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?