I quit

The district will have to find another Spanish teacher. For me, the Curriculum Death March is over. I am returning to bilingual education. This first year high-school position is famous for its high turnover rate and I now understand why. For the sake of my students, I regret being part of that turnover, but I am so immeasurably glad to see the end of this year.
Eduhonesty: My hands were tied by that curriculum. I could have made Spanish much more fun while also teaching considerably more useful Spanish — if I had been allowed to step off the tracks. But the structure of the class, combined with that district-wide test, did not allow the train to derail.

Is "Rigor" Sucking the Life Out of Teaching and Learning?

A musing following a conversation with a colleague:

My colleague was feeling guilty because she had promised to show one of her classes pictures and mementos from a trip to the Holy Land, but she never found time. Somehow, the immediate curricular demands of the year never allowed for that presentation. At year’s end, one student expressed his disappointment, reminding her of the unkept promise.

My last school has banned all parties. They take time away from instruction, after all. We must never waste time nowadays on material that does not affect testing or curricular requirements.

But I will freely confess the curricular train derailed a few times in my Spanish 2 class this year — and I think we were all the better for it. I doubt many of my Spanish 1 students want to go on to Spanish 2. I kept the train rolling in those classes, aware that students needed to cover this year’s material to get ready for next year. We were supposed to do eight chapters and I endlessly pushed onward in an attempt to get through those 307 pages.

I suspect that if some of those Spanish 2 students get stuck with Spanish 3 as one of their few elective options, they may well continue on in Spanish. A number have told me enjoyed the class despite their lack of interest in Spanish itself.

In contrast, I can’t imagine why my Spanish 1 students would want to take Spanish 2. A total of 307 pages represents drudgery in its purest form, an example of rigor run amuck. Most highly motivated students can barely hit that target. Since the large majority of students taking the class only wanted to fulfill a graduation requirement known to be useful for college applications, those 307 pages proved an unrelenting grind for the majority. We ended up glossing over many topics since we had no time to go into depth.

Spanish provides students with future employment opportunities and, more importantly, a bridge to other countries and worlds. Will my Spanish 1 students see benefit from their language studies? In spite of my best efforts (or worse, because of them), I doubt they will benefit. It’s very difficult to learn a language in four years and some students in those classes were already sophomores. To gain fluency in Spanish, those students will have to pursue language learning independently as well as take classes. But the district curriculum and book made Spanish wretchedly rigorous.

Eduhonesty: Student motivation remains a mysterious topic. I’m sure of one thing, though. When the work is too laborious, when the classes are too unrelentingly demanding, students become demotivated. If that second year of Spanish were not nearly a requirement, I think many of those Spanish 1 students would head for ceramics like desperate lemmings in search of a sea.

We spent a school year sucking the life out of a subject that ought be fun. Because the class midterm and final are created in a district office, I had to prepare them for tests I would not create and could not adapt. This meant I could not abandon the Curriculum Death March or my students would not be ready for their summative tests.



Why teach?

You get to help kids. America’s children are often fun and always interesting. 
You don’t have to sit but you can. You get to move around freely.
You work much harder sometimes than many people realize, but you are not stuck in an office. 
Lots of vacation time.
The money’s not great — but it’s not bad if you consider the work year.
In the right district, teaching can be creative. (This is no longer necessarily true: Sometimes the vise of common lesson plans will sap creativity. Not everyone can make their own lessons nowadays.)
You are doing something that will affect the future.

To anyone thinking of entering the field: Find out how lesson planning is done. Will you be able to create your own lessons to teach content? This one question may affect how much you enjoy your job more than any other question. If creativity is part of why you want to teach, make sure the district will allow you to be creative. 

School Spirit

“School spirit” is one of those amorphous concepts that can’t readily be put into hard numbers. Despite the lack of those numbers, school spirit matters a great deal. School spirit is often the backbone supporting student motivation. Because districts with higher test scores have less to worry about in terms of government penalties, those schools can concentrate more on enrichment options, spirit activities, and after-school sports and clubs. The impact on day-to-day life in lower-scoring schools is felt more as an absence than a presence. In those lower-scoring schools, students eagerly await the busses that will spirit them away. Shortly after the final bell, the hallways are quiet and empty. In a school with higher scores and more resources, the hallways always have stragglers, students waiting to run laps, fire pots, play games, or build robots — students who are still part of the learning adventure.

Snapshot of One of the Lost

Rip often comes late to class. He hardly ever does his homework. He doesn’t study either. He frequently misbehaves and when I finally wrote him up I discovered that the Dean’s office knows him well. He’s generally trouble in his classes. This ”boy” is a junior. He’s taking Spanish 1 and I’d bet he’s tried and failed this class before. It’s the end of the first quarter and he has one of the few “F” grades in the class. Why is he here? It’s probably his dreams.  

He refused to do an art project last week. While the art teacher worked with my class, Rip and I sat outside the art studio. I asked Rip about his plans, truly curious where he felt he might be headed. His answer made me sad. He wants to play football for Northern Illinois University, he said, and then enter the NFL. In case the NFL does not work out, he plans to major in business.
I did not say a word about this plan, other than to say a backup plan like business was always a good idea. He and I have a rocky relationship right now. We’ll have a rockier one if he fails the quarter.
I did not say, “you’re 5’ 5” maybe and you have a beard already. You’re going to be small guy, even if you tend to larger bones. The NFL is out of the question. A football scholarship might be possible if you have exceptional athletic talent, except your academic behavior is going to shut you out of that game as well.”
My own classroom problems aside, I’m angry for this boy. I’m pretty sure he is in Spanish because his counselor told him he needs Spanish for college. I’m also sure that his counselor avoided the NFL plan, ducking it with something like, “well, you might want to take some business courses in case that does not work out.” I doubt anyone has ever been honest with this boy and honesty could help Rip a lot. He needs to hear a few facts – like how much more height and girth a boy adds after he grows that beard, and how that affects his NFL prospects. He also needs to understand that grades and academics matter. I don’t think he has made that connection.
Right now, Rip is failing his courses, supported by a pipe dream that no one is willing to touch. 

A Snapshot of Daily Life

Taken from an email to a dean:
“This email is follow-up to our earlier conversation about Marna Herbert.* I would like to meet with Marna this morning to discuss the fact that she sometimes speaks without thinking. Last week, she missed a pop quiz when she was sent out for a technology violation. She then told me, “You have to let me make up those points.” This recalled a previous incident (awhile back, also related to grades), in which she threatened to tell the principal on me if I did something I honestly don’t remember, but it related to her entitlement to getting a grade. She’s quite serious about her grades, which is good, but she’s not doing herself any favors by insisting on her “right” to make up a pop quiz. That last comment put me in an awkward position since I don’t want to let her think she can get her way by demanding that I give her the quiz, but I don’t want to deprive her of the points to make a point, as it were. I see this as a problem for Marna. A simple, “Please, Ms. Smith, I don’t want to lose the points” would work so much better than “You have to…”
I changed names of course. This girl was rude and peremptory in her manner. I assume this approach has worked at school before and it may work at home as well. She’s a fairly strong student so she gets away with this behavior. The dean wouldn’t do much (if anything) to her if I sent her out with a referral rather than requesting a meeting. She is getting that “good student” pass.

The world is unlikely to give her that pass, though. Some immediate supervisor somewhere in the future will make Marna’s life miserable. She’ll go to human resources. Life will get better. And she’ll watch other people get promoted over her for years, until she finally realizes she’s poisoned her own well.

*Name change for privacy reasons

An Interesting Thought on the Many Teachers that Are Me

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. By the end, that class felt like nothing more than an unpleasant chore and if you asked me whether I’d like to teach that class or clean out the poop from the chicken coop, I think I’d have taken the chicken coop. They whined from the start. They disrupted the class for fun. The students who knew some Spanish already from middle school talked at random and whenever they felt like it. If I sent them out on referrals, nothing much happened, so nothing much changed. They sneered at suggestions and powerpoints. “Flashcards!” They sneered. The idea was so old school. But given twenty words to learn over the week-end, they moaned and groaned, and told me that was too many words. How could they possibly do it? After awhile, I placed the funny parts of the Powerpoints at the beginning and end, skipping them in the morning since I hated the attempts to put down my efforts at levity. “That’s not funny.” said one. “Is that supposed to be funny?” asked another sarcastically. After awhile, nothing was supposed to be funny which solved my problem. We avoided YouTube unless it was clearly a reviewed short piece on Spanish, since I anticipated possible trouble if the video was anything but on-target. Many of them would have liked more entertaining content, but I fully expected student complaints to parents and/or administrators if I did not stick exactly to the curriculum. I could hear the voices in my head if their grades were not to their liking: “She just wastes time. She never taught me that.” So we never “wasted” time, even if some of that wasted time might have been useful. There’s a lot to learn about Spanish on the internet and exposing students to the fun content on the net opens up the possibility that they may look for themselves for Spanish learning opportunities. But they saw little of that content because the negativity of the class squelched my own creativity. 

The woman who taught the afternoon class was a lot more fun. She took creative chances and enjoyed her students, who often seemed to be enjoying her. They talked too much, they were undermotivated and they had to be redirected regularly. Teaching that class was a lot like herding cats. But they made me laugh, I made them laugh, and we liked each other. 
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.

Clear Systems, Procedures and Expectations Only Go So Far

Clear systems, procedures and expectations help classroom management enormously. But they cannot create enthusiasm for learning. More importantly, they cannot create grit, time-management skills or personal initiative. You don’t know how to do it? The internet probably has the answer. But too many kids never bother to look for help. Then they whine they are not ready for the test. Or they tell you that they need more time when they had three days to explore the world wide web and probably sent 500 or more text messages while they were not gaming. (Sigh.)


Other students just turn in their completed work, often quietly smiling. They know they did what had to be done. They know they will get an “A”. But they don’t say a word to the complainer. The system is working for these “A” students, whose class ranking keeps improving because other students can’t or won’t assume personal responsibility for their work. 

School Lunches and Airplane Meals

A few random tips for schools and airlines that are struggling to make ends meet:

Don’t try to make Asian chicken dishes.

If you can’t fry right, don’t fry at all.

Don’t bake what needs to be fried.

Skip the mystery meat.

If the turkey is indistinguishable from the ham, buy better meat and put less in the sandwich.

Make a variety of cheese sandwiches, a stuffed baked potato, bean burrito or vegetarian pasta dish.

The alleged Asian chicken dishes have got to go.