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.