Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Story Of Survival

Yesterday, likely in my excitement to escape the office before Mrs. Lopez called me back for the third time, I did the inexplicable.  I left my iPhone on my desk at work.  I was half way home (and live a pretty good haul from my school) and had an obligation that prevented me from turning around.  This was set to be the first time in at least 10 years that I was without my phone.

I should probably share at this point that I consider myself an addict (likely in the clinical sense) to this technology.  It started with my move into administration.  I wanted to use phones that got e-mails to show my superintendents and teachers that I was totally accessible.  It's grown into something I barely can control anymore.  Responding to e-mails in as short a time as possible is something I've created for myself regardless of when they come in, who they're from, or what the issue is.  I estimate it's affected my ability to sleep through the night.  I'm ashamed to admit I once responded to a work e-mail while on a run.  I wouldn't share this if I felt I was the only person facing circumstances like these.  As I look around any room that has other humans in it (especially educators...), I'm pretty sure I'm not.

Well, I'm here to tell you that I survived!  The sun did rise again.  I ate dinner without the ding of e-mails and texts tempting me to check them.  I watched Monday Night Football without the interruptions without wondering what issues might be waiting in my inbox.  I drove to work this morning without the boneheaded temptation to respond to the vibrations in my pocket while driving.  I'm alive, healthy, and I do believe school will open as regularly scheduled.

I love my iPhone and all it's wonderful capabilities, and I don't believe it is particularly practical in this day and age for a school administrator to not have a smart phone.  However, last night was another reminder of a really bad habit that I've created and need to adjust.  Smart phones have off buttons which can be used during family dinners (while driving?).  E-mails should be addressed in a timely manner.  The next day is timely for messages sent well after school closes for the day.  My phone can charge just as well somewhere other than my night stand and I'd still be able to hear it if an emergency occurred in the middle of the night.  Family, friends, and colleagues can adapt to a world where my accessibility is less that 24 hour a day by phone (several numbers), e-mail, text, Facebook, Twitter, or Skype.

The same goes for just about everyone else.  My goal is to begin, today, to start restoring some balance in my life when it comes to web based technology.  I challenge each of you to reflect on your own use and ask yourself if your use is balanced.  I challenge each of you to reflect on whether you would want your students to grow to use technology the way you currently do.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Was The Olive Garden Open On Thanksgiving?

Autumn is a beautiful little second grade girl in my school.  She's the type of kid that you almost need to seek out when you're having a shitty day because she reminds you how awesome it is to work with kids, and even with all the bureaucratic morons making decisions, the testaholics, and Common Core nonsense, it's ultimately a very special privilege to be an educator.

Every time I pass Autumn in the hall, she comes over and gives me a big hug.  She doesn't scream and act obnoxious like many little girls who want to give hugs to teachers, just a beautiful smile and a warm genuine hug.

The Monday following the Thanksgiving break, Autumn approached me for a morning hug just like any other day.  As I hugged her back I said, "Good morning! How was you Thanksgiving Sweetie?"

"GREAT!" she said with a giant smile, "But I had a ton of diarrhea."

Oh.  Um,...

 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Wait? Teachers Don't Suck After All?

There is a story on page 6 of the October 30th issue of Education Week.  To clarify, page six is NOT the front page, and Education Weekly (while a fine publication) is NOT The Washington Post, New York, Times, or the Chicago Tribune.  This story, by Catherine Gewertz, indicates that most U.S. states are outperforming the global average in Math and Science.  Really?!  

Teachers, particularly in public schools, have been beaten up and degraded for years for the alleged repeated failures of their efforts.  The calls for higher standards can be heard from sea to shining sea, particularly from political windsocks (terrific news for those who sell tests, test preps, newly aligned textbooks, workbooks, and software to fearful districts...).  The results are terrible moral issues, teachers leaving the field in droves, and of course tougher standards. 

We are literally and needlessly torturing some children with these new standards.  Yet, now there is a report that 28 states are actually outperforming the mighty Finland in math.  According to the article, U.S. public schools collectively outperformed England, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates among others. 

The data used are predictive statistics applied to the 2011 TIMSS test for 8th graders.  Look, I get it.  Data can be twisted and manipulated to tell you anything you want, but let's also acknowledge that this truth applies both ways.  Nowhere is data more abused than in education when it is published or distributed without any qualifications or understanding accompanying it.      

There are some states that measured poorly, and certainly room for growth for all of our great states (isn't there always?).  Obviously we're going with the stick over the carrot on that one.   

These statistics are particularly impressive when considering that the United States takes all children. Students are not tracked into certain future career paths at early ages.  No one is told they can't come to school based on ability or income.  Patrick B. at my school has been kicked out of class 4 times today already, and 7 times total this week.  If he gets himself straightened out, there's not reason he couldn't become a lawyer, or a doctor, or, um, a teacher.  Not in China he couldn't though.  

It's frustrating that our profession is abused by twisted statistics and repeatedly put down (thank Governor Christie).  Sweeping, poorly thought out, reforms are often the result of the panic set forth by misunderstood data and sensationalized headlines.  The truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Reform doesn't have to be an ugly word.  Schools, teachers, and administrators can all evolve and get better.  But change is a slow process.  Results shouldn't be expected immediately, yet we move to the next reform before we figure the current one out half the time.  These reforms should be guided by experts from the field- not politicians and business leaders.  Reforms should match the needs of the local area and not be totally identical because the needs certainly aren't.

I unfortunately cannot fix the whole media.  But from my little corner of the Interweb, allow me to publicly celebrate educators, and the fact that a new report shows that we don't all totally suck.  Hooray.    

Thursday, October 31, 2013

These Questions Need Some Teeth!

Perhaps I'm being too dramatic and reactionary here, but a recent experience has really pissed me off.  While in a training, the presenter passed out what they claimed was a Smarter Balance sample question for writing.  The prompt asked, 3rd graders, to "write two to four paragraphs describing and comparing different tooth traditions.'

What the hell is a 'tooth tradition?!'  These ridiculous tests have the potential to have significant impact on the children to who take them, and the teachers who bust their asses to better them.  Peoples entire careers can be affect by these test results and this is how they assess?!  Tooth traditions?!

Students of affluent backgrounds already generally do fine on these tests.  It's often children of impovershed backgrounds that struggle.  So why are we stacking the deck against them with questions like this?

Several years back we had a boy who was having such severe tooth pain that another teacher and I drove him to a free dental clinic.  He was in 4th grade and had never been to a dentists.  He had teeth that were literally rotting in his head, were infected, and that need to be pulled immediately.  Is that the kind of 'tradition' the test writers are after?

A couple years ago one of the principals in my district delivered a Christmas tree to one of our families.  The children cried and hugged him- refusing to let go.  They'd never had a Christmas tree before.  I find it difficult to believe that families that can't support one of the most common American holiday traditions, have an abundance of background knowledge on traditions of teeth.

I'm obviously aware of the tradition of putting a tooth under your pillow and having the Tooth Fairy leave you some money.  But this simply isn't a traditional for all.  Schools and churches collect canned food, toys, mittens, coats, soap, etc., all holiday season because of the volume of families who need them and can not afford them.  It is fair to conclude that many of our families do not have the means to place money under their young childrens pillows when they lose a tooth (or won't if they work nights, are neglectful, or gone from the child's life altogether).

Sure, a great writer could read a couple passages and depending on what knucklehead is scoring the test, probably 'pass' it (I barely know what means anymore).  However, there is no doubt that having a background in having your mommy sneak in and put money under your pillow each time your lose a tooth gives those students a profound edge in succeeding on this question.  

But it's the teachers and schools who are failing the kids right?

Friday, October 11, 2013

He Knows If You've Been Bad Or Good...

My wife and my 1st grader have recently been banging heads about (among other things...) her completing her writing homework.  The other night, as has become par for the course, my daughter sat at the kitchen counter whining about it being too hard while my wife thundered away at her about how she needed to stop moaning and get her work done.  It was then her three year old sister injected, "You better do your homework or else Santa Claus will see you!"

After pausing for a moment, my wife thought to herself, "Hmm, maybe I can use this."  After nodding in agreement she added, "Yeah, and I have Santa's number.  If you don't get working right now, I'm calling him."  Well our sassy little six year old wasn't biting so my bride grabbed her cell phone, called her dad, and pretended to have a very disappointed conversation with the famous fat man from the North Pole.  After concluding her conversation, my wife threw the kid a look as if to say, "I didn't want to do that, but you made me" only to have the child come back with, "Come on mom, that was grandpa you were talking to."  This was starting to backfire.

Now backed into a corner, my wife needed a strong move to save this routine.  "If you don't believe me, I'll call him back and you can talk to him!"  With that she again whipped out her cell phone and began scrawling through her contacts.  She certainly couldn't call her dad back as grandpa's voice would be obvious.  Desparate, she called my buddy Kurt who I went to high school with and now enjoy frequenting local taverns with.

Kurt (5'9'', 160 lbs) doesn't have a creative bone in his body.  What I wouldn't have given to be a fly on the wall when he answered his phone and listened to my wife say, "Hi Santa Claus, Marie won't do her homework, can you please talk to her?" and handed the phone to my daughter (while praying he'd get it and play along).

After a long pause, and no doubt some supressed laughter, my pub mate hacked through a performance that would get you booed off a community theater performance. "Um, (lowering voice), ho-ho-ho, you better do your homework like your mommy says, or else I may not stop at your house this year!"

Sadly, the kid bought the whole thing and immediately completed her writing work.  The three year old of course went crazy and needed to talk to Santa as well thus necessitating my buddy continuing his performance a little longer.  

Hmm, I wonder if a conversation with Santa might help my tier 3 kids at school....


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Journey Of A Thousand Miles Begins With A Single Step....

A colleague of mine has a special education inclusion teaching assistant working at her school that simply put isn't very good.  My experience with TAs is that, like any other position, the talent tends to be hit or miss.  I have worked with some who are better than our certified teachers and others who need their own life IEP.  'Sapphire' definitely fell into the latter.

Shit travels downhill.  In this case, downhill refers to years of experience.  As a result, new teachers always got stuck with Sapphire.  Sapphire simply did not understand any of the basics of her role and too often caused more problems than solutions.  The teachers who got stuck with her often wound up having to babysit her in addition to the kids she was supposed to be helping manage.

As is the case every year, the teacher working with Sapphire quickly discovered her incompetence.  The issues didn't improve with time (they never do) and subtle hints didn't work either.  The teacher talked with the principal about her frustrations and the principal recommended that the teacher explicitly explain what it was that Sapphire needed to be doing in order to best support the classroom.

The next day the teacher explained to Sapphire that she wanted her to be constantly moving around the room making sure students were on task with their work.  "You want me to just walk around all day?"  The teacher, thinking this represented progress told her 'yes.'  She obviously didn't know what 'explicit' meant....

Sapphire spent the entire morning walking in a large square as if she was in some sort county fair cake walk or a game of Duck-Duck-Goose (no aisles).  At lunch she sat by herself crying.  After lunch she went back to the classroom and continued to bizarre walk slow around the perimeter of the students while the teacher did her thing.

Sapphire was practically hysterical as she left that day.  Finally, someone asked her what was wrong (there's a sucker in every crowd).  "They told me I have do laps all day long!"

And this folks, is the person who is employed and paid to assist closing the gap with our neediest students.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid....


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Teacher Success Can't Always Be Measured (Sorry Arne!)

The other day one of our special education students was having a bad morning.  The poor kid has, on top of other things, some emotional challenges which are further compounded by a lousy home life.  The boy was having a melt down and was refusing to come to school.  Mom (who is a loser) simply called him in and told the office he was 'in a bad mood and wouldn't be coming to school.'  One of the school's special education teachers, who has worked hard to form a relationship with this student, called the mom back to insist that he come to school.  When he called he learned that the situation had pretty much moved to crisis.  The kid had wrestled the car keys away from the mom and locked himself in the car (they had left home to go to the grocery store).  The teacher was scheduled to meet with the district's special education director that morning, but without hesitation grabbed another teacher and headed out to help.   They were successful not only in calming the child and getting him to exit the car, but brought him to school where he had a successful day.

That same morning my second language teacher learned that one of her families was having trouble completing the physical portion of their child's school registration because their literacy level in English was poor and causing complications with the paperwork at the clinic.  Again, the teacher changed her morning plans and headed to the clinic to assist the family.  

These kinds of stories happen with regularity inside of schools.  The actions described above appear in no teacher job description anywhere.  Yet, these stories rarely receive the attention they deserve.  These actions won't be measured in any teacher evaluation matrix.  They won't enhance any pay for performance opportunity.  The family in the first tale is so screwed up it's doubtful the effort was even appreciated much by the parent.  Yet, it would be difficult to argue that their actions were not the right choice.  Would anyone suggest that ensuring a child's safety and getting him to school or assisting a second language family at a clinic so a child can register for school were bad practice?   

I'm proud of these teachers.  And I believe it's what all teachers should be doing when children's needs are become bigger than fractions and conclusion statements.  And I worry that the more we test, and the more we tie to the results, the less human we risk becoming in our approaches.  I certainly worry that using student achievement to nearly exclusively measure a teachers competency & worth is both unfair and inaccurate (as hopefully was articulated in the above examples).  

These are stressful times in education thanks (at least in part) to idiot lawmakers.  The right choice isn't always easy but it sure helps you sleep at night.  I hope that the few teachers that take a moment to read this keep doing those truly heroic things for kids- even though law & policy makers haven't figured out how to measure it.  Never forget why you chose the profession.  Even though the parent didn't appreciate my teachers rescuing her kid from a locked car- the kid definitely did....   

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Adventures In School Bus Micturition

Our district uniquely houses all bilingual kindergartners at one site.  Once they reach first grade, they 'return' to their attendance school where they continue to receive appropriate second language support.

Occasionally this format causes some issues.  Parents sometimes refuse needed second language support for their children because it is more important to them that they stay with older siblings at the attendance school than receive the language support.

This is currently the case for a little girl at my school who is now in an all English kindergarten room, but speaks zero English.  The mildly ironic thing about the parents refusing services is that our kindergarten program is only half day, so the kid goes home on the bus without her older sibling anyway.

On day three of our new school year, the little girl was trying to tell the bus driver something on her midday trip home.  The driver, who speaks no Spanish, made the deduction that the girls was becoming ill and (while driving) handed back to her the little garbage can normally housed at the front of the bus.  Upon receipt, the little girl proceeded to drop trou and take a nice big piss in the garbage can.  Hey, when you gotta go...





After the office was informed by the bus company, we had a chuckle in the about the situation and all commented that it didn't take long for things to return to 'midseason form' in terms of the everyday adventures of school operations.  But when school ended, the students father showed up.  And he was mad...

Dad spoke a little English, but he was so animated in his anger that we were having a hard time understanding him.  Besides, what exactly was he pissed about?  I mean, they refuse services and then piss in the school bus garbage can.  There are lots of people who should be upset here before this guy.  Right?

Well, it turns out after we settled him down a little that he wasn't particularly upset about any of the events that took place on the bus that afternoon.  He was upset because the bus driver elected to leave the garbage can full of his daughter's piss on his driveway.  He wanted the bus company to send the driver to his house to remove it.  So that's a first.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Get The Right People On The Bus"


In Jim Collins classic book Good To Great, he urges that managers 'get the right people on the bus' and stresses that 'who' is more important than 'what.' It's generally been my belief that far too many administrators are far too lazy about what I consider their most important duty- hiring staff.  It seems that far too many principals and central office leaders don't have the patience to endure sometimes endless interviewing in search of 'the one.'

This astonishes me.  With all the recent and ongoing efforts and reforms in the areas of teacher evaluation, elevation of test scores, and how to improve instructional practices, let's all (hopefully) agree to a few things:


  1. Hiring a great teacher up front will get you more bang for your buck than evaluations, coaching, professional development, etc. can do.
  2. Hiring great teachers makes your life significantly easier in all areas.
  3. It's way easier to say 'no thank you' after an interview than it is after you award someone a job.
The time spent up front is worth it!  While certain positions like bilingual psychologists or physics teachers you may have a smaller pool than others, but with planning and focus, quality (often times amazing) hires can be found.  It's tougher if you school district doesn't pay as well as neighboring school districts, but never impossible.  

Besides general laziness, hiring administrators frequently make other mistakes.  Interviewing isn't a science.  People can beat an interview and no person who holds the responsibility of hiring can boast of perfect record.  But if we employ a systemic approach, we can minimize the likelihood we inadvertently hire a turd.

  • Hire people for what they can become- not what they currently are.   
Sure, it's nice if you find a candidate that already knows how to use a Smartboard, has familiarity with AIMSweb software, and came from a school that used PBIS.  Not to diminish the value of those fine skills, but those things are easily taught (and learned).  Instead, look for the intangibles.  Are their responses to questions student centered?  Can they provide concrete examples as they speak or only offer theory and buzz terms? Are they creative? Do they have a sense of humor?  Do they smile? These things are harder/impossible to teach.  Do they always come out in an interview?  No.  But they might, and if we're not looking for them and instead focusing on what they've already done, we may miss them.  I've been forced to co-interview (which I HATE) with other principals who will pass on a strong candidate for second grade position because they student taught 5th grade and candidate B who was average has student taught 2nd grade already.  Curriculum can be taught and learned.  Intangibles can't.  
  • Be critical.
I often see administrators make excuses for candidates or attempt to clarify statements on their own.  "She was nervous, I think what she was trying to say was...."  Don't do this! While nerves may play a part in a candidates interview performance, it isn't our obligation to take that into consideration.  Work with what's been presented.  If your gut tells you that you had a potentially great teacher in front of you who wasn't getting at the depth of response you hoped for because of nerves, bring them back for a second interview.  Sometimes candidates will say things that should be red flags, and sometimes my colleagues tell me I'm being to 'nitpicky.'  Remember- in an interview you hold 100% of the cards.  It costs nothing to bring them in, and nothing to tell them 'no thank you.'  Once you offer them a job, the balance begins to shift.  They join a union.   They get rights.  They form political friendships and maybe even friendships with you.  It's emotionally draining and professionally messy to not bring a teacher back.  Calling someone and politely saying, "you were great but..." is much easier.  If your 'spidey sense' tells you somethings off with a potential hire- listen to it.

  • Avoid interviewing connections.
When jobs open up, it's natural for people to want to help friends & relatives, and push for new teammates they are familiar with.  Avoid this (if possible).  When the superintendent 'asks' you to interview the mayor's daughter, you better do it, but in most other instances you have wiggle room.  Rarely do these recommendations come with qualification.  Teachers and parents offer up people relatives, neighbors, and friends who are looking for jobs.  Obviously, just because they are looking, that doesn't mean they're any good.  By opening this door, you create an issue where if you interview Mrs. Walker's neighbor, but not Mr. Porter's daughter you could be accused of favoritism and/or hurt feelings.  If you do hire one of these recommendations, you could again be accused of favoritism (even if just in lounge scuttlebutt).  If you interview and don't hire an acquaintance, you could upset a valued teacher.

I say avoid, because there may be circumstances where you'd want to break this rule.  But it must come with a professional rational.  "My neighbor's son is finishing his student teaching" doesn't cut it.  "My neighbors son is a National Board Certified teacher who moving back to the area and looking for a new job" is different.

My staff know not to bring me names when job openings are posted, and they know if they do that I will intentionally not interview those people if they do.  I've politely explained why and I hope they understand or at least respect that.  If their friends want a job, they should apply like everyone else and let their credentials speak for them.  Getting a job should be about your ability or aptitude- not who you know as is so often the case.  

  • Hire for your building and need.
Someone may interview well and posses the skills you're looking for, but if they appear to be a bad fit for your staff, team, or situation, think twice.  I had a opening for a teaching position a few years ago.  The grade level partner was a great teacher but she had a wild side away from school I knew about.  She partied in bars and used drugs recreationally.  She liked to tell crude jokes with her friends on staff and swore like a sailor in the lounge.  I interview a strong candidate who had graduated from a small baptist college, listed various church efforts under the volunteer section of her resume, and referenced Christ a couple times in the interview as a major guiding influence.  While I thought the candidate had the potential to be a great teacher, I recognized that the particular opening I had could be a recipe for big problems.  Perhaps I'm being presumptive (sometimes opposites attract) they would clash, but I don't have to take that risk.  I still hold all the cards!  I can likely find someone else whose personality appears to be a better for for the tenured teacher I already have. 

  • Think with your head (not that head).   
I've never met a male administrator who didn't have a little pervert tucked away somewhere.  If you can find a gorgeous teacher who meets your criteria, more power to ya'.  The teaching field has lot of beautiful women working in it, and many of them are rock stars.  I would never recommend passing on one because they're attractive.  Unfortunately, it's the other side of this coin that gets management in trouble too often.  Recognize that if you hire a highly attractive person of the opposite sex that you've already opened yourself up to potential criticism from your (maybe jealous?) staff.  Your bosses (who may be of the opposite sex) may privately question your judgement (do you ever want that?).  This goes away if the individual produces. But if you reached because in your subconscious you wanted to look at this person everyday, you're putting your reputation out there more so than normal circumstances.  People connect dots (even dots that may not exist).  I know many obese people who are kick ass teachers.  Be smart here.  Ladies- this goes for you too.

I recently read that in Finland's prized education, where teachers are are held in the same regard as doctors, that it is much, much more difficult to get into the profession.  In the United States, we have little control over who acquires licenses to teach.  We most definitely control who teacher in our buildings.  Let's not screw it up.  


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"I Was TERRIBLE At Math When I Was In School!"


As I moved up to the line, staring back at me was the number 137, and I didn’t know what the hell to do with it.  Sure, I was a beer or eight into my night, but nevertheless I was drawing a blank as I attempted to calculate the 301 ‘out’ in the dart game I was fiercely engaged in.  Though my iPhone has a calculator which clearly could assist my dilemma- what guy pulls a calculator out during a game of bar darts!? Per habit, I looked over at my buddy Frank who has a terrific mathematical mind.  Frank, almost anticipating my numerical incompetence calmly acknowledged my glance and spit back, “I’d go bulls-eye, trip 17, double 18.  Or you could go trip 20, trip 20, 17…..”  I took my shots and went back to our table as my opponent moved into position for his turn.  After a gulp of my beer, I thanked Frank for his quick help.  “I’m terrible at math!” I admitted.

The message here isn’t that you need to learn your multiplication facts if you’re going to be a dart player (though it’s not a terrible idea…).   It’s the last part of the little tale above that is worth examining-particularly for educators.

It’s always puzzled me how freely adults will admit, often with a sort of proud bravado, their innumeracy.  It would not be uncommon in my experiences and observations that after a group of adult friends enjoyed lunch together that one member of the group to be expected to breakdown the bill for the table. “Oh, I was terrible in math when I was in school.”  It would be uncommon for one of the same friends to ask for the menu to be read to them, and then brag that they were lousy at reading words in high school.
There is a double standard here, even if only in perception, and it no doubt has impact on our schools.  It is a given that students must be able to read when they leave school to have a prayer later in life.  However, too often math is treated like a luxury topic for the gifted.  Parents will freely admit they were terrible in math while in school.  Even teachers who instruct disciplines other than Math & Science will often confess they were poor in math.

All of this eventually comes together to send an incorrect message that one can get through school and be successful in life without math competency.  It tells kids that reading is for all but math is only for some.  None of this encourages hard work or perseverance, nor does it encourage students to pursue higher level math courses which may lead to careers in math related fields. 

The worst part is these perceptions are usually incorrect.  While it’s true I’m not a chemist or an engineer, I do successfully budget (without error) for both my personal life and for my school.  Based on my poker rakings, I’d say I’m pretty decent estimating the odds that my hands will win.  I know that 150.92 QB rating is good and a .150 batting average is terrible (and why).  I understand that a .29 effect size for traditional homework reveals it is not a strategy worth my teacher’s time.  I’d argue that most adults, if they thought about it, could list tons of mathematical things they were good at (and I’d argue many adults reading ability isn’t as strong as they believe…).

And yes, after a half dozen IPAs my automaticity to break down 137 isn’t as strong as the next guy’s.  However, I do understand the process and could have figured it out if push came to shove.  It’s critical if we wish to produce persistent and eager math learners that we begin to break this perception down.  Educators should strike this sort of rhetoric permanently from their thoughts.  They need to confront it when they hear it, and should coach parents on this topic during parent nights and open houses where appropriate.  If teachers, parents, and other valued adults continue to send the message that it’s completely okay to be a poor math student, than perception will indeed equal reality.    

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"You Made Him Bleed"

All of the Halbrook children had gone through my school.  All in all, they were nice kids and with good, loving parents.  But the youngest Halbrook, Curtis, was the one that broke the mold.

Curtis was (is) a good kid.  But there was no denying that teachers weren't exactly hoping his name would wind up on their classlist.  He the definition of a whirling dirvish.  He couldn't sit still.  He never raised his hand.  He was seemingly never in his seat.  He was occassionally and unexplainably found underneath furniture.

When Curtis was in 4th grade, I got received a panicked voicemail after I'd left the office from his emotional mother, followed by a dissertation style e-mail.  Apparently Curtis had told one of his classmates he was going to kill him, and possibly extended the threat towards his teacher (though that couldn't be verified).

Curtis is about 4 feet tall and maybe 45 pounds soaking wet.  He's totally harmless.  His mom was terrified I was going to try and kick the kid out of school.  Sadly, in the day and age we find ourself, we see kids being suspended and expelled for far dumber reasons thanks in part to misguided zero tolerance polices.  So I suppose on some level, her panic was justified.

I called mom the next morning and talked to Curtis teacher.  It took little effort to get all of us on the same page.  We weren't after Curtis, and we weren't kicking him out of school.  We all agreed his comments were not literal in intention.  When I asked his teacher what she felt an appropriate consequence would be, she replied, "Just scare the shit out of him."  Curtis's mom thanked me for my understanding but begged me to please call him down and 'scare the shit out of him' so he learns a lesson about making comments like that.    Easy enough right?

The next morning I called Curtis down about nine o'clock.  He sat in the chair across from my desk quietly.  I continued working at my computer, occassionally looking over with an angry glare.  After letting him sweat about five mintutes I turned and began.

"Curtis, what do you think the consequence is for threatening to kill another student?"

He looked at my blankly and replied, "Um, I don't know, but I'm never gonna do that again."

"You know Curtis, I'd love to believe you but I'm responsible for everyone's safety here.  I'm not sure I can just risk everyone's life by simplying accepting your promise.  So again, what's the condequence for threatening to kill someone?"  He didn't know.  "Well, I know what I do when I don't know something- I Google it!"

I Googled 'student threatens to kill another student.'  Sadly I got about 48 million hits.  I started reading them to Curtis as I scrolled through.  "Florida student arrested... student charged with threatening... students arrested after threatening classmate... police arrest student who made threats...."

Curtis was becoming more pale.  I continued.  "So Curtis, it would seem that the penalty for threatening to kill someone is... you get arrested!"  He just stared.  "I think I'd better get your teacher down here since you apparently threated her and determine if she'd like to press charges against you."  Curtis continued to just stare.  He certainly was taking this seriously, but frankly I was hoping for a little more emotion/reaction.

I had the office  page his teacher.  When she arrived and sat down next to Curtis, we continued on.  "Ms. Gomes, I'm a little over my head here as principal.  We don't deal with a lot of death threats here at school, and I'm not sure how to handle this.  Curtis and I Googled to find out what happens when a student threatens to kill another student and it appears in most cases you get arrested. I'm starting to think that the best move here might be to have the PD come over here and arrest Curtis."

With that Curtis howled, "Ohhhh nooooo!" and collapsed his head into his lap aggressively crying.  Just as I was about to start letting him down, he lifted his head back up and blood was pouring out his nose.  "Now I'm bleeding!" he wailed.  Ms. Gomes looked at me with astonishment and said softly, "My God, you made him bleed."

Curtis's teacher was trying to keep Kleenex on his nose bleed, but he was sobbing so hard and bleeding so freely it wasn't doing much good.  Blood was everywhere.  Curtis looked liked he'd gone a few rounds with Mike Tyson.  His white shirt was covered in blood.  Blood was smeared on his arms, the chair, the carpet, his pants, and the tissue box.  Tissues soaked in blood were everywhere.

By now, the nurse had joined us.  As she worked trying to pinch the nose, Ms. Gomes continued to fumble with the Kleenex to prevent some blood from spilling.  Curtis continued to howl thus making it worse.  And me?  I just stood there in disbelief.  I still had to finish this song & dance and tell this squirt he wasn't going to jail!

"Curtis, you need calm down and pay attention.  We need to finish this important conversation.  I understand you're upset, but imagine how your classmate felt when you told him you were going to kill him."

Eventually, Ms. Gomes declared she wasn't going to press charges as long as he promised to never say something like that again ever.  Curtis passionately promised, and the nurse took him away.

I certainly hope Curtis learned a lesson that will stick with him.  I feel like he's probably pretty lucky that he ran into a principal and teacher who were understanding and interested in helping him avoid the behavior in the future rather than simply issuing consequences.  He might not be so lucky next time.



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Doggy Style & The IEP Process

Several years back I had a teacher go on a maternity leave.  The teaching assistant in the room was a certified teacher who had done a nice job and I felt earned herself the opportunity to take over the position.

Ms. Cook was a pretty young lady who was just starting out her career, and as could be expected, she had some nerves about her new responsibilities.  During her first week in the teaching position came the first IEP meeting she was responsible for attending.

Mrs. Miller was pretty much batshit crazy.  She was the student's grandmother who was raising the boy in the absence of his mother who was out of the picture for reasons unknown.  Mrs. Miller was also one of these parents who had a terminal disease yet never actually died or appeared to decline in anyway.  However, every time we had to call her on a behavior issue we would be reminded of her illness.  I'm certainly not a doctor and hate to make humor out of someones sickness, but I seem to have two or three medical miracles on my parent list every school year.

On the day of the IEP we all packed into one of those, way too small, horribly uncomfortable conference rooms.  The IEP process is pretty canned, with each professional in the room receiving an organized point in the meeting to share on the students progress or lack thereof.  Not today though.

Mrs. Miller kept interrupting- not protest or even discuss anything related to the comments of the staff, rather to make these rambling speeches about how children need love to grow or how schools couldn't replace churches.  At one point in the middle of the social worker's update on the boy (as we neared the end of hour number one), grandma interrupts again.

"Excuse me, but you have to understand, when you've got that pipe in your mouth, and all you want is another hit, and you're gettin' it on....!"  At that point she offered a few quite animated hip thrusts (previously unseen in school IEPs to my knowledge), looked Ms. Cook who must have thought she signed for the circus (no comment), slapped her on the knee and said, "You know what I'm talking about girl!"

No child left behind, right?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Art Of Appreciation

I can count on one hand how many times in my career a parent has gone out of their way to compliment my efforts or performance to my superior.  Frankly it isn't exactly frequent that parents offer compliments  directly with me either.  While one could certainly draw the conclusion that I'm not particular good at my job, I'll share that after many years of working in administration, I've receive very few compliments about my teachers.  Generally, our school is high performing academically, and has a low incident rate in terms of misbehavior.  Surely some of them have done something well.  Right?

Educators, even the best ones, are painfully aware that regardless of how hard they work and how talented they may be, they will have no shortage of complaints and negative calls each year.  It's not only easy to pick up the phone and bitch when something goes wrong- it's often anticipated.  We know that when little Billy goes home upset that overprotective Mom will be calling.

This of course can be disappointing.  Teachers and principals feel under appreciated.  They do complicated work, often for average salaries, and are subjected to a consistent battery of (changing) demands as to how they could better do their jobs (more learning, more safety, more engagement, better cafeteria food, more kindness, and oh, do this spending less money please).

Then I stopped to reflect on my own behavior.  I certainly call and complain when my pizza is 20 minutes late being delivered.  I've never called and thanked them when it showed up early, steaming hot, and perfectly cooked.  I don't recall ever calling an airline to thank them for getting me to my vacation 20 minutes early with quick luggage distribution (though it's happened), and I'm fairly certain I've never thanked a movie theater manager for the clean seats and non-sticky floor I found inside the theater.  Sure, I'll tip a little better when I have good service somewhere but rarely (if ever) do I verbally acknowledge the effort or share my satisfaction with a supervisor.    

I'm part of the same problem and no better than the parents I feel under appreciate myself and my profession.  But I don't have to be.

Every week or so I head to the same grocery store whose deli is noted for low prices, high quality, and great selection.  If you want something from this deli you better be prepared to wait because it's always a zoo.  It seemed every week I would wind up (by coincidence) being helped by the same guy.  These people are literally out of breath and sweating on weekends trying to help people as quickly as possible.  Yet each time this guy helped me he was remarkably friendly, never made me feel rushed- even when I was indecisive or asked several questions with a line forming behind me.  The other day when I was leaving I happened to see the store manager walking by and I called him over.

"You've got a kid working in the deli.  Shorter guy with dark hair."  You could see the managers face as he began to brace for the complaint I was about to hurl and how he'd have to defuse it.  Instead of course, I shared my appreciation for the kid's help and how excellent I thought he did his job.  The manager was floored.  "Thank you so much for telling me this.  I've never had a customer compliment an employee like that since I worked here."

What I did cost me nothing.  It took no time, and I expected nothing in return.  I felt good about the exchange, and no doubt so did the manager and the deli worker when his boss shares with him the feedback he received.

I've tried to do more of this sort of thing.  When the high school kid working at the pet store showed my how to change the water in my new tank, I called the manager when I got home to tell him how great his instructions were, and what a nice kid he had working at his store.  After taking my daughter to a store in the mall where you make your own teddy bear, I told the young girl who helped us that she was remarkable with children and hopefully would consider a career in education.  I shared this with her boss too.

My actions are unlikely to increase the appreciation showered on education (though the impact of such positive interaction could be huge but remains immeasurable).  But I can tell you that I feel better and am a happier person when I am looking for positives and complimenting people, than waiting for the next mistake to pounce on.  As a manager, I'm trying to focus on the good my teachers offer more than their weaknesses, and I encourage staff to make on-going positive phone calls to all of the students in their class.

I won't knowingly be part of the problem.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Crime Isn't For All Kids

There have been certain kids over the years who I have had to sit down and say, "Look, you stink at misbehavior.  You get caught every time.  Crime just isn't for you.  It might be easier for you to just behave."  Kurt was one of those kids.

Kurt was impossible not to love despite being a handful in the class.  He was a little guy with fire orange hair that allowed him to stand out beyond his obnoxious classroom behavior.  Kurt was harmless in his intentions, but one of those kids who seemed to be out in the hall getting lectured for one thing or another every day, every year, etc.

One day while in 4th grade, Kurt was asked to hand out math folders (he was the type of kid who you had those time consuming problem solving meetings on and came away from the table with great strategies like, 'maybe if we gave him some jobs and let him move more it would solve everything!').  One cute little girl's folder was missing when he finished.  Kurt didn't know where it was, and the girl swore she never got it.  They checked desks, lockers, and everyone made sure they had their own.  Nothing.  

When hope appeared lost (and lot's of time wasted), Kurt noticed a similar looking folder under a pile of papers on the teacher's messy desk.  When they pulled it out, sure enough, it was the girls.  Kurt was a hero!  The teacher was baffled. 

The problem for our hero here was that on this particular day, the teacher was taping herself as part of a reflective self improvement effort.  When she watched the video (which the kids knew about!), there was Kurt, sneakily jamming the folder under the papers.

When Kurt's teacher questioned him the next day on if he knew how that folder got where it did, predictably  he claimed to not know what made water boil.  "Kurt, you do remember that I was taping that day, don't you?"

Kurt's face got as red as his hair.  Like I said, some kids just suck as being bad.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Tell Me, Where Did You Sleep Last Night...?

I participate in a men's bowling league.  It's a nice temporary escape from reality and helps sharpen my conversational skills with men who spit a lot and neglect bathing.  

The other night a guy a few lanes over came in with a couple of kids.  I won't pretend to know the whole back story.  I assumed they were his children, but I suppose it's equally possible he was 'watching' these two kids for someone else.  He bought the children some soda, a pizza, and hoped they'd leave him alone while he rolled.  

A bowling alley on men's league night is about as appropriate a place for children as a strip joint.  The language would generally make most sailors blush, and alcohol, tobacco, & personal shame flow like water.  As I am not beyond belting the occasional expletive after leaving the fucking 10 pin (again), I wasn't overly thrilled to have two small children ear shot from me.  This is after all, my night off from being a dad and an educator.  

Around 9:00 pm, the older of the two kids (I'd estimate 3rd or 4th grade) went to sleep on some coats along the back wall roughly between the beer counter and the 'not responsible for lost items' coat rack.  Seeing a kid sleeping on the ground upset me....and then my mind went back to my day job.

What happens at school the next day?  This little girl has spent her evening, basically by herself surrounded by loud noises and strangers who smell like a perfect blend of Camel Wides, lane oil, and BO.  She was sleeping on the floor, in public, while her teacher perhaps assumed she was in a warm bed (and had been there since a reasonable time).

Will her teacher assume she's studied for her test?  Will she give her a second chance to prove she has learned the material if she fails because she's tired and couldn't study because she wasn't at home though it was beyond her control?  Will her teacher scold her in the hallway for not having done her homework?  Or will the little girl cheat and never learn the material so she's isn't punished by grades and lectured by her teacher?  Will the little girl thoughtfully explain to her teacher that she was couldn't work on her poster board because she was at a bowling alley and didn't get home till after 11:00 pm when her daddy stopped drinking and woke her up to ride home?  Or will she lie or not mention it because no kid wants to ever believe their parents are losers no matter how obviously it may be to others?

Are there perhaps kids in this little girls class who have it worse?  Is sleeping at a bowling alley better or worse than trying to sleep while parents fight (or party) late into the night?  Do teachers, particularly of young children who have little/no control over their time, stop to consider the above questions/scenarios when they are making sweeping decisions about grades, learning, and possible punishment?  My fear is not nearly enough.  
  

Friday, January 25, 2013

"He'll Thank Me Later."

One of our students came to school this week, a third grader, and confessed that his father had hit him with a belt because he was not answering math facts quizzing fast enough.  He told his teacher he knows the answers, but he gets nervous (no shit...).  Further, the child is autistic.  Most of us at the school don't think that the father really understands this or the associated challenges.

Stories like this are heartbreaking and send emotions reeling.  What the hell is wrong with this father?  You should have to pass a test to prove your capable to have kids! That poor boy!  (Insert your favorite agency) should be called! That child should be taken away from that monster!!!

All fair and perhaps true.  What really hits me though was when I stopped to think about the father's perspective.  This man, however moronic or ill advised is actions may be, believes he is helping his son and supporting the school! He no doubt believes that math is important and this son needs to demonstrate success in school in order to prosper at some later time.  How else would/could you explain his actions?

What could cause anyone to possibly believe flogging a boy over math automaticity was a good thing?  Maybe we need to look in the mirror.

Generations of sorting & ranking kids, creating unnecessary competition among students, class rankings, etc. have helped create a culture where these (often terrible) things go on.  I can think of countless (perhaps less extreme) examples of punishments (and rewards) set forth by parents based on school performance.  This is list that includes things like withholding food, denying participation in sports/clubs, and (perhaps) less extreme physical actions like spankings.  This is done in the name of 'tough love' with a 'they'll thank me later' mindset.  Maybe.  Or they'll  suffer psychological damage and do the same thing to their own kids when they struggle in school.    

It is imperative that we begin to shift from a culture of sorting & ranking to a culture of learning.  We must legitimately welcome failure as part of the learning process and reteach our parents who were schooled under a pedagogically dated way of thinking.  There will always be lousy and abusive parents I fear.  Let's not provide any excuses for them along the way.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

It's The Little Things That Piss Me Off Vol. 2

Impossible mandates, crazy parents, 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. 

"Did You Two Call Each Other? Hehehe."

Look, there are three primary colors, three major secondary colors, plus black & white (which I guess aren't considered actual colors)- that brings the count to 8.  My success on the craps tables is enough for me to acknowledge I'm not Rain Man when is comes to calculating odds, however in a building with dozens or even hundreds of people working, even I can calculate that the odds of two people wearing a blue shirt on the same day are pretty decent.  

There is no single piece of office humor more unfunny and yet unrelenting than the "Did you two call each other" followed by the light-heart laugh which falsely suggests the speaker has said something amusing.  This knee-slapper is apparently as times as the road crossing chicken!  

Sometimes this gets taken to even more idiotic level when one of the people wearing the same color provides positive affirmation to the original comment by showing visible awe and says something like, "I know!  And I saw Jennifer earlier and she's wearing blue too!"  

Also covered here is the equally stupid, "I didn't get the memo" crack from the individual who isn't wearing the same color as two other people in the hall at that moment.  

Let's shed our neckties and our professional dignity- it's Friday! 

There are many, many, many misinformed people who believe that teaching is an easy job and a profession that is chosen more for the time 'off' than anything else.  Teachers seems to be constantly trying to defend the worth of their profession with people who work outside the field and disparage our work.  Why the hell then would so many educators fight soooo hard to wear jeans at least once a week.

The notion that it's okay to dress unprofessionally 20% of the time (every Friday) is absurd and degrades our profession.  When parents visit schools and see staff in jeans, t-shirts, shorts, sandals, and other ultra-casual dress items it reinforces the negative stereotypes that dog our profession.  When the community is asked support schools through referendums, we want them to envision a classic professional, not someone who appears to be heading to Ribfest.  It's considered a "white collar" profession for a reason.

Please note that the faded t-shirt with the elastic long gone from the neck line that just also happens to have your school logo on it also looks like total shit.  Couching it as having school spirit is just bad rationalization.  Take it off, maybe use it to dust, and then throw in the garbage.

This awesome clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm hits the nail on the head.

"I've only got a fifty."

This certainly isn't instructional, but after a long week I enjoy a social libation (or seven) with colleagues.  Every school or district I've ever worked at has always had at least one guy who seems to never have anything but large bills when the check arrives.  "Can ya get me?"  Trust me dude, the bar can provide you change for that Jackson.  Just toss it in there and watch the magic of modern mathematics take place.

Often times this person arrives a little late to give the impression they haven't been there long enough to warrant contribution to the tab of people who have been there from the beginning.  They also usually have great taste.  "Do you have Grey Goose?"

Installment one this mad rambling can be read here....  










Friday, January 11, 2013

The Unexpected Present

I was packing up my office in preparation for a new job in a different town/district.  On my desk was a little ceramic teddy bear sitting on a book with a small pile of books next to him.  It was about three inches high and very clearly came from a dollar store.  The community I was leaving was poor and I had been touched by the gesture  of receiving it as a Christmas gift from a student. I kept it displayed on my desk as a sign of my appreciation. 

When I got to my new office a few days later and started to unpack I found the teddy bear desk ornament.  I hadn't planned on keeping it (you simply can't keep every drawing, card, or small gift that children so generously give you over the years) but felt wrong throwing it away at my old school.  Just as I was about to pitch, I instead decided otherwise.  Instead, I quietly went and placed it on my new secretary's (Linda) long desk.

My first week at new school, the retiring principal (a nice guy named Fran) and I worked together to help transition.  Throughout that week, I kept watching the bear and waiting for Linda to say something about it, but she never did.  The bear was moved all over the desk so she clearly was aware of it's presence but made no mention of it.

On the Friday of Fran's last day the three of us went to lunch and Fran decided to skip out early and get a round of golf in while his wife still thought he was working.  Linda and I headed back to the school to finish out our week.  Almost immediately upon entering, Linda picked up the bear and gasped, "Ugh, now that Fran's finally gone I can throw this AWFUL bear he gave me away!"

Having just started Linda still didn't really know me.  I lowered my eyes a little and softly said, "I gave that to you Linda." Hi

You can only imagine what happened.  Here is a secretary with her brand new boss, and she believes she's just highly insulted him.  She turned a crimson red and stammered apologies of all varieties while looking for the most important spot on her desk to re-set the bear.  When she did finally set the tiny statue back down, the head fell off and rolled across office floor.  Linda practically had emotional breakdown as she chased the broken Dollar Store bear head across ugly gray Berber carpeting.  

I could stand it no more and erupted laughing. I tried to reassure her that the bear was basically garbage and it was no big deal that it broke.  But Linda would have none of it.  The next day the bear's head had been Super Glued back on and sat proudly on the front and center of her desk where it remained.

Over the years the bear became a fun memory for the two of us.  I really believe that humor a staff shares can become a binding point in tougher times (which seem to be multiplying like Gremlins...).  Linda was later moved to another position in the district.  I'll drop by to say hi when I can, and the bear still rests proudly next to the photographs of her grandchildren!