Sunday, October 31, 2010

The disposition to teach

A good friend and colleague recently, and unexpectedly, lost her husband.  Though the event was a shock that has undoubtedly already sent tremors throughout her life (their marriage stretched from college to grand parenting), at the viewing she was the same compassionate, steadfast person I admire and respect as a model educator.
She’s tough, but not in a let-me-get-my-gun kind of way.  She’s tough like an oak unbowed by a strong wind.
Though most feel that teaching is a job that anyone can do, this event underscored for me that those who excel share common traits. 
And those traits inspire my frequent “Teachers are my favorite people” comment.
Steel Magnolias
The good teachers have the same mix of warmth, strength, and humor that makes learning possible.  And the qualities are understated.  None of this larger-than-life, super-hero, come-to-save-the-day status.  These teachers labor steadily, often surprising others with their potency in trying times.
Since most teachers are women, their supposed frailty as the weaker sex often leads to an outsider's view of teachers as clueless, sheltered idealists, out of touch with the world.
Nothing of the sort.
A career teacher has seen every permutation of human behavior and dealt with it at eye-level: students who have been abused, students who abuse others or drugs, incidents of criminal behavior, mental illness, extreme poverty and homelessness, sexual aggression, bullying, breakdowns, violence, along with smaller matters like broken hearts, illness (think everything from vomit and bloody noses to a shocking death), fire drills, bomb threats, lockdowns, extreme weather, car accidents—the whole panorama of human conflict. 
Teachers cannot afford to be cowed.  No flinching allowed.
They plow in to find the source of a problem then model the strength and skills to move students beyond those realities to imagine a  different life.  Just part of the job.
It is a balancing act that excellent teachers--like my friend--make look very easy.
It isn’t.  Not everyone can do it.
It means hearing about student struggle without blinking. Or running away.
It means acknowledging situations with compassion while exhibiting confidence.  Kids need to see adults who can handle “whatever” without wigging out.
And then insisting, even assisting, kids to cope and continue learning.
Teachers who fail make mistakes of two kinds: coddling hard-luck kids and expecting less than their best, or going overboard by ignoring hindrances and focusing solely on curriculum.  One text put it this way:  Some teach kids.  Some teach their subject.  The best teach their subject to kids.
And the sense of humor?  That is a must.
We laugh in the face of puke or public breakdowns – both extremes every teacher faces in the classroom at one time or another.
We feel the emotional tenor of a building as it ripples through the school year, and shrug off both up and down days to face the next day with the same equanimity as the previous day.
It is a tightrope walk teachers – primarily women – enact in full view on a daily basis.
Good teachers know more about the realities of their community than their sheltered friends in business.
Good teachers are about as real as they come.
Good teachers are smart, and flexible, and ruffle-proof.
Good teachers are tough – and warm – and funny. 
Like my friend.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Talking amongst ourselves

Michelle Rhee's resignation sparked comment on the AP listserve I belong to.  I'm told there are 6,000 of us on the list.
One teacher objected to the tone of the comments about the resignation.
I responded and that has prompted an extended conversation.  An important one I think for several reasons. First, that the group is quite impassioned.
Second, that the argument that some teachers are bad and must be fired is effective in turning us against each other.  Part of the plan, I fear.
Since others may not wish to be publicly blogged, I offer only my responses in this post and others to follow:

After being chastised for speaking too harshly:

I have to say that I respectfully disagree with the tone of the "debate" on education reform in this nation which has conveniently NOT invited educators to the table for much of the discussion (outside of Randi Weingarten, who seems to be present at most forums only to provide the necessary live stand-in for those intractable teachers' unions.)

 Having said that, I feel that my tone has not really been forceful enough, though I am doing what I can.  

Though some may feel that Michelle Rhee's two years in the classroom is all the experience you need in order to make sweeping reforms, I do not. 

Rhee admitted that she taped her students' mouths shut and was alarmed when their lips bled after pulling the tape off.  She also went on a field trip with second graders without taking along emergency contact information.  She only became concerned when she could not find the home of one of her students - who was too young to provide the information.  But, when you are teaching those children, I guess it is OK to experiment on them.  

And that, I really feel, is the attitude that pervades her "get tough" reforms.

By all measures, teaching is a complicated affair and takes at least three years to gain confidence with the curriculum, manage student learning, and function within the sometimes paradoxical systems in which we find ourselves.  
Michelle Rhee feels she can fire 241 teachers and put another 735 on notice, as she did this summer, because she does not value the time it takes to create a teacher who can get more out of students than good scores. After all, Teach for America gets GREAT scores, and they don't need to have any more than a six-week training program. 
(And new teachers are cheap, cheap, cheap.)

I have taught since 1978.  A Nation at Risk was published in 1983.  That document recommended what Finland has done: put your money into developing your human resources.  Create a strong profession.  
It wasn't done.  
Since that time the most successful teachers in America have been educating themselves on best practices, for the most part, with their own time and money, and risking careers through insubordination if they skirt the current testing climate in order to see real achievement for their students.  We are simultaneously sold the insidious argument that : "You didn't get into the profession for the money...." so that apparently any abuse of teacher time, energy, or financial resources is just part of that missionary zeal we are supposed to accept.

And NOW we want to blame the teachers?  Ha.  Kind of like blaming the wife who is being beaten nightly by her husband.

If you want to know what Michelle Rhee and her cronies have in mind, investigate how a KIPP school is run:  no accumulated sick days, no personal days, teachers are shamed when score targets aren't hit, teachers are chastised for taking sick days, school hours extend from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (and that's in front of students), no guaranteed contracts, no pension, etc.  Children who do not live up to standards are shamed (must turn their shirts inside out and are ostracized from the group), test scores - those bubble-in kind, not the critical thinking kind - are the measure of all success.  (KIPP founders are former Teach for America corps members--just like Rhee--and proudly model their disciplinary code on most prisons.)

What happens?  A friend who works in one in North Carolina says the turnover is 59%.....a year!  But that's OK if you don't think teachers need any experience, or if you don't feel its important that students need any consistency in their lives.  If you can get 22 year olds to burn out in less than two years, then you know you are plowing them under.  (No matter - more where they came from.)

I have three grown children and two grandchildren.  I would no more send my children to a KIPP school than I would leave them abandoned on the street corner.  Any yet, this kind of treatment is OK for "other people's children."  It's also OK to ask small children to sit through lotteries knowing that if you lose, you (they say) are doomed to a life of failure.  

Children are not being considered in this current debate.

The plan is to end teaching as we know it - and turn public schools into a place for "those other kids."  See New Orleans for the model.

And it just might work because I will find some other place for my grandchildren if they have to go to a school which has standardized testing in every grade, beginning in kindergarten. 
This is the last part of the Rhee plan, yet to be implemented. 
Of course those yearly tests are intended to measure teacher effectiveness (you gotta have a test) and has nothing to do with what is good for kids.  It's important to be able to identify who needs to be fired, even if it means five-year-olds are subjected to standardized tests.  
If you've been in a school where getting better scores is vital (AYP and all that) then you know that those tests breed more tests just to make sure that the kids can pass THE test.  

It makes much more sense to spend your money on developing and implementing tests than in developing a strong teaching force. (Hiring more teachers? Reducing time in front of kids for collaboration?  Insisting on a Master's Degree?  Screening pre-service teachers for a disposition to teach - so you don't end up with adults who think its OK to tape everybody's mouth shut? Making it competitive to get into a teaching program? Guaranteeing a job in a safe, clean, well-supplied workplace?  Naw.  Just buy a bunch of tests.)

Make no mistake, the argument is being posited that WE are the reasons our students do not achieve: not crushing poverty (even the Promise Neighborhoods have been unable to overcome the weight of poverty), not the fact that this nation has shown little interest in seeing that children are well cared for prior to starting school (how many of you have discovered how hard it is to get reliable child care for YOUR children while you teach other people's children?), not the fact that we have been asked to do more and more while we get training on the fly (or not), not the fact that more and more of us are being pushed out of the middle class while we work harder and harder so that the top 1% can control 42% of the wealth (as of December 2009).

Speak up. They are coming for you next. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

An NBCT until 2021

My letter came yesterday, opened and left on the counter in the midst of a pre-wedding flurry for my daughter's best friend, a much more important moment for us.
My NBCT status is assured until 2021.
I doubt if I'll still be in the classroom by then.
Sometimes I wonder if there will even be a classroom to be in by 2021. (Lot's of reasons for thinking that. This medium being just one of those.)
Anyway, the letter seemed oddly anti-climatic.
It was the doing of the thing that seemed momentous.
As Aristotle said "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."
So the process taught me more than the letter meant, if that makes sense.
The board process is entirely reflective and the renewal process was more of the same.  
There are three components and a reflection.
You are first asked to identifying areas where you influenced the profession, used technology, continued to include parents, and perhaps resolved an issue identified in the first certification process.  Then two additional components require an in-depth explanation and substantiation of two of the PGE's (Personal Growth Experiences) outlined in the first component.  Finally there is a reflection of the previous years of growth.
All of this, reviewing and selecting from eight years of work, took a surprisingly long time to research, write, and assemble.  I sent two videos for my two in-depth components.  Though I planned those tapings well in advance -- one was done over the summer, the other planned from my routine instruction--just getting them edited down to the required time limit and on a disk for mailing took an entire day.
Luckily for me the entire mid-Atlantic region was socked in for nine days under three feet of snow in February!
I used the time well.
So what does the doing of the thing teach?
The same thing I hope my kids get out of their reflective writing:  what you have learned over the time we are together (in my case, what I had learned in the previous eight years) and what you plan to do next.
The reflection at the end requires that you think about next steps.
So mailing that box of at the beginning of April felt like I had already done the big job.
The letter yesterday just felt like acknowledgment of - Hey, you did that.

P.S. Renewal costs $1,150.  Out of pocket for me since schools do not subsidize this.  Return on investment?  No guarantees.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Manifesto on Union Busting

Two opinion pieces in today’s Washington Post Outlook offer solutions to the current “teacher problem” in the United States.  (Still more supplied by those who aren’t teachers, but who continue to extend and control the current discussion prompted by the media blitz set in motion by Waiting for Superman.)
One goes too far and the other, not far enough.
Too Far: A “Manifesto” signed by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Paul Vallas of the “New Orleans miracle” (ick), and others of that ilk. 
Their statement is nothing new.  They want latitude to hire and fire bad teachers based on (in)effective performance. 
As if they didn’t already have the latitude they need. 
This summer Michelle Rhee dismissed 241 teachers and put another legion (735) on notice.  All of this was achieved even with tenure and a strong union in place. 
Joel Klein has pretty much had his way in New York for years under Bloomburg.  And yet, he didn’t fire himself when the city’s own measures of achievement were proven to be overblown public relations hype.  (Pretty ineffective performance, if you ask me.)
The “manifesto” (I’m thinking Unabomber here) is merely an effort to paint the teachers’ unions as the big, bad enemy. 
Big Business has done a good job of eliminating the worker’s voice in all other areas of the workplace beginning with Ronald Reagan’s bold salvo that set the anti-union movement in motion after he removed the Air Traffic Controllers in 1980. 
The teachers’ unions as a political force are about the last hold out.
Time to push them under the bus too.
The basis for the hiring and firing of teachers, according to the signers, all boils down to student performance on the standardized tests now commonplace in every school system.
These are the same tests that teachers have railed against for years as a vehicle which dumbs-down curriculum, and results in drill-and-kill rote instruction, test-taking-strategy-driven instruction, scripted lesson plans, elimination of  the arts and recess, and promises to standardize our children into non-thinking drones.  (Coincidentally, just the kind of complacent worker you want if you’re only interested in turning big profits over to the select few.)
Not far enough:  As a companion piece, Paul Kilhn and Matt Miller of McKinsey & Company (eh? Never heard of them.) advocate for truly professionalizing the teaching force by selectively targeting top students who show the disposition to teach and offering them affordable (or even government subsidized) tuition, with a guaranteed job at the end of that scenario.  Increased salaries and clean, safe working conditions will sweeten the pot to the point where teaching will become a valued, respected profession that will attract top performers.
The authors say this will cost taxpayers far less than doing nothing, which will surely result in the stagnation of our historic role as world leaders of innovation.
I agree, but the writers stop short of expanding teaching into what the top performing nations cited in the article (Finland, South Korea, and Singapore) have done to achieve a meteoric rise in student achievement.
Here’s what they left out: Reduce the amount of time in front of students so that teachers can continually collaborate during their working days—which means a higher per capita of teachers.  Fund embedded professional development so practicing teachers continue to learn—which means dollars spent on continuing education, like other top professions.
Now that might be costly.
The money for providing this expansion is easy to find:  Raid the coffers of the standardized testing industry (The College Board, Pearson…etc.) by eliminating the raft of tests our students face annually and which are purchased by taxpayer dollars.  Right out the door immediately behind the pile of bubble sheets will be those who must chart the data collected from the tests, monitor the teachers, institute the next test-driven curriculum framework… short, all those non-teachers who currently pull in large “professional” salaries.
How will we know how well our students are doing?
Let the highly professional teachers evaluate their student strengths and weaknesses in a variety of ways, both informally (through observation and daily interaction) and formally (through portfolios, conferences, student products).
You know, the way we used to trust our teachers.