Friday, December 17, 2010

Today is the last day before our 2 week Christmas break and school is abuzz with excitement. Candy canes, movies, parties, snowflakes, games, laughter... all fill the halls. Kids are handing out gifts to friends and teachers, talking about their plans for the next 2 weeks. Some are excited just to be away from school; others are headed to some tropical location away from the snow. They share their hopes for their expected Christmas gifts, cell phones and iPods, snowboards and new clothes.

But lingering on the side lines, I see the other students, those for whom this 2 week vacation means something different. At their house, there is no Christmas tree, no shiny wrapped gifts, no suitcases packed for vacation. For them, 2 weeks without breakfast and lunch at school means an empty stomach and hunger pangs. There might be a basket delivered with some donated food items, and maybe even some wrapped gifts chosen by people who don't know them, things they appreciate, but not really what they would have wanted or chosen for themselves.

We blame the parents for poor choices. We blame them for wasting their money on booze and smokes. We blame them for having too many kids and milking the welfare system we all work so hard to support.

All that may be true.... but still, these are just kids.... just like any other kids... and Christmas for them is sad, just another day in a life filled with little hope or promise.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Life sorts us into piles naturally:
  • short people, tall people
  • artistic types, can't draw a stick figure
  • jocks, clutzies
  • rich, poor
  • musical, can't carry a note in a bucket
  • dark skinned, fair skinned
  • look good in a bikini, look more like a beached whale
  • leaders, followers
  • mechanically inclined, can't open the hood of the car
  • math savvy, can't make change from a 5 dollar bill at McDonald's

School tends to sort people as well, socially, academically, and athletically; the difference is, with the new Michigan Merit Curriculum, and similar educational 'plans' across the country, schools are now forced to squeeze all students into the same pile.

On the one hand, students all deserve the same opportunities. As adolescents, most students are not prepared to chart their own course for their futures, making sound decisions about their own course of study. Many would choose the path of least resistance, regardless of the future implications. Parents and educators need to be the guiding force for them, helping them carve a path with as many options as possible.

On the other hand, expecting every single student to graduate from high school with a diploma which prepares them for college is unrealistic and unnecessary. There need to options for all students, regardless of their academic abilities, options which prepare them for life beyond high school, with the basic skills they will need to be contributing members of society.

I don't care what we call these 'options' - Plan A and Plan B? Is that any worse than the current options of diploma and Certificate of Attendance? Plan A can be the college prep path, the more challenging classes, much like the current plan for all students. It will delve deeply into topics, including advanced sciences, math classes, literature, history. It will encourage students to think independently, write and respond to a variety of ideas and topics. These future college students will explore advanced math through algebra 2 and beyond. They will analyze historical events and their relevance.

Plan B will be less rigorous for certain, but still, preparing students for life beyond the high school experience. These students would learn to read and write, balance a checkbook, as well as life skills, like parenting, how to get and keep a job, and even perhaps vocational skills. They could learn a trade such as welding, woodworking, computer skills, or auto mechanics. But when they left school with that Plan B diploma, employers would be assured that students had met certain criteria and were indeed literate and competent in those skills.

Now, with the current plan, many students are forced to drop out of school, unable to meet the stringent requirements. They struggle to make it through Algebra 1, much less 3 more years of even more advanced math classes. They either give up completely, opt for a degree from an alternative program, or work for their GED. Whichever option they choose, it still takes them out of the public school, high school diploma pool.

Some argue against sorting students at such an early age, but as a long time middle school teacher, I can promise you that some students have already been 'sorted'. Their peers have sorted them in the classroom, on the basketball court, and at their social events, in and out of school.

If those against sorting are concerned we are limiting the future options of students with this plan, I ask them this: "Aren't we limiting their options even further by refusing to offer them appropriate options for their abilities?" Every time we hit that square peg a little harder and a little harder, trying to shove it through that round hole we are calling the curriculum, we beat that student down a little bit more and a little bit more, reminding them they will never measure up to our predetermined criteria that has been set for them.

If we are concerned some students with potential might choose the lesser challenging option, then let parents have some control over the decision. Let students choose to take the path of least resistance. It won't keep them from being able to go to college someday, it just might make that task a bit more challenging. In esscence, making their early on 'easy' choice come back to haunt them, so to speak.

We need all kinds of people in this world. We need lawyers and doctors, welders and mechanics, teachers and sales clerks, butchers and construction workers, truck drivers and secretaries, computer programmers and fast food cooks. Everyone contributes to our collective society. Everyone has a place. Shouldn't schools acknowledge the differences of students, and work to adequately prepare them for their roles, instead of trying to force them all into the college bound path?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

After several years of having no detention, during school or after school, recently our district appropriated the money to reinstitute this option for teachers. We can assign lunch detention ourselves, but after-school detention is available Tuesdays and Thursdays only, at the discretion of the principal.

When detention was an option, it was one I rarely used. I hate the idea of sending a student somewhere else, to someone else, for punishment for something they did in my room. To me, that process takes me out of the punishment part of the offense, and gives the power to someone else. If one of my kids is ‘bad’ enough to serve detention, I want it done in my presence, where I can ensure the misery matches the crime.

That isn’t to say I’ve never sent a student to the office, or assigned detention, but those occasions are rare, and in severe circumstances where all other options have been completely exhausted.

When the job posting for teachers to man the after school detention room was posted, the pay was good and I thought, hmmm… I really want to build my granddaughter an awesome wooden swing set next summer. Here’s a way to easily bank some extra bucks fairly easily.

I split the assignment with another teacher – he does Tuesday afternoons, I take Thursday’s. Today was my first Thursday with ‘customers’. I was supposed to have 4 customers, but one was suspended until next week, another skipped detention, and there I was with two young men, both of whom I had ‘experienced’ in 7th grade a couple of years ago. Needless to say, I was not surprised to see their names on my list. One was there for extensive tardies, the other, for skipping a class.

Once we got the pleasantries out of the way, the boys settled in. I had to keep reminding them to sit up, no sleeping allowed in detention. Finally, they seemed to settle in and I started working on a project on my laptop. My teacher sensor noticed the one young man intently interested in his desk behind his folded coat. I kept working, watching, averting my eyes when he looked up, trying to make sure my suspicions were accurate. Standing, I walked to him, as he tried to nonchalantly hide his cell phone under the jacket. I snagged it, with him sighing, and halfheartedly trying to argue, but knowing there was no use.

“Head up!”

“Hood off!”

The reminders were few, but enough to keep me focused on them more than the work in
front of me.

Finally, the clock ticked louder and louder as four o’clock came closer and closer.

The bell sounded and they left, the one begging his phone back as he left. Both said, “See you next week!” laughing, knowing this would become a regular date between us.

So, now, I am left questioning the purpose and worth of the detention room. These are frequent flyers, even with the program new, just a few weeks in. They were disruptions in middle school, are still disruptions now, and have no apparent plan to change on the horizon.

I wonder if the money paid to the two of us manning the detention room would be better served paying us to mentor these young men, maybe grabbing a burger and fries, and talking about their lives, in and out of school.

Detentions don’t work. They don’t change behaviors. Sending a student to some magical room may make the teacher feel better, at least temporarily, but it doesn’t FIX the problem. Until we find ways to effectively touch these troubled students, find ways to encourage them to change those behaviors and channel their frustrations in more positive ways, we are just throwing money out the window.

The same kids get sent to detention, day after day, year after year. It is pointless. Just one more indicator of the many ineffective educational practices we continue to embrace.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Ten Commandments of Teaching
1. Thou shalt have the end in mind when you begin and have a purpose for each and every activity you engage your students with. Do not simply assign an activity, worksheet, or project because the book suggests it, because you did it last year, or because the other teacher down the hall is also doing it. Know the specific outcome you want from what you are doing. For each lesson or activity you engage students in, you should know what end result you want to achieve with the class time invested in that activity. Plan the assessment as you plan the activity. Know how it fits into the grand scheme of learning in that particular lesson or unit. Think of each thing you do as another step along the learning journey and make each step purposeful and deliberate.
2. Thou shalt realize you are but part of each student's journey, both in school and in life. Realize that students have other classes and other teachers. Realize that students have lives outside of school. Do not make your class a burden with monumental amounts of work to be completed outside of class. Honor their other committments, tests, projects, basketball games, etc..
3. Thou shalt honor your students time as you expect them to honor yours. Realize that students deserve and want to know how they did on assignments. Do not linger over grading tests or projects. You expect your students to meet the deadlines you assign. Also honor the deadlines they would give you for feedback on the work you have given them to complete. Do not waste class time - whether it is looking for something, talking on the phone, or anything else that distracts you from your purpose - teaching the class. You expect students to be on time and on task. You owe the same respect to them and their time.
4. Thou shalt not expect your students to contribute more effort than you are willing the contribute yourself. I have heard the saying, "Never work harder than your students." In theory, in some ways, I agree. However, I also believe it is unfair to expect students to work harder than we are willing to work ourselves at our job. Students need to be in charge of their own learning, and strive to be independent. Teachers still have a role in that process though. We must come to class prepared, not letting our role in the learning process slide. Teachers must uphold their part in the learning process by being prepared, by giving accurate, prompt reflective assessments, and by using class time productively.
5. Thou shalt read and learn in order to continue to learn and teach. Teachers who are life-long learners give students role models to follow. These teachers learn to grow and change as new ideas and research come to the front of educational policy and practice. They are always willing the try something new, reaching beyond the tried and true, constantly seeking improvement in their own practice. Read about teaching, read about your content area, read for pleasure. Learn to grow, learn to change and learn to learn.
6. Thou shalt plan for the inevitably uninevitable happenings. Always have a Plan B (and maybe even a C). Things happen. Technology fails, students forget things they should have brought to class, the site you visited yesterday won't be online today, the copier will break, the lesson will go quicker than you anticipate, the lab will bomb, the maps won't take as long to color as you thought, etc.. etc.. etc.. Plan ahead with something else to go. Always have a fall-back plan, even if it is something as simple as a trivia game based on your subject matter.
7. Thou shalt expect your students to be successful and therefore, treat them accordingly. Students will rise to meet your expectations, so set those expectations high. You can always adjust downward if need be, but set the bar high to begin with. Act as if you anticipate each child earning an A in your class. Never demean the slower learners, the struggling students, or those who simply choose to fail. Always act as if this time will be different and you anticipate that child succeeding.
8. Thou shalt offer compassion and consolation for your struggling students. Setting expectations high is appropriate but always acknowledge students who are struggling. Make adjustments and accomodations to make learning accessible to all students. Let students know you understand your class is difficult for them, and offer concrete examples of how you can help them master the content. Make yourself available to them, with a compassionate smile and pat on the shoulder.
9. Thou shalt maintain some sense of order in thy classroom. Neatness counts. You don't have to be a neat freak but your classroom should have a logical sense of order with specific locations for materials, turning in work, storage, etc.. When things have a home, everyone is more comfortable, and less time is wasted looking for things, asking where thing belong, and trying to get ready to work.
Order in the classroom also means maintaining a sense of classroom management. Each teacher develops his/her own style of teaching and discipine. A well run classroom seamlessly transitions from task to task because expectations are clear, consistent and conveyed.
10. Thou shalt teach only until you enjoy it not. Respect the teaching profession. When you do not wake up each morning excited to come to school, looking forward to learning alongside your students, and believing in the potential of each child you encounter, the time has come for you to explore other options. Respect the teaching profession and those who love it enough to acknowledge this next step in your own journey and move on.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Yesterday, my principal sent out a mass email to the teaching staff. The following is an excerpt:

Update your grades every week. (No excuses or exceptions.)

Notify your respective office when you assign a lunch detention, and
make sure the student is clear about whether or not s/he has lunch detention.

Take roll in the first ten minutes of every class.

If you're going to make an issue out of tardies with a student, be
sure to track them properly and follow the tardy policy that is
posted throughout the school.

Keep your students in class from bell to bell unless it's a bathroom
emergency. If you send a student to the bathroom, give them a pass
and be sure to track how long they're gone. If a student asks over
and over again every day to go to the bathroom, tell him/her no.
Teachers perpetually complain about their being perceived as non-professionals, by school boards, adminstrators, parents, and the general public. We want our personas to exude this holier than thou level of respect among these groups.
Yet, we have to be reminded, told, DIRECTED to do these basic things each day in our classes?? SERIOUSLY???
All those items seem to obvious, so critical to the success of a teacher, I find it astounding to think enough teachers are neglecting those tasks that a mass email is needed.
If we want to be treated professionally, don't you think the first step to accomplishing that goal would be our acting professionally? Do your job, do it well, and everything else will fall into place. If you can't manage to take attendance, keep grades up to date, keep track of tardies and students, then you are in the wrong profession. THOSE are the easy parts of the job!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Teachers get a variety of gifts at Christmas time. I've received some amazing gifts from students over the years: cards with special notes in them, homemade food, packaged foods, gift cards, candles, mugs, clothes, stuffed animals (new and used), a brass bell with my name on it, Christmas ornaments, books, perfumes, lotions, etc... The list goes on and on of wonderful things students or parents thought I would enjoy.

Today was my first gift this year, from a sweet young lady. She embarassedly handed me a small package tapped to a card in an envelope. The card said "To my favorite teacher, Mrs. George. I hope you like your bracelet."

Opening the box, I found a red and green friendship bracelet this young lady had made for me. I oohed and ahhed and then asked her to tie it on my wrist. She seemed surprised. Her tying job didn't last long so I found her again to tie it tighter, asking her to knot it 3 times this time. I told her I didn't want to lose it. She again seemed surprised and said, "You mean you aren't gonna take it off?"

Looking into her sparkling eyes, how could I tell her that this twisted, knotted, some places braided, some places twisted, this green and red jumble of thread is the most beautiful possesion I have? I know every day she will be looking to see if it still adorns my wrist. And I can assure you it will....

It isn't about the money. It isn't about what the gift is. It is about the love and thought that goes into the gift. A heartfelt note scrawled in a card, and a nickle's worth of thread tangled into a bracelet means more to me than anything that can be bought in a store.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I'm a huge Packers fan. I loved Brett Favre during the good years, and when he first decided to retire, I was happy for him and his family. Brett had always been a picture of honesty and integrity, the kind of role model we want our students to aspire to be like.
Then, the drama years of Favre started, the can't make up his mind about whether he is playing or not. The sharp comments are his former team/coach and community were shocking.
But now, it seems what comes around goes around, and Brett's glory days are done. Instead of leaving football a hero, one of those players all fans remember with a smile, he has become almost a villain, shrouded in both a loss of his ability to lead his team, as well as accusations of misconduct.
Yesterday's Packer's slaughter of the Vikings was the nail in the coffin for Brett.
OK, what does all this have to do with teaching? A couple of things, I think...
#1 When your time has come, leave gracefully. We've all known that teacher who has taught for so long they can accurately predict to the second how long that same lesson they've taught for the past 34 years will take. We've also seen newer teachers who though not veteraned with multi-decades of experience, have reached the end of their 'usefulness' in the classroom.
Whatever the reason for the time to have come, teachers need to take a lesson from Favre and when the door is closing, exit it gracefully with a proud smile and wave goodbye.
#2 Teamwork, the camaraderie of the good of the all, has to take precedence over personal gain or glory. Teachers need to teach their students to be a part of something greater, working towards a common goal, and let them lead the way, at times. We, as teachers, have to learn to let go of the control, not always be the 'sage on the stage' and let students lead the learning. Letting go of the personal parts of teaching, the need to be in control, can be empowering.
#3 Learn to admit your shortcomings. No one is perfect. No one knows the best way about doing anything. Seek out those wiser than you, and listen to their advice. Try to approach things from a new perspective. By rethinking your classroom, your teaching, you might find the new one is indeed superior to the old. But simply sticking with what's always been done, because it's always been done? That's a sure fire, direct path to destruction.
#4 Taking the easy way out is not always the best way. Giving an easier test just so 'everyone passes' doesn't mean they learned it any better. It doesn't prove anything except they can pass the easier version. Maybe next time, try giving the easy version to begin with it that is where you are going to end up anyway! Be responsible for your own actions, your own part in the failures. Set up a winning play, a sure fire path to the end zone, even if it takes multiple snaps, and you just have to keep getting a few yards each play to make another first down. It isn't about making a touchdown from the punt return; it's about getting the points on the scoreboard.
#5 Share the play book. You want all your team mates on the same page? Share the play book. Don't assume students know where you are headed, understand the directions the first time, or that just because you've explained it, they get it. Make sure you are all in the same play book, on the same page, every single time you snap that ball. There is no such thing as over-practicing a play. Work on it together until every player is confident and comfortable with their role in the game.
#6 Last but not least, be the bigger person. Admit when you are wrong. Admit when you've not carried your share of the ball game. Tell your students you've realized you may not have done a thorough job of explaining a concept and want to try again with them. Tell them the test was confusing so you've revamped it. Always be ready to be humble with your students. They will appreciate your honesty and willingness to admit your shortcomings.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Lesson plans are like a map for your classroom. You might make it to your destination without the map, but having it there in the glovebox, just in case, sure makes for a more efficient travel plan.
I try to always plan a week ahead, with a general sketch for the unit we are working on. The general sketch might be as vague as I know the next unit we are working on is about Antarctica. I know I want them to be able to map the major landforms, know where the research stations are located, so probably we will do some map activity. I also want them to look at the impact of global warming on that region and how reseach done there impacts our knowledge of global warming in general. They would love to research some stuff about the penguin population, so I think I saw a National Geographic something online about that.
The 'sketch' is nothing more than a general overall idea of the 'stuff' I want to accomplish. Then, I turn that into weekly lesson plans, with an ending assessment always in mind for the activities we are going to complete.
My weekly lesson plans, I work from a copy of a small poster from a Marzano training I attended called "Which of there Classroom Instruction That Works Strategies have you used today?" This simple poster just helps me think through some activities we can use to reach our learning goals - things like summarizing and note-taking, non-linguistic representation, advance organizers, etc... Using this helps me remember to create a variety of learning opportunities to meet the needs of all types of learners, as well as help my students learn to be independent thinkers and learners.
Each weekend, I sit down and structure my week, based on those "strategies", penciling in each day's plan. Often, this changes as the week progresses, students work slower or faster than I anticipated, but I have a good idea of where we are headed overall. I make copies for the week, make teacher keys for anything needed just in case I have to be gone, or just to make it easier for me than searching at the last minute.
With each day's lesson, I try to keep in mind what the final assessment will look like - are we taking a paper/pencil test? Are students designing some project in groups or independently to demonstrate their knowledge? Are we working towards student presentations? With each activity, I purposefully explain how what we are doing will help them achieve their final goal of success on that final assessment - whether it is taking notes/creating a graphic organizer for that final test, or how they might use this information in their presentation, or what parts of today's Venn diagram might help them structure a paragraph in their essay they are writing.
Showing them how all the activities fit together teaches them the process of learning, and helps them realize that everything we do has a purpose, not just a busywork assignment for the day. It holds me accountable in my planning and teaching, as well as holds them accountable in their learning and eventually demonstrating that knowledge.
And... most importantly of ALL. HAVE A PLAN B every day. You never know when the network will fail, when half the class will be gone with some strange virus, or when you will just need something less intense than a large scale group discussion. What you did yesterday may have bombed, and you may need to reteach or reapproach that particular part of the unit. Having built-in Plan B's only makes your life easier!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In anything we do, reflection is critical to continued success. For effective teachers, this component is perhaps the most important part of their success. Having the ability to look critically at what you've done, the impact it had on student learning, and how you would do things differently next time, that reflective piece of the puzzle, is what sets apart great teachers from mediocre ones.

We all teach lessons that go well. We all teach lessons that bomb. It's a fact of life in the classroom. Somedays we are on our game. Some days, at best, we coast through.

Maybe that is the next great craze for professional development - forced reflection for teachers. A once a week, minimum, journaling activity where teachers critically dissect their lessons....

Would it really change anything? Would the less successful teachers be able to look honestly at their shortcomings and find the missing parts?

As a teacher, I am always looking at what I did, and often, focusing on what went wrong. When my students blow a test I thought they were prepared for, I point the finger at me and my teachings methods. When behavior gets out of control in my classroom, I rethink my own reactions to the situation. I try to rationalize how I could have changed the situations before these digressions happened, and strive to make it different tomorrow, next week, next year.

I don't think of myself as perfect. I don't think I am the 'greatest' teacher ever. But I know that every day, every time I teach, I think about my role in the success or failures of my students. I try to take that reflection of my role in their learning journey and use it to improve.

Can that be taught to struggling teachers? Sometimes, I think yes, and other times, when I hear a struggling teacher boast they "use TOO many best teaching practices" in their classroom, I wonder.

I think it all comes down to humble-ness, of being the kind of person who never feels you measure up to your own standards, of always looking for ways to improve.

I remember one of the teachers who taught here when I was first hired. Her room was always immaculate. Students in her classes were ALWAYS on task, perfectly behaved. Yet, SHE asked the principal to attend a classroom management trainings. This teacher who had such perfect control over the same children who would set fire to buildings in their spare time! SHE wanted more classroom management training!

We all need that humbleness, that ability to find ultimate fault with ourselves and our teaching, and the ability to seek improvement along the way. THAT is the difference in being a GREAT teacher and a mediocre one.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Being organized sometimes gets a bad rap. People almost brag about their own inefficiences. In reality, most of us strive for a certain balance in the organization schemes in our classrooms.
Yesterday, in my rant, I was critical of preservice teacher training lacking in adequately preparing teachers for real classrooms. Today I will try to offer some easy practical ideas for how new teachers (or old ones who want to become more effective) can structure their classrooms to meet the needs of students.
We often hear that the first 5 minutes and last 5 minutes of class are the most important, the time when students are most ready to learn. Unfortunately, these are also the most common "down" times in classrooms. In order to easily establish order every day immediately, as well as captivate those first 5 minutes of sponge-like minds, have some sort of starter activity ready each day. Ideally, this activity will focus students' minds on the upcoming days work, tying it to what you did yesterday. This is also a perfect time to incorporate writing into your curriculum, easily and naturally. Ask students to explain a concept covered yesterday or to speculate about a topic you will be discussing today. Have them draw a diagram, create an analogy, or even pose a question. These can be done in a notebook or even in an online blog. But whatever the task, however it is to be completed, getting students in the habit of doing this immediately each class period focuses their energies in on the topics to be taught. An additional bonus? This gives you a few split seconds to take that dreaded mandatory attendance or take care of other immediate housekeeping tasks.
Now that you have your students rapt attention on your subject, drag them into the days lesson! Bridge together yesterday's learning with today's. Revisting yesterday's material briefly helps catch up absent students, even if just vaguely, and also brings to the forefront of students' memories what was learned. Engage them with discussion with a partner or at their table, them responses shared with the larger group.
Vary the activities throughout the class period. Note-taking may sometimes be necessary but don't have it last longer than 8-10 minutes at the most! Pause to discuss the notes, sketch remembering pictures, or write reflections to share. Move students about the room so their blood gets moving again. Then, if you MUST, continue the notes.
Plan different times of the class for different activities, some of which are quiet, individual work, others involving the whole group, and still others which have students working with a partner or small group. Shift your position often as well. Talk from the front of the room, wander as you speak, or even control your powerpoint from the back. All that movement shifts students' attention to a new location, re-engaging their minds.
The best strategy for heading off discipline problems is to be proactive. Talk to students in the halls. Stand outside your door greeting them as they arrive in the morning. "Hey, nice jacket!" or "Go Packers!" or "how was the game last night?" all go a long way in establishing those critical relationships with students.
Make your classroom a welcoming place for students by keeping it neat and tidy. Put some bright posters up. Or... create those amazing bulletin boards you see in some classes (never in mine...). But the best thing to display on the walls is STUDENT WORK! Have them create colorful maps, large graphs, illustrated biographies... anything that can be stapled to a bulletin board. It says, "I VALUE YOU AND YOUR WORK!" One year I cut out every picture and article in our small town newspaper that featured a student. I started in the summer with Little League pictures and 4th of July Parade floats, and continued throughout the entire school year with sports pics and articles, student of the week mentions, etc... These I plastered on my classroom door. Kids LOVED looking for themselves in the collection. Time invested? 5 minutes a week. Payoff? HUGE!
Keep the momentum of relationships during class time as well. I always joked with students who are teetering on the brink of misbehavior about having a roll of duct tape and a taser. That twisted sense of humor works well with middle schoolers, and for me. Maybe it won't fit your classroom but surely you can come up with some fun way to refocus your students with humor. Trust me, humor beats yelling ANY day, for your own sanity, as well as your students.
Homemade cupcakes go a long way for good will as well. (or cookies, or even a cheap bag of smarties candies purchased for half price after Halloween) Giving your students, ALL your students a treat on occasions says you think about them outside of school. Give them out on test day for 'brain food'. Toss them out to people who give right answers in class discussions. It really wakes up a lagging conversation! (especially if you are a bad thrower, as I am!) Anything to make them sit on the edge of their seats and participate. Bribery?? maybe... but it works!
Review, study, learn the material together. We often have the mentality that students ought to study outside of school (and they should...) and it is their responsibility to learn the material we present them (well.. it is to a certain extent) but in reality, often students do not know how to study or learn material. Teach them to make notecards. Teach them that repetition is the key to retention of material. INTENTIONALLY teach them to learn. Play review games. Have them create test questions. Have them review each other. Make learning automatic and fun.
Effective teaching is about creating a persona, a classroom, a learning environment - one that meets your needs as a teacher, but more importantly the needs of your diverse set of students. Learn, grow, change.... be always finding a better way. Once you stop learning and changing yourself as a teacher, you will no longer be effective.
You might also want to read Taming the Dragon of Chaos, an article I wrote for TEACHER magazine several years ago, for more ideas.

Monday, November 15, 2010

I've never considered myself to be a particularly organized person. My life tends to be made of piles of this and that, trails of where I've been scattered with remnants of what I was doing when I was there, and constant comments of "What was I doing?" as skitter scatter from task to task. I am perennially planning ahead, making lists, even lists of lists, trying to find order in the confusion, but always, I feel as if I am flying by the seat of my pants.

At school, my goal is always to be a week ahead. That may sound organized, I know, but in reality, without that week's cushion of 'stuff' planned ahead, I feel like the walls are pushing in on me, as I flounder day to day, wondering if I need copies for tomorrow (or even next hour..) and the interference of an unscheduled staff meeting before school, or a student who announces they are going to gone for a week starting in ... well, 5 minutes... can send my mind overboard.

Plans change, certainly, and within those week's worth of plans, there is always room for change and flexibility. However, I have a game plan, and if we get there slower than I planned, well, yahoo... I have more planned than I thought!

Being in the position I am in this year, in and out of other teachers' classrooms for much of my day, I am shocked at how many teachers fly by the seat of their pants, day to day, with no idea where they are headed the second half of the hour, much less tomorrow, or next week.

On the one hand, to each his/her own. Whatever works for you.

On the other hand, I, as your coteacher, your partner, your other half of the teaching team, NEED to know what's going on in order to help you, help my students, and be able to adequately plan my own time management. I am not an expert in your subject matter either, so a little time to prep for today's lesson helps me feel like I know what you are talking about, and helps me better help my struggling special needs students.

I am just confused and overwhelmed right now, wondering how to manage to keep my own head above water.

Beyond me, and even more importantly, it's about the kids, especially struggling students. They need a game plan, a logical attack of the material, a sequential presentation of facts, and how to think about and learn the material. How can they be expected to grasp the content when the game plan in the classroom is complete chaos?

I think the solution lies partly in teacher prep programs. Somewhere along the path of training new teachers, we need to teach organization, classroom management (both of student behaviors and the actual structure of what an effective classroom looks and works like), and the importance of these in how students learn.

School has to become more about the students and their success and comfort zones for learning than about the teachers and their own needs. I think more than having a special ed teacher, such as myself, in as a coteacher in these classes, providing support for classroom teachers through a coach that helps them create organized learning environments, ones in which students feel safe and comfortable in what is expected from day to day, would go farther in helping all students succeed than the current model we use.

Most days, in most classes, I am not much more than a glorified aid, cashing a teacher's paycheck. Wouldn't it make more sense to create a position that actually helps teachers help students?
But then again, do these fly by the seat of their pants teachers want to grow and learn and change...... maybe THAT is the real problem.....

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I admit it: I am a huge Survivor buff. But this season has me questioning my alliance with the program.
I always enjoy the variety of walks of life of the castaways. This year, I was excited to once again see a teacher. Naonka is a PE teacher from Southern California. How cool! (or.. so I thought)
Now, I realize this is a game. I realize the producers show us what they want us to see with the clips of the day to day life, the tribal council, etc...
This season, I am embarassed for teachers everywhere to see one of our colleagues act the way Naonka does. Not only does she let the F-bomb fly so often I sometimes forget what her face looks like, she was caught stealing food from her tribe. She is a self-proclaimed bully, liar and cheat.
How does this look to Naonka's students back at home? How do parents feel about this person being a role model for their children?
Again, I know it is a game. I know it is "TV". But come on, if you are going on national TV and telling everyone you are a teacher, could you please ACT LIKE A TEACHER and be morally upstanding in your actions?
Naonka will probably make it to the end, win the million bucks, and retire with more money than I will ever make. Good for her. I think maybe not having her in the classroom as a role model for young people is a good thing.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sitting in my classroom this Sunday afternoon, at one of the crossroads/turning points of the school year, I am heartened and disenchanted, both at the same time.

We have reached the end of the first marking period and I feel I have seen such great progress in most of my students this year. My special ed PreAlgebra class has managed to stay with/or even just ahead of, the regular ed PreAlgebra class. Granted, we are not plowing through grade level material yet, but doing what, for an average 8th grader, would be all review from 6th and 7th grades. But plod ahead we are, with most of my students doing extremely well. As we head into more abstract material, more algebraic concepts, I anticipate our progress to slow. I am excited by the enthusiasm and efforts of most of my kids though, so I am confident they will rise to meet the challenge and my expectations.

Other parts of my new role are frustrating - the kids who don't care, who refuse to let me care, who fight the system at every turn and corner, who are determined to take a one-way street away from school. One minute they acknowledge my efforts, smiling, saying the right things, fessing up to their discretions, plotting their course ahead with care. Then, the very next moment, they again are in the middle of the fire, in the office for swearing, making inappropriate gestures in a class, or screaming obscenities in the hall, sleeping through yet another class, frustrating another adult in their life to the ends of their rope.

I've always prided myself on the ability to connect with kids, even the hard-core ones. Even these guys, somedays, I think, I am making it!! There is hope, a little tiny glimmer of faint light at the end of the tunnel, and... it is enough to get me here another day. Other days, it seems no matter how many times or way I try to light that fire again, a huge wave of despair washes over them and me, not only putting out the fire, but leaving the kindling so wet their is no chance of relighting it.

Other parts of my job frustrate me. The being spread between so many classrooms, so many teachers, some of whom work with me, some of whom seem to work against me, themselves, and logic itself is the worst part. I struggle with the ineffectiveness that prohibits learning from occurring easily with even the best student, when this ineffectiveness makes learning nearly impossible for struggling students. But I am learning to breathe in, breathe out.... breathe in, breathe out.

I repeat daily:

God, grant us the...
Serenity to accept things we cannot change,
Courage to change the things we can, and the
Wisdom to know the difference
Patience for the things that take time
Appreciation for all that we have, and
Tolerance for those with different struggles
Freedom to live beyond the limitations of our past ways, the
Ability to feel your love for us and our love for each other and the
Strength to get up and try again even when we feel it is hopeless.
It's an uphill battle with no winning in sight, and I struggle with accepting that fact. Acceptance is key to sanity, sanity is key to helping these students experience the most success possible. Accept I must....
Into the second marking period and beyond.... anxious for the next part of the journey....

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

'twas a better day today.... or sort of....

The sleeper from yesterday, the one who sleeps nearly EVERY day, managed to be awake during math class, even took his quiz and got a C on it! HURRAY!!! Then, he slept through the next hour, science class. And now, last hour, my prep hour, he got kicked out of history class for being disruptive (at least he was awake?) and now, is sitting with me, working on his notes.

The other one... the I don't want to do anything but torture my sister kid.... I sat and had a long conversation with during my prep hour yesterday. Things were looking up, I thought, dared to think... But today, he was apparently screaming the F-bomb in the hall about his sister and another teacher drug him to the office. He was gone the rest of the day.

You win some, you lose some. Today was a toss-up, but it beat the heck out of yesterday.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

I am frustrated today.... very.... There are 2 young men who are causing me such grief I am out of options with them it seems.

#1 - sleeps through class every hour, every day. Today, in prealgebra, I made him stand. I figured at least he was awake. But the next hour, in science, I could not even get him to wake up enough to stand.

#2 refuses to do anything but torture his sister. He even went so far as to throw her books in the hall garbage can today.

*sigh* I feel like a failure with these two young men. I have exhausted every thing I can think of, and then some.... and nothing changes their behavior.

These are the kinds of kids I wish I had a magic wand for, some carrot I could dangle to get them to at least be occasionally cooperative. But alas, no...


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I do not understand why teachers are so intimidated by observations, evaluations, and in particular casual, unscheduled walk-through observations by their adminstrators or colleagues. In any given profession, you are observed by others in your workplace, whether by your superiors or constituents.

Teaching is one of the few jobs where adults work in isolation, with no accountability to anyone else for their daily tasks. Our students are left at our mercy, behind closed doors. They have little idea if they are being taught what should be taught, if it is truly preparing them for the next step in their lives or not.

It seems to me that teachers should open their doors to each other, to their adminstrators as well as parents. If we are doing our job, we have nothing to hide. By opening our doors, by welcoming honest feedback on our 'performance', wouldn't we simply be encouraging ourselves to look critically at our own practice and how it can best be improved?

Maybe that's part of the problem? Some teachers are so entrenched in their own mediocrity they are afraid of having to improve?

There are many great teachers out there with much to share - content, pedagogical methods and styles, organizational tips and tricks - with their colleagues. Walk-throughs of each other's classes could share the wealth of knowledge, creating a more effective place of learning for students. We just have to get past that initial cringe of fear of having others in our rooms.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My favorite poem...Today as the first snow flies, the flurries swirling and piling.... I am reminded of this Taylor Mali piece. It seemed fitting to share it here today.

Undivided attention
By Taylor Mali

A grand piano wrapped in quilted pads by movers,
tied up with canvas straps - like classical music's
birthday gift to the insane -
is gently nudged without its legs
out an eighth-floor window on 62nd street.

It dangles in April air from the neck of the movers' crane,
Chopin-shiny black lacquer squares
and dirty white crisscross patterns hanging like the second-to-last
note of a concerto played on the edge of the seat,
the edge of tears, the edge of eight stories up going over, and
I'm trying to teach math in the building across the street.

Who can teach when there are such lessons to be learned?
All the greatest common factors are delivered by
long-necked cranes and flatbed trucks
or come through everything, even air.
Like snow.

See, snow falls for the first time every year, and every year
my students rush to the window
as if snow were more interesting than math,
which, of course, it is.

So please.

Let me teach like a Steinway,
spinning slowly in April air,
so almost-falling, so hinderingly
dangling from the neck of the movers' crane.
So on the edge of losing everything.

Let me teach like the first snow, falling.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

So you think my paycheck should be based on the test scores my students get on their MEAP tests. Sure... great idea.

Now you tell me how to make them take it seriously. Sitting watching the class take their tests, I see some of these students, taking it very seriously, trying their best to get every question correct. Next to those serious students though, are the ones who know the score on this doesn't count for them for anything. They play it like a game, trying to see how quickly they can bubble in answers.

I will admit in that in theory, testing students should be a fair indicator of teacher effectiveness. However, like many theories, when put into actual practice, the end result is far from the theoretical assumption.

Michigan tests students in the fall, with that test covering the material that should have been taught the year before. Once those students leave my class, I have lost control of them and their abilities. I am not the one giving them the test, I am not the person who had the opportunity to review them for the test, and I am not the face they say telling them to take the test seriously and try their hardest.

I have no control over much of what the students sitting in front of me are doing on their test either. The one young man just wants to be done so he can finish eating the bag of potato chips he brought in from the cafeteria with him. Another girl just hurried through so she can finish her science homework instead of taking it home tonight. Young man #2 has missed the last 2 weeks of school and looks as if he is about to fall asleep now. Girl #2 keeps trying to distract everyone around her by drawing faces on her test booklet. Young man #2 just farted several loud stinky ones to see who would giggle.

Granted, these students in front of me are special needs kids, with a variety of disabilities and are not expected to score well on the test regardless, for the most part. However, their scores are supposedly a reflection on the teacher who had them in class last year, despite their wide range of disabilities and abilities.

For some students, a little accountability for their own scores, a little more push and expectations from home... those might help their scores be more true indicators of what they were taught and learned last year.

For other students, many of whom sit in this classroom now taking this test, the test is an outrageous attempt to make each child fit an absurd mold of what someone somewhere decided each child could learn. I would like those people to come sit and talk one on one with a couple of these kids, and maybe once they realize that realistically, these kids cannot even carry on a logical conversation with an adult, they might consent that these kids probably don't need to be able to distinquish between a linear and inversely proportion function.

But now.. I must collect answer keys and test booklets, and audio versions of tests, knowing that in reality, maybe 1 of the 10 might have a shot at having guessed well enough to score a proficient on the test.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A recent article in Teacher Magazine, Teaching Secrets: Managing October Exhaustion, has lead to some controversial blog posts. I decided I might as well join the fracas :)
In the article, the author advocates teachers taking a day off in October to beat the early school year exhaustion. Critics have complained that other professionals often do not have this luxury, and that being exhausted this early on must be an indicator of a bigger problem in education.
I will admit that October has that settling in feeling for me as a teacher. Finally, I have the kids and their schedules down. I feel like the routine is set, and the learning can begin. We've been working since Day One, no doubt, but until the first few weeks are under our belts, everything still feels odd and out of sorts.
Teachers are harried, always. Someone always wants something. No matter how seemingly simple the task, there will be little hands waving in the air, "Help me!" There are always papers to correct, grades to record, copies to make, parent phone calls to make, planning to do, another meeting to attend, another professional book you planned to read. It is never ending.
In my district, teachers get 3 personal days each year. In addition we get 11 sick days. Those personal days are intended for what sick days don't cover. Maybe you need to go sign some important legal documents, or you managed to swing tickets to a late Sunday Packers game in Green Bay and can't make it back on Monday morning. Whatever the reason, those 3 days are yours, to savor however you choose during the year.
Personally, I usually save mine, thinking something exciting might come up later in the school year. I'm always hoping for something exciting. But usually, it doesn't happen and more times than not, my personal days roll over into sick days, adding to my accumulated total.
This Friday is a day off school for students, a professional development day for staff. I am taking a personal day. The in-service day will consist of watching a streaming presentation on poverty and how that impacts students and their learning. Granted this is a topic that applies to students in my school, but we have already heard speakers on this topic in the past few years at other inservices. The afternoon will consist of 'department work" which usually translates into much needed time for collaboration and/or planning on your own. I decided my day would be better spent with my granddaughter at home. A perfect use of a personal day....
I don't begrudge anyone their 'personal days' off whenever they feel the need to use them. However, I do think saying you are already exhausted by October, with over 3/4 of the school year left to go, says something about you and your job.
Is this a personal criticism of the article's author? Not necessarily... maybe more a criticism of teaching and burnout in general. Teaching is a tough job, no doubt. It seems each year we are expected to do more and more, with no additional appreciation or compensation.
But are we any different than any other profession? We get summers and holidays off, unlike many other professions - I always think of doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, and others, whose jobs never stop. Those professions all are stressful and undervalued as well. I wonder what personal days they get to take?
I think the attacking different professions, saying ours is tougher than others, makes us look petty. We all chose our career paths, knowing where that path would lead us. Whining about the responsibilites and our stress, makes us look as if we chose our path for the wrong reasons.
If you think teaching is too stressful, consider looking for another job. But let's leave the whining about our stress at the door and just do our job in the meantime.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Kids test the adults in their lives, to see how far they can push, to see what limits there truly are. It really isn't about what you tell them you will and won't allow; it is about your day to day interactions with them.
Teachers make classroom rules, send them home in parent letters, post them on their walls, but all that is meaningless to students. Students will test your limits, until they discover how far they can push you.
It is interesting to see students in different settings, different classrooms, to observe how they act/react to the change in expectations. When expectations are high, they tend to rise to meet them. When expectations are lax, they take full advantage of that as well.
The pictures are of my 17 month old granddaughter, Rylie. She is no different that a student in school. She knows just how far she can push me, as well as her mother. She knows that Mom's "no" means a much more solid NO than Grandma's NO. When we are both there, giving her limits, she pushes even farther than she normally would, especially with her mother, just to see if she can get away with the indiscretion.
Kids in school are the same. They play one teacher/adult against the other, trying to seek out the weakest link. They know who to ask the question of, they know who will cave and who will not. Rules they refuse to follow in one classroom, they easily abide by in another.
As adults, we need to keep in mind, students rise to meet our expectations. Set those expectations HIGH and keep them there. Don't ever allow students to give you less than they are capable of.

Monday, October 11, 2010

There is no doubt: students learn better from effective teachers. The
correlation is obvious and indisputable. How to determine
effectiveness, however, is an entirely different issue.

Test scores seem to be the natural go-to for determining
effectiveness. I agree that test scores can provide some information
about the process. However, test scores are dependent on many other
factors outside the teacher’s control. Test scores also are only one
tiny snapshot into a student’s performance. Unless there is some
accountability for the student on those tests, as well as the teacher,
the student’s performance may not be an accurate indicator of his true
abilities, or learning.

If test scores are to be used to determine teacher effectiveness,
there needs to be a parent and student accountability factor in focus
as well. I have had students who miss 60+ days of school in a year.
Teaching that child, preparing them for the ‘test’ is impossible. I
cannot possibly prepare that child, in one-third of the school year,
for scoring high enough on the next fall’s test to keep ME from
missing out on my merit pay. However, that child’s low score was
through no fault of my own.

Students in my classes come with a huge variety of skill sets, from 5
years below grade level, to well above grade level. Yet, I am expected
to meet each and every child’s individual needs, as each hour a bell
sends them on their way, and another group of skill sets come in the
door. During the course of the school day, teachers may see hundreds
of students, just for a glimpse of their life. We are expected to work
with each child and bring them along to the predetermined level of
achievement, regardless of what their incoming skill set was. These
children have other issues beyond academic problems as well. Many come
from home situations where school is not valued.

I have long believed that truly good teachers are born, not created.
Some people are naturally able to lead and teach. Others simply do not
have that ability.

There are several groups of teachers that I see in schools:

~The teacher who is great with kids, understands them, relates well to
them, but struggles to convey content.
This type of teacher can often
be mentored to become a more effective teacher by giving them
strategies to improve their pedagogical methods. Through deliberate
attempts to improve their teaching, these teachers can improve and
become great teachers.
~The teacher who is very efficient at the art of teaching, but rarely
makes a personal connection with their students.
This teacher will be
effective in the delivery of content, but will rarely inspire students
to excel beyond what is expected, or to become teachers themselves.
These teachers are acceptable to have on staff but should not make up
the majority of staff. Students do not feel comfortable or confident
in their classrooms.
~The teacher who struggles in all aspects of teaching. This teacher
does not have the natural ability to connect with their students on a
personal level and their pedagogical talents are absent as well. This
teacher, in my opinion, is hopeless. Nothing about their job comes
naturally. It is virtually impossible to create an effective teacher
in these cases.
~The naturally great teacher. This teacher relates well to students,
and in addition, has the natural knack for conveying expectations and
content, as well as inspiring students to reach beyond the
expectations to learn and create on their own. These are the teachers
students remember for years. These are the teachers who inspire future
generations of teachers.

The question then becomes, what do administrators do about teachers
who struggle in all aspects of teaching? At what cost do we mentor and
‘fix’ teachers with potential? How do we cultivate a culture that
encourages the best and brightest to become teachers? How do
universities determine who among their applicants are the best suited
to become teachers? Do we allow anyone who wants to teach a chance to
try? Do we ‘steer’ individuals with traits we as a educational
community deem desirable into teaching?

Would money fix the problem? No, but it could help. Many natural
teachers choose other career paths for financial reasons. If financial
incentives were in place to encourage teachers entering the
profession, as well as keeping them there once they are in the
classroom, perhaps classrooms would be filled with more effective

If part of the equation of determining the effectiveness of a teacher
is built upon their ability to build relationships with their
students, would financial incentives steer individuals who do not have
the intrinsic desire to teach to enter the profession?

It seems to me the place to begin the transition to filling every
classroom with a truly effective teacher rests on the idea of what an
effective teacher looks like. We, as an educational community, need to
clearly define what we need, what we expect and what is acceptable in
each classroom.

The second part of the transition needs to empower school
administrators with the ability to remove ineffective teachers from
the classroom easily. The process needs to be standardized and
simplified. Teachers deserve job security, yes, but not when that job
security is so entrenched it prevents administrators from being able
to openly observe, critique, and require struggling teachers to

Schools need to evolve into a new paradigm of what teaching and
learning look like. We need to provide an educational process that
meets each child where he comes to us, and takes them as far as they
can go. Built into that needs to be an acceptance of differences, and
allowances for exceptionalities must be in place. The current process
of expecting everyone to meet the same standards in the same time
frame is unreasonable and impossible. It eliminates the individuality
of the process and sets unrealistic expectations on struggling
students and overworked teachers.

Friday, October 08, 2010

It seems to me that special education is a balancing act. All students, regardless of disability, deserve and are entitled to an appropriate education. That fact is not in contention. The part I question is the 'appropriate' part.

I have long been an advocate of inclusion. In "Inclusion Teaches Kids Who Struggle How to Succeed" , I closed with the line "Life does not sort people into those who struggle and those who find certain tasks easy; why do we in school then?"

I've been thinking a lot lately though about the sorting process. At what cost do we not sort? It seems to me in some situations, the inclusion of ALL students, lends itself to a watering down of the curriculum for ALL students. In an effort to make the learning accessible by even the lowest of students, we often find ourselves giving such an abbreviated version that we actually do a disservice to the majority of our students.

I still stand by my original argument that often, "When students are pulled out for a subject, special ed teachers tend to "dummy-down" the curriculum; they want students to work at a level at which they can experience total success."

If we can eliminate THAT from happening, perhaps we can solve some of the problem of pull-out versus inclusion. Special needs students come in all shapes and sizes, all different abilities. But each child should be pushed to meet their maximum potential, even if that means at times they will struggle, at times they may fail. Always experiencing total success is not realistic in school just as it is not realistic in life.

I don't know what the perfect education setting would look like. I just struggle with the current model of pushing all students through the same program at the same pace. It lessens the experience for even average students, and at the same time, often is still at such an advanced pace we are leaving behind the struggling students. In essence, we are leaving them ALL behind.

Education must be about more than test scores, more than getting through x amount of curriculum in y amount of time. It has to be about kids and their needs, and how we can best meet them all. Education without flexibility is not education, but cattle herding.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Teachers need to be flexible, first and foremost. It is easy to get caught in our own mode of transmitting information to our students, and forget that sometimes, they are moving at a different pace from our own. We are pushed to cover material, cover material, cover material, work our way through that curriculum, faster, faster, with little regard for where our students actually are, and how they truly learn.

It is up to us as trained professionals to keep in mind who our clients truly are: our students. Our job is to meet their needs, no one else's. A little common sense goes a long way when we really think through what we should be doing in our classrooms. If students aren't ready for tomorrow's test, why push to give it? Why not take one more day to review those concepts? Time is relative when learning is being measured. Everyone does not learn the same way or at the same rate. Taking the time to truly TEACH before assessing ensures all students have a fair opportunity to experience success.
Wayne C. Booth said, "Use fewer examinations, fewer quizzes, and more essay assignments. You don't know anything about a subject until you can put your knowledge into some kind of expression."
So instead of giving a test because it is Friday, or you've hit the end of a chapter, or because the marking period is ending soon and your student's grades need a boost, give more writing assessments all along. Ask them to write what they've learned. Ask them to apply it to their own lives. Forget multiple choice and matching and fill in the blank. Teach students to think and learn and master that knowledge. Teach them to teach you and others what they've learned and why it is important.
Then, and only then, will you truly know what they know, what they have learned from your experiences together.

Monday, October 04, 2010

The biggest change in my schedule is seeing high schoolers as well as middle schoolers. Being in freshman American history first hour, then scooting back to 6th grade social studies is such a phenomenal change, you would think I had moved to another planet. The maturity level difference between these two groups is remarkable. However, one thing remains constant. "Help me, I don't get it" when given independent work to complete, echoes at both levels.

Is this a learned behavior? Is helplessness trained into students? Is it they simply have no interest/desire to actually complete the assignment so whining is their automatic defense mechanism?

It doesn't matter what the assignment is. It can be a simple worksheet, two political cartoons to analyze and compare, taking notes from a science section, or any other given assignment. The first line of defense for the majority of students is "Help me, I don't get it." Before they read the directions, before they look in their textbook or other reference materials, before they notice that the problems in front of them parallel those done together in class moments, before...."Help me, I don't get it" ripples across the room.

Would changing the assignments help? Would more challenging, student-driven projects eliminate some of this reluctance to attack assignments? If students had more say in designing their own learning, could they become more independent learners?

I don't know the answers. I just know, "Help me, I don't get it" is an excuse to not try on their own. How can we overcome this helplessness and encourage independence?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The school year finally feels as if it is starting to settle in. I'm no longer wondering how to tweak my schedule to make it work. I no longer have to stop and wonder where I headed next when the bell rings.

Parts of my new job I am enjoying tremendously. I love working with kids who NEED me. I like the feeling that I am pushing them further and faster than they have ever been pushed before. Finding ways to teach them grade level material is a challenge but I am impressed at how hard they are working to meet my expectations. Today was our 3rd prealgebra quiz. ALL of them (except the one who slept and refused to take the quiz) ACED it!!! They were so proud of themselves. I was so proud of them. It is honest to goodness 8th grade prealgebra content. AND THEY DID IT!!!

I know my students are overwhelmed in their regular ed classes, and for that part, I feel badly. The one little girl was working on studying for her history test today in guided study. She was frustrated that I wouldn't/couldn't sit with her and study one on one. Finally, at one point, she mumbled, "I miss being in special ed." I bet she does. I can only imagine how difficult this transition has been for some of these students, going from a self-contained environment, to the big bad real world, in the blink of an eye.

I do miss my own classroom and that feeling of my own domain, my own little kingdom, doing things MY way. Being in with other teachers, watching them teach, can be exciting and interesting, but just as often, it can be frustrating. I know when the content confuses me, it must confuse my students. I know when I am bored and near nodding off, so must the students be.

But I am getting to the point in the year it is truly becoming about the kids. The dust is settling on things that matter not as much and the routine of me and my expectations, them and their personalities, are all begining to find their happy medium. It won't be long and it will be June.... and they will be moving up and on.... Can we make it to the finish line by then??? I don't know for sure, but the momentum sure feels like it is picking up!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

At our inservice last week, the conversation turned to that of teacher dress. Apparently, some people - staff, community members, board members - had made comments to the adminstration about the overly casual dress of some of our teaching staff.

I admit to being as guilty as the next of tossing on a paper of not-too-wrinkly khakis and a polo on many too many mornings. Corduroys tend to be my pant of choice on cooler days. I much prefer to toss on something snuggly and comfy, to high heels and a skirt.

The discussion continued with different people citing their reasons for their own frequent casual dress being everything to health reasons, to comfort levels, to not insulting parents. No one ventured to comment advocating we SHOULD dress more professionally as a group.

When I was in college, one of my education professors lectured us on our professionalism - everything from our dress (NO DENIM EVER) to not hanging out in the teachers' lounge bashing parents and adminstrators to the appearance of our desk/classroom. To this day, her words echo in my head when I pull on my jeans on Jeans Friday. On days I slip into a blazer and a skirt, I see her smile at me.

Do our students CARE what we wear? Do they learn better just because we dress up or down? The latter, I am not so sure... but the first question? I think they do notice. A young lady once complimented me, saying, "You always look nice, like being here at school is important."

When I was a teenager, it was the rage to wear your casual clothes, jeans especially, to church. My mother was appalled. She admitted God didn't likely care what I wore, but pointed out if I wasn't going to value church enough to wear my very best clothes there, when was more important than church to wear them.

To me, school, my job, my professional appearance, reflects how I think about myself and my job. If I dress the part, I feel the part, and I tend to more walk the walk that day.

I do teach in an impoversished area, where parents tend to dress casually, often in what most teachers would toss in the dumpster, stained, worn, ripped. But, that is all they have. I don't think they are offended by their child's teachers wearing respectable, PROFESSIONAL clothing. When they go to their doctor, their lawyer, the bank, the insurance office, etc... they see professionals wearing professional attire. I think they expect us to also dress the part. Parents view teachers in this community as well paid (and compared to Average Joe, we are), educated and a notch 'above'. Wearing clothes that make us look that part would not be insulting, but rather expected.

I don't think teachers need a tie, high heels, or fancy duds, to be effective. We need to be comfortable, able to move, walk, stand, bend, move. We need to be active among our students, and wear clothing that does not hamper our abilities to do that.

But on the other hand, would it be so terrible to show up looking as if SCHOOL IS IMPORTANT TO US? Perception IS reality, and I want students and parents to look at me, my actions as well as my attire, and think, "Mrs. George looks and acts the part of a teacher."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We all have days in our classrooms when we are less than 100%, not quite organized, not completely prepared for what we are doing. I've certainly had my share!

However, with that in mind, I am shocked at how unorganized and unprepared some teachers are for their day. I could never function with the lack of preparation and sense of order for the day that they seem to manage.

Beyond the obvious just being unorganized, I wonder how this impacts students and their learning. How can you, as a student, ever feel like you know what you are to learn, how you are to learn it, and how that learning is going to be judged/assessed, when you are in a classroom that flies by the seat of the teacher's pants?

Imagine coming to work each day, having no idea what tasks might be expected of you, the rules of the job changing day to day. Imagine that one day, it is OK to eat your lunch at your desk, but the next day, you have to eat in the cafeteria or be reprimanded. But the next day, the opposite is true. Imagine at today's staff meeting, you are berated for not contributing ideas to the discussion but at next week's meeting, you do contribute and are told to be quiet. Imagine your upcoming evaluation being based on how well you conform to those expectations.

Even worse, imagine being a new employee under this boss. References to events that happened before you were there are frequent and you are made to feel stupid because you weren't working there at the time and have no idea what the references mean.

I realize that we all operate our classrooms by our own standards, and I truly do not expect everyone to abide by "MY" standards. We are all changing and evolving as educators, trying to offer our students the best educational opportunities possible. But it seems incredibly unfair that incompetency is allowed to pervade education and reflect poorly on all.
In order to experience success at schools, students need structure, predictability, fairness and engagement. Classrooms without these in place are wasting students' time and energy and opportunity to learn.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Michigan teachers are making less this year. To help pay for health care benefits of the retirees encouraged by the State last year, all teachers will lose 3% of their paycheck. So my already inadequate paycheck just got smaller.

When I became a teacher, I didn't expect to get rich doing it. I knowingly took this career path, despite the fact, compared to other similarly educated people, my paycheck pales. I knew that I would be expected to continue my education, at the high cost of graduate credits. I knew that my employer would never cover all the incidentals I would need for my classroom.

But as time goes by, I see the costs of everything else increasing, and now my paycheck decreasing, and it is depressing.

Pay is relative of course. According to Average Teacher Salary by State, teaching in Michigan pays pretty darned good relative to the state median income, at approximately $8000 over that figure. That sounds pretty good, doesn't it? I would like to know the education level compared to those salaries those. How many people in the state have a bachelor's degree? a master's degree? are required to pay to continue their own education? My gut tells me our median income in Michigan is inflated due to auto workers' wages. Working in an auto factory is an honorable profession. However, to work on the line, you do not need a college degree. You certainly don't need a master's degree, nor do you pay to continue your education to keep your certification (which you pay for as well) to keep your job.

According to the graph comparing teacher salary to median house prices, also makes my pay look pretty reasonable. Granted, other places have much higher prices than where I live. My 2000+ square foot house, sitting on 4 acres, about 4 miles from town, would sell for somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 if put on the market today. Well, it would list for that price, but would it sell? With the high number of foreclosures on the market, the declining job market, I doubt it would sell at all. Other places where home values are greater, have more perks as well. Where I live, the nearest traffic light is 65 miles away - ok, maybe that is a perk :) But when you are enjoying the lack of traffic, remember that means the nearest shopping is 65 miles away as well. The nearest REAL mall is 200 miles away. That translates into a lot of miles on a vehicle! My truck is will be 1 year old in December and just turned over 18,000 miles. Everywhere is a major trip.

Different states have different rates of pay no doubt. If you'd like to see how each state measures up, you can view state summary pages at the links below:
Average teacher salary Alabama
Average teacher salary Alaska
Average teacher salary Arizona
Average teacher salary Arkansas
Average teacher salary California
Average teacher salary Colorado
Average teacher salary Connecticut
Average teacher salary Delaware
Average teacher salary District of Columbia
Average teacher salary Florida
Average teacher salary Georgia
Average teacher salary Hawaii
Average teacher salary Idaho
Average teacher salary Illinois
Average teacher salary Indiana
Average teacher salary Iowa
Average teacher salary Kansas
Average teacher salary Kentucky
Average teacher salary Louisiana
Average teacher salary Maine
Average teacher salary Maryland
Average teacher salary Massachusetts
Average teacher salary Michigan
Average teacher salary Minnesota
Average teacher salary Mississippi
Average teacher salary Missouri
Average teacher salary Montana
Average teacher salary Nebraska
Average teacher salary Nevada
Average teacher salary New Hampshire
Average teacher salary New Jersey
Average teacher salary New Mexico
Average teacher salary New York
Average teacher salary North Carolina
Average teacher salary North Dakota
Average teacher salary Ohio
Average teacher salary Oklahoma
Average teacher salary Oregon
Average teacher salary Pennsylvania
Average teacher salary Rhode Island
Average teacher salary South Carolina
Average teacher salary South Dakota
Average teacher salary Tennessee
Average teacher salary Texas
Average teacher salary Utah
Average teacher salary Vermont
Average teacher salary Virginia
Average teacher salary Washington
Average teacher salary West Virginia
Average teacher salary Wisconsin
Average teacher salary Wyoming

I don't begrudge my doctor his paycheck. He went through many years of education to get where he is today. I don't begrudge my attorney her paycheck. Again, she earned it. In turn, I think people who bash teacher paychecks should stop and think for a minute about our jobs, their importance, and what it took to get here and what it takes to stay. Maybe instead of bashing my pay, think about how much that big shot tossing the football is getting paid, or how much that crooner on the radio made last year, and the importance of their job in the spectrum of life. In the meantime, I am looking at my smaller paycheck thinking... hmmm... OK, hope those retirees are enjoying their time off!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Having last hour prep means an opportunity to earn some comp hours subbing for coaches who leave early for games/meets. I haven't had last hour off in years, so with this year's schedule, I thought, sure, why not.

So here I sit in last hour advanced Spanish. Most students are working on their assignment, while visiting with friends, flirting with the opposite sex, and/or listening to iPods.

As I watch them I have to laugh at the difference in your average middle schooler, and these junior/seniors. Granted, advanced Spanish does not attract many lower level students, esepcially those who struggle with their own language. The bodies in this room are among the best and brightest of the school.

I am struck by their non-dependence on me to help them, guide them, or even keep them on task. Despite the side-tracks in their behaviors, they are all going to complete the assignment before they leave here today.

With middle schoolers, assignment completion is tentative at best. Even work completed in a large group often doesn't get completed. The maturity level escalates dramatically between middle school and here.

I remember this crew as 7th graders. Some of them remain in their same role with their peers, the class clown, the quiet studious student with no friends, the flirty jock, the over-the-top loud girl. But others have changed. The once quiet now sits commanding his groups of friends, leading the discussion. The once short, timid 7th grader who used to hide under my desk and jump out to scare me has grown into a young man, tall and changed, mature, but still quite a character. I guess in my mind, they'd all stayed the same, just moved on to high school, and maybe a bit taller. Now I see them, growing into their grown up selves.

And I see the them's they used to be... and miss them.