At some point we all have moments in which we doubt our efficacy in our work life: our job, task, volunteer position or otherwise. We begin to wonder, “Am I really doing this all that well?” or, “Would someone else do this better?” Fortunately for most, those questions start internally and get shared with only a few people when we reach out for help.
We teachers, however, get this early and often, usually without solicitation, and from someone we may not want to talk to about it.
Sometimes it is in the form of formal evaluations from administrators, District walkthrough teams, and others with their biting criticism of our pedagogy (how do they have such deep insight with a 16-minute visit, anyway?). More often, however, it comes from our students who – while I love them to death – have less-than-professional ways of expressing their discontent with our teaching methods.
In my classes recently I have noticed a lot of my students are not understanding and internalizing the concepts we are discussing. As I endeavor to constantly improve my practice, I seriously wonder if the problem lies with them or with me (let’s leave the broken system of American urban education out of this for now, shall we?). I attempt to break concepts down into small pieces, provide video tutorials on the student’s laptops (that they can take home), I guide instruction during class, attempt to manage student’s misdirections, work in small groups and one-on-one, and yet I still have students complaining of the workload.
When I ask them if they continue at home, the usual answer is no. How can they expect to learn without trying at home? Understanding that they might need my help at home, too, I have provided four different ways of reaching me outside of school. I know it sounds weird, but I want them to be able to reach out whenever and wherever they need (and with my new iPhone, it’s easy for me to respond!).
Yet with all this I still find myself coming home after work wondering if I am really all that cracked up to be an educator. I know I won’t truly reach my stride until Year 5, so I push on, but it becomes so difficult sometimes. In conversation with another educator today, we discussed how teachers must
be able to forget things that happen in their classroom, otherwise why would they come back after the summer, let alone just one week of school?
So what can we do about this? Talk about it, of course!
I’ve mentioned the Critical Friends program we use at my school before. It is a great way of sharing your concerns with your peers and getting specific feedback to help with problems you are having. The only way to improve is to share your classroom with someone you trust to make critical judgments that will help you in the end. That’s what we do and it has been a great experience so far. I can only wish other teachers get something similar in order to better themselves in order to ensure their students are learning.
We are actually presenting on this topic at the Ethnography Forum
at Penn this Saturday. If you are interested in attending, it costs some money unless you are a School District or Penn staff or student – then it’s free! We are presenting at 10:15am on Saturday, February 26th in room 120. Join us!
To those out there who love teaching poetry and the Harlem Renaissance, here is a modern version of a Langston Hughes poem written by Amina Brown, colleague and friend.
I, too, am a professional
I am the younger sister
They send me to the back to write CSAPs and Pink Slips
When 440 Comes
But I laugh
And grow strong
I'll be in my classroom
When 440 comes
Say to me,
"Go write CSAPs"
They'll see how intelligent I am
And be ashamed
I,too, am a professional
For those who like looking at original poetry as a comparison, here
is the Langston Hughes poem.
More terms to learn:
CSAP: Comprehensive Student Assistance Program. It is a procedure teachers must go through to document the interventions they use on students. Ostensibly to help the students learn; in reality, it's paperwork to fill out in order to justify a failing grade.
Pink Slips: An official document
440: 440 North Broad Street is the location of the School District of Philadelphia offices.
Nerdy confession: I have spent about 4 hours over the past two days reading back issues of the Philadelphia Inquirer, curious to learn about the past 10 years of education reporting in the city. Here's a little information I found out about our most recent administrative leadership:
David Hornbeck, superintendent from 1995-2000: annual salary about $170,000
Paul Vallas, CEO from 2002-2007: annual salary about $225,000
Arlene Ackerman, superintendent from 2008-present: annual salary about $340,000
I find this trend a little scary. Just sayin'.
For those unfamiliar with certain terms and acronyms in this post and would like more detail, please see the glossary at the bottom.
At this time of year most Philadelphia high schools are stepping up their plans to increase proficiency rates on the high-stakes PSSA test. Administrators and teachers alike are feeling the pressure from above to increase their scores in order to meet their goal of AYP (adequate yearly progress), or at least reaching Safe Harbor (a 10% increase in scores). The jobs of teachers, principals, and even the fate of a school may ride on the test scores of a very small number of students.
In fact, just 23 kids can determine the fate of an entire school. This is not hyperbole – this is the truth in how the PSSA functions. If a school has achieved a 13% proficiency rate in math then to reach Safe Harbor they must increase to 23%. In a junior class of 100 students, that translates to an entire school relying on 23 teenage kids. The strategists among us must see where this is going. In order to increase the chances of reaching that goal, it becomes the school’s (and teacher’s) job to find those 23 kids and give them extra preparation and remediation to ensure they reach our goal.
The emphasis made on this one test has repercussions that go across classes, schools, and Districts. The kids may be re-rostered out of their electives in order to get extra test prep. Teachers may be pulled from other classes in order to help them. It is an irony upon ironies that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act – when reaching its fullest extent – may promote helping fewer kids in order to pass a single test.
Obviously that is not the goal of NCLB but it is one of many unfortunate outcomes. With the fate of an entire school or District in the balance, educators and administrators will be forced to stop at nothing to get their scores. I have heard stories of cheating on these tests because they are so important. And administrators are constantly berating high-quality educators so that if the outcomes are not reached, they will have some justification in dismissing them and showing that they have “done” something.
I usually try to end my posts with some kind of positive recommendation or suggestion that everyone is able to do. In this case, I think it will require a large group of people to change the status quo and I’m not entirely sure what it would look like. Obviously it would not include these high-stakes tests but how to get from here to there? I am unsure. Thoughts are appreciated.
Safe Harbor: For schools that have missed their target goals of adequate yearly progress, they may increase their proficiency rates by 10% in order to be considered improving.
PSSA: Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. The standardized test that all 11th grade high school students take that determines the adequate yearly progress of the entire building.
AYP: Adequate Yearly Progress. A term created by the No Child Left Behind Act to delineate the incremental progress a school should be making.
“Can I get my make-up work, please, Mr. Cohen?”
“Yo, Cohen, can I get my packet?”
“Just give me a project, Cohen.”
These three quotes are just a few examples of requests made by students over the past year and a half of my teaching career. Unfortunately, my experience thus far has trained me to hate these phrases more often than not. To me, they place the focus of school entirely on the work instead of the learning.
The context in which they were stated is very nuanced so it is important to pay attention to which student is making the request. For the consistently motivated student who was sick or out for a few days, I can generally point him/her in the right direction and they can catch up by communicating with their classmates and an occasional meeting with me. The less motivated student will have a very tough time understanding what is going on and will repeatedly ask me for some way of “making up” the work s/he missed without having to learn the material.
With that problem in mind I have been mulling over a very important pedagogical question: “When and how does learning take place for different students?” For some, all they need is a problem set and they become familiar with the concept and move on. For others, they need guided instruction with an interactive activity and manipulatives. It is my belief that the conversations held between these activities, problem sets, or otherwise are the crux of learning. Providing a discussion to summarize the concepts investigated, practiced, or solved will help create the neuron connections necessary for a student to learn.
That being said, when a student approaches me and asks for a packet, virtual notebook, worksheet, etc I have become somewhat jaded and assume they simply want the “credit” for completing the work, without having learned anything. Somewhere in their educational history, many students learn how to “play school” well enough without actually gaining knowledge and the practice I am describing just continues that game.
I am by no means saying that at certain times late assignments or “make up” work should not be accepted. Oftentimes students just get overwhelmed by their lives and need a bit more time. I just think we need to ensure that assignments are meaningful even if not completed by the official deadline. It is a difficult proposition but with enough thought I believe we can create a system where any “work” that is completed can still be useful for gaining knowledge and understanding on any subject.
One method being used by some schools in Philadelphia (small shout out to my friend Erin at Science Leadership Academy) and across the globe is reducing the emphasis on the official grade and re-emphasizing the individual skills or objective a student has mastered. For example, instead of providing a concrete grade on a test where students must create tables of value and graph points I could break those skills down and provide a few different methods for my student to show that s/he has mastered that skill. Then I would provide them with feedback on individual skills (plots points correctly, can make lines of best fit, etc.) in the form of a table, demonstrating that they have mastered the skill or not. If they have not, they must display their understanding sometime else in order to gain credit for a particular unit of study.
I recognize that there are many logistical questions for a system like this in Philadelphia. How will colleges look at grades if there are these tables? How will our online grading system match up with the skill sets mastered? I don’t have the answers to all these questions. What I do know is that we don’t want a system to perpetuate that allows students to “work” towards a diploma instead of “learning” towards one.
“Children come first.” It is the first of the core beliefs of the School District of Philadelphia. I believe it. I agree with it. And I would argue with anyone who says otherwise. Whenever planning for school, I ask myself, “Will this help my student/s?” If it doesn’t, I don’t do it. I would like to believe that others follow the same guideline.
Some would accuse me of believing the world around me is made up of puppy dogs and unicorns; I don’t totally disagree with them (puppy bowl
much?). I just feel that if people involved in education followed this guideline often, we would have fewer corruption problems (duh), fewer academic problems, and fewer political problems.
The political wrangling I’ve heard from friends and co-workers across the District is intense at times. Manipulation occurs across the board – students, teachers, administrators, even parents. Good teachers are force-transferred for disagreeing with administrators. Policies are enacted without consulting the people who are supposed to implement them. Too much time is wasted in pointing fingers, avoiding responsibility or maneuvering for control of a situation that negatively affects our students.
I am definitely naïve in thinking this, but I believe this waste of time can be changed from within. I would like to be a part of that change. I’m not sure how I can help, but I feel it’s a good idea to promote positive ideas amongst the thousands of employees of the School District. I would love to offer my support to staff at other schools and vice-versa. The simple process of sharing what works and what doesn’t should not be viewed as a political act but as a collaborative effort to help our children (see first 3 words of post).
Here are just a few specific ideas:
- Teach For America has a great database of lesson plans, worksheets, unit plans, video links, and more, available to their current members and alumni across the US. These resources would be useful to Philadelphia educators, whether new or seasoned.
- Actively advertising technology support would be helpful to novice and experienced teachers alike. I subscribed to the PTRN (Philadelphia Technology Resource Network) listserve, hoping to learn more about application of technology in schools, and have learned so much,
- Easy-to-use discussion forums for ideas. Blogs are great but not everyone knows about everything that’s out there. I read about 6 different educator blogs a day to keep up with new ideas. Just imagine what a central hub for all those ideas could do!
The key aspect of all these ideas is that they are open-source and collaborative. People post or don’t. People upload or don’t. And the amount of knowledge that could be shared would be amazing. Let’s put our Professional Learning Network to use all year round instead of just during allocated Professional Development days. We might be surprised at the positive effect on our community of learners.
More links people. Enjoy them and share with me if you any ideas!
Recently one of my students opened my eyes to how a few of our students perceive their educators. In one quick breath she uttered, “you don’t care – you’re just here for the paycheck.”
In those nine words she made me cry on the inside. I don’t know if it came from the fact that I have succumbed to telling my students, “I get paid whether you get quiet or not” in an effort to get them to focus. Sufficed to say, I won’t ever say that
Let’s really unpack that statement. Start off with this
: the salary schedule for teachers in the School District of Philadelphia. While I am SUPER psyched to be getting any kind of money for doing something I love, I’m a bit disappointed at the topping off point. Apparently, according to the College Board, if I want my own children to go to the university of their choice, I will have to spend almost my entire annual salary
I understand that Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the entire country are facing a budget crisis right now. But, really, I view it as an opportunity to reorient and reevaluate how money is spent.
Over $300 billion
has been spent in the last 3 years on individuals who are without jobs. Granted, it did not solely have to do with lack of education but who can deny the opportunities that education can bring? Overall employment rates show this.
So why can’t we be smart enough to invest our money in preventing this problem instead of treating the symptoms in later years? Maybe it’s because of regular election cycles tearing focus away every two or four years; or maybe it’s the transient nature of the leadership of our fair School District (doesn’t anyone else think 5 years isn’t really enough time to see a change?).
Let’s get the most out of our money for the kids – they are the future of this system anyway. Let’s make sure those schools that need supplies get books, paper, etc and the support on how to use them wisely. Let’s make sure buildings get the maintenance support they need so new buildings don’t start crumbling in 5 years. Let’s make sure we provide support to new teachers with mentors who visit on a very regular basis to provide high-quality feedback.
Basically, let’s make sure our “nation builders” have the resources to actually build the nation.
It’s the thing all things devour:
Birds, beast, trees, flowers.
It gnaws on iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal.
It slays king, ruins towns,
And beats high mountains down.
What is it?
I’ll be the first to admit that I spend way too much of my day focused on school at this point in my life. Like many other teachers my age with my inadequate level of experience I get to school early (about 50 minutes)and stay late (usually about an hour) in order to get my work done or help students. Then, I come home and get back on my computer to grade, lesson plan,and research cool things to do in my classroom. All this shuffling makes me wonder: can I really do it forever (like this
A good friend rightly commented on my first post, “How can we make this line of work sustainable when those above us are constantly undermining our efforts to serve our students?”
Many of my idols in teaching went through hell
in their personal lives in order to be a good educator. Jaime Escalante (of the film Stand and Deliver
) was a math teacher in Los Angeles when he suffered from an inflammation of his gall bladder. Erin Gruwell (of the film FreedomWriters)
was an English teacher in Long Beach and got divorced from her husband for spending too much time with her students.
With the current demands of teaching and the accountability movement, how am I going to balance my teaching, my family (present and future), my friends, my sleep, and my sanity?
Recently a Teach For America educator protested
how the bureaucratic nature of the School District kept her from being the best teacher she could be. The response from Superintendent Ackerman was less than elegant, and did not help the teacher gain the support she needed. If we wantto keep our enthusiastic young teachers in place, we are going to need to support them more than that.
So where do we get that support? In my limited experience thus far, the best place to find it is from fellow educators. At my school we have a program called Critical Friends in which we observe each other’s classrooms, critique, and listen. In this setting we can be frank without fear of reprisal. And, we can share day-to-day experiences with someone who is experiencing them in the same way. While formal observations are important, I have not found them to be as beneficial as my colleagues observing me. With this feedback, I can learn, grow, and become a more efficient and effective educator.
With more of this kind of program, I think it is possible to balance the educational needs of students and my own personal needs. I just hope others get the same level of support.