Lengthening School Years

A student reading at a second-grade level and doing math at a third-grade level cannot do seventh grade work on any regular basis.

Period. The sooner we face this fact, the better off we will be. Remediation is not optional. Time for remediation cannot be taken away and replaced with “higher standards.” Those standards should be taught. But if we want to teach higher standards that are years above what our students actually know, we will have to provide students with more than a 7 1/2 hour day and a 180 day school year.

 

I Hope They Are Not Cheating, Says the Woman who Seized a Phone During a Benchmark Test Today

(In these times when leaving the phone alone may benefit everyone except the student who is learning to cheat.)

I did my student teaching in mathematics at Waukegan High School in 2005. When I left that spring, administrators were planning to evaluate student test results to decide which teachers should teach which classes. On the surface, this sounds like a rational approach. My cooperating teacher was worried, though. She taught one Honors Algebra class, but all her other classes were lowest level classes. These Algebra 1 Part 1 and Plane Geometry classes included students who somehow reached high school operating at an elementary school mathematical level. Some of these students remained hazy on what to do with equations that had parentheses, for example. They were going to bomb those tests. Nothing else was possible.

Her counterparts who taught calculus or higher-level algebra classes entered the testing arena with a huge natural advantage. Their students had aptitude for mathematics, better study habits, supportive parents, some combination of these, or whatever might be required to perform better mathematically on state tests. They had proven this through previous performance throughout their academic careers.

My cooperating teacher was about to be forced to play a game she could not win. In addition, she was being set up to compete against colleagues. The members of that math department were professionals, not the sort to refuse to share materials or advice with a coworker, but an obvious incentive exists under this system to avoid helping the teacher next door. If you raise Sam’s students’ test scores, Sam may be assigned the class you want to teach.

Eduhonesty: What is this craziness? Common sense may have fled these lands, but surely a scintilla of logical thought remains. I can’t find that teacher’s name among the faculty there now. I don’t know the end of this story. Similar stories often end in teachers leaving their schools or even the profession itself.

Craziness exists all the way up the administrative ladder today.  A few years ago, my then-Principal told me “we need teachers who can get these kids (bilingual students) to pass the ISATs.” My observation is this: Middle-school and high-school students are in bilingual programs because they cannot pass their English-language learning test, the ACCESS test. Some students who are nearly able to pass the ACCESS test may succeed in passing the ISATs. But students with low ACCESS scores are operating at an early or mid-elementary level in academic English. Some are as much as six years or more behind their grade-level peers. These students are not going to pass any Common Core-based annual state test without cheating. They would have almost as much chance of passing a standardized test written in Klingon. Unless they cheated, I’d guess the odds would be the same, in fact.

Discussing this incident with an Assistant Principal in another district the following year, that Assistant Principal said, “Why should those test scores matter?” Then after a pause, he answered his own question.  “He was being judged on those test scores.” I simply nodded agreement.

In practical terms, my former cooperating teacher in Waukegan was being pushed up against a wall. Her best move might have been to cheat. My best move might have been to cheat. My past-Principal’s best move might have been to cheat. Under the current system, threatened federal sanctions create high stakes for ordinary people who are doing their best, sometimes in impossible circumstances. Fortunately for America, most people who enter education are not the sort to cheat on tests.

I hope they are not, anyway.

 

Who Replaced Justin Bieber Anyway?

Book fairs fail to fill in the gaps. I have seen too many sad book fairs. In fact, I mostly hate book fairs. Those fairs separate the haves from the have-nots too vividly for my comfort.

I’d like to take a trip sideways here to suggest that schools look objectively at book fairs they have in place.  Does the book fair promote literacy? Can children without money get books? Is that 10% to 25% of sales the school receives for putting on the book fair enough compensation for the instructional time lost? Do you want students to be exposed to the TV shows and movies that are part of book fair merchandise? Could you make money more effectively by putting on your own book fair with local merchants? Information can be found on the internet about creating a book fair that provides books without all the commercial tie-ins, toys and geegaws now sold at these fairs. A good place to start is CCFC’s Guide to Commercial-Free Book Fairs at http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/resource/commercial-free-book-fairs.

As currently practiced, the typical book fair involves the librarian and others, who set up displays filled with often expensive books, shiny pencils, decorated erasers, movie posters, posters of Justin Bieber and other modern heroes, plus candy and tiny plastic toys, DVDs, video games, posters, and even key chains. Students visit the book fair, filling out wish lists to take home. Schools receive a percentage of total books and merchandise sold.

In practical terms, a teacher sacrifices instructional time as she shepherds students into the book fair to fill out their wish lists. The teacher makes reading suggestions, even as she watches to make sure that pencils and erasers do not disappear into student pockets. Students fill out lists with books, posters and toys.  Nobody ever writes down erasers or pencils. In financially disadvantaged districts, though, students buy a lot of erasers and pencils, along with plastic spiders and other cheapies, because those items are all many kids can afford. Even kids with money make bad choices. The boy with $5.00 may return home with flexible pencils and a Star Wars poster. Teachers can encourage books, but the school receives a cut of the flexible pencils, and those pencils return, year after year.  More class time will often be sacrificed to make purchases.

A large percentage of the books sold at a typical event may be linked to a movie, television show or video game. Personally, I think selling the Hunger Games, Divergent or Twilight may promote reading, so I am not as negative on commercial book fairs as many of my colleagues seem to be. Any book that walks out the door is a win in my view.

Unfortunately, too few books walk out the door. Few students in financially-disadvantaged districts can afford hardcover books and even paperbacks are becoming pricey. Six dollars might as well be twenty dollars if all you have is $1.87. Some students have no money and are simply standing around looking at books and toys they know they cannot afford, while watching other students make purchases.

I have watched my students with no money as they look longingly at different displays. A roving Facebook post on a prominent book fair contains thousands of entries, quotes like “True story! I would go look and make my list take it home and i’m pretty sure it went in the trash!” or “All i could afford were erasers and bookmarks…. That i never used. Haha” or “I never had money for a book. Now I make sure my kids have money so they don’t feel like I did.” I hurt to read the pathos in those posts, toss-off lines from adults who still recall the pain of book fairs, and who felt that pain acutely enough across the years to add their thoughts to a lengthy and lengthening post.

Schools pay for many goods and services. I would like to see schools add “recreational books for students,” books that are not loans, but outright gifts.  One easy approach would be to give students vouchers for $15 worth of books (and only books) at the book fair. Not all our free books will be read, but nothing will ever be read in a home empty of printed words.

 

Garbage In, Garbage Out, Rings of Garbage All About

We tend to overvalue the things we can measure and undervalue the things we cannot. ~ John Hayes

(How much does the above graph tell us about boys and girls? Maybe a great deal. But this graph may also express researcher or teacher bias. I’ll go out on a teacherly limb here and observe that girls tend to be quieter and less troublesome in class on the whole, and therefore are less often referred for testing.)

“The government are very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman, who just puts down what he damn pleases.” ― Josiah Stamp

In the book Big Data, authors Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier discuss former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They describe how McNamara tracked U.S. military success during the VietNam War by using body count data as the basis for strategic plans and recommendations. Yet generals subsequently suggested those counts had been questionable measures of progress and unreliable to boot. In particular, counts had been exaggerated,(Page 165 – 166)  a completely unsurprising result when higher body counts become the yardstick that measures an officer’s success, especially given that those counts will almost always be impossible to check. The bodies don’t wait for a recount.

Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) appears to have applied to many of those body counts, but the counts kept coming. The counts kept being published. The counts kept being used to plan U.S. policy. Enamored of data, American government and military leaders made decisions using numbers whose quality and usefulness frequently remained unchecked, as well as misunderstood.

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier observe that data can easily delude decision makers, including educational data derived from standardized tests. We don’t know when or if the tests capture the abilities of school children, especially when a test has been set too far above or below actual student learning levels. Do standardized tests capture the quality of teaching? We cannot answer this question. Many factors enter the educational equation, and the best teaching in the world may not be able the fix the damage done by moving into three different districts during the school year and missing most of a month in school during the process. Teaching cannot “cure” autism, dyslexia or traumatic brain damage. Teaching cannot compensate for an inability to read the test itself, a fact of life for many students even when their reading skills improve by documented years of “standards” over the course of a school year.  Even in cases where a standardized test represents a reasonable set of questions for the population being tested, we do not know to what extent relentless test preparation versus a a broader approach to a more classical education may be affecting comparisons between districts. And then we should factor in cheating, a topic that has hit the radar many times in the last few decades. As the testing stakes got higher, I’d guess cheating increased. Why would anyone expect otherwise?

My journals and phone notes are filled with self-exhortations to fix data walls, update data walls, and add new data walls, preferably walls with pictures. Journals tell me to prepare more batches of data in cyberform for review by coaches, colleagues, administrators or random Grand Poobahs from the State of Illinois. I carried those journals to meetings for years. District laptops were district property, a twisted mess of shared documents, so I preferred my neatly lined books and private thoughts. As I reread journals, I am amused and bemused by the data..data..data..data chug-chug train that steams through their pages.

Education has embraced data-based teaching and learning. If all the data spreadsheets from 2016 were printed and stacked in one place, I would not be surprised if that stack reached the moon. The stack would exit the Earth’s atmosphere I am sure. If all the useful, true data were stacked, however, the useful, true stack might barely clear the Empire State Building.

Readers are no doubt thinking, “She can’t know that!” No, I can’t. But that does not mean I am wrong. It simply means my proposition remains unprovable. We don’t have the time, money or statisticians necessary to check my (alternate?) facts. I suspect we would bog down first at the word “useful.” If data in a cumulative folder duplicates our latest data and leads to identical conclusions, is the new data useful? If teacher observations, grades and quizzes could produce an identical conclusion with less time loss and money spent, is the new data useful? Is the new data HARMFUL? If the minutes spent gathering that data were essentially duplicative, sucking time away from student instruction, have we created a net loss of learning, rather than a gain?

Data has a purpose. That’s our big problem. Humans in pursuit of purposes will find ingenious methods to reach their goals, and not all these methods will be ethical or honest. Not all these methods will consider ancillary damage from data-gathering efforts. If ancillary damage – such as loss of hope and resilience in students unable to make irrational targets – cannot be measured, that damage may conveniently be ignored, or lightly addressed in cheery posters buried among data walls and copies of Common Core-based standards in the classroom. We have begun working on “mindset” in the last few years, but we seldom address the question of whether our focus on data helped form, or even built, the bleak mindset we are working to overcome.

When my principal gave two benchmark tests, MAPTM and AIMSwebTM fall, winter and spring during my final, official year teaching, she was gathering data for the State of Illinois, and she wanted the best data she could get. From a tactical standpoint, her move made complete sense. In terms of lost classroom instruction hours, I viewed those lost hours as an appalling waste of my students’ time. As teacher-readers know, the school has cumulative folders filled with test results from previous years. Throughout the year, teachers are gathering information as they give subject-specific tests and quizzes. A perfectionistic administrator in a threatening environment will gather data with the intent of cherry-picking the best results. Her job depends on her numbers. But classroom hours slipped away as data demands triumphed over sound pedagogical practice.

In the end, we may simply show that, yes, we have no bananas, and for damn sure we can’t do this math any better than the math we had last week. GIGO. But GIGO does not come without a cost. One opportunity cost of state-required data-gathering efforts will be all the useful remedial instruction that never takes place while we are gathering data.  If the common lesson plan ends up based on the math expected to be on the state test, rather than math students have learned previously, that lesson plan may have close to zero to do with what my students need to learn to succeed in mathematics.

My Principal took her own approach to the data problem by giving six benchmark tests.  She got her data, too. She could show the state we were rapidly improving. Were students actually learning more quickly than in previous years? Were they learning more or even as much as they might have learned without our barrage of testing? No one will ever know. Like my hypothetical stacks of spreadsheets, we don’t have the money or manpower to evaluate that year’s efforts. We have a bunch of tests and spreadsheets, but the students have moved on, the Principal has left the district, and I am going to meet three former coworkers who left the district with me for lunch next week. These are just the friends I kept. Walking the halls of my old school when I sub there, I see almost no one I know.

GIGO. The whole approach to data that year sucked up class after class, producing a crazy quilt of often superfluous numbers. By October, I already had written the resignation/retirement letter I kept in my glovebox. People tend to abandon the ship after producing spreadsheet after spreadsheet that may mean little or nothing. So many of those spreadsheets merely documented what we already knew, or should have known.

GIGO. Failures were documented in red on many of our spreadsheets, failures that fell on the shoulders of those teaching special education or bilingual classes especially. I’d call that red appropriate. In those classes in particular, students and teachers bled data until some of us just expired.

Shoving Words Down Reluctant Throats

(My apologies to readers for the fact I have fallen off the map lately. I am working on my book.)

From one of the two years when I taught Spanish:

The Spanish classes I taught in high school were often taking the place of another elective students might have chosen instead, had they been given a choice. Spanish bumped a real elective – or choice — for many students.  I asked one Spanish 2 class how many were taking Spanish because they wanted to learn Spanish and how many were taking Spanish to fulfill the two-year expectation for college applications. The class contained three students who wanted to learn Spanish, twenty-five who wanted to get the college requirement out of the way and one who was not sure.

I would like readers to at least consider the idea that obligatory language studies may make the very idea of language study less appealing. If a student “has” to take Spanish, that student may be must less enthusiastic than if he or she could choose Spanish out of a list of alternatives. In an area as demanding as language learning, enthusiasm matters. The prevailing wisdom says a person should master around 10,000 words to reach fluency in a language.

We ought to be starting foreign languages in elementary school or middle school at the absolute latest. I believe some students’ negativity originated in their late start. As one sixteen-year-old student said to me:

“Ms. Turner, I am not gonna learn Spanish. Nobody can learn a language in two years. And I don’t even wanna do it.”

She was right. With a fiercely dedicated effort and a good ear, I know a student can become functional in Spanish in two years. If we had set that attractive, petite cheerleader down in an immersion program in Madrid for two years, she might have emerged knowing two languages. But that “I don’t even wanna do it” was the final nail in that girl’s language-learning coffin.

Would my student have wanted to study Spanish if she had begun earlier? We can’t know the answer to that question. But a student who starts a language at six, ten or thirteen has a far better chance of becoming bilingual than those poor high school juniors and seniors who suddenly found themselves in language classes. Being able to conduct conversations when starting high school, even halting conversations, offers a hope of success that pessimistic students may lack when their desired studio art class becomes Spanish I instead.

Eduhonesty: Today’s post will be short. A language takes time to learn. Vocabulary, accents and colloquialisms are most easily learned in elementary school. By middle school at the latest, we should be providing language instruction. Students should have a selection, too — not merely Spanish, Spanish or Spanish. By high school, students should be well-launched on their foreign language adventures, ready to take that trip to Madrid or Berlin to fill their suitcases with foreign-language versions of their favorite books.

If districts must start language students in high school, I believe parents and teachers should demand that those students start at the beginning of their freshman year. In four years, a student can get a strong start on another language. Later than freshman year is simply too late.

 

 

 

I Did Not Take the Job

(This post is a follow-up to a recent entry about a job offer from the district from which I retired. I waffled for awhile about accepting a long-term substitute position in that district because I am eminently qualified and I seriously doubt they will find someone else with the qualifications they need  this late in the hiring year.  High school math and science teacher shortages are hurting many areas, with bilingual math and science hurting worse.)

I’m done.  I love those kids, but for the last few years I did not find my working environment pleasant. Interestingly, even in the best of districts, I find many teachers share my view. Teaching’s just not as fun as it used to be. Numbers too often rule daily life today.

As I write this, I want to be clear that I am not against data-driven instruction. I am not against using numbers for decision-making. Heck, my original certification area was high school mathematics. I love numbers.

Numbers ought to convey real meanings, however. When an assistant principal comes into a classroom for an evaluation and creates 22 pages worth of Charlotte Danielson numbers to describe classroom performance in a class he has only seen for maybe two or three hours total, that’s not data-driven anything. That’s Drek with a capital D. When everyone gathers together for the fifth meeting of the week to evaluate the results of a Common Core-based test written by an outside consulting firm, and set at a level four years above the average student’s standardized-test-documented level of understanding, that’s not creating data-driven instruction. That’s wasting an afternoon.

Especially when students cannot even read their tests, opportunity costs hurt. I could be designing appropriate materials,  re-writing  handouts and sections of unreadable books. I could be meeting students to tutor them. I could be doing a great many things that would be more useful than sitting in Meeting #5 in a week that may include seven formal meetings, Forget the informal get-togethers that come afterward as small groups of teachers gather to try to figure out what the latest meeting meant.

Simple, daily subbing is fun. I still enjoy students of all ages.  I started blogging this on my phone, while reflecting in a teachers lounge in a comfortable suburban district.  I will clean up all the voice recognition typos later. Today I am a floating sub. Soon I will have lunch duty.  I am ready. I brought my little pink earplugs.

But long-term subbing picks up the baggage of regular teaching. And I’m done. I won’t go to meetings. During some weeks of my last year, I spent a full days worth of hours simply sitting in meetings. I will never do that again. I generated spreadsheet after spreadsheet for interested or supposedly-interested administrators who sometimes looked at the spreadsheets, I think. The spreadsheets showed that my students were unable to read the outside consultants’ tests and quizzes. But I knew that. Anybody with half-a-brain should have known that. Once a school has documented that a student is functioning at a second-grade level in English, no advanced degree is required to understand that that student cannot read seventh-grade science textbooks. Many story problems in math will elude that student as well — whether he or she knows the desired math or not.

And that 20% or so of my last, formal school year that I was forced to dedicate to mandatory quizzes and testing? I can’t find any words about that lost time that aren’t too crude to blog. My last years of teaching taught me to think in strings of expletives, a skill I am working hard to forget.

I am so done. The lack of consideration given to opportunity costs as administrators amass numbers that sometimes provide almost no information is driving many dedicated professionals out of my former profession.  Unfortunately, I strongly suspect most of these departures are occurring in the districts across America that most need stability, the financially and educationally-challenged districts plaguing our international score results.

As I quickly dictate in this empty, comfy lounge, I reflect again that the kids getting hit hardest are the kids who are already down for the academic count. In this school, the three-D printers, fully-furnished exercise room, and regular guest speakers keep middle school students entertained and interested in learning.  Their teachers still gripe —  that’s human, I suppose — but on the whole seem much happier with their jobs than the teachers I left behind. Making lots of money, while having all the supplies you need, does seem to create a happier working environment, especially since schools with good scores don’t have to crank out all those spreadsheets in all those meetings.

Well, time to wade out into the fray.

I did not take that long-term, high-school science substitute position. I don’t need the extra money. Instead, I am doing lunch duty while covering for missing special education and gym teachers. I could not be happier with my choice.

Who Will Teach Them Science if I Don’t?

 

I retired, and with a tremendous sense of relief I might add. I enjoy being retired. I relish my freedom to write, walk the dog and catch up on the TV I missed during earlier teaching years. I don’t miss my life of grading, writing lesson plans and trying to do the latest six impossible things that crazy administrators decided were urgent before breakfast. Another useless spreadsheet anyone? I so like being done with data demands that don’t advance student education. I so like being done with standardized-test demands that make differentiation impossible. Readers of this blog will understand.

I am also not feeling too well right now. Too much family vacation time and one-more-trip-for-ice-cream perhaps? I’m overdue at scheduling that physical.

All of this argues for a nice, slow subbing schedule filled with half-days to cover the endless meetings and doctor appointments of my not-yet-retired colleagues. I don’t need much extra money. I’m not certain I need any.

Last week, the emergency came at me in earnest. Former colleagues and friends texted. “Call the Bilingual Director,” the texts said. I called. My former district needs a full-time, long-term sub to cover six high school science classes. Apparently, the guy who was supposed to fill this position got a better offer and bailed at the last minute. The Bilingual Director, a likable woman I have known for years, is looking for a replacement, but she does not sound hopeful. She said she might even need all of the 500 hours I am allowed by Illinois retiree rules.

Here readers can see, in a nutshell, some of the ugliness that results from our inequitable school funding system. The science teacher who took that better position? I don’t blame him. A friend said to me this week-end, “But he should have honored his contract!” I don’t agree.

I am all for noble self-sacrifice and keeping promises. But for a teacher with no experience and only a bachelor’s degree, that job shift can mean the difference between getting $35,000 for the year or $45,000 — driving a mere 17 miles around here can add more than $10,000 to a starting salary. That higher starting salary may be the difference between a “living” wage and keeping your bartending job at night. I have worked with first-year colleagues who were making those martinis on the week-end. The higher starting salary in the wealthier district also usually comes with higher salary increases each year. Frequently, that higher salary comes with smaller classes and better working conditions. So I don’t blame Fred-Nye-the-Nonexistent-Science-Guy if another August offer came through at the last minute and he jumped the fence.

But now the impoverished district of my past has come hunting me. I so don’t want to do this. I am trying to finish a book on education. I absolutely don’t want to work so hard, and I know that if I take the position I will end up working all the time yet again. Because I have never abandoned a group of needy kids yet. I never will. If I take that offer, those kids will get a chance to learn science.

The money’s quite decent. In one of those ironies, this high-poverty district pays better than the other four, financially-much-stronger districts where I sometimes sub. It’s a challenge to find subs for tough districts. I am not afraid of much of anything, but there are simply middle-school and high-school classes in my old district where I will not go. I would rather forego the extra money and work in a nationally-feted district where I might luck into a talk by an author or scientist as part of my day, districts where I will not lose my “free” time to covering extra music or other classes that never found a sub.

I might end up teaching those tough classes in my old district, anyway, of course. That’s another hidden ugly that comes with being a financially and academically-disadvantaged district. I have gone into my old school to fill in for bilingual teachers and ended up teaching music. I have gone in to fill in for resource teachers and found myself in classrooms of feisty third-graders. This can happen anywhere, but my experience suggests that the magnitude of the problem varies depending on a district’s resources and classroom demands.

During my working years, I remember regularly arguing with the principal about redeploying subs. Substitute Smith would sign up for a special-education position that she expected to provide small class sizes and a teaching assistant. She would arrive at the main office while my (mostly awesome) Principal was doing the sub dance, trying to figure out how to make 5 subs cover for 8 teachers. If Ms. Smith was unlucky, the Principal might put her into an unexpected math or even gym position.

During the sub dance, some classes must be shared out to regular teachers. My Principal could disperse the special education kids into regular classrooms much more easily than all those math students. So suddenly Substitute Smith has a day with shifting groups of 26 or 28 math students in her room in a subject area she does not much like. In these Common Core times, she may not even know how to teach the material. In her time, no one made matrices to add simple sums.

I am straying off-topic here. If I want to describe challenges in a poor district that needs substitutes, though, this tangent does count. Does Substitute Smith come back to my old school after that day of math classes? Maybe not. She can always work in more prosperous, more reliable districts nearby. She does not need that impoverished district nearly as much as the district needs her. By the end of the year, my Principal might be trying to figure out what to do with 8 teachers out and only 3 subs in the building.

During certain years, I doubled up classes often. When I was out, colleagues took my kids. During a state-required, professional development, we once had six teachers out for development without a single substitute covering for us. The district had groups of teachers out from all schools, and the substitutes had naturally opted for the elementary and high school, leaving the middle school bereft of subs.

Eduhonesty: Back to the topic. I have a job offer I do not want to take. But I know some things. I know that certified bilingual science teachers like myself are thin on the ground. I know that this position could remain open for a long time. In my old middle school, we had positions that did not fill for half a year or longer. Long-term subs ran these classrooms. Or did not run these classrooms. In one instance I remember, two long-term subs quit  and students ended up with three long-term subs teaching them social studies in only a couple of months. Rotating, long-term sub fill-ins can be deadly to learning.

I also know some of these kids. I retired from the middle school a couple of years ago and my former students are now in high school. That would give me a real advantage as I stepped in late to a fiasco already in progress.

Sigh. I don’t want to take this job. Maybe I won’t. I am still thinking out here. But I return to the title of this post: Who Will Teach Them Science if I Don’t?

Maybe somebody.

Maybe nobody, though.

I have seen these long-term merry-go-rounds. They never go well.

Thoughts on the Many Teachers Who Were Me

Reflections on a May post from 2013: 

Every one who teaches and most laypeople understand that all classes and classrooms are different. The kids make the class and classes may differ radically. Enthusiasm levels, participation rates, and overall learning are heavily affected by individual student placements. Who are the leaders? If the leaders want to learn, students will learn more than they will learn in classes where the leaders have mostly come to school to socialize. Good classroom management can lessen this leadership effect, but the effect remains a force to be reckoned with.

Still, while I had always been aware that class composition affected learning, I had not much thought about how it affected me. This year was an eye-opener. I had three Spanish classes. I realize now they all had a different teacher.

The Spanish 2 teacher was much more laid-back than the Spanish 1 teacher. Most of these students did not intend to go on, but simply wanted to get in two years for college applications and graduation requirements. I sometimes went off the script in that class. I checked in with the five out of twenty-nine students who planned a third year of Spanish before any significant deviations, since they were the students who cared and who needed to be prepared for the upcoming year.

Spanish 1 was its own story. The Spanish 1 teacher in the afternoon was much more flexible and humorous than the Spanish 1 teacher in the morning. I look back and I honestly don’t like the person who taught that morning Spanish 1 class. In response to the negativity of students, I became progressively more negative.

My morning class would have enjoyed that afternoon teacher so much more than the teacher they had. But the students shape the class. The students also shape the teacher. Some dynamics and attitudes become tough to change.

I (re)post this idea today because of issues of timing. This post is for newbies. You are establishing a classroom character right now, even if the tumult of getting started obscures this fact. These first few weeks can create a classroom dynamic that flows throughout the whole year.

I write this because I messed up a few years back. I had four preps that year, two bilingual social studies and two Spanish preps. I had a 304 page Spanish book to cover. All of this was new to me at the time. The workload was extraordinary and, frankly, it overwhelmed me. I managed to get lessons prepared and I handled the nuts and bolts of my responsibilities. But one class got away from me, becoming progressively more difficult to manage. Too many students became resentful of class expectations, unsurprisingly, since they had been obliged to take Spanish as an “elective,” an elective many did not desire. As I look back, I realize that as soon as the negativity started cropping up in earnest, I should have been much less focused on textbook demands and more focused on class emotions.

Eduhonesty: After a few weeks at the latest, new teachers, look out into your classroom. How is the mood? Do you have students pulling that mood down? Move them up front, or at least out of the crowd. Sit down with them. Take time to show them the advantages of what they are learning. Show them you care that they are learning. Let them know you are concerned about their negativity.

Break any deteriorating mood as fast you can. Because once a classroom atmosphere sours, a self-defeating cycle may be created. Negative students make other students more negative, newly negative students who make other students more negative until you end up with that girl who says loudly and aggressively, in a class with numerous Hispanic students, “I don’t see why we have to learn Mexican. They should learn English.”

To build lifelong learners, we have to sell our product, whether that product is mathematics, English, Spanish, or whatever our subject matter. English does not always sell itself, depending on the curriculum and mix of a class. A foreign language seldom sells itself to students who did not select that language for themselves, simply because of the amount of work involved. New teacher, if you are beginning to teach Spanish, that’s probably because you love Spanish. Teachers gravitate towards areas of deep, personal interest.

Whatever you teach, share the love. Share the love and show how and why you came to love your subject. You may think you do not have time because of the 304 page book you must finish by May. I learned from that class a few years ago, though — that book can kill the love if you don’t watch out. Bit by bit, day by day, watch how students are feeling out in the classroom. When you have a teachable moment, seize it. Forget the need to make page 65 by Tuesday. If you can get your students to enjoy what they are doing, getting them to page 65 becomes much more doable. If you cannot get to page 65, you will still be far better off with enthusiastic students on page 56 than with burnt-out, unhappy students who just wish they could chuck their book and maybe their whole school schedule into the trash.

And keep in mind that you will be a different person to every class you teach. Every class becomes its own creature. You forge a unique set of relationships from hour to hour. Try to see each hour through the eyes of the students sitting in the room. You might ask a few students how they see their class. Relationships should not be put on the backburner due to curricular demands. In school and in life, relationships should come before tests and spreadsheets. Good relationships demand give and take and collaboration.

Don’t let curricular demands interfere with the good relationships that make teaching fun.

P.S. I was locked into that book by mandatory midterms and finals that had been written by a group in the Board Office for multiple high schools within the district. As requirements become less flexible, teachers may have to fight to keep class attitude positive. Ironically, extra projects can definitely help, although you may struggle to devote class time to these projects due to curricular requirements. Creative projects help infuse enough enthusiasm into the classroom to carry you through the Long March of the Book.

Random Google Docs that Come with the Territory

For newbies and others. At first, I thought I was writing to new teachers. Upon reflection, I am writing to and for a great many colleagues, even some who are nearing retirement. Please, experienced teachers, reach out to mentor the new teachers who can use your help and wisdom.

For new and aspiring teachers, the professional demands that do not directly involve instructing children can be the biggest surprise during those first few weeks of school. Testing has been spiraling out of control for years. We are only now beginning to rein in the testing monster. Data demands are still out of control. Principals demand data walls, data rooms, shared google data docs etc.

Elementary teachers should find these demands less onerous than their middle school and high school counterparts. Ironically, higher-achieving districts may require less data, too, since they are already succeeding at the data game. Compiling that data may be simpler in those higher-achieving districts; often, their systems have been in place for years, so experienced teachers will be able to help you with expectations. In contrast, my low-scoring, financially-disadvantaged district had a history of changing/adding systems and software every year in desperate bids to find cheaper products and solutions while simultaneously pushing up state test scores. Figuring out the new software and data requirements became an almost annual ritual.

I became very good at figuring out new software.

Are you starting in a poor district, newbie? The odds are good you are. After the first year or two, teachers tend to leave tough districts to take easier and/or more lucrative positions, opening up positions usually filled by newly-minted teachers.

Don’t let the chaos overwhelm you. Ask for help. Find mentors if you have not been assigned a mentor. Find mentors even if you have been assigned a mentor. The mentor you are given may not be the mentor you need. Hunt down coaches, but be careful. Experienced teachers often know a great deal more than young coaches, who may be regrettably lacking in classroom experience.

Last bit of advice: Take a deep breath, then another deep breath, and relax. Then data as fast as you can. Slap that wall up. Up the size of your McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts coffee. Don’t bog down in small details. Finish that google doc so you can get on with what matters.

You may well be thinking, “But I can’t do all this extra stuff! I have to get my lessons ready! I have to get my classroom ready! I need to call these parents! I need to get someone to fix my doorknob!” Your mind may be roiling with instructional imperatives that seem to require your immediate attention.

Eduhonesty: Here’s where education has been getting rougher of late. You are a teacher. You naturally want to teach. All these data-based and other activities that interfere with the preparation and delivery of instruction may seem extraneous and aggravating. You may be looking at the opportunity costs of your non-instructional demands and thinking that all those shared Google Docs are nuts. You may be right, too. But principals are surviving based on numbers nowadays, and your principal may have to generate those numbers to keep his or her job.

The fix required to get you and your principal out of the hole we have dug cannot be accomplished during August or September. America desperately needs that fix, but you cannot make that fix happen right now. So dispatch those data requirements as quickly as possible, and get on with your real job —  teaching children.

When you can breathe a little, I will suggest you go looking for professional organizations dedicated to bringing sanity back to the teaching profession. Go find BATs. Go find other local, education organizations. Become a voice for the children whose educations are suffering from well-meaning plans run amok.

During August and September, though, consider adding a new deep breathing or relaxation app to your phone, and just keep moving. Get to know your kids. Have some fun. Jeopardy and Kahoot! games can be great ways to find out what knowledge your students are bringing into the classroom.

One step at a time.

Hugs to my readers everywhere.

P.S. I am absolutely not against data-driven instruction. I am in favor of rational use of available time, however, and an annual benchmark test combined with class test, project and quiz results ought to be enough data to use to prepare quality, differentiated instruction. You can always look into the cum folder, too. Does the cost of gathering data above and beyond those benchmark tests and classroom assessments justify the time loss? I’d say hardly ever. We need to address this concern. But for now, new teachers, just speed-staple the borders around your data displays and keep going. The objective is to clear the maximum amount of time for actual instruction and preparation of instruction.

 

The Test Monster’s Hidden Teeth

Hi newbie! Or established reader. Or alien exploring Earth’s mysterious culture. Hello to all my readers.

I’d like to start today by quoting from the eminent sage, Fred Rogers, gone but not forgotten in a time when Fred Roger’s neighborhood is a reminder of soft songs, puppets, and quiet messages about kindness, compassion and sharing.

“The world needs a sense of worth, and it will achieve it only by its people feeling that they are worthwhile,” Fred once said.

What does it take to feel worthwhile? I’d ask. In other words, what does it take to develop self-esteem? We debate nitty-gritty details, but in the end I have come to believe that most kids’ self-esteem will stand up to challenges when a student feels lovable and competent. We can work to make our students feel lovable, but that piece will seldom provide resilience by itself. Students need a sense of agency, a sense that their actions can change their lives and world.

That’s what poorly-handled testing can take away. If your administration demands that you regularly administer tests that your students are “failing,” based on common lesson plans, the Common Core, a fierce desire for ever more benchmark data, or whatever — you MUST do damage control. What can you do?

  1. After emphasizing they must do their best, tell students they are taking a diagnostic test to find out what students in the grade know so that instruction can be prepared to teach them what they don’t know. Emphasize that not knowing answers is fine. The questions they miss will tell teachers what to teach.
  2. Have students make a note of what they don’t know that they especially wish to learn, if appropriate.
  3. Create the tutoring time necessary to get at least some students ready to pass. If that time does not exist in school, try to come up with a library, McDonalds or similar afterschool plan. Call parents. Get as much buy-in as you can. Sometimes a few extra weekly hours of tutoring may do the trick. In my experience, kids who will not go to the library will go to McDonalds.
  4. Give extra tests or projects that you know students can do. You may be drowning in required tests, but that extra Martian calendar project can be a win for students who are never winning. You have to create wins — and real wins that represent genuinely successful academic efforts. What those wins might be will depend on student ages and the content you teach.
  5. Never miss a chance to praise a successful academic effort.

For some readers, this post may not apply at all. But I lived through the year of six benchmark tests combined with unreadable tests written by an East-Coast consulting firm based on math years above my students operating levels, and mandatory quizzes based on those mostly deadly tests.

Should the inappropriate tests be coming too thick and fast, please, new teachers do what you have to do to make sure your students hang onto the sense that they are worthwhile. Make sure they get regular chances to produce worthy efforts of which they can be proud.

P.S. I admit the McDonald’s plan has nutritional drawbacks. You could do this in the classroom with healthier popcorn and water. That would be cheaper, too. Kids mostly bought their own McDonalds — and tried to buy mine — but I sprang for the occasional treat. If you came, you did not go hungry. Food is one of your best weapons in the meet-me-for-tutoring arsenal.