Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Teachers Make Easy Targets

I am livid with the current discussion regarding education. Being an ex teacher I am becoming more and more personally offended for myself and my ex colleagues who are also my friends. Lately the discussion about education has come back to the forefront and many of the reasons the system is failing are being either completely ignored or blatantly lied about. Where the hell are the teachers? Are we as a group so beat down that we’ve just given up and will let everyone say what they will? Where the hell are the unions we pay dues to so that they will represent and stand up for us in situations like this? I am appalled at the current education climate as well as where everyone is placing the blame.

Now don’t get me wrong, as you see in any profession there are bad employees and teaching is no different. It is impossible to have perfect employees all around no matter what the job. The problem is, one bad teacher can ruin many so weeding them out is very important. At the same time, blaming teachers as a population for the downfall of public schools is completely unacceptable. If anyone sat down to think about it, there are many ways to seek out the defective teachers and none of them have to do with “Standardized” testing. As far as standardized testing goes I feel that was the final straw in the downfall of public education. For one thing there is nothing “standardized” about our children. No one person learns or performs in a “standardized” way so why is so much riding on such tests. They use the tests as a means of doling out much needed funds and have thrown around the idea of linking the tests to teacher performance. If you want to know how a teacher performs then you have to SEE it live. There needs to be more unannounced classroom observations done by principles or district officials. Someone should observe several lessons in different subject areas on an unannounced basis throughout a particular week. Then at the end of the week to get an idea of student performance and teacher effectiveness graded assignments from a random few of the observed subjects should be requested. Since the teacher doesn’t know when the observation will happen or which subject results will be required there can be no lesson faking or grade padding. If this is done a few times over the course of a school year (or a school quarter) you will get a view of teacher effectiveness because those students should be performing better over that period of time. The person observing will also see the more visual activities which make an effective teacher such as questioning students to insight thinking, proper lesson planning, knowledge of subject matter, etc. While I appreciate the need for one neat little package that says pass or fail education is not a place where that should be expected.

The other night on the news it was mentioned that it wasn’t the parents or the government taking down the public schools and after my teaching experience I beg to disagree. The school at which I taught was in a low income area with a high turnover rate (many kids moving in and out throughout the year. I had one girl move in and out of my class 3 times throughout the year). During my parent teacher conferences I would work hard to start off with the positives about my students then delve into the areas where they struggled. Many students as we know struggle with reading. I would advise parents that reading is not taught in the manner that math or social studies is, that I was giving them the strategies to help them read but in order for their children to successfully read they would need a platform to practice those strategies. We did some of this in class but I asked all of my parents with struggling readers to read with their kids for 15 to 20 minutes per night. I have to say that almost 70% of those parents told me they didn’t have time and 2 or 3 gave me the great “Isn’t that your job?” answer. I understand being busy and coming from a town with many people working odd hours I offered alternatives like reading to siblings or whatever caregiver that stayed with the child while they were at work. No dice. I also offered to stay after class for an extra hour 3 days a week to offer math tutoring. I offered this to all students then made sure to let parents of my struggling students know because 5th graders aren’t great at making the decision to stay after and get help. Only 2 kids showed up. Even though I hunted my struggler’s parents after school and begged them to make their kids come 2 showed up. One mom told me her daughter (who could not do multiplication in 5th grade and was one of the kids I was extra worried about) just did not have a “mathematical” mind and wanted to be a mom when she grew up so there was no need to push. Another example was this great report I assigned for social studies. Each student was to pick a historic figure they admired or were interested in then study and investigate the person for a multi format report. Only 3 students had parents that were willing to take them to a public library to get information. Since our school library was limited I went to the public library with a list of each student’s choice and checked out as many books as I could to bring to class and check out to my kids so their reports wouldn’t be limited (I did this on similar reports we did on the states). Without parental support, I was swimming against the tide at all times. In addition to teaching many of my students had tumultuous home lives so I spent a lot of time trying to help them focus through the haze of nasty divorces, drug abuse, and violence.

I don’t want to come off placing all blame on the parents because our federal and state governments need to shoulder the majority of the blame. The standardized tests I mentioned earlier have made the local governments go crazy. Here in Las Vegas we have a school district the size of Los Angeles yet we only have 1 superintendent. Now this person (following in the foot steps of his predecessor) along with the assistants and other decision makers in the district have purchased programs to be used throughout the school day which take all creativity and thought out of teaching. My day as a teacher found me with a 1 hour and 45 minute reading program which consisted of a text book that took some of our most loved chapter books and broke them down into 25-30 page atrocities. Then we had to do 45 minutes of math (another scripted text but with less rigidity) and an hour of language arts (text based program also). The students had an hour for lunch and an hour for electives (P.E., art, music, and library). At the end of my day I had to squeeze in social studies and science intermittently. Since they no longer had time to read chapter books I would also squeeze in 20 minutes after lunch during which I read to them. I was able to read them Matilda and Bridge to Terebithia during the year. Because of this, they were motivated to check out books and read at home on their own (I provided the books because they could only use the library once a week so I purchased over $700 in books for my classroom library which I then checked out to them myself).

In college I was taught to make lesson plans based around chapter books like Where the Red Fern Grows or Bridge to Terebithia but here was this one book with a program I had to follow (I had an actual script). Remember book reports, gone. In boxes in storage I have several lessons for all elementary subjects I made up myself according to the district standards. These lessons included tasks that were meant to reach all learners. We were taught everyone learns differently so lessons should include ways to reach each child. There were 7 main learning styles which we built our lessons around; Linguistic, Logical, Spatial, Musical, Bodily, Intra/Interpersonal (to find a description of each go to The 7 Learning Styles b y Stacy Mantle or Google “7 learning styles”) . I was never allowed to use these lessons even though they were written with the required learning. I was made to use the magical programs the district spent a fortune on but offered little support with. If you’re a teacher or parent you know about in service days when teachers go to school for training and kids get a day off. We spent these days with “specialists” of the reading program, constantly asking how to personalize the program without compromising it. They could not answer the questions, advised us to stick to script, and they would try to figure it out later. Teachers used to be effective because they would take the expectations of the district and use it as a framework to create a lesson. I don’t know about teachers in Ohio but here in Las Vegas, we don’t have that freedom. With the day being so full, we also don’t always have the opportunity to go back and redo a lesson the majority of the class may not have gotten. The local governments also have an issue controlling class size. I had 35 students at one time. A private school can usually provide a 16 to 1 ratio giving teachers there the ability to provide better one on one care when needed.

Another very rarely addressed and slightly large problem is the new belief that anyone can teach. Here in Las Vegas and at several schools throughout the country we have a program called Teach for America. It is a program which takes graduates of other professions such as political science or accounting and offers them a full or partial pay off of their school loans in return for teaching 3 years in a struggling school (this financing option was told to me by the Teach for America student I worked with making it heresay so I have included the link to the program's website above for those who wish to investigate). These students get 2 years of “training” and then are sent into really rough schools to try to save the world (and their future bank account). While most teachers have 4+ years of education these folks are coming in with a year of the basics and are motivated extrinsically. People who chose to teach know there is little to no financial reward which is what sets them apart, but you get a psychology major looking to rush through 3 years of teaching so he won’t have school loans and what kind of education do you think is going to be handed out. I worked with one of these students. He was a very young, nice guy who majored in political science and entered our grade level with big ideas for how he would run a classroom. The problem was he was going to run it from a political point of view and the students weren’t having that. Because teaching was not his chosen profession his passion fizzled quickly and by the middle of the year we were doing everything to get him to the end. The poor guy had little to no real classroom management training, did not understand lower income families, and could not relate to his core audience. That guy left the program the following year and sought out a job in his original field. Teaching can not be done by just anyone. Would you allow a program called “Surgery for America” where graduates from other professions got a condensed overview of the field of surgery then were released perform tonsillectomies on the general public for 3 years? Maybe if teachers got some respect back and the profession regained some of it’s public regard there would be more motivated and effective teachers. I know respect is earned but I feel in this case it has been taken so that the public and politicians can avoid their share of the responsibility for the current education debacle.

Understand, I am not saying all parents are bad, the government sucks, and all teachers are greatest people ever. I am trying to speak out on behalf of teachers who at this point and time are taking the brunt of the blame for a flailing school system which we should all be sharing blame for. I have been watching people this week talk about the obliteration of public schooling as we know it. This system was set up for a reason; people have the right to a free and GOOD education. As long as we keep seeing kids in all 50 states as standardized this will never be a reality. I believe teachers need to be held accountable but I also believe they need the freedom to control that which they are being held accountable for. Districts like Las Vegas need to dump these magic bullet programs and go back to old school ways of offering information. By standardizing our way of achieving funds we have standardized the manner in which we teach. I believe funding should be fair and when it’s based off one test for all that is an impossible feat. Here in Las Vegas students in the wealthier areas perform better because they have the mental and physical support system they need which in turn earns them the funding. What about those kids whose single parents work 2 jobs or who have parents who were never worthy of children in the first place. Those children are not going to perform the same. Maybe funding should depend more on real academics. Break it down by state in a more real life way. The information and standards a school district in a rural area deems important is not going to be exactly the same as a district in a metropolitan area so why would we give students from such differing areas the same exact test to determine their worth? Break it down, individualize schools and programs, and then go into the actual schools and classrooms for your results. If Washington wants to judge a teacher they need to back off of the school districts and allow them to empower their teachers to create their own lessons using their own districts standards as a framework. Then, education bureaucrats and district employees need to come out from behind their desks and go observe what is happening in classrooms. As I said, if you watch actual lessons then take the results on a continuous yet sporadic basis you will receive an honest view of what that teacher is doing. If you want independent thinkers with the skills needed to perform in society quit placing them in a standardized box and stop trying to place blame in one place for the failure of all. It truly takes a village to educate our children and for a long time now all inhabitants of our village have been failing to do their part.

I’m sorry this was so long but I’ve been mulling this over for a while. I may take heat for this post but these are my opinions based on my experience in one of several school districts and they in no way reflect the opinions or experiences of all teachers in America. Though, I am guessing they represent more teachers out there than I think.


Lisa Anne said...

Both my Brother and his Wife are teachers. They spend so much of their own money buying things to stimulate and educate the kids. Its tough because there are so many teachers who care, so many who think they are glorified babysitters and some who just don't care and want a paycheck.

I know I couldn't handle being a teacher and have great respect for them!

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