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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tragedy's Tomorrow

Tomorrow the kids and I will return to our classroom. It should be like every Monday, one in which I review last week's material while introducing new ideas.  But tomorrow's Monday will be different. Tomorrow I will need to fully focus on my students' emotional well-being and nurture them through this tragedy.

A tightrope, that is what I will walk:  needing to stress the importance of safety drills without frightening the kids; growing compassion without instilling depression; engendering political action without taking sides.

I will give them a chance to journal and draw, talk and cry.
I will give them the opportunity to angrily discuss how the daily violence in their own community is often ignored by the media.
I will keep it age-appropriate.
I will remind them that there is good, and there is kindness and there is courage on the darkest of days. And that those things exist because of choices people make.
I will reassure.
I will nod and hug.
I will coax them back to normalcy.

Tomorrow I will not test them, I will not gather or analyze data about them. I will not burden them with this month's Common Core bundle. I will share my humanity and open myself to theirs.

Tomorrow I will be inspired by the memory of people I never knew: Mary, Lauren, Rachel, Dawn, Anne Marie, and Victoria.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Is it worse to be called a "bitch" or to be treated like one?

How often are you called a "bitch" at your job? If you're a teacher in NYC, then odds are you have enjoyed that moniker in English and/or one other language at least once in the course of your career. A much more frequent and debilitating occurrence is how often you're treated like one.

Let's start small. At my school, the principal announced that there was no money for after-school programs. Knowing this, several teachers agreed to work for free to: 1) prepare students for the specialized high school exam; 2) prep students for Regents exams; and 3) tutor low-performing students for the state exams. Meanwhile, it just came to light that she is paying herself per session for the days she deigns not to leave early. Bitch.

Let's move on to the city level. In NYC, we sometimes have a program called "Teachers Choice." I say "sometimes" because the funding comes and goes. Last year it went, this year it comes - sort of. Courtesy of the City Council, teachers will be reimbursed for the purchase of instructional supplies to the tune of $45.00. No you did not read that wrong, we will receive a whopping $45 though most of us spend hundreds of dollars each year. What other job do you know of where the employees have to purchase basic supplies and are NOT reimbursed for them? Does a fireman buy his own hose? Bitch.

Let us move up to the state level. New York state ties teacher evaluations to students' test scores but fails to fully fund schools so that there is no after-school money. Thereby putting teachers in the position of having to volunteer their time if they want any chance of pushing up student test scores and keeping their jobs. When it snows, sanitation workers get paid overtime. If a police officer stays late to complete paperwork, he is compensated. Why are teachers expected to volunteer their time? Bitch.

Let's move up one more level to the federal government which unrealistically demands through the No Child Left Behind Act that every child be proven through endless testing to be, as political scientist Charles Murray put it, "above average." This ill-conceived legislation narrowed the focus of the teaching profession from the development of the whole child to that of data reader and test preparer. And since one insanely detrimental program deserves another, the feds followed up NCLB with Race to the Top. RTTT sets school against school as they fight over pathetically small sums of money to implement policies and programs that will ultimately cost them more than they receive. And then there are the latest, much-touted, rarely tested cure-alls that we are told to implement and adhere to such as the professionally disempowering Common Core standards. Bitch.

And lest society as a whole think they are without sin, let us hold a mirror up to America's face. Hi America, here is what your stewardship of our economic and education system has wrought. In a recent Daily News article Juan Gonzalez revealed how employees at AIG enjoy many free perks.  Perks such as free Snapple, Starbucks, soda, Tylenol and Advil. The company also buys breakfast and lunch several times a week for its employees. The insurance bastards, who were saved from bankruptcy by sucking $182 billion from the public teat, have funds for this nonsense but at Intermediate School Who Gives A Fuck, teachers have to buy their own paper. What the hell, America? Get your priorities straight. Teachers who want to take their students on a trip to the theatre, ballet or Statue of Liberty must beg at the altar of Donors Choose because there is no money for such unholy "extras" but inept corporations (of which we still own 52%) get no oversight. Bitch.

Some of my friends think the most challenging part of being a teacher is dealing with the students. They're wrong. When an inarticulate and frustrated fourteen-year-old calls you a name, you can handle their momentary lapse in judgment. But when your administration at every single level, indeed your country, repeatedly and methodically treats you like a bitch, well that is a hell of a lot worse.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

I Sweat With Chicago Teachers

I had to laugh when I read that one of the complaints Chicago teachers voiced, as they prepared for and went on strike, was a lack of air conditioned classrooms. I was not laughing at their predicament but at the universal condition of being "fed up."

You have probably had the same experience. The one where you put up with things and then put up with more things and you take it for a while and then a bit longer and then SNAP. Suddenly (and often over something not very significant) you can't take not even one more moment of stupidity or abuse or rudeness or disrespect or incompetence or discomfort or as is the case for the teacher's union all of the above. They've had it. They've had it with nonsensical evaluations, inadequate pay, junk science based value add measures, attacks on tenure and a lack of air conditioners and I feel uplifted by their courage.

As for sweating with my midwestern colleagues, last week temperatures in my room (coupled with the humidity) sent one girl home with heat stroke. Oh yes Chicago, I sweat with you and to prove it, I sent  $50 to your solidarity fund.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Should I bother to learn the new teacher's name?

Once again we have a new language teacher at our school. I'm debating whether or not I should learn his name, as everyone at my school (except him) knows he is merely a temporary employee. Across the near decade that I have worked at my school, we have employed at least eight different foreign language teachers (it could be more but my memory gets fuzzy when I think back to year one and two).

Some people think it is difficult to fire teaching staff. Well if that is true, I have seen no evidence of it. My principal goes through staff at an alarming rate. Easily a quarter of the staff changes every year, most notably special education teachers and those who teach the "extras" - foreign language, arts/music and ELL instructors. Why do they come and go like Kardashian love interests?

That interesting question is one that the administration should be examining but of course, never has. That would require insight, oversight, planning and a wee bit of empathy. All of which are in as short supply as copy paper in June.

In my opinion, there are two main reasons we experience such high turnover. First, we hire teachers who we know are temporary. My school has hired a number of Teach for America members who knew they would not be staying in the profession never mind at our school. Typically at the end of year two but sometimes at the end of year three, they give their notice. Personally I have liked the TFA people I worked with. They have energy and access to many resources but while working at an inner-city school for 370 days may be good for their resumes, it is not good for our school community. The second reason staff passes through like Taco Bell through the digestive track has to do with the nature of certain teaching positions. Some teachers, like the music teacher, are responsible for providing instruction to the entire student body. That is an amazingly difficult thing to do. It is hard to learn the names of more than 200 hundred students. It is near impossible to form the relationships with students that foster academic and emotional growth. But rather than help these staffers meet the unique challenges of their positions by modifying assignments or offering extra supports, our management team just fires them or refuses to grant tenure or makes their lives so miserable they quit.

ELA and math teachers practically crawl with the weight of accountability heaped upon them. So why aren't administrators held accountable for their inability to maintain a stable staff? Hell if I know but then again, I don't even know the Spanish teacher's name.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I'm in a funk

I've taught for several years now and I've never started a school year feeling like this. Usually I'm so excited the night before the students come to school that I can't sleep. This year I feel sad and defeated.  I think "it" is catching up to me.

"It" is the deep understanding that I am no longer educating my students. I'm training them. Training them like god damn seals. Training them to merely pass exams and that is not what I signed up for. It was not acceptable for my child. It should not be acceptable for these children but there it is.

There is little, if any, talk at my school about the need to shape our students as human beings and I feel sick about it. Schools for wealthy students gear their instructional year around themes such as tolerance, giving or courage. My school is planning to meet once a week to compare one week's test results with the next week's test results (as if learning/understanding is linear). We have no meetings scheduled to discuss emotional growth. We will not be discussing improvements in demonstrable generosity. Nor will we work to develop leadership skills. There is no time to care about the whole child anymore and that makes me wholly sad.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The High Cost of Caring for Someone Else's Child

Later today I will retrieve a cranky laptop from the Apple store. It will cost me a little less than $150 to have it inspected and a couple of buggy things repaired. However, it is not my laptop; it belongs to my school. So why am I paying for its upkeep?  Simply put: because if I don't, no one will.

I don't know if other schools operate this way but mine does.  They sometimes acquire new technology but then fail to budget for its upkeep. Our school has keyboards with missing keys, monitors which work but CPUs that don't, overhead projectors without lightbulbs, ELMOs without cords and a slew of other technological embarrassments.

People seem to understand that teachers spend money on their classrooms but I fear they have no idea how extensive and expensive it really is. I've taught for more than five years now and every single year, I have documented spending more than $3,000 a year. What do I buy? Technology you know about already but I've also spent money on clothes, food, art supplies (big one), trips (frequently), photo development, copies and classroom supplies (almost weekly) such as notebooks, pencils, white board markers, staples, erasers, paper towels, tissues, baby wipes, clips and paper (copy and construction).

Sometimes my friends are shocked by this amount. I am mostly numb to it. I do what I have to do to keep my students focused, motivated and excited about learning. But once in a while I look at another student, one who is paying the price for my generosity, and I feel sick. You see, my daughter has had to go into debt to pay for college. She is almost in debt for the exact amount that I have spent on my class over the course of these many years. Money I spent on other people's children for their educational benefit is not available for my own child. I guiltily shake my head as I write this because I know I'm supposed to put my daughter's needs first but as a teacher, those other children - someone else's children - often feel like mine and I want great things for them, just like I want them for my own girl. And the fact that they don't have gloves and hats in the winter or that they come to school hungry bothers me and all of a sudden I've spent the money.

In two hours, I will head out to pick up my classroom Mac.  Last year the bill was more than $300, not including new software. This year I guess I got off easy. I wonder if my daughter sees it that way.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Thank you, daughter

My really smart child will be graduating from college soon. She will not even entertain the idea of becoming a teacher.  She is eager and disciplined, sensible and enthusiastic, thoughtful and organized.  Yet when I mention that many of these characteristics can be found in effective teachers, she makes a face like I punched her.

Since I sometimes feel hurt by her decision, as if her rejection of my profession is a personal affront, I asked her to articulate her reasons. Here is what she wrote to me:

          There are two reasons I don't want to become a teacher.  First, I've seen what it takes 
          and what must be sacrificed to be an excellent teacher - and I don't have it.  I am not 
          willing to give up so much of my life and my time for teaching.  I don't want to spend 
          my own money on supplies. I don't want to write lesson plans until midnight.  If I get 
          married, I won't sacrifice my marriage and/or family for good test scores.  Second, if I 
          took the job temporarily to get my loans forgiven and not because I love the profession, 
          I could see myself counting down the days until I could be "free."  How many Teach 
          for America people have been at your school?  How many have only stayed long enough to 
          pay off their debt?  How many have actually made a positive impact on the kids?  I 
          don't want to waste anyone's time.  Not mine and not that of your needy students.

There's little I can say to counter her arguments. The hours and efforts required to be an excellent educator surpass by twofold anything that could be described as "reasonable."  Other professions which make such great intellectual, emotional and physical demands on their members are more respected and offer more generous compensation than teaching. Couple that with public education constantly being attacked and twisted by politicians, philanthropic phonies, ALEC shills and so-called reformers and I understand why my child sees teaching as a poor exchange between the personal and the professional. 

As for the TFAers at my school,  supported by conferences, one-on-one mentors, on-line lessons, sample assessments and student data tracking systems created and sustained through generous TFA funding from corporations and foundations, I believe that all of them had potential to be strong teachers.  The problem has been that that potential has, to my knowledge, never been realized because no TFAer has stayed at my school for more than three years.

In the end, I guess I should thank my daughter.  For her honesty.  For her exemplary demand for respect. And for not viewing teaching as a stepping stone to law school.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Principal Should Take a Budgeting Class

School begins in a month and I have yet to be paid for work I did in the spring.  How does this happen?  Because my principal doesn't know how to budget funds.  For several years now, I have been paid in the autumn for work I performed in the previous school year. Sometimes waiting as long as six months for my earnings.

I am not alone in this predicament.  Other colleagues have told me they have not been paid for after-school activities or for coverages (and we had a lot of coverages since the administration failed to appropriately budget for substitute teachers).  What the hell!

And the accounting faux-pas don't end there.  Every year we run out of supplies before we run out of school days.  At staff meetings, we were emphatically told to continue teaching with rigor because "the school year is not over yet, people." Yet when I asked for staples, chalk, lightbulbs for projectors and EVEN COPY PAPER, the secretary just shook her head,  "We're out. Sorry."

Sorry.  Yes, my school is in a sorry state.
Demanding differentiation yet unable to allocate funds that would allow copying of materials for students who need larger print or leveled readings.
Expecting students to be engaged until the end of June when administrators themselves fail to allocate resources with foresight.
Insisting teachers perform duties for which administrators know they cannot pay them.
Sorry, indeed.

Does the DOE audit school budgets and look for these types of fiscal irresponsibility? And if they do, do they offer continuing education classes for principals who are clearly lacking skills in this area?

If so, I'd like to reserve a seat for one administrator. PLEASE.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bed Bugs

This year bed bugs were found at my school.  And how were we instructed to handle this issue?

1) Capture the offending insect.
2) Send it for positive identification (to whom I don't know).
3) Assuming positive identification, wait two weeks to one month for an exterminator.

Doesn't that seem like an extraordinary amount of time to wait?  Students and staff could unknowingly bring the bugs home.

And if a teacher's home is invaded by critters carried from school, there is no fund to help pay for the fumigation or other related costs.  Not from the school district.  Not from the union.

Are costs associated with ridding your home of insects considered a tax deductible work-related expense?

And most importantly, now that I wrote this post, how long will it take for me to stop scratching at the imaginary insects on my legs?

Why a blog?

Whether it be to the verge of greatness or the border of despair, is there something specific that propels a person to do the abnormal?

Not in my case.  In my case, creating this blog (a very abnormal thing for me) was not the result of a single momentous event but instead, the accumulation of thousands of tortuous drops of stupidity, inefficiencies and missteps at every level of the educational field.  I'm fed up and this is my semi-tech-savvy way of screaming from my window (with homage to the movie "Network" and Twisted Sister), "I'm not going to take it anymore."

What you will find here is:
- accounts of the slings and arrows suffered by educational personnel
- commentary on so-called "educational reforms" and the people, groups, institutions that proffer them
- links to relevant articles, websites, blogs, commentary etc.
- the occasional rant