Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Report to Consider as We Teachers Self-Assess

As I wrap up my semester, I worry over students who failed and consider what I could have done differently to teach them better. However, I don’t take credit for the students who succeed. The students who succeed always seem as if they came to me ready to fly; teaching them has been my pleasure, but I don’t feel as if my lessons tipped the scales for them. If I know I’m not responsible for students who succeed, why do I think I could have changed the students who did not? Michael Winerip’s recent New York Times article, “In Gaps at School, Weighing Family Life,” discusses the findings of a new study, “The Family: America’s Smallest School.” Completed by the Educational Testing Service, the study “took four variables that are beyond the control of schools: The percentage of children living with one parent; the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. Using just those four variables, the researchers were able to predict each state’s results on the federal eighth-grade reading test with impressive accuracy.”

Listen, this report isn’t really news; it simply collects in one place many variables we’ve heard about before. I just really want to make sure sincere teachers hear about this report, not so we teachers can abdicate our responsibility, shrugging our shoulders and holding up our hands in defeat but because this report confirms that teachers and schools may not be the only major factors in students’ success. Even as I write that, I feel a little silly. It looks so egocentric in print. I understand that my students who do well succeed because of parental support, good attendance, a family culture of reading, and a home environment that supports studying and learning; I think I would have described those factors before hearing about this study. The culture of education, however, continually critiques me, the teacher, for students who struggle. The factors impeding some students’ success can be piled up before teachers meet them, especially when teaching high school. I’ve compared myself to a triage nurse; sometimes I’m just trying to stop the bleeding—I don’t also get students reading and writing up to grade level. I assess myself as having failed those students somehow. But really, how can a teacher, in forty-two minutes a day, expect to compensate for the challenges described in this study?

Should I continue to extend myself to students who are behind and believe they will make great strides? Absolutely. The conviction that I’m here to help students grow is at the very core of my desire to teach. However, this study does vindicate the responsibility I feel as some students slip through my fingers. We need a different ruler for these students. Measuring students who start so far behind as failures because we don’t bridge the gap in one year isn’t fair to those students or to us teachers. We need to measure the distance we gain from where students begin to where they end up even if that still leaves those students behind grade level. Otherwise, the demoralization will kill students’ motivation and wear us teachers out.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, December 7, 2007

Dear Younger Teacher Self: Keep the Holidays Grading Free!

Dear Kate circa 1997,

Hello, sweetie. It is I, your older and wiser self in 2007. Recently, I looked at some pictures of you, and I’m stunned at how exhausted you look. I realized I sleep better now due to lessons I learned through you, and I wanted to see if I could give you a head start by writing to you, so you can get more rest all the sooner.

Look, teaching isn’t like college or graduate school—you don’t plan for it to end in a few years! You plan to do this for twenty or thirty years, so please pace yourself better. I’ve learned so much from you, and there’s one thing I want you to know right away: Keep the holidays grading free. Don’t look at me like that…you have almost two weeks before the winter holiday season; I want you to re-work things so your students have the vacation to work on the major stuff instead of you collecting it before the holidays and grading it on vacation. I see you shaking your head. I know you think you’ll never be able to grade it without the vacation time to do it, but I’m here to assure you that you will. A rested and relaxed version of you in January can do amazing things…

Here’s what I know that you don’t know: Every year there will be good reasons for you to spend your vacations grading. The sense that you’ve caught up and all the preparation is finished doesn’t come for teachers. Teaching is a vocation that puts no boundaries on self-sacrifice. However, I now know that without some genuine R and R, you’ll start to resent teaching, and that will depress you. In 1997, it’s your third winter holiday over which you plan to grade; I know you’ll do it next year, too. In fact, you’ll take “landscape journals” students kept on setting across three months to California with you when you spend Christmas with your future husband’s family. (You’ll meet him the summer of ’98.) After that is when the resentment starts to flicker, so you leave the grading pile at school next time and guess what happens? You get it done when you return. Consider the following:

  • If you collect things after vacation instead of before, the students will appreciate the extra time; you’ll be seen as generous not lazy.
  • Teachers draw strength from their personal cheering sections of friends and family. By spending the holidays truly present instead of tucked in a corner furiously scribbling on “the pile,” you’ll be investing in your own support system who will be there for you when you need them.
  • In the future, you’ll be a parent during the holidays, and that means you’re the one who makes the holidays happen around your house. If you don’t learn how to pace the work to leave your holidays free now, you’ll lose out on so much enjoyment as your children grow…
  • Students deserve for the person who grades their work to not feel overly burdened by it. Distance really does make the heart grow fonder!
  • Vacation days in education are unpaid, and once you really start thinking about that, you’ll start to sour yourself, which fosters negative feelings you don’t need.
  • Enjoying your life is one of the most restorative things you can do for your classroom energies. Many, many people envy the teaching calendar. Give yourself permission to enjoy it.

I know you are never certain that what you do is enough, and carting around a big pile of grading gives you a sense of penance, a sense that you are working hard enough to earn the title of teacher. Kate of 1997, your students will wait another week for papers in exchange for your genuine delight at seeing them again after the break.

With much affection,
Kate, 2007

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher