson presentations in those courses, and they all have their roots in elementary school classrooms:
  • My students use hand-held whiteboards to give me an at-a-glance assessment of an entire class’ responses to any number of classroom questions.
  • My students use color-coded folders for each strand of the English content (Reading, Writing, Listening/Speaking, and Language). I can find everything now!
  • I place what I jokingly call “baskets of knowledge” at each desk group so that students always have highlighters, Post-It notes, and index cards at the ready.
  • As I have posted previously, I follow the elementary schoolteachers’ lead on creating a colorful, organized, and harmonious classroom environment.
  • I give students “brain breaks” during our 90-minute blocks (because maybe all of that “sit still and be quiet” for an hour and a half stuff is inhuman for anyone, let alone kids).
  • I support positive behavioral approaches such as our PBIS program (interventions that aim to reward behaviors we want to see in students and provide tiered support to kids who struggle to get with the program). 

In short, everything I ever learned about classroom management and organizing lessons, I learned from elementary school teachers. (Well, OK, not everything, but a great deal, and more than I ever imagined.)

Sometimes, high school teachers push back at the elementary school and its methods, or at least we believe that we can’t do much of what they do because our kids are older. We think kids will be insulted by colorful materials, positive reinforcements, and a heavy dose of organizational “This goes here, and that goes there.” I disagree. The more I teach teenagers and adult learners, the more I see that what we teachers term "Dimension 1 needs" are the same throughout the lifespan.

In the end, I find that all humans (metaphorically speaking) need what little kids need: love, a cup of juice, and a nap. Everyone wants to be in a welcoming and forgiving environment, everyone wants their basic needs met, and everyone wants their leadership to be in control but sensitive to their feelings. (And imagine, corporate America, if, at 2:00 every day, you gave everyone some kind words, a cup of juice, and a nap. Tell me those employees wouldn’t follow you to the ends of the earth.)

Elementary school teachers support those needs as easily as they breathe in oxygen. Sometimes high school teachers can feel pressured to do what I call “hard, cruel worlding” to the kids, to think that it’s time for the kids to man up and need nothing but the paper and pencil before them, to follow orders and shut their yaps. In fact, in schools in general (and in other places in society, too), we tend to rationalize any policy or approach that is arbitrary, random, or just plain mean as preparing students for “the real world.” American history tells us the opposite, that if we want to change the world for the better, we need to change it in schools first.

Changes like Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,  the Great Society programs (1965), and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1976) show us that America doesn’t improve in how it treats people until schools improve in how we treat kids. Elementary schools do a better job of treating students the way the world should treat us all. And that is much more effective preparation for giving students a better world than the “hard, cruel” one we have now.   

Thank you, elementary school teachers. Back when I was in college, future high school teachers were taught that “hard, cruel worlding” was the name of the game. You taught me that there’s a different way to play the game, and I’m all in. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What to Expect: The First Year (of Teaching)

Welcome back to Schooled! I took the summer off to travel, sleep, and work on some special projects. I also created a Facebook page for this blog (https://www.facebook.com/schooledteacher) and read, read, read. Here’s my back-to-school post on how to help new teachers navigate the treacherous waters of perception vs. reality. I’m pumped and ready for educational action!

I can be as much of a know-it-all as anybody else, but, at this age, I refrain from giving advice in one area of life unless I am directly asked for it: pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. I nod and smile during most of those discussions because of my fundamental thesis regarding child-rearing (“There is no one right way to do any of it”). So I stand back. As long as you show me pictures of your kids (I love that), tell me cute stories about them, and let me hold the baby while you eat and/or use the restroom, it’s all good. Ask me a direct question, and I’ll give you a direct answer, but otherwise, you’re learning (as we all do), and you’ll figure it out.

At work, I often approach new teachers in the same way. There is no one way to do this job, and each of us gets to figure out how we manage all of its competing demands. I believe strongly in supporting and mentoring new teachers, but I don’t believe that advice-giving is as critical as listening and—most importantly—navigating expectations.

Young and enthusiastic people enter the teaching profession because they typically share one or more of these characteristics:
  • They love kids.
  • They love school.
  • They love what they teach.

As the day-to-day pressures of the job begin to mount (and they mount with a vengeance in the first week), teachers can become distracted by those pressures in ways that can distort their original reasons for seeking these jobs in the first place.
  • “I love kids, but I didn’t know I was going to teach these kids. These kids aren’t like I was. What has happened to this new generation?”
  • “I loved school, but this school is a mess! They dump kids into classes they don’t want, they don’t punish discipline referrals harshly enough, and they don’t understand my lessons, as you can see from my evaluation.”
  • “I love teaching [insert: English/math/social studies/science/art/music/physical education/business/technology/world languages/special education/all of the above], but I don’t like these [insert: content standards/curricula/texts/recommended activities] from the school system.”

These perceptions are not the result of the Common Core State Standards or the millennial generation or allowing cell phones in schools or any other occurrence of the last 10 years. I have heard these same perceptions from new teachers every year since I first entered a public school as a student teacher back in 1989. They will be the same initial perceptions that new teachers have 25 years from now as well because, fundamentally, they result from the clash between the way we perceived school as children and the way we perceive it as adults.

Teachers can quickly become jaded by the realities of their adult experience in schools,
  • which leads to disillusionment,
  • which leads to a martyr complex,
  • which leads to seeing everything as an attack,
  • which leads to burnout,
  • which leads to leaving the profession.

This clash in perception is, in my experience, the most critical issue in new teacher support. Often, new teacher support involves brass-tacks advice on lesson planning, classroom management, and classroom setup. Those issues are, of course, important, but the central issue of expectations is the one I see playing the greatest role in whether new teachers last long enough to become veterans and certainly in whether they remain committed to those three original motivators.

Addressing the expectations issue head-on is the area I now focus on with new teachers. I see these negative perceptions dominate so many professional discussions with teachers of all ages: in the faculty lounge, in professional development sessions, in teacher posts on social media—it’s everywhere, and it’s toxic. Here’s how I try to detox the situation to keep new teachers enthusiastic, focused, and remaining true to those reasons that brought them in the door.

Motivation #1: They love kids.

The distortion: “I love kids, but I didn’t know I was going to teach these kids. These kids aren’t like I was. What has happened to this new generation?”

The mentor’s navigation: “Most kids struggle in school to varying extents in various areas. You, the teacher, probably picked your content area to teach because you have always loved it and have done well in it. Most of the kids you teach are not like you, and in school, you likely weren’t in the same classes with kids like them because you excelled in this stuff. That does not make kids who struggle ‘bad’ or ‘dumb.’ It makes them learners with needs, and your job as the teacher is to figure what those needs are. So let’s talk about their needs. Let’s look at their work and their behavior and see what we can do to help them and motivate them. This is the hardest part of teaching, and I am going to help you with it as much as you want me to help.”

Motivation #2: They loved school.

The distortion: “I loved school, but this school is a mess! They dump kids into classes they don’t want, they don’t punish discipline referrals harshly enough, and they don’t understand my lessons, as you can see from my evaluations.”

The mentor’s navigation: “Running a school is incredibly difficult, as difficult as managing a classroom. Everyone in this building got into this profession to make a difference with kids, so never assume that decisions are made out of laziness or bad priorities. School leaders have to make a million decisions a day, and you’re not going to like all of them. They sometimes have to make decisions on the fly and without all of the facts, just as we have to do in the classroom, so cut them a break. They also sometimes have more information than we have, so you need to trust their judgment in those cases. Advocate for the decisions you care about the most, let go of the ones that are not a big deal, and don’t view any of them as a conspiracy.

“I saw an immediate improvement in my dealings with my building and system leadership when I sought them out directly for advice and to ask questions. If you are a teacher who does not deal honestly and professionally with your leaders but then goes and talks trash about them with colleagues, you will always see your supervisors in a negative light, and you will always be unhappy in this job. Your relationship with your bosses is your responsibility. Make that relationship positive and productive, and come to them with solutions to problems, not complaints. And, let’s say you actually do work for an incompetent leader who behaves badly or unethically. Candor, tough as it is, is your only recourse then, too. But for now, which issue bothers you the most? Let’s figure out how you can approach our leaders about it professionally. I’ll help you as you much as you want me to help.”

Motivation #3: They love what they teach.

The distortion: “I love teaching [insert: English/math/social studies/science/art/music/physical education/business/technology/world languages/special education/all of the above], but I don’t like these [insert: content standards/curricula/texts/recommended activities].”

The mentor’s navigation: “Which of these instructional issues that trouble you is actually required of you to implement? What is it that bothers you? Does the requirement not meet your students’ needs? How do you know? Is the requirement new and makes you feel overwhelmed? Is it not the way you were taught or learned to teach? What’s the root of your discomfort? If you do not like the requirement because it involves change or contradicts what you thought you knew, then let’s get to the heart of it—maybe there’s merit to it that we don’t readily see. Maybe it is more valuable in some situations than others, or maybe it's total garbage, but let’s find out by really digging into it. If, however, the requirement is not meeting your students’ needs, and you have student work and other evidence that shows that, then let’s talk about how you can address that issue with your school or system leadership.

“Or, maybe you have a plan for instruction that does not fit the system model but that you think could make a difference. Let’s figure out to whom and how you should propose that idea. From my experience, new ideas with evidence supporting them are typically welcomed by most educators. You can’t lose by asking to try something new and being honest about it. Leaders may not go for it, and it may not work, but trying to do the right thing is always the right thing to do. Being sneaky, trying to undermine the system program, or sitting in your room feeling persecuted will rarely meet any professional objective that you have for your students and will always leave you feeling miserable. So let’s avoid those options in favor of open action one way or another. I’ll help you with that as much as you want me to help.”

I am on record in believing that remaining positive in a tough job is 100% my responsibility and my choice, but that is not the pervasive attitude among the members of my profession or any other profession. Most folks—in the name of being supportive—empathize with negative attitudes without showing people who are new to the profession how to navigate them. This inadvertently fosters negative attitudes throughout the work environment and promotes a toxic professional culture. Day-to-day, pragmatic support concerning grades and parent contacts and faculty meetings and such is appropriate and fairly easy to do, but it doesn’t address the perception issue that is our biggest problem with turnover.

I’ve seen some destructive approaches to new teacher mentorship over the years:
  • The “Here’s how to do everything the way I did it” mentor
  • The “Here’s how not to get fired” mentor
  • The “Here’s how to be sneaky and subvert authority” mentor
  • The "No, seriously, kid--get out while you can" mentor

All of those models are flawed because, as with those new parents, new teachers deserve the respect of having time and space to learn. More importantly, these approaches do not address our key issues in teacher retention: perception and resiliency.

It’s a new school year. We can enter it with dread and feeling persecuted and whining about it, or we can view it as a chance to remember what brought us into the profession in the first place:
  • We love kids.
  • We love school.
  • We love what we teach.

Both whiny dread and focused positivity take equal amounts of energy to implement, but only one will sustain not only new teachers but also veterans ourselves. Perception is reality for most folks, and we have the power to change our perception each day and, thus, change our reality.

This is a tough job, but we are just as tough when we choose to be. Helping teachers to feel a sense of control over that job is our most critical role as mentors but is also the kindest thing we can do for ourselves. Like those sweet young parents, we’re all learning, and we’ll figure it out. We need more than advice and a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes, we need help steering; we need to get back home; we need a perception GPS. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

One Step Up, Two Steps Back: A Fewer-Than-15-Steps Guide to a Budget Crisis

I have enjoyed the time off from writing budget blogs. I finished my submission to renew my National Board Certification, and my husband and I glammed up the yard for the North East Women’s Civic League’s annual Secret Garden Tour (an event that supports literacy efforts in the county, including one of my favorite public services, the public library). I had hoped that, because the County Executive has done the right thing in her budget proposal, the County Council would do the right thing as well. That has not happened yet, so, to quote Shakespeare, once more into the breach!

It’s easy to be cynical about government and politics. Most of the public assigns nasty motives to nearly everything that elected officials do. I am not cynical about government or politics. This spring’s county budget debate has shown us officials with integrity and a willingness to change.  Nonetheless, the fight is not over, and some officials still need convincing.

Here’s a timeline of sorts to explain our current situation and why taking action in the next two days is critical.

Step 1:
For the past several years, we had a dysfunctional County Council that not only engaged in embarrassingly unprofessional public shenanigans but also put our community on a perilous financial course. Their driving force was a philosophy that encouraged the consumption of public services without a willingness to pay for them.

Step 2:
Last year, tired of that Council’s hijinks, the political party that claims them cleaned house during primary season with a slate of new candidates for most of those seats who were purportedly more logical, more professional, and more reasonable in their approach to our civic concerns than the people they replaced.

Step 3:
Thus, with our new County Executive, our new Strategic Plan, and our new Council, voters (citizens of both parties) who had tired of that previously mortifying style of governance rejoiced that perhaps we would see a new type of government that responded to the public’s concerns and would conduct public business with professionalism, reason, and decorum.

Step 4:
The January 2015 budget forum alerted the public services that, at least in terms of county finances, the old mentality of “all public spending = bad; all tax cuts = good” still reigned supreme at the county building. Motivated by that awareness, advocates for those public services (advocates for the public schools and the public library being the most numerous) began an unprecedented public campaign of emails, letters, phone calls, and social media platforms to remind our public officials that we believed they are now in office to change that approach.

Step 5:
Those advocacy groups began putting forth as much factual information as possible concerning the current crisis in all areas. The public schools, in particular, demonstrated not only their significant financial need but also that they have done more to streamline costs (see page 44), especially in major cost areas such as energy use and employee benefits, than any other facet of the county budget. Each serious issue in these departments was directly caused by the inadequate funding provided by the previous County Council, and only additional funding from that same body would begin to turn those problems around.

[For the Angry Ones at the May 12 budget forum who bemoaned “throwing money at the school problem,” here’s the thing about cause and effect: problems that are created by a lack of money require money to fix them.]

Step 6:
At the County Council’s budget forum in March, each of those five members promised not to cut the education budget once they received it (whatever it was to be) from the County Executive.

Step 7:
In April, the County Executive submitted her budget to the Council. In it, she did not give any public service (including the schools) everything that it requested. Instead, she compromised. She tried to address the most urgent crises and proposed a 2% increase in property taxes to pay for those serious needs.

[Readers of this blog may remember that I supported a 10-11% tax increase in my last budget post to address these concerns, an increase that would have amounted to the cost of two movie tickets a month for the average family. Her tax increase involves merely 4 movie tickets per household for the entire year (approximately $55 a year). Her proposal is a clear attempt to address the serious financial issues that the previous Council bestowed on public services without trying to solve them all in one budget cycle. This is not the work of a “tax and spend liberal,” as the Angry Ones have attempted to spin it. Given our county history, I can see why those citizens may not be able to recognize it, but this is a centrist approach; this is what a compromise looks like.]

Step 8:
The priorities in the County Executive’s budget clearly  address real and immediate needs regarding our most serious community concerns. All of the public services are necessary to address any of those problems involving public safety and health, crime, drug abuse, and boosting the economy: schools, libraries, law enforcement, public health, parks, and even the county government itself. Thus, because this budget request was so incredibly reasonable, naturally the Angry Ones lost their minds.

Step 9:
The voices that got us into this mess have been unwilling to compromise and unwilling to admit their responsibility for how bad things are. All of the public services knew that the County Executive’s budget did not address everything that it needed to, but they acknowledged that it was a step in the right direction. The Angry Ones, though, still—unbelievably still—seem to have many Council members’ ears and are driving the debate.

Step 10:
In response to the Angry Ones, several County Council members have threatened to turn their backs not only on that vow not to cut school funding (only Mrs. Bowlsbey has remained steadfast in her promise to date) but also to be more logical and reasonable voices in county government. They are not only suggesting cutting the public services to abolish the 2% tax increase; they also (and I cannot believe I am typing this statement) are suggesting cutting even more from the budget possibly to cut taxes AGAIN to appease the tax-fetishist Angry Ones.

Their list of proposed cuts has changed from day to day and has involved everything from renovation of dangerous school tennis courts to maintenance on county AED machines (they decided to fund the AEDs, at least for now, by cutting money that would have led to long-term savings on the overall budget, further evidence that none of these cuts should be happening--and can you believe that those tennis courts and AED machines were ever on the chopping block?). Note that public safety issues are on the line here. This is no joke. If you want to hear how alarming these discussions have become, listen to the audiotape of the last session. One hopes that the Council will see that if they have to cut items such as these to appease their least civic-minded citizens, perhaps appeasing those citizens is not the right thing to do.

Step 11:
In further steps toward financial insolvency, the Council does not want to keep the tax rate at the constant yield. The constant yield is the process by which a government ensures that its tax calculation is in line with current property values so that the government can assure that it is bringing in at least as much revenue this year as it did last year. The Council’s rejection of this calculation is the equivalent of your family trying to plan for next year’s budget with the same or additional expenses while knowing that you will be bringing in less money than the year before. It is one of the most irresponsible financial moves that a municipality can make.

Step 12:
The Angry Ones’ campaign has been aided by members of our local media (who have underreported the number of public services advocates at budget forums and have posted patently false, intentionally misleading, and stunningly misinformed editorials depicting the public schools as the villain in this situation). The Angry Ones, despite their small numbers and despite their culpability in creating this situation, continue to hold major political sway with our officials. Why is that? They have not earned that.

Step 13:
Citizens who are outraged (as they should be) by this situation and have sent emails to the Council in that vein are receiving responses from several County Council members that increasingly have the tone of “How dare you challenge the Council on this?”. We dare because we care and because you are, after all, public officials.

Step 14:
The Council has stated that it will vote on their budget proposal on Tuesday, June 2. From the publicly available information, two possible agendas appear to be the most likely. Both of them involve maintaining the same mindset of the previous Council members.

  • Bad idea #1: “We need everything in this budget, and we promised not to cut the schools, but everyone is mad at us, so we should cut them, too, even though we all know that is a terrible idea because our latest list of cuts is clearly dangerous.”
  • Bad idea #2: “We need everything in this budget, but the Angry Ones have threatened to vote us out of office if they don’t get a tax cut, so we better cut more than the $2 million tax increase even though the long-term consequences of that action will be devastating across the board because our ideas for cuts make absolutely no sense.”

If either of these scenarios becomes the final outcome, I challenge anyone to tell me how this budget situation is significantly different than if we had not elected new Council members last year.

Here’s the good news (there actually is good news): The Council does not have to decide any of this on June 2. They have until June 15, at which point, if the Council has not passed their own plan, the County Executive’s budget automatically becomes law. They have several options that can (at least initially) save the day, save face, and save their political careers.

  • Good idea #1: The Council can vote to support the County Executive’s budget in its entirety. They can state publicly that they are standing up to the Angry Ones at last, standing up to that outdated bullying mindset, to do the right thing. The Council would be heroes to the majority of Cecil County voters.
  • Good idea #2: The Council can vote for the County Executive’s budget by casting her (and those of us who have been vocal about advocacy for public services) as the villain: “Hey, we don’t like this situation, but she started it, and now the public outcry is so bad that we have to send it through. Boy, we just hate this so much, but the public has spoken. Did you see the budget forum at Elkton High when 80% of the audience stood up to show support for public schools and libraries? Dude, that scared us. We audibly gasped. We’re surrounded.” The County Executive gave the Council the political cover they needed to do the right thing. It was a further sign of her integrity and her leadership. It was remarkable. It was a gift. It is difficult to believe that they would not accept that gift.
  • Good idea #3: The Council can debate and hand-wring and throw tantrums and be nasty (as they did last week) right up until June 15, and then let that date pass. They can let the County Executive’s budget go into effect. The Council takes little blame for the budget (“We just couldn’t agree on what to cut” or “I wanted to get a tax cut through but just couldn’t get the votes”), and they can take the credit for the county not falling apart to a greater extent on their watch this year.

County Executive Tari Moore has shown a determination not to go down the same disturbing road again. Her budget was not everything I wanted for our community (if you read this blog, you know that), but she did what she could in the name of doing the right thing (despite enormous pressure from you-know-who), and she listened to the public. The tone-deafness to public opinion that several Council members have shown in the aftermath of her proposal is of great concern. How are we stuck in this place again?

I’ll close with three things that this budget cycle has shown us that the County Council cannot do:
  • The Council cannot put us into an even worse financial situation (bad ideas 1 and 2) and think that we are going to let them get away with it. The Angry Ones aren’t the only ones who are loud now, and we outnumber them. Brace yourselves.
  • The Council cannot pretend that tax cuts and not paying for public services are part of the Strategic Plan. Too many people have read that document now.
  • The Council cannot continue to pit various public services against each other in a cynical attempt to dodge responsibility for this mess. Their public statements have motivated all public services to be more vocal in the budget debate.

Readers, time is running out.
  1. Email County Executive Tari Moore and tell her that you respect her use of logic, reason, and responsiveness to make decisions. She’s a leader. Let’s show her that we know that.
  2. Email Joyce Bowlsbey and thank her for remaining steadfast on public education and not cowering to pressure from the Angry Ones. Tell her to stay strong—tell her that you have her back.
  3. Email Mr. Hodge, Mr. Patchell, Mr. McCarthy, and Mr. Schneckenberger and let them know how much you value Cecil County, how much you value public services, how much you value leadership, and how much you hope they will change this annual budget dynamic. Ask them to fund the County Executive’s budget. Ask them to do the right thing, and let them know that you will support them in the next election if they move (and continue to move) in the right direction.

We have the power to fix this situation, Cecil County, but silence is not the way to do it. Please--I'm begging you--act now.  

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