Wednesday, December 19, 2012

School Safety?

In the wake of the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut I haven't felt like writing much.  Being responsible for an elementary building & it's students safety, as well as having small children of my own in school made sleep fairly evasive this past Friday.  Further, I wasn't so sure the prevailing news in our field made silly stories about school life or bitches about educational policy particularly appropriate.

There's obviously been a lot of reaction and emotion offered up in response to this tragedy in schools nationwide.  We've seen a lot more police around my school, and we've added additional supervision and intensified focus on our end to reassure our families that our school is a safe place for children.

Yesterday, I attended our regular administrative meeting.  We talked about the climate at our respective schools and the various reactions we'd encountered in the days following the shooting.  Different principals and central office administrators began sharing ideas they had to increase safety and hopefully prevent a similar massacre from ever occurring at one of our schools.

I heard a suggestion that bullet proof glass be installed.  One principal suggested we 'buzz' guests into a holding area and make them identify their intentions through a glass window.  Panic buttons.  Classroom doors locked at all times. Armed officers for each building.  Etc. Etc. Etc.

Below is a picture of one of the weapons used in the tragedy.  This isn't a blog on gun control.  Those discussions are appropriate for some other conversation.  For purposes of operating a school, if someone has one of those guns, and is motivated to cause harm, they're going to be successful.

School leaders need to be careful not to be overly reactionary to this unspeakable tragedy.  Bars, bullet proof glass, and restrictions on other freedoms in the name of safety do not solve or prevent what happened.  Most of the previous school shootings were carried out by students who walked right through the door without any trouble.

Presuming every parent, maintenance worker, delivery person, or other guest who comes to our doors may be there to do evil or kill is unhealthy, unfair, and fails to model for children how civilized adults behave.  It's bad for community, and again, doesn't prevent a motivated murderer from entering a school.  

My prayers and thoughts continue to be directed towards the grieving community of Newtown.  I applaud President Obama for his touching speech Sunday night and look forward to hearing what his preventative plan will be.

Till then, hug and love your kids.  Take reasonable precautions to keep kids safe.  A seat belt is a reasonable precaution.  Refusing to only ride in a tank in case a collision occurs isn't.  The same goes for our schools.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Embarrassing Moments In Potassium Source History

Oddly enough since I came from a fairly populated area, I only had one student teacher my entire school career as a student- Peter Hall.

Mr. Hall took over my junior year high school health class.  He wasn't particularly talented and my guess is he did not receive a passing grade for his efforts (as I plodded through my own student teaching I thought about Peter Hall quite a bit).  As a class (and I can only speak for my 48 minutes a day with him), we were awful to him.  Since we were juniors were both naturally cool  (in our minds) and super big pricks (in everyone else's).  We smelled blood on this goof and went for the kill daily.  

The ultimate low moment started when it was time for the boys and girls to separate.  The cooperating teacher (a female) took the girls and we were left with Mr. Hall.  His task was to demonstrate how to put on a condom.  This kind of shit is awkward enough on it's own, but Mr. Hall producing a banana to serve as his model erection probably didn't help things.

Things went from awkward to pathetically embarrassing real quick.  We sat their silently watching poor Peter Hall.  He stood at the front of the room fumbling and struggling... to get the rubber out of the package.  Ouch.

I gotta tell you... it really killed the mood.....

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Million Dollar Smile

Phillip is a highly autistic (academically low) 5th grader in our school.  He's high quirky, but well liked by his classmates and teachers.  The problem with Phillip was that his teeth looked like he'd been smoking a pack of Marlboro's a day since birthday.  They were yellow.  Phillip was afraid of the dentist and refused to go.

Phillip's teacher and the teaching assistant who worked in Phillip's classroom began to show Phillip daily "BrainPop" videos on going to the dentist (BrainPop is a website that offers short educational videos), as well reading with him short informational picture books on going to dentist.

After a couple weeks of this, Phillip agreed to go get his teeth cleaned.  He came back the next next excited as could be, showing his (noticeably) whiter teeth to anyone with at least one good eye.  Phillip's parents were extremely grateful for the help.      

This tale represents another issue I have with the continued practice of measuring educators performance, talent, and efforts based off of test scores.  Where will Phillip's teacher's success in getting a frightened boy, way overdue for a cleaning, to the dentist?  How will this obvious teaching success be measured?

Phillip will not pass standardized tests.  Ever.  I can only assume that this teacher will be reminded by some district savior of the high standards they need to maintain with special education students and then handed a series of charts which shows what everyone already knew- Phillip is low and behind grade level.  It's possible under some administrations that if knowledge of the teacher's actions were known he might be reprimanded for deviating for the districts curriculum (Rigor! Rigor! Rigor!).

Formative testing information provide schools with some clues to help drive instructional decisions.  However, anyone who actually works inside a school understands that the variables that affect these tests outcomes are too numerous and unique in nature to begin listing.  Measuring a teachers and schools on student performance data alone is irresponsible, bad for moral, and bad for community.  So why again are we spending roughly 1/3 of the year in American schools prepping & administering standardized assessments?

Friday, November 30, 2012

"The Talk"

So everybody hates the sex talk day, right?  Students and staff are equally uncomfortable as they together cover periods, erections, why you need deodorant, pimples, etc. all usually narrated by someone whose voice would lead you to believe they are molester of some variety.  It's a day few look forward to.

Believe me, I fully support teaching this material.  When I was growing up the landscapers ran over a page from a nudie magazine that must have blown into the field.  When recess came around, we found several shredded one inch pieces of paper with various female body parts exposed.  If the Holy Grail were sitting out in the same field we would have fully ignored.  My shredded one inch half-nipple shot combined what I learned in the back of bus route #7 from Jeff Hagmann who had an older brother who had apparently experienced some things marked my sex education outside what school provided.  With the Internet making sexual material as accessible as ever before, guidance from school is probably more important than half the shit we waste time on (who cares what the state capitals are... Google it if you want to know!).

This year, as always, we piled our nervous adolescent fifth graders onto a bus and took them to a center which handles a portion of the days teaching.  The boys and girls are divided up when they arrive.  Each group is shown a video about puberty, sexual reproduction, 'you may begin to show interest in the opposite sex', etc.  At one point the video mentioned that 'as you begin to grow up, you may experience wet dreams' and continued on to offer some explanation.

When the movie ended, the presenter said the all important words- "Are there any questions?"  Crickets.  There never are.  The students are just too uncomfortable to ask.  But then a hand went up from one of the sweetest, kindest students in the grade.

"So, if I start having dreams about oceans, that means I'm growing up right?"

Oh, boy....

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Say Hello To My Little Friend

Several years back my school got a family from Egypt.  There were twin first grade girls, and a brother who was entering sixth grade.  Neither the parents nor the little girls spoke any English.  The 6th grade brother spoke some English and was responsible for registering all three students, as well all future communication with the school (he translated at all three parent-teacher conferences later that year).  Traditional homework advocates would no doubt suggest that these children be held to same standard of work after hours as their peers despite gaping circumstantial differences, but I won't get on that soap box today...

The brother moved on to junior high after completing that year, but the twins stayed with us.  The girls were identical twins and the parents made it further challenging on the world by naming them Marla and Marva respectively.  I'll admit I had no idea which girl was which.  When I'd see one of them, I'd use 'sweetie' or 'honey' or 'Ms. lastname' (as they got older) to address them when we passed in the halls to mask the fact that even after several years of attendance in my relatively small school I still didn't know which one was which.

Further, I knew nothing about these girls beyond that they were both a disaster on the standardized tests all educators seemingly get judged by (certainly not their fault, I'd fair no better on Egyptian standardized tests). The girls acquired English speaking skills impressively fast but were quiet (never in trouble).  The parents never learned to speak English.  Unlike our Spanish speaking families where we offer everything translated and translation services for all school events, nothing of the sort was ever offered for this family (the older brother continued to return for conferences which was usually the only time we saw them).  I can't say the girls 'slipped through the cracks' because we did support them through RtI and bilingual services, yet in some other undefinable way, they probably did.

The girls are now in 6th grade.  Their teacher recently gave them the writing prompt, "My school is great because _________ (I know, really hard hitting stuff here.. ugh)."  One of the girls (again, I don't even know which one) wrote, "My school is great because the principal always says hello to me." and went on to craft a paper around it.

Wow.  My initial reaction was relief with a touch of pride that I'd done this (I work pretty hard to greet all students regularly).  But as I further reflected, this was another reminder that as an adult (particularly as a principal) I am totally clueless about the influence I have.  Any pride I had shifted to feelings of guilt and shame.  I'd never chatted with these girls, I knew nothing about them personally... shit, I didn't even know their damn names!  All I knew about them was that they didn't pass standardized tests and came they came from another country.  Shame on me.

Luckily for me, this time at least, time hadn't run out.  I make a major effort these days to talk up the twins when I see them.  They light up like a damn Christmas tree if I spend fifteen seconds BSing with them.

There's a reality here.  It's awfully tough (particularly for administration and middle/high school teachers with 5 or 6 classes) to get to know every single kid in the school personally (especially when they don't reach out to you).  But this tale should serve as a reminder that even minor adult-student interactions can have major impact.  It's a reminder that human relationships are a better means to improving learning than computers and textbooks.  It's a reminder that kids are more than their often meaningless test scores.   It's a reminder we all matter.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween?

So this year, the decision was made to schedule a full day teacher institute day on Halloween.  The rationale to staff and parents was to the point- 'we do not want to lose additional instructional time.' There would be no student attendance, no parties, no candy, and no make up dates.  Halloween has always pretty much been a wasted day since the kids were too excited to focus and then the afternoon was taken up with class parties (at the elementary level).  Since we have to have institute days, why not schedule one on a day that's already shot?

As both a teacher and an administrator, I hate Halloween.  The kids are indeed nuts that day.  Students bring replica weapons to school (no matter how many reminders you give them).  The fake blood gets more graphic each year.  Girls, of all ages, find ways to turn any costume into the prostitute variety.  All the treats are a headache for the person responsible for making sure all food allergies are accounted for (who is ironically never the same person with the food allergy).

But it's not about me!  The parties and the treats aren't for the teachers any more than playground equipment is.  It's supposed to be about kids!

Are we starting to take ourselves a little too seriously here?  I mean, we are really beginning to buy our own bullshit. I understand all the expectations.  I am aware of the cut scores I need to get students to reach in order to validate my professional existence   And yet, I still see nothing wrong with having a 15 minute parade where mom can take a picture of her seven year old dressed up at school.  Shame on us for allowing this to happen.  

I don't think I'm being a romantic here.  Efficient use of time is something I'm all for.  Yet I find it interesting that the same people who kicked Halloween out in order to maximize instructional time summarily ignore the data which evidences how much learning is lost taken endless tests.

Perhaps I'm making a bigger deal out of this than it's worth.  But I remember my holiday parties as a young kid and they marked some of the calendar highlights growing up.  With the volume of poor families and broken homes on the rise, one could argue these parties are more important than ever.  I guess I just have a hard time believing that eliminating parties and replacing them with more RtI testing (or whatever) helps create "life long learners"....

Thursday, October 25, 2012

One Of The Greatest Lessons I Ever Learned

My circumstances for entering administration from the classroom were fairly unique.  I resigned my teaching post at a middle school midyear and took over an assistant principal position that had opened due to a termination in a different district.

The school I worked at was a fairly tough urban school which certainly had it's share of problems.  The number of students who came from crappy home lives certainly made up the majority.  I was hard teacher, a rule enforcer, and I didn't take a lot of crap (in retrospect, I wish I done many things differently).  Over time administration started giving me more and more behavior kids. I assumed this was because I could handle them.

I was also the school's boys basketball coach.  As a result of this role, there were frequent days where the team would have to leave before the end of the school day to get to our travel destination on time.  This often meant I would miss my last class or two of the day and be replaced with a substitute teacher.  Every time I would announce to the class that I would be absent the next day because of coaching and they'd have a sub, the whole class would cheer.  Obviously, I was not a well liked teacher.

So, on the Monday that I announced that the coming Friday would be my final day as their teacher...that it would be the final day I would be in the halls to yell at them to get to class... that I wouldn't be back next year... that I would be gone forever... I expected a huge celebration to begin.  But it didn't.

Those punk junior high aged kids were silent.  A few began to cry.  I was unprepared for this.  I had prepared my own ego to brace itself for the reaction of joy when I announced I was leaving.  I never considered it from the other side.

I wasn't an unpopular teacher.  Kids just don't often have the emotional maturity at that age to let it be known otherwise.  At the end of a school year kids are excited to be out, assume you'll be back next year, and they'll at some point see you again.  There's closure.  This was different.  Not only was it made clear as I announced to each class throughout the day that the students were upset by my decision, it also became increasingly apparent that particularly in this community, I had just become another adult to walk out them.  I hadn't lived up to my end of the bargain.  Many of these kids were used to their parents being deadbeats, but their teacher?  That wasn't supposed to happen.

On my final day, virtually everyone of my roughly 150 8th graders returned to my room after the last bell of the day to give me a hug or shake my hand- many of them with tears in their eyes.  It was an extremely heavy life moment and one that wasn't wasted on me.  I did matter as a teacher.  Through all the bull shit initiatives, the classroom management battles, the boring lessons I taught with not enough creativity, my students still appreciated me being their teacher.  I didn't realize it until I only had five days left as a classroom teacher.  I was lucky to have this unique moment.  I wonder how many teachers go through their entire career never aware of their importance.        

As I've moved through my career, I've learned to no longer react to what comes out of an upset child's mouth, and I try to remember this with my own children.  I urge all of you who are educators, coaches, or parents to try and remember it as well. Kids deserve that much.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Another Reason Homework Sucks

This past April I had written a post which focused on the problems with 'traditional' graded homework.  There was a particular emphasis for lower income families.  This particular blog has consistently been one of the more read submissions I've had.  There has been a wonderfully large number of fellow educators who have shared their agreement with the pieces message in many ways.

BUT- the article has also drawn it's fair share of criticism (FYI- I really appreciate all the professional dialogue- agree or disagree- this is how we grow).  Particularly from those who accuse my stance on homework as being one that lowers the standard for low income children (it doesn't).  The ability for students of different to complete homework is certainly one of it's issues, but the fact that it confuses what's supposed to be measuring is also a problem.  This problem extends to all students of all backgrounds.

About a year ago I was chatting with a parent who had just left her 5th grade son's parent/teacher conference.  This was a wonderful parent who had several children in our school.  She was on the PTO board, active at school events, sought tutoring when struggles arose, etc.

I asked her how the conference went.  She said fine, laughed, and then went into a story about a little argument her and her son got into over a topic for an upcoming project.  "I told him- I'm picking the topic because I'm going to wind up doing the whole thing, just like I did in 4th grade!"

Here is an educated, supportive parent who thinks it is okay to tell the principal she is doing her son's work!  Why wouldn't she?  Parents 'helping' their kids do their work (particularly on large projects) has always been viewed as good parenting.  Someone who gets the same help on the school bus from a buddy risks being penalized for academic dishonesty... Hmmm...

A grade is supposed to be a measure of what a child had learned over a given time period.  Great teachers know what their students know and don't know, and allow that information to drive their instruction and advance learning.  The grade for this particular boy's projects will not necessarily reflect his knowledge on the subject.  His grade for the class is no longer accurate.  As Rick Wormeli often says, "You cannot knowingly falsify a child's grade."  Isn't that what we do when we send out homework assignments with no really ability to know who completed them, or with what supports?  From your own schooling, did you ever recall getting through a class by getting the homework done but still struggled on the tests where you supposed to evidence your overall learning?  Is our focus on the learning or on the compliance of completing work?

I'm not proposing lowering standards for anyone.  Nor am I proposing we don't send things home with children to practice.  Students should do independent reading, math fact practice, and other learning reinforcements on most nights.  However, it shouldn't be held against (or for...) their total grade.  They shouldn't be berated in the hallway if it wasn't completed because we can't be sure we know the reasons why, and it shouldn't take the student 5 hours (or anywhere close) to complete it.

Academic rigor should be present in every classroom, and for every child.  Each child, regardless of background, should be held to a high target within their ability range.  A student's grade should be a reflect this.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It's The Little Things That Piss Me Off

Impossible mandates, crazy parents, bullying (or the aforementioned crazy parents belief that every unpleasant second of their child's day constitutes bullying...)... Sure those things are job irritants.  But it's the little things, the day-to-day things, that really drive me nuts.  Do I have bigger problems?  You bet.  Right now though, I'm not worrying about them.

It's 2012.  Time To Master Sending An E-Mail

I'm sure many of us have some good one's for this.  The worst culprits are the 'reply to all' folks.  This wouldn't be such an annoyance if it weren't the same handful of dumb asses every time.  They e-mail the entire building their vote for the soda machine just to make sure we all of have an extra dozen emails to plod through at the end of the day. These are also usually the same people who e-mail the whole district with the forwards about puppies being killed if no one adopts them, or pictures of cats with crabby faces just to lighten those Mondays we all hate.

Who doesn't also love the people who simply cannot send an e-mail with the attachment on the first try.  Then we get the second e-mail with the cute apology, "Oops!  Would help if I actually attached it!!! :)"

Heaven Isn't Too Far Away

"How are you?" isn't always meant as a literal question in American culture.  Of course, not everyone gets this.  Virtually every place I've ever worked has a minimum of one person who seems to be dying a little more each day- and wants everyone to know about it.  The simple mistake of throwing out the old, "How are you?" results in being trapped into hearing about upcoming surgeries, out-of-control allergies, migraines, etc. (knee brace companies making a killing on this group).  Information about sick family members and pets is never too far away either.  These people usually take every single allotted sick day every year, but never actually resign or die. I currently have a woman working for me who if I'm scoring at home, has had every organ other than her skin removed.  That's scheduled for July I believe.   

The Days Of The Week People

Schools are made up of hallways which all staff pass through each day.  As an administrator, I find myself moving through the halls more than most staff, and as I result I walk past staff many times each day.  For some reason, many staff members are apparently uncomfortable without saying anything to the person they're passing.  A friendly 'good morning' works as the day begins, but I don't see the need to greet the same person 5 times a day.  Apparently others do- and they seem to default to making a comment about the day of the week.

"Boy I hate Mondays! (insert lame office place smile)... "This weeks half over!"... and my personal favorite "TGIF!  Right?!"  These are the same people who you pray you don't get stuck talking to at that party your wife is making you go to.  People who have nothing to say, but insisting on saying something anyway.

This Coffee Cake Is DELICIOUS! 

Teachers are eaters.  I've never worked at a school that didn't hunt for reason to cater food, bake, or organize a pot luck.  Let me re-state that- they hunt for a reason to eat on days other than Friday which is already an assumed eating day.

On any of the events, the teachers lounge quickly becomes engulfed in egg casseroles, yogurts, pre-cut fruit and cheese trays, coffee cakes, and anything that has zero calories and tons of aspartame.  Staff snack a little together and then begin their day... but not everyone....

Every staff has at least  one person who can be found back in the lounge at all points in the day picking at the left overs (usually a teaching assistant...).  When they are walked in on, mouth stuffed, frosting on the sides of their mouth, they'll usually comment on how wonderful the food is and how they just had to have one more bite (instead of working with kids).  Repeat next Friday.

The Defilers 

Look.  We all have to go to the bathroom sometime.  Most schools have multiple staff washrooms.  Yet for some reason, there is always a couple staff members who have no problem heading to the washroom closest to the teacher's lounge, during lunch time (highest traffic point of the day), and taking a huge stinky crap.  Of course, no one will go in there afterward.  Not only because the scent is bending the mirror, but also because they're afraid that if they are seen walking out, they'll be blamed for producing an odor which induces small seizures.  You want to eat at Applebee's on a school night?  Hey, it's your colon.  Go find another toilet to destroy.  Oh, and thanks for the two spritzes of air freshener.  Who doesn't enjoy the scent of human shit in a pine tree?

Isn't it odd these are all usually the same person/people...?


Monday, October 1, 2012

Are You Happy?

As the king sat on his throne this weekend, I glanced at the reading options available and saw an interesting thing.  On the spine of my wife's Real Simple magazine was a quote: "There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do."- Freya Stark (Stark was a British travel writer who died about 20 years ago).  As I pondered the quote, I recalled one of my favorite quotes from baseball Hall-of-Fame baseball player Ernie Banks: "You must try and generate happiness within yourself.  If you aren't happy in one place, chances are you won't be happy any place."

The field of education seems to be sitting right in the middle of these statements.

Professional education is under siege in manners never before seen.  Poorly thought out federal, state, and sometimes local mandates drive classroom behaviors.  Data no longer drives decision making, rather is being twisted and bastardized to the point where common sense is routinely ignored.  Our students often feel like political chess pieces.  It's hard to believe in teaching and working this way, and I see the unhappiness on the faces of my staff on a regular basis.  That stings.

But this remains a wonderful profession, and one worth fighting for.  It remains a profession whose impact on our culture is immeasurable (though I'm sure someone is trying...).  Accountability isn't unreasonable under correct parameters, and it's undeniable that the experts in the field have uncovered new information that can advance our skills and results.  Teachers & administrators cannot be unreasonable about all new thinking.  When teachers refuse to budge on any departures from 1950's style schooling, they only reinforce unfair stereotypes on the profession.   It wasn't all better back than.

So while I agree that it's hard to be happy living out political mandates that inspire unimaginative schooling routines only created to win on high stakes exams, I choose to be happy in my profession anyway.   Kids deserve this.  When I walk around schools and see the disgust on teacher's faces due to unhappiness with the way of world, it sends such a terrible and transparent message to the students who sit before them.  If we want our  district and political leaders to consider how their actions ultimately affect kids, then let's model this at the building level where it's the right thing to do anyway.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Lord Of The Rings

Buses are a nightmare for school administrators.  They're unsupervised other than the individual driving whose main focus is (or should be...) the road.  Drivers have zero training with kids (a fact that usually evidences itself several times throughout the year), and typically their management bag of tricks is filled with one strategy- yelling (note: if you are a teacher and this is your only management strategy, it might be time to think about a new line of work...).

It's not uncommon for my days to open with parent phone calls or visits complaining about what their child reported upon coming home.  Most of these issues are easily taken care of with simple student conferences, but occasionally more serious issues present themselves.

Recently I had a mother of one of our students come in shortly after the day had begun.  She was very upset indicating her fifth grade son Allen (who was a great kid) had been attacked on the bus by a student 'wearing lots of rings' and that his face was 'all cut up.'  Apparently the boy had texted his mom from the bus prompting the visit.  Normally I would have been a little suspect, but Allen was such a great kid I figured there was some truth to the matter.  I promised mom I would get to the bottom of things and she left.

My mind was soaring all over the place.  As I sat waiting for Allen to get to my office to talk I was imagining scenes from The Outsiders or kids carrying brass knuckles and other terrible visions of violence involving rings.

When Allen got to my office he indeed did have a scratch on a portion of his lower cheek.  It wasn't anything that needed to be treated and his head certainly had been split open by a fist full of metal the way his mother had led me to possibly believe when she hurled out words like 'assaulted.'

Allen and I talked.  He said he'd 'accidentally' elbowed the other boy who in turn hit him and scratched him with his rings.  When I asked him who had done this, he said he didn't know the boys name but that he was in third grade and had a Star Wars backpack.  A third grader?  

It didn't require much investigating to find out the boys name and have him summoned my office to join us.  When the kid walked in, the first thing I did was ask him to show me his hands.

Sure enough his right hand had three rings on them.  Two were of Spiderman and the third was of Darth Vader   All three were made of cheap plastic and had come from the top of birthday cupcakes someone had passed out to the class at some point.

Bloods and Crips this was not.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mystery No. 2

There's few things worse about being an administrator then having to ask another person to clean up human shit.  I've worked with enough custodians and they can see it in your eyes when you approach to break the news.  "It's shit isn't it?"

The bathroom can be a nightmare for schools as it's the only location on campus that generally isn't under direct adult supervision at all times.  Cameras can't be used like on a bus. The boys bathroom at an elementary school is often even tougher sledding because of the usual lack of male teachers.  Of course, the kids know this.  For this reason, the bathrooms make logical points for fighting, dealing drugs, sharing answers, and of course, creating misadventures in with number twos.

A few years back in one of our bathrooms in the primary wing of the elementary school we started finding a healthy size log in the urinal every day.  Nothing is worse than when it's smeared and played with (which also usually signals serious psychological issues), but again, I'm not the one cleaning it up.  When you start having daily 'hey can you clean up the crap' chats with your day custodian you better keep their service in mind when Christmas comes around.

Day after day, log after log, the ordeal carried on.  We watched for it, had full staff meetings about the mad shitter, developed plans to strategically monitor the bathroom, charted times of day we discovered the poos, and reminded students of expected behavior.  So much for academic focus.  

It had become my habit to walk into the particular bathroom that was getting hit anytime I passed it throughout the day at this point.  Finally after nearly two weeks of daily 'surprises', I walked into the bathroom to see one of the cuter kids in the school, a little first grader, propped up on the urinal passing his cafeteria roast beef.  "Hi Principal!" he excitedly said as he continued his business.  He had no idea he was even doing anything wrong.

Asking your custodian to clean up this kind of mess sucks, but having to call a boy's father and alert him that his six year old son doesn't know how to take a dump in public is no picnic either.  The father was a fairly even mixture of embarrassed and pissed.  He wanted his son to clean toilets as punishment (no no no...), but also produced a number of laughable excuses like the stalls are too high (the urinals are higher...), too loud when they flush, etc.  Truth was, no one had ever explained to this poor kid what the different plumbing options were for.  He didn't have a urinal at home so this was novel.

Sadly, after we thought we had this mystery solved, the kid kept doing it for a couple more days (more tough custodial chats, more embarrassing phone calls to Dad...).  Eventually we developed a plan where a staff member had to enter the bathroom, watch the kid go into the stall, then exit and stand outside till he was done, and then re-enter the bathroom and check the scene.  I'm happy to report though that several years from the event that the student is doing well and using the shitter properly.  It's the little victories that sometimes matter the most....

Friday, September 7, 2012

Not Everyone Is Meant To Be A Teacher

Teaching jobs are difficult to come by in many parts of the country right now.  With the economy a mess, retirements are down, and schools are cutting all over the place thus reducing the number of available jobs further.  It's certainly a buyers market for hiring administrators and too many talented young teachers are stuck working as aides or substitutes.

However, the above scenario doesn't apply to all points in time nor all locations.  My first teaching position was in a school that was like a revolving door for jobs.  They annually had so many to fill that they ended hiring people who I believe may have had some mental defects (not sure what that says about me now that I think of it...).  The school just didn't get the cream of the crop in terms of applications- particularly in traditionally harder to fill disciplines like math, special education, or foreign language.

But if we thought off season hirings were difficult to fill with good candidates, mid season additions were even more limited.  Thus, our next tale.

Our middle school team had gradually increased in the number of students we had and the administration felt that a part time reading teacher was needed.  A few days later, Norm Nichols was ushered into our team meeting and introduced by the principal.

Norm was a short chubby guy in his 50s.  He hadn't taught in years and prior to apparently being the only candidate without a serious felony on his record, taught theater in some small town (and apparently couldn't hold that gig down).  Norm dressed daily in full three-piece suits last worn fashionably by Elliot Ness, and carried a worn leather briefcase (with what inside I have no idea).  To top it off, Norm had a toupee that looked more like a fairway divot than human hair and had an eye that was either fake or dead in some variety. One can obviously see how a principal could meet Norm and come to the conclusion that he'd do a good job teaching 8th graders reading in a large urban school.

You can imagine how this went.

Norm taught while we had our shared planning (his part time status, combined with scheduling issues didn't allow him to join us), and did so in my classroom which was directly next door to the room the team met in.  Each day we'd hear inconceivable chaos, things (people?) hitting the walls, and then Norm's eventual manic breakdown... "Shut up!!! SHUT UP!!!! SHUT UPPPP!!!!!

At this point, daily, I would go over to rescue him.  He'd be dripping in sweat, out of breath, with his 70's tie loosened, and his hair divot hanging off his head.  I'd settle the kids about the time the bell would ring, leaving sweet Normy and I uncomfortably alone to chat a little.

"You okay Norm?"

"Oh yes." he'd say as if he really believed it. "We'll get em' tomorrow!"

"Yeah, okay.  But, um, Norm... listen.  There were textbooks underneath all of the desks when I left here. I see a lot of them missing.  Any idea where I might find them.  I kind of need them."

"Hmmm. I'm not really sure." he'd say, still trying to catch his breath.

"Ok, we'll figure it out.  Don't worry about it.  I think we have some extras.  But Norm, it appears the picture of my girlfriend has been launched into the wall and possibly stomped on.  Any idea which student did that?"

"Hmmm.  I don't think anyone was out of their seats..."

Sure Norm.  I just watched the wall become temporarily concave as one student likely tackled another during a guided reading of Waiting For The Rain.

"Ok.  Well.  Have a good afternoon Norm."

Thankfully, Norm wasn't back the following year.  Like many great warriors before him, I'll just assume he disappeared into a sunset of door-to-door sale work where his suits likely opened many reluctant doors for him.  Or not.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Adventures In Institute Days

Several years back I was part of a district who elected to commit all of their professional development time with staff to diversity training.  The district was widely diverse and apparently felt that it's teaching staff could both stand to learn to better teach to such diversity, as well acquire some sensitivity to race issues.

While cultural competency and sensitivity are certainly worth while goals, my experience is usually that the trainings fall short of accomplishing what they set out to.  They usually start out with trying to disprove misconceptions about traditional stereotypes of different races and demographic groups.  The problem here is that no one will actually confess to not already having these skills- as such a confession would basically paint you as a racist in your professional behavior.  White people are particularly uncomfortable in this setting as the bulls eye seems squarely aimed on them.  So everyone sits there and fidgets.

Well, almost everyone.  Beth was a white lady who had a long history of dating black guys.  This made her, at least in her mind, both an expert on the topic and certainly immune to any possible suspicion that she might have subconscious stereotypes which affect her teaching.

After going through a number of the usual institute day activities that involve a lot of Post-It notes, chart paper, and bitching (but little learning...) we were ushered back to our seats for a little sharing out.  You know- the time where those two people on the staff that never shut the fuck up get to use the whole group as their personal psychiatry couch (outside training groups love these people and encourage with giant smiles and nods)- that time.

Beth was certainly one these types of people and also lacked any sort of filter.  When it got to her groups turn to share, Beth as the obvious spokesperson, elected to class up the training for the roughly 60 participants.

"Well I explained to my group that I'm black by injection!"

Presenters don't role play that response out in their trainings and were frozen stiff while teaching staff muttered things like "Jesus Christ Beth" and buried their eyes in their palms out of awkward embarrassment.

"What?!  I dated black man for five years! It's not like we weren't have SEX (with added emphasis on the S word for the groups pleasure).

The presenters offered giant dumb grins and head nods (they DO receive training for this...) before telling the room that at this next activity they wanted to hear from other people in the groups so everyone got a turn to share...

Friday, August 17, 2012

Something Stinks Here... (and it's not the lousy coffee)

The weekend before I was set to begin my new teacher orientation at the middle school I had been hired at, my mother sent me a forward.

I pretty much have a strict 'no forwards' policy with all people I know, but particularly with my mother.  Of course the difference is that mom doesn't listen and continues to send along crap about "In God We Trust" being taken off of coins, dumb political half truths, as well as information about community events that are aimed at the elderly and don't serve drinks.

This time however, her forward was about teaching.  It was the typical crappy worn story about a teacher who made a difference in the life of a child who no one believed in.  Of course the kid became a highly successful member of society and returned to tell the teacher how much she'd meant to him (Cue the tears).

Monday morning I arrived to begin my orientation.  The morning was filled with highly uncomfortable "get-to-know-you" games better suited for 5th graders than adults, bad coffee, and power points filled with motivational quotes (a starfish is like a child...).  Finally, the morning mercifully ended and we were ushered to the cafeteria for a free lunch.

Then we got a real surprise.  The new Superintendent was going to be welcoming us while we ate!  Move over Elvis!

The new Superintendent had just arrived from a district about 45 miles away which she'd left in shambles.  Her reputation was cloudy at best right out of the gate.  She said the standard welcome to the district type stuff ("We're excited you're here!", "This is going to be a great year!", "If there's anything I can ever do to help, don't hesitate!").

"And never underestimate the impact you can have on a child. (Dramatic pause) As I leave and let you get back to your delicious lunch, let me share a story from when I was a teacher.  I've written it down."

The Superintendent then produced a folded piece of paper from her purse and proceeded to read the EXACT forward my mother had sent me the night before. When she got to the end she cried as the new teachers ripped up in applause!  She plagiarized a fucking forward!  I don't even know if that's a crime!

Obviously, my remaining time in the district was spent distrusting her phony smiles and enthusiasm after she attempted to dupe us as part of a first impression.

Oh, and if you don't send this tale to seven friends in the next hour your crush won't ask you out and bad things will happen to you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Being A New Teacher Can Make You Hungry!

I sometimes wonder what principals or other administrators see in an interviews that cause them to think, "This individual seems like they'd do a good job."

I'm guessing anyone who has ever been in a teaching program at a university has had the moment where they look around the room at their classmates and think to themselves, "Holy shit, half of these people, thankfully, have no chance to ever get a teaching job."  Sadly though, some of them do somehow finagle jobs (and some of them go on to become administrators!).  I know a lot of principals who dislike the hiring process and are either lazy or rushed in the approach.

Still, none of this explains how James DiCarlo ever got a job.  James was hired as a 7th grade math teacher, who I would have guessed still used his fingers to count.  James wouldn't have got through the door if I was interviewing, because I don't think he would have fit.  He was the living definition of 'morbidly obese.'

I'm no Adonis, so I'm certainly not trying to cast stones here, but James size was an issue with his professional appearance.  He routinely wore shirts that simply didn't have enough material to them.  When he'd raise his arms at all, including to write on the board, the lower portion of his belly fat because exposed to a room of frightened pre-teens.  

During new teacher orientation, the district provided a lunch for all the new & returning teachers as a way to begin for everyone to get to know each other.  The principal's secretary Mary arranged the meal.  There was salad, soda, some mediocre pasta, and those dry crappy cookies for desert.  The entree, for which this particular place was known for, were giant meatballs.  They looked they had been discarded from a 16 inch softball league.  Seriously.

Mary ordered one meatball for each person who confirmed attendance (you didn't need more).  As I was making my way down from my classroom to join the lunch, I noticed Mary seething off to the side.  We got along well so I went over to inquire what was wrong.

"Fucking DiCarlo took eight meatballs!"

I looked over to see James happily munching away at the two plates in front of him.  He had four meatballs on each plate stacked in pyramids (three on the bottom, one on top) with noddles cascading down the sides.  It appeared he passed on the salad.  Michael Phelps doesn't consume this many calories a day.  It was the greatest orgy of ground beef I've ever seen, and I hope I never see it again.  It did to my chest what looking at the sun does to your eyes. There may have been an entire cow divided on his plates.

Of course, being a gluttonous shabby dressed oaf doesn't make you a bad teacher, but in James case it did.  I would imagine the correlation of someone who can't buy clothes that cover their belly, & lacks total social etiquette and being a weak teacher are pretty strong.  The kids ate him alive regularly (luckily not the reverse...), and his lessons were about as creative as his wardrobe.  By years end, he was gone.

James was a forgettable teacher, but each year as I prepare for the new teacher luncheon, I pause and remember his twin towers of meatball lust.  For all you new teachers starting out, remember, everything in moderation.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

So you want a job eh?

As a 12 month employee, I'm often asked what I do in the summer.  One of the most critical tasks I usually need to complete is some hiring.  The market is terrible in many places right now for teaching jobs, making the few openings that do occur to be even more competitive.

I interviewed yesterday for roughly seven hours.  I didn't find anything.  No skin off my nose.  There are over 1000 applicants for this position.  I can afford to be picky, and I will (a mistake many administrators make- NOT being picky/critical).  But the quality of the interviews was almost unsettling to me.  These candidates, most of them younger, simply interview terribly.  It's an embarrassment.  How did it get to this?  I have to believe the universities have to take some blame for level of preparation these people have.  Regardless, and all kidding aside, please consider these basic points if you are interviewing for a teaching job this summer.

1.  Can the stale buzz terms and flowery language. 

If hear 'life long learner' more one I might kill myself.  What the hell does that even mean?  I know I didn't hear it coming out of the mouth of any of the retirees at their goodbye speeches a couple weeks ago.  When you sit and talk like you are trying to remember the bullet points of a journal article you read in college (reluctantly), you don't set yourself apart from the other candidates- you blend.  That's a bad thing if you want to get hired.  Further, I have no idea who I'm talking to thus making hiring you even more of a crap shoot.  None of my teachers walk around talking about the 'cognitive domain' while at work.  Neither will you, and I know this.  So cut the shit.  Tell me what you really think.  I might like it.

Same goes for your resumes.  Objective: To get a job.  Not: Objective: To maximize my interpersonal skills in an environment that allows me to blah blah blah.

2.  Your portfolio is highly unlikely to help (and may hurt you).

Look, some interviewees ask for these things, I get it.  If you have one, bring it along.  But you don't have to push the thing like the secret to life is housed inside your plastic binder.  Again, these things all look the same.  If you think pictures of you during student teaching, copies of lesson plans you did during your clinicals, and notes your cooperating teaching sent home and added your name to are going to get your hired you're nuts.  Perhaps universities are telling you these things are real game changers.  They're not.  Of course, if you hand me something with spelling errors, transcripts with low grades, or other otherwise unimpressive items, it might hurt you.  I'd advise keeping that in your bag until it is asked for (the arts would be an exception here).

3.  Be honest.

Be honest with your self.  Obviously don't tell your interviewer that you speak Spanish when you don't.  But also don't tell them you do things or are going to do things you know you're not really going to do.

"When I begin to make lesson plans, I always begin by consulting the state standards."

Really?  Well, then you'd be the first teacher ever.  What do you really do?   Don't tell me that method to motivate students to be enthusiastic yourself.  "Then the kids will be enthusiastic too!"  Go walk around a school in March before spring break and let me know how enthusiasm is holding up.

So what do I say?

The stale terms, the have truths, the desperate pimping of the portfolios: all these things are a result of not really knowing what to say.  Obviously, each administrator is different and may be looking for slightly different things, but I'd like to think most are simply looking for great teachers.

Make sure your answers talk about the students- not yourself.  Administrators want to hear that your want to to help kids learn- not YOU'VE always dreamed of bring a teacher and that your mom was a teacher.  You want to let it be known that you are interested in finding out what the kids like and adjusting lessons accordingly.  Administrators want to hear about the great relationships you want to form with students, staff, and parents (and how you're going to do it).  They're interested in your creativity, and humble confidence.  Notice, none of these things are specific to experience level.

It's not a fair process.  Don't beat yourself or over think things.

Over time, you'll interview for a lot more jobs than you'll actually get.  When you get the letter or call letting you know you didn't get the job, that hurts.  If you've interviewed at several places and gotten several of these letters you begin to feel like a failure or question yourself.  It's always good to be reflective, but it's also important to acknowledge this isn't a fair process.  Getting a job is often about who you know.  You don't know who you are competing with.  Often times districts require that X number of candidates be interviewed, but the principal already has an internal candidate or someone from a former district that's basically already got the job.  You could wow their pants off and still be told 'no thank you.' Superintendents, mayors, other administrators, teachers, college professors, and even parents offer names when openings occur which create an playing field which is not level for all.  This is at times an unfortunate reality.

Even beyond connections, you don't know who you are competing against.  If a National Board Certified teacher relocate or decided to return after a maternity leave, even a great interview is going to have a tough job competing with such credentials.

Be persistent.

Apply everywhere.  A common mistake is prospective teachers only apply at schools who's teaching jobs are highly desired.  Everyone wants those schools and jobs are nearly impossible to get.  Huge districts in tough neighborhoods have high turnover and usually have positions to fill.  These school need good teachers too.  Don't be afraid of what you read in the paper.  Kids are kids.  And they're awesome at ALL schools.

Good luck!  Oh, and if you do speak Spanish, make sure they know that.... :)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Best Wishes Mr. Sears

I recently learned that one of my intermediate elementary teachers from my days as a student is retiring after 39 years.  This particular guy (Mr. Sears) was probably the initial driving force in my developing an interest in becoming an educator (many other great teacher solidified this passion as I went through school).  The crazy thing is, I can't remember a single thing he taught me, and I had him two consecutive years!

This is in no way to imply that he wasn't teaching his students or serious about his job.  Now that I'm an administrator, I have pre-conferences with teachers who believe that what administrators want to see, or what great teaching is, involves passionate teacher led lecture.  It isn't, and only a small percentage of real masterful orators can pull off this style of teaching

What I remember about my two years with Mr. Sears was that I loved coming to school everyday.  It was fun!   One gimmick I vividly remember was that you had to roll dice to gain access to any privilege.  For example, if you wanted to use the washroom, you called 'high or low' on a die and if if your number came in you go to go.  If it didn't, you went back to your seat and crossed your legs till recess.

We loved this! In two years not a single student wet their pants in the classroom and I recall no word of bladder related illnesses with any of my classmates.  No parent advocacy groups were necessary here.  I'm sure that routine was long retired before he announced his own retirement.  These days such a gimmick would get you labeled a degenerate gambler, a violator of civil liberties, and result in your termination (and probably a law suit as well).  Back then though, it was just fun.

His whole class was like that.  If you wore the rival teams jersey he'd make you write 10 times that your team stunk.  If your desk was messy he dumped it down the stairs.  Everything had a gimmick to go along with it, and everyone wanted to be in his class.

The message here is that while curriculum and instruction are important, they do not replace the human being element of teaching.  Relationships are critical and will help our profession sustain itself through absurd government mandates, bad leadership, 'magic bullet' curriculum, new technology, and all the other changes that threaten our work.

Further, creating a love of school in a child means you've done your job regardless of what any standardized tests tells you.  But you can't create a love for learning by pummeling kids with homework and other tools of compliance passed along as lessons in responsibility.  Getting them to the table is the first step to getting them to eat.

Congratulations on fine career Mr. Sears and best wishes in your retirement.  To all those joining him in retirement after a career in education- thank you for your service to children.  It remains a wonderful and important job.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

It's A Zoo Out There...

We have a program here which 'buddies' up our sixth grade students with our kindergartners (and 5th with 1st, & 4th with 2nd).  We feel the small time investment through the year helps our building climate, reduces bullying issues, and helps a little with bus behavior.

At the end of each school year, the 6th graders and kindergartners go on a combined field trip to the local city zoo.  Obviously there are adult chaperons, but 6th graders are paired with their kindergarten buddies as they explore the zoo.

I stay far away from this one.  The zoo is a major pain in the ass.  It's never been below 175 degrees on any visit I've made, and you couldn't fit the average crowd into Madison Square Garden.  I have my own small kids, so I'm fully aware what a trip to the zoo entails:  lots of walking and pulling reluctant little people along, lots of requests for things you don't have to come to the zoo for (ice cream, time on play ground, toys, hot dogs), little interest in animals.  Even if you wanted to see the animals, because there are seemingly millions of unattended children on the premises, good luck getting up to any of the cages or tanks.  Beyond the elephants, or perhaps a stray pigeon, don't get your hopes up.   

The bus pulled up in front of the school to mark the end of this year's zoo trip.  As the students began pouring out of the door of the bus, I addressed the first few students.

"Hey gang, how'd the trip go?  You guys have fun?"

The first student looked at me, almost agitated, and yelled, "I am never having kids!"

His friend who was also standing there added, "Yeah, me either.  But if I do, you can bet I will never take them to the zoo."

I wish I would have learned these things in 6th grade.  :)

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Truth About Summer "Break"

As most educators are putting the finishing touches on what hopefully was another wonderful school year, the break formally known as summer vacation will begin.

Summer break is usually ushered in by a heaping dose of criticism from all those employed in other fields about 'all the time teachers have off.'  I'm on a 12 month contract, but these remarks piss me off nonetheless.

First off, teachers have traditionally had summers off for most of our lifetimes.  This isn't new.  If that was something that was real important as a job perk, non-teacher professionals should have chosen a different vocation when they had that choice.  All jobs have perks & advantages to them.  Teachers don't typically get free sky box tickets to events, corporate golf outings during the work day, expensive dinners, company cars, stock options, or other perks that are often associated with other professional positions.  Of course the difference is, teachers have to carry a cross around for getting President's Day off while someone in the business field can golf every Friday afternoon (on the company dime) while sucking back beers and never have to have their profession attacked or degraded.

Further, teachers salaries reflect the amount of time they work.  They are usually on nine month contracts, and teachers typically earn less than most college degree professions out of the gate.  It certainly isn't because their work is unskilled or unimportant, rather they work less of the year.

It's also a fallacy that on June first teachers trade their rulers for a swim suit and return on August 31st.  Necessary summer work increases every year as school districts and individual buildings prepare to meet upcoming challenges.  Teachers are frequently in doing committee work, as well as preparing their own plans and classrooms.  This work usually non paid (just like many evenings and weekends throughout the school year where prep time generally isn't acknowledged outside the education field).  I've worked at several school districts and the buildings are full of activity all week in the summer.

It certainly can be frustrating when someone's child gets a lazy teacher who's still employed because of tenure.  Those sorts of people most certainly exist, and they only serve to reinforce misnomers about the majority of educators.  It often feels that short of the TV weatherman, no profession gets universally painted with a bad brush because of it's outliers.  I thinks it's both fair and appropriate to point out that all fields have bad personnel that exist.  All fields have dishonest and lazy employees who collect checks they likely haven't earned.  In all these instances, these sub par contributors are in the minority.  

Enjoy your summers teachers.  You've earned them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Some Kids Have Issues Larger Than Academics

Several years back we had a student who had, in my opinion, profound emotional issues.  Peter came to us in the middle of the year in 5th grade.  His teachers quickly dubbed him a psychopath.  He had just about everything working against him.  His mother was clinically bipolar and a raging alcoholic.  His dad was out of the picture.  Mom had a boy friend who was blown up while serving in the military and was rumored in have swastikas displayed at their apartment.  This kid didn't have a chance.

By 6th grade Peter had become a 'cutter.'  His pathetic parental units blamed the school for everything from bullying that wasn't occurring to the fact that we let kids have little pencil sharpeners (he'd take the blade out of them and use it to cut).  However, they did at least attempt to get him some help.

A therapist of some variety came to the school once a week to meet with Peter and met with the whole family on weekends.  They quickly stopped showing for the family visits so the therapist increased her efforts to see Peter at school where she knew she could find him.  Peter wasn't interested in working with her.  He would spend the majority of the time swearing at her and watching the clock.

One day while with her, Peter announces he wants to kill himself.  They talk about this a little, but Peter shows no signs of backing off his claim, at which point he's told by the therapist he'll have to be hospitalized.

This is not quite how I would have handled it.

Peter goes crazy.  He punches her, bites her hand, and takes off down the hall.  The therapist catches him, and they wrestle toward the main office.  I'm fairly certain he headbutted her squarely at least once.

My secretary appeared at my office door, "Um, I think you may be needed in the hallway." Yep.

I grabbed another male teacher (Don) and we pulled Peter into the teachers lounge.  He was enraged, and carrying on about what a bitch his therapist was and how he wasn't going to the hospital (though using language that would make a sailor blush).  We just let him go, and eventually he calmed himself down.

Meanwhile, Peter's therapist is in the room working her cell phone like a bookie.  Don and I were busy calming Peter down so I didn't know who she was calling and I didn't really care.  Evidently Peter again overheard something about going to the hospital and made another run for the door.  Don and I stopped him, so he wheeled and race to the opposite side of the room and hopped up on the air conditioning unit which ran along a set of windows.

By this point Peter was a crying mess and carrying on about not wanting to go to the hospital.  He started kicking the window- hard.  Don and I are both trained in restraint methods which are only to be used if a child were endangering himself or others.  We felt this qualified.

Peter kept kicking the window; each time a little harder.  We asked him to come down off the air conditioner several times and told him that we'd have to bring him off if he wouldn't, but he was having no part of it.  So Don and I hopped up and grabbed him.  That's when things got real.

Peter was in total shock.  In his mind, teachers weren't allowed to touch kids- ever.  After we got him down, we let him go since the danger of the window breaking was now taken care of.  Peter used the opportunity to pick up a book and smash me in the face.  10 seconds later Peter was pinned face down in the prone position.

He was screaming like I've never seen a kid scream.  The look on his face has to be one of the worst things I've ever seen, and it will forever be burned into my memory.  This kid's life was now catching up with how it had been running in his head for a long time.

The therapist, who helped ignite this kid, calls the police without even mentioning it to me.  Predictably they sent about four squads, two fire trucks, and an ambulance for one 50 pound 6th grader.  The police came in and took over for Don and I.  They were informed that he was a biter so they put on gloves and several officers grabbed this little boy, secured him, and cuffed him.  "You're fucking arresting me!?" he screamed.

This all happened right around dismissal time so my school buses couldn't enter the property because they were blocked by fire engines.  I had half my parents standing around wondering what the hell was going on, and the other half would be calling when their kids bus was 30 minutes late.  To add a cherry to a great day, one of our kindergartners had a grandfather picking him up who was an amateur photographer for a local on-line 'newspaper.'  He called the paper up and reported we were in a lock down (we weren't), which turned this into Columbine for some parents (they ran with it, and later 'corrected' it).

Peter's mom showed up about 5 minutes later and the police reluctantly un-cuffed him.  He collapsed in the fetal position in the lap of a mother who he hated.  Peter was taken to the hospital by ambulance with his mom riding along.

You don't have many days in education that are worse than this.  I drove home with tears in my eyes, and visions of that poor kids frightened face as we held him down.

Peter returned and continued to cause problems at school.  Other parents didn't want their kids around him, and the junior high didn't even want him attending there.  The family eventually moved as these sorts of families often do.  In reflecting on his time, I'm not sure what we could have done differently.  There isn't always an answer.  I do know he's another example of a kid whose needs are bigger and different than passing a standardized test at the end of the year.  No child left behind, right?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lost In Translation

I took two years of high school Spanish.  With that, I have been able to successfully order beer, find a toilet, and order a variety of different burrito combinations while in Mexico.  Beyond that, I'm pretty much useless.  So when it comes to communicating with Hispanic families in a professional capacity, I need a translator.

Both English speaking staff and students tend to be a little overly sensitive & suspicious when people speak a different language around them.  If people are speaking Spanish and they look and/or laugh in the direction of non-Spanish speakers, it generally sends them into orbit.  

"He was making fun of me!  In Spanish!!!"

"But you don't speak Spanish, how could you possibly know that?"

"Because he was laughing!"

Having said that, in my many stops, I have always had challenges with finding good staff to translate.  The individual I have translating often times winds up having a largely private conversation with the parents while the rest of us sit around wonder what the hell they are talking about.

It's not that I'm worried they are talking and laughing about my huge nose, but rather I use strategic language and wording in the course of my job.  When a staff member and parent have a lengthy back and forth, I'm not sure the message is coming across the way I want it to.  

No one was a worse translator that Juanita Gomez.  I'm not even sure what her title was at the school.  Juanita did a little of everything.  She wiped tables in the lunchroom, made copies, filed library books, and helped special education students keep on task in the classroom.  

Juanita was an old lady with long gray hair.  She was an incredibly hard worker and would do any job anyone asked her to just so long as it didn't interfere with her 15 minutes cigarette breaks.  If a tornado was coming down the block during those 15 minutes, Juanita would have been out there, standing across the street puffing away in her insulated flannel jacket.

I needed her to translate for a fairly run-of-the-mill parent meeting.  The kid had tossed a piece of food across the lunchroom and throw a little tantrum when asked to go down to the office.  Pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, but I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page moving forward.

I gave Juanita a run down of what happened, what I needed the parent to understand, etc.  She got it.

The parent arrived and joined us in my office along with the student.

I began, "Mrs. Gomez, please welcome Mrs. Alvarez and thank her for coming in to meet with me."

Juanita started talking in Spanish to the parent.  The somewhat nervous parent said a few words back, but Juanita was doing most of the talking- and lots of it.  She went on and on.  "Holy shit," I thought to myself. "All I asked her to do was say hello!"

Juanita was starting to move into a new level of intensity.  She was turning red in the face, sweating, wagging an aggressive finger at the kid, and her gravelly cigarette charred voice was at a near yell.  The mom's eyes were beginning to well up and then she start moaning, "Ay dios mio!" over and over again.

My head moved back and forth as I tried to make some sense of what the hell was going on and not sure knowing what to do.  Eventually the mom started sobbing hysterically, hopped up, grabbed the kid and her over sized purse, and charged out the door.

"Juanita!  What the hell happened there?!!"

"I told her that her son was a very very bad boy, and if he ever did it again he would be permanently kicked out of the school."

"But Juanita, I didn't tell you to tell her any of those things! I just said to thank her for coming!!!"

With that, Juanita crossed her arms and sat with this, "You didn't have the balls to take care of this" like look on her face.

Now days, I look to Sylvester Stallone for help with this issue.  Seriously.  Whenever someone is going to translate for me, I have them watch this clip first.  Sly models what I need: half sentence-translate-half sentence-translate-talk slow-repeat.  Now why didn't I think to look to Rocky for the answers in the first place? Estúpido.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Value Of Professional Appearance

I've worked with some strange people (to be kind).  If you've read any of my past entries you've probably already figured that out.  Lynda was was near the top of the list.

Lynda was teaching assistant who had been passed around to every building in the district like a hot potato.  She was in her late 40's I'd guess, and was a total ditz.  She (among other things) openly told people that she wore tin foil hats and decorated her house with "X's" to starve off possible alien attack.  Seriously.

I enjoy making a visit to a thrift store now and then.  I've found them to be good places to find used music and books cheap.  On one particularly visit I found myself looking through the used neckties.  Obviously most of these ties were never in style, and the few that were contained large stains.  But then I tripped across a Jerry Garcia tie in pretty good shape.

At the time Jerry Garcia ties were pretty popular and not exactly cheap (at least on a young teacher salary).  Here was a lightly worn one for 2.99.  There was just one problem.  I was pretty sure I hated it.  It was black with this obnoxious purple flower like pattern of sorts slapped across the front.

It was 2.99.  What the hell?  I grabbed the tie, reminded myself that I had no sense of style, and went and checked out (and then used some Purell...).  

I didn't wear the tie for a while.  It just hung there and looked at me.  "This tie is hideous." I thought to myself.  "Besides, you can't be wearing some shit you got at a glorified garage sale to work.  This is isn't college."

But there would be other days I would remind myself that I didn't know anything about abstract art, and of all the other fashion trends that I hated, but later conformed to.  So the day came where I said 'fuck it' and put it on.

This quickly became one of those instances where it was apparent that I should have trusted my judgement.  People were passing me in the hall and shielding their eyes.  Even staff members who were too kind or didn't know me well enough to bust my chops spoke up on this day:

"My GOD! That's the ugliest thing I've ever seen!"

"Did you lose a bet?"

"Did you get dressed in the dark today dude?"

I tried to explain to people that it was a Jerry Garcia tie and therefore automatically cool.  I wasn't selling it.  At all.

It was difficult to teach.  The kids wanted to talk about the damn tie.  As the morning went on, my colleagues were telling the kids to ask me about the tie before they arrived which just further wound them up.

Around lunch I was heading to make some copies when I passed crazy Lynda in the hall.

"Oh my!  That is the best looking tie I have EVER seen." she beamed never making eye contact with me as she starred adoringly at the tie.

Without speaking, I removed the tie in the middle of the hallway, handed it to Lynda, and walked away.

Stick to music Jerry.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Art Of Interrogation

As I cut through the upstairs library at the elementary school I was working at, one of my kindergarten teachers flagged me down.  The class was just getting ready to head back down to their class after checking out some books.  The students were line up quietly.

The teacher asked if I would mind pulling Mauricio and talking to him.  He'd used a swear word toward a classmate.  I told her it wouldn't be a problem and that I'd bring him back down when we were done.

Typically with a minor situation like this I'll bark the kid a little, he'll start crying, and I'll make him promise not to do it ever again.  Then on with the day.  I took Mauricio to a small unused office off the main library floor (I've worked in several schools and they all seem to be built with not enough offices in the main office area, and more than needed in the library... odd).

I sat Mauricio down and took a seat across the table from him.  Like a criminal interrogator I went to work on Mauricio. I battered him with a series of stern questions about knowing the rules, and 'how would he like it' like statements.  No reaction.  I spoke louder.  Even more sternly.  A fist pound may have been thrown in for CSI like effect.  I increased the level of my empty threats if he were to do it again ("I'll call mom!" "I'll suspended you!" "Have you heard of waterboarding?!).  Nothing.  At one point, I thought I may have seen a slight dab of moisture in his eyes, but I reasoned it might just be my breath or perhaps even tears of boredom.  I questioned if Mauricio even understood English.

I gave up.  I was defeated.  I hit him with everything I had, and he took the blows.  I had stuff to do, so I told Mauricio it was time to go back to class.  He obediently followed.

The kindergarten rooms were downstairs from where we were.  There was a back staircase that students didn't really use that was sort of a short cut to where we needed to go.  As I ushered Mauricio into the stairway, he totally freaked out.

"Where are you taking me!!!!?"

It occurred to me that this five year old boy had never been down the back stairs and likely had no concept of where he was in the building.  I'm not sure he even knew who exactly I was.

I wheeled and barked back in my best Harrison Ford, guy-yelling-in-a-suit-voice , "If you want to know all the answers, you need to learn to talk like a nice little boy!"

His eyes poured like a faucet and pleaded for nothing in-particular ("please, please!") as we descended the stairs.  When we go to the bottom and open the door way that led back into the main school, we were back in the kindergarten hallway.  Mauricio looked around, got his bearings, and stopped crying and yelling as quickly as he started. I'd never seen moisture evaporate so quickly.

Mauricio walked into his classroom like nothing ever happened.  Don't mess with the bull young man!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Mailman Always Delivers

I was hired to be principal of a school coming off a rough experience with the former principal.  My predecessor had been mired in various sex scandals.  By the time I arrived, anyone associated with the school who had a penis, from the custodian to the school police liaison, was rumored to have screwed her.

According to legend, she was that good looking, and dressed the part.  Our sixth grade boys weren't too happy to see the young curvy female replaced with a dude with a huge nose.

I started on the job in the summer prior to school resuming.  The building was generally empty and I was able to get a lot of paper work done.  Every day I would have to stop to buzz the mailman into the building.  He was nice guy, but he loved to make small talk.  No doubt this guy had an incredible internal clock because he would small talk me for something like 45 seconds every day and exit as quickly as he arrived to continue his route.

I hate small talk, and this guy was always bringing up the most obvious types of topics (the weather, local baseball results, traffic, etc.).  Try having a conversation with a virtual stranger about the fact that it's hot out in the summer day after day for 45 seconds.  It sucks.

But like I said, he was nice guy and it certainly would have been rude to do this to him (jump to about the one minute mark :), so I just dealt with the boring chit chat each day.

So one day he comes in and throws down the mail and starts in about how hot it's been, and how he was at his kids baseball game the night prior and how muggy is was there, and can you believe how many mosquitoes we've had this summer, and blah, blah, blah.  I started filling teacher mailboxes with the mail as he talked so I didn't have to look at him while he babbled.

"So I guess you're not going to show me your tits, huh?"  Did I hear that correctly?

"Um, excuse me?" I said turning, suddenly more interested as it appeared we were done talking about the heat wave.

"Yeah, the other principal, that lady.  She'd always bend over and give me a good eye-full of her tits every day.  It was great man.  But you've been here a month, and I'm starting to get the impression you're not going to do that for me."

I certainly had a good laugh with the guy.  I apologized for letting him and down and pointed out that I'm not sure he'd find my chest hair quite as arousing.

As I was I talking, he waved good and hit the road.  Our 45 seconds were up.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Possible Perks Of Working Late

I was a little pissed at Mike who was our head of building and grounds.  I needed a night custodian and Mike was setting up the interviews.  Mike is pretty much the nicest guy in the world, so when one of the candidates said he couldn't make it till 6:30, he said okay.

The last interview before this goof started was at 4:30, so I would have been annoyed under normal circumstances having to sit around roughly 2 hours for an interview.  But on this particular evening, a major snow storm was set to hit the area.  I live a decent ways from work and snow is no friend to my commute.

Sure enough, as we sat waiting around for this last interview, the weather man picked tonight to be spot on with his prediction.  Huge flakes paired with giant gusts of wind engulfed the area.  Snow began to pile up quickly, and I started wondering if it might be easier to sleep on the nurses cot (aka, feeling sorry for myself).

To the candidates credit, he showed up on time despite the terrible conditions.  He seemed like a decent enough fellow, but it was pretty clear early on he wasn't what we were looking for (making staying late even more frustrating).

When the interview concluded, I walked the guy to the door while giving him the usual post interview lines ("We'll be in touch").  As we got to the doorway I said, "Be safe driving."

"Oh, I don't drive.  I rode my bicycle here."

There was already about six inches of snow on the ground.  I watched as this guy unchained his bike and began attempting to peddle through a fucking blizzard.  He looked like someone swimming against a heavy current.  His tires were spinning in place and the wind was literally blowing him back.  Mike and I stood in the window watching this train wreck and trying our bests not to pee in our pants.  Man, was I glad I didn't miss that!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

How To Help Wreck A Kid

Lance was one of four siblings at our school.  He was the second oldest.  Rumor had it that there were at least three different fathers.  Mom was a decent lady but young, uneducated, and despite offering quality lip-service was basically hopeless in terms of affecting change in her children.

All the children were behavior issues.  The youngest was beginning to fall behind, and two of the older one's were already special education students.  But Lance was bright.  His grades wouldn't tell you this, but he passed his standardized tests every year, and always came up above average when we examined data per RtI.

Lance arrived in 4th grade, and was certainly on the lazy side.  He didn't work hard in class, and then didn't complete his work at home.  On a daily basis, he would start his day off with being scolded by his teacher about not completing homework, followed by a call to mom.  He regularly had his recess taken away to complete work.  The work he did bring back from home was rarely at the level of his peers who came from more supportive households.

These measures did not increase the amount of homework we got back from Lance.  Mom became annoyed with the calls and stopped answering the phone.  By about midyear, Lance was also starting to have enough.  So he started accelerating his misbehavior so he could get kicked out of class quicker so he wouldn't have to listen to it.  The issue now became teacher disrespect in addition to failure to complete homework.  Despite failing most daily work, Lance still passed his classes because he was able to pass tests without doing homework or being in the classroom half the time.

By the time Lance reached fifth grade his reputation was solidified as a trouble maker who wouldn't work.  He spent the remainder of his years at our school getting kicked out of class, doing nothing, and being yelled at.  When he was asked by the social worker what he wanted to be when he grew up, he responded that he wanted to be like his mama and get paid to do nothing (receive welfare).

His teachers honestly tried.  They communicated with the parent.  They provided him the materials he needed.  They attempted to hold him to a high standard.

Soon after Lance got to junior high he'd become a known drug dealer.  The family later moved when mom got a new boyfriend.  I wouldn't be surprised if he's incarcerated right now.

Lance had opportunity and he failed to take advantage of it.  His mom didn't honestly support his improvement or truly partner with the school when issues arose.  However, I believe on some level we need to take some responsibility.  We battered him with homework and projects on a regular basis.  We did this despite knowing that he had no kitchen table at his apartment.  We did this knowing his mother couldn't (or wouldn't) help.  We did this despite knowing his siblings had behavioral problems which would prevent even a motivated student from getting anything done in that environment.  We did this and justified it as 'teaching responsibility' or 'because all the other kids in the class had to.'    We failed to differentiate.  We failed Lance.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Teachers Shouldn't Give Students The Answer Right Away

A colleague of mine who works with special education students recently had a 4th grade male student approach her.  The boy, who is highly autistic, asked, "Mrs. Soandso, do you know what wee-wee is?"

This would be an uncomfortable question for just about any teacher.  With autistic kids, one can't always be sure what they're going to do with the information, how (or when) they might repeat it, etc.  Still, the teacher also wanted to be make sure that the student wasn't involved in some sort of abuse issue.

"Um, well, sweetie, a wee-wee is a body part you have between your legs."

The boys burst into hysterical laughter.

"What are you talking about!?" he shouted still laughing.  "Wee-wee is what French people say!" and he laughed himself blue in the face.

Teachers... they always have their mind in the gutter.... :)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Is This Seat Taken?

It was my first week at a new school.  Counting student teaching, this marked the fourth school I'd been at in six years so change and meeting new people wasn't a big deal for me.  One of the things I always do, particularly as an administrator, is get to work early in order to visit with staff.  This is a people business and building relationships takes focus.  However, this wasn't really work for me because I generally like shooting the breeze with others and, um, telling stories.

Making friends with the ladies in the office was of particular interest to me though.  These under appreciated individuals are so critical to success in every sense. I wanted to make sure they liked me.  Every morning I would go in and sit and talk with them for fifteen minutes or so.  There were two secretaries and a sort of jack-of-all-trades aide who also helped out in the office.  They were all nice ladies, but I also kind of felt that no matter what we were talking about, they were kind of laughing me.

The only thing worse than being laughed at, is being laughed at and not being in on what's funny.  The first thing I usually do in these instances is check my fly.  All good there.

After 4 or 5 days of feeling like the target of light giggles and withheld laughter on the part of these ladies, I confronted the situation.  "Ok, what is so damn funny?!  The three of you have looked like you are about ready to fall apart laughing every time I've been in here since I started. My ties aren't that bad are they?"

They all lost it.  They were laughing so hard none of them could respond.  Finally one of them gathered herself enough to talk.

"It's nothing you've said sir, it's just (pause, wipe eyes of tears, deep breath), when you come in you sit in the chair we put the kids in who have wet their pants."  That just refueled the laughter.  Not sure if any of them wound up needing the chair.  I'm happy to entertain.  :)

Monday, April 30, 2012

Why Homework Just Doesn't Work

The general purpose of this blog is offer some laughs and entertainment.  However, I'd like to use the forum to hit on a more serious tale and topic this morning.

I am not a fan of homework.  I won't turn this into a term paper overly defending that stance (we would need to establish an understood definition of homework for that).  My position is based both of research data and professional experience.  I find most teachers are shocked when told they should not be giving homework, but few offer strong argument why we should continue to so.  Basically, because we've been doing it in the profession forever, and because most of us did it when we were students (no matter how unpleasant or ineffective), we should continue to do it.  This obviously isn't sound logic.  Oh, and I'm yet to find a curriculum that has "responsibility" included in what students need to learn (research evidences this doesn't work either by the way).

I currently have a family that sends four children to our school.  To our best knowledge, three different men are the respective fathers, but none live at home or are involved.  They're poor.  Mom drinks.  The children range in academic ability.  More importantly, they range in behavioral needs.

My teachers verbally express sympathy for the children.  "I wish I could just take this kid home."  is the sort of comment I'll often hear.  They then slowly ruin the only consistent relationship the child has by fighting the homework battle with them.

Throw out all the other issues with homework.  Kids like this can not complete homework!  They have nowhere to work.  No resources.  No support (unless an older sibling helps).  They will not come in the next day and say "My family is so poor I have no kitchen table to work at." or "My mom's new boyfriend was over last night and they played music and screwed real loud till 2 a.m."

Instead, they'll do what any of us would do- attempt to maintain some dignity in a life that has very little.  "I forgot."

Over the course of a year, teachers (understandably) lose patience with this.  Then the ostracizing battle begins.  By the end of the year, it's usually irreparable.  The teacher can't stand the kid, and the student has begun acting out.

Why are we letting it get to this point?  Fairness?  Do we really believe that even if we insist on giving homework that our top students will be damaged by offering differentiation in the homework process?  If that's the concern, couldn't we limit the issue by limiting homework to silent reading and math practice?

Last week we learned that a first grader (age six) from the aforementioned family was found in the parking lot of her apartment at 3:00 a.m. trying to read by the street light.  Her mom was inside drinking.  This was apparently the third time this has happened and the family is now being evicted.

Homework isn't the cause of those problems, but I think an argument can be made that it becomes another source of stress, inequity, and embarrassment for children who have enough to go around already.  Rather than making school a place kids like this can't wait to get to, we often turn it into a place where they'll face conflict with an adult upon arrival each morning.

This tale is hardly unique.  I have hundreds like it (as do most of you surely).  Please give pause to your use of homework and it's effect on all of your students.   If you are using homework to strengthen a child, make sure you are not having a reverse effect.  

Friday, April 27, 2012


Alan was one of my favorite bus drivers of all time.  The dude never said a word.  He never wrote any body up.  He wore the bus company wind breaker.

Alan looked kind of like Jon Lovitz with coke bottle glasses.  The kids loved being on his bus because basically there were no rules.  Anything that wasn't nailed down was fair game to become a projectile of some variety.  Over time while reviewing bus tapes I can recall seeing paper (of course), snow balls, book bags, those 'twirly whirly' things that fall from oak trees, Tootsie Rolls, and bird feeders the kids had made at school being used as projectile objects.  Yet surprisingly, we didn't get too many calls from parents.

This went on most of the year.  Then came the day that someone hit Alan in the back of the head with a V-Bomb on the ride home from school.  For those that don't know, a V-Bomb is paper folded tightly and bent into a 'v' shape.  It is then fired using a rubber band.  It made well, and aimed correctly, they can certainly sting.

Alan pulled the bus over and stood up to address the students.  The bus was silent.  I can only assume it was due to shock since I'm not sure most of them had ever heard him speak.  He certainly had never pulled the bus over (at least as far as we were aware).

He was calm and spoke in low tones.  "You know what?  I have a seat belt. (dramatic pause) You don't.  (dramatic pause) So when I flip this bus, I'm going to be just fine. (now yelling) But you all, will be bouncing around like pinballs in pinball machine!"

With that he sat back down and drove the rest of the route with what the kids later described as a 'creepy smile' on his face.  The kids didn't say shit.  They barely moved.

We certainly got calls that night from parents.  But we never saw Alan again.  He never returned, never called or answered calls according to bus headquarters, and I'm betting didn't return his bus company windbreaker or ball cap (not sure if those are deducted from your first check).  Only, when we looked at the tape did we hear Alan's great farewell speech.

I wouldn't drive a school bus for superintendent money.

Of course, this is still better than the bus driver who caught juggling on a bus tape... different tale....