Monday, May 26, 2008

A Parent's Big Questions about Education, Part 2

This week concludes my response to a concerned parent, Nanci, who emailed me some questions she has about her children’s schools. Nanci wrote that she wanted to hear what teachers thought of her concerns, so please don’t be shy about contributing thoughts and comments.

In a situation where an administration receives feedback from numerous parents that a new teacher is proceeding with poor teaching, frequently changing deadlines and rubrics, and harmful grading policies, WHY does the administration not assign a supervisor to micro-manage and closely remediate the teacher for the balance of the year?

The school may have assigned a mentor, but in my experience, no one is available to take on another teacher’s work load to the level of micromanagement and remediation. (If a teacher gets fired, that would free up some money to pay someone else to do the job.) Let’s say another English teacher got assigned to me. That English teacher already has a full class load of her own. How is she supposed to really improve my teaching while handling her own course load? Schools don’t usually have teachers with little to do. If that teacher tries to help me, she’s going to do it in half hour bursts after school or during lunch. The problems you describe, like changing deadlines and grading policies, have to do with organization and experience. It is very difficult to really help someone with a month long unit plan while teaching and grading five class sections of your own. Schools have not made the financial commitment to pay for that kind of support for new teachers. I currently teach and live in Central Florida, where the arts keep getting cut and class sizes continue to increase. These administrators’ budget constraints do not allow for a teaching position without a class load to support new teachers. The system in place is old, and it does not respond adequately to the time it takes teachers to learn to meet the needs of 21st century teaching.

Why do schools NOT have a standardized grading policy? Wouldn't it make sense to universally say that tests are 40% of a high-schooler's grade and that 40% must contain at least 5 tests?

As an English teacher, I give very few tests, so I would rail against such a policy myself. I think school systems are often too big to make such sweeping policies. In my experience, the county system restricted how much of a percentage homework could be and wrote a specific curriculum for each course. In English, the curriculum determined how many major essays needed to be completed each semester. In our department, we standardized how much of the grade each of those essays should be. After the essay grades and the homework grades had been determined, the rest of the average was left to the teachers’ discretion. So for example, a new teacher would be told, “This semester you need to do Essay A and Essay B, and they each should be 20% of the grade. Homework can’t be more than 10%.” The other 50% could be divided up as the teacher saw fit. I’ve actually never had a “test” category at all. I have “Quizzes,” and they usually make up about 10%. I guess if a school told me to have 40% tests, I’d have to call an essay a test. I don’t know for the life of me how I’d come up with five in a semester…

Here’s the thing: I know I’m a good teacher, and that’s not who parents are worried about with grade questions. However, education cannot make rules for the lowest common denominator, or it will lose people like me. Discretion to customize my teaching is very important to me. I’m comfortable with parameters, like curriculum requirements or a grade cap on homework, but if teaching comes in a can, I may not want to do it. I now love the part new teachers struggle with—the planning, the customization, the organizing. Somewhere there are adult people who had me my first year of teaching, and I wish I could go back and teach them again with what I know now. The medical profession has a very long training and residency program; education does not. It doesn’t expect that much training, and it certainly doesn’t pay enough to support it, so sadly for our first students, many of us teachers learn on the job. Learning how to manage a fair and effective class average can be part of that learning curve, and if new teachers had more support, system-wide grade standardizations wouldn’t be necessary. Nanci, your questions go to the heart of the matter. In today’s more challenging classroom climate, are Americans willing to pay for more prepared, more qualified teachers or not?

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

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Parent's Big Questions about Education, Part 1

Recently, a concerned parent, Nanci, emailed me some questions she has about her children’s schools. She wants a teacher’s perspective before she pursues her concerns; I’ve addressed the first of her questions here rather than simply emailing her back because I certainly can’t speak for all of education or all teachers. Feel free to chime in!

Why is teaching the one profession where a brand new person is put in charge of 100+ people with little to no assimilation training and -- more importantly -- little top-down evaluation?

I don’t think many other professions put as little money towards their new people as education. The career of teaching has grown more challenging over the past fifteen to twenty years, and the management structure for supporting—or assimilating—new teachers has not changed adequately to meet the new challenges. Student teaching is the primary training, and for a long time, that six month to one year long, unpaid internship seemed sufficient. (In fact, the student teacher pays the college for the experience.) I’m not familiar with a program that pays teachers without designating them a full teaching load. School budgets just don’t seem structured for that kind of investment in workforce. Many districts are responding to the current recession by cutting the arts and increasing class sizes, so a program that paid new teachers modestly while they mastered their craft would probably be the first to go anyway.

After student teaching and graduation, most new teachers are paired with a mentor once they begin teaching. These mentors, for the most part, are fellow teachers with a full teaching load. I’ve seen programs where mentors receive no additional pay and no reduced teaching load for this role; I’ve also seen programs where mentors have three to five new teachers and receive a $500 stipend for the year. Some schools may provide substitute money so that a mentor can take a day from his or her own classes to observe a new teacher, but how much support a mentor provides will vary greatly by the individual. Also, if the new teacher is a coach or has other extra-curricular responsibilities (as many untenured teachers do), he or she may not be available after school for help. Few mentors want a phone call at 9 p.m. (when many of us planned our lessons that first year) when the mentors aren’t receiving a reduced teaching load or financial compensation for the task. Scheduling conflicts can stagnate many mentor relationships.

In addition to mentors, most schools, because of No Child Left Behind requirements, have school or district-wide training for new teachers after school or on in-service days. I’ve seen good mentors and bad mentors. I’ve seen hiring years where so many new teachers start in one year that even the good mentors have very little time left to offer. School budgets and structure have not responded to the fact that student teaching does not prepare people to the extent it may have at one time. This organizational problem creates a high rate of new teacher turnover, which wears out dedicated mentors, too! One strategy for a parent concerned about a struggling new teacher may be to go to the principal and ask who is supporting this new teacher. By saying, “Gosh, I think Mr. or Ms. So-and-So really needs some more support from what I’m seeing with my child. Who is his/her mentor?” This approach suggests that administration needs to support new teachers, and the concerned parents can seek to contribute questions and issues through that support program. If there isn’t a support program for that new teacher, parents might start to demand that one be put in place…

Most schools utilize lots of top-down evaluation on new teachers. In one school district I worked, I was formally observed every six weeks and informally observed on a weekly basis. My department chair signed my lesson plan book every two weeks for the first year. In education, the problem isn’t the observation and evaluation of new teachers; the problem is that there isn’t really a structure in place to do more than record the problem. Qualified teachers, especially in math or science, aren’t waiting to be called in mid-year to replace a struggling new teacher. If a new teacher has big problems, I can guarantee that the department chair and the front office know about it. It becomes a triage situation, including documentation of the problem and a record of mentoring (see above). Most schools just try to get the new teacher through that first year. However, this strategy does little to help students who have that teacher for that year. If the teacher gets fired for bad teaching in say, February, who will pick up those classes, especially if state testing happens in the spring? Schools cannot afford to have a substitute who may not be a certified teacher preparing students for a state exam.

I realize, Nanci, that I haven’t been very hopeful here. Essentially, I think education needs to restructure its relationship with new teachers, which will take money and community dedication. I can’t say I see that on the horizon, either. In the meantime, we teachers try to help each other as best we can in passing time between classes.

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

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Reason to Come to School?

If a student comes to school and cuts my class, I consider that my problem. However, if a student doesn’t come to school at all, I tend not to worry about that kid. Unless I know a student from a previous class or a club relationship, I begin my sense of responsibility when students and I cross into the building. Therefore, Gretel C. Kovach’s “To Curb Truancy, Dallas Tries Electronic Monitoring” in the New York Times intrigues me.

I’ve never worked in a school with a truancy program; in fact, I’ve never given much thought to where the kids are who don’t come at all. I guess I’ve fully turned that one over to the front office. While watching Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire, I felt for the character of Cutty, an ex-con now working in various ways to keep kids off the street. In the show, a middle school in Baltimore uses a couple of temporary custodial positions to hire men as informal truant officers, and Cutty has taken the job. As
the HBO episode guide relates:

“Out on his truancy rounds, Cutty learns what his job is really about. The school is only interested in having the kids show up for one day a month in September and October - the minimum attendance that assures each school will be funded for the fullest enrollment. Cutty is incredulous. 'Naw, naw man. School is school,' he says to deaf ears. 'Which one of y'all still needs your September day?' his round-up partner asks the kids in an abandoned lot. Cutty is disgusted.”

This kind of bureaucratic ugliness can crush any educator’s spirit, and I try to stay away from school issues beyond my realm of control as a classroom teacher. I know I don’t have these system-wide answers. However, what would I think about teaching a kid wearing an ankle bracelet? Would I even know? My initial reaction is distaste, not unlike the state senator who “complained that ankle cuffs used in an earlier version were reminiscent of slave chains.” But since I’ve already admitted I don’t think much about where these students are, how much does my personal distaste matter?

Kovach writes: “The effort is financed by a $26,000 grant from Bruce Leadbetter, an equity investor who supports the program’s goals. The bulk of the money pays the salary of a full-time case manager, who monitors the students and works with parents and teachers.” I wonder if it is the relationship with this case worker that really makes the difference. It’s not fully clear in the article if the nine students at the featured school are the only members of the program, but Kovach gives the impression that nine students are in a six week pilot program. “The bulk” of 26K for six weeks and nine students sounds like a nice wage for the case worker, not that he or she doesn’t deserve it. I just wonder how that compares to the case loads and salaries of high school counselors.

The article creates the impression that once these formally truant kids get to school, they attend all their classes. Do the ankle bracelet and the focused attention from the case worker give these kids a sense that someone finally will notice whether or not they go to school? What does it say about a school system that can be fixed this way? It makes me want more information, information I could use to prove that smaller school sizes could create schools where kids knew people cared whether or not they showed up without electronic monitoring. To be fair, if I feel like doing extra educational research, it will be about teaching writing or critical reading; as I admitted already, I tend not to take on this kind of school system issue. An article like this one reminds me just how much work and thought has gone into getting my students in front of me. Free public schooling for the masses is some undertaking, isn’t it?

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

Friday, May 2, 2008

I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter

Ah, May is here. My lesson plans get peppered with family tree projects, group presentations, a movie excerpt here and there…The hardest part of the academic year has passed, and now my students and I focus upon finishing these last few weeks cooperatively. Now is also the time of year when my mind begins to frolic in the “do-over” nature of teaching. What will I do differently next time?

Usually, I’ll sit down and write myself a letter, addressed to “Dear Rested, Excited about the New School Year Me.” I’ll write one for each of my preps, filling each letter with tangential details and more than a couple of run-on sentences. I’m the audience, and I know the author is writing after completing a mental marathon. I write about what worked, what didn’t, and what I plan to change. Here’s an excerpt from last summer’s letter:

“If I could teach [students] to look at how their peers use evidence to prove something, it could really save me pain near the end. B. also says they can’t learn everything. I cannot expect to get the MLA mastery I want and eradicate all false logic, too. I don’t really want to take anything out—and how much can I add? ANGEL can print my grade book easily, so I am able to see just how long my semester is: 21 quizzes, 4 timed writings, the research project, 2 essays, 3 drafts, 3 bulletin boards, and 5 additional writing assignments. That’s nutty.”

Pretty insular stuff, I realize, but it triggers my memory when I revisit it. I don’t read the letter until, oh…July, maybe two weeks before the letter comes from school welcoming me back for August and outlining the in-service schedule. I get excited every new school year, and the letter helps me remember where to begin. I teach the same preps over and over again; sometimes I forget my intentions! After reading this letter, I did decide to lose one of the timed writings and add a two day lesson on recognizing and constructively critiquing peers’ use of logic. This year, my letter will have new concerns.

I actually teach summer classes, too, but this ritual of closing out the regular school year helps me relax. Truthfully? I don’t have the energy right now to fix what needs fixing in these units, so this letter to myself helps me put it to the side until I can. Reading my old letters helps me see the progress I’ve made as well. It can be difficult in this profession to see our own growth when the demands constantly change around us, so we need habits where we acknowledge ourselves to ourselves. These letters help me do that…

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