Teachers, It’s Okay to Smile

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I’m standing in front of my first period class after a long Thanksgiving break.

 

Papers are rustling.

 

Pencils are being sharpened.

 

Voices are lowering to a whisper.

 

And it occurs to me how glad I am to be here.

 

So I tell my students.

 

“We have a lot to go over today,” I begin and most of my middle school faces turn serious.

 

“But I just want to tell you all how happy I am to be here.”

 

Curiosity moves across those adolescent brows like a wave from one side of the room to the other.

 

Some even looked worried like they are afraid I am going to tell them I’m sick or dying.

 

“It’s true,” I continue. “I’m glad to be here this morning with all of you.

 

“I think teachers sometimes don’t say that enough.

 

“This is a great class. You’re all really good students, and I’ve watched you work hard and grow.

 

“For many of you this is the second year you’ve had me as your language arts teacher. For others, this is your first time with me. It doesn’t matter. I’m glad I can be with you and help get you ready for the challenges that you’ll face next year in high school.

 

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I am not just some guy who stands up here and gives you assignments. I’m your resource. If there’s anything I can do to make your year a better one, please ask.

 

“If you’re having trouble with the work or you’re confused about something, I’m here. If you need help with something – even if it’s not school related – I’m here. If you just want to talk or someone to listen – I’m here.”

 

I pause to see if there are any questions.

 

There aren’t, but neither is their any apparent doubt, bewilderment, perplexity.

 

The class looks back at me in silence with serene eyes and smiling lips.

 

And then we go on with our day.

 

Is it a big deal?

 

No.

 

But I think it’s worth noting.

 

Not that I’m some super teacher. I’m not.

 

I mess up all the time. But I feel like what I said this morning was right somehow.

 

It’s simple and easy and more of us should do it.

 

Kids can get the impression that teachers aren’t human. They’re these mysterious creatures who pass judgment on them — and where do they even go when class ends? Who knows?

 

I remember when I was a young educator one of my mentors told me the old chestnut “Don’t smile until Christmas.”

 

I saw where she was coming from. It’s easier to command firm discipline if students don’t think of you as anything but an educating machine. But I could never go through with it.

 

I smile on the first day – probably the first minute students walk into the room.

 

I greet them with a grin – every day.

 

And I think that’s right.

 

Discipline is a means to an end. You have to have some sort of order in your class so you can facilitate learning. But that doesn’t mean you should preside over prisoners locked in a penitentiary of their own education.

 

Learning should be about choice, fun and curiosity. It should be about expressing yourself as much as it is about finding details and forming grammatical sentences.

 

Everything we do should be in service to the student.

 

Reading comprehension is to help the student understand what is being said and then form an opinion about it.

 

Writing is to help the student express the maelstrom of their own thoughts in a way that can be understood by others.

 

I think we lose sight of that.

 

It’s okay to enjoy the work – for both students and teachers.

 

It’s okay to enjoy each other’s company.

 

In fact, you SHOULD do so if you can.

 

It does not somehow degrade the experience of learning. It enhances it.

 

When my classes are over, I always have several students gathering around my desk wanting to prolong our interaction even if it means they’ll be late to lunch or late going home.

 

Kids ask about my break and I ask about theirs. We talk about favorite TV shows, songs we like or even local news stories.

 

They share with me their middle school crushes and ask advice.

 

You have to draw a line between teacher and friend – and between teacher and parent. Because the kids are looking for you to be both.

 

But you can’t.

 

We walk a strange middle ground, but I think that’s necessary.

 

If I’m going to help students know things, I have to let them know me to a point, and I have to get to know them.

 

I can’t share everything with them, but they have to know I care.

 

As Theodore Roosevelt said:

 

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

 

So go ahead and smile, teachers.

 

Let your students know you care about them.

 

It will improve both your lives – and maybe even your teaching.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Dear Lawmakers, Please Hire Teachers as Education Aides – Not TFA Alumni

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Dear freshmen lawmakers,

 

We did it!

 

After a fiercely contested election, we have finally begun to turn the tide back toward progressive politics.

 

Midterms usually are sparsely attended, but this year we had an unprecedented turnout.  A total of 23 states had double-digit percentage-point increases compared with their 1982-2014 midterm election averages.

 

And the result is one of the largest and most diverse groups of freshman Congresspeople ever!

 

We got rid of a ton of incumbents – 104 lawmakers won’t be returning to Washington, DC, in January, making this the third-highest turnover since 1974.

 

 

And those taking their place will be largely female. Out of 256 women who ran for U.S. House or Senate seats, 114 have won so far (Some races are still too close to call), according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That makes the 116th Congress the largest class of female lawmakers ever.

 

Moreover, this incoming group will be incredibly diverse.

 

We have Jahana Hayes, a nationally-recognized teacher, who will be the first Black Congresswoman from Connecticut. Ayanna Presley, the first black Congresswoman from Massachusetts.

 

Angie Craig will be the first out LGBTQ Congresswoman from Minnesota. Chris Pappas, the first openly gay Congressman from New Hampshire.

 

Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland from Kansas and New Mexico will be the first Native American women elected to Congress – ever. And Davids will also be the first openly LGBTQ Congresswoman from the Sunflower State.

 

Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib will be the first-ever Muslim women in Congress. Omar, a former refugee, will also be the first Somali-American and Tlaib will be the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress. This is especially noteworthy because there have only been two other Muslims to serve in the legislative branch, both men: Rep. Keith Ellison and Rep. André Carson.

 

And let’s not forget New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Not only is she a Democratic Socialist, but the 29-year-old will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress!

 

With so many new faces and so much more representation, is it too much to ask for a change in the way things are done in Washington?

 

Many progressives are hoping not.

 

After all, it was people power that propelled these new lawmakers into government.

 

We marched in the rain, licked envelopes, made phone calls, wrote letters, and knocked on doors. We went to rallies and bake sales and stood by the polls with our little signs and fliers.

 

And we did it, because we wanted a change.

 

So, incoming lawmakers, that’s why I’m writing to you.

 

As a public school teacher, a father of a school-age child, an education activist and a concerned citizen, it really matters to me what happens to our schools.

 

Yet so many politicians – Republicans and Democrats – have turned a blind eye to our concerns for years.

 

No matter their party affiliation, they’ve pushed for increasing school privatization – charter and voucher schools. They’ve hammered us with biased and unscientific standardized tests and used the results to justify any number of atrocities including school closures, withholding funding and even stealing the democratic process from taxpayers. Instead of listening to the concerns of teachers and parents, they’ve followed the caprice of every bored billionaire who thinks they know how to better our schools with halfcocked schemes that cost us billions in taxpayer dollars while wasting children’s time and depriving them of an authentic education.

 

They’ve chased every new technological fad without regard to how it affects students or their privacy. They’ve let our schools become increasingly more segregated and made deals with private prison companies and unscrupulous security and business interests that made our schools a gateway to incarceration as much as they are to college or careers. They’ve actively engaged or silently stood by as classroom teachers lost autonomy, rights and professionalism. And finally, though many of them talk a good game, they haven’t done nearly enough to ensure that every student gets the same opportunities, resources and equitable funding.

 

Why?

 

Often the answer is ignorance.

 

They don’t properly understand the issues facing our schools. They don’t hear from parents, teachers and students – the rank and file. They only hear from the wealthy businesses and philanthrocapitalists preying on our schools like vultures over road kill.

 

In many cases this is because of the poor quality of education aides on Capital Hill.

 

Several years ago, I went to DC with other education advocates to ask our representatives to change course. Though we made reservations to speak with our duly-elected lawmakers months in advance, very few of them had the guts to see us face-to-face. We were almost always sent to education aides – well meaning and fresh faced kids only a few years out of college – who wrote down our concerns and sent us on our way with rarely any follow up from the people we’d come to see.

 

And more often than not, these eager young go-getters were Teach for America (TFA) alumni.

 

I’m not sure if you know what that means.

 

TFA is a nefarious neoliberal organization more interested in busting unions and influencing policy than helping kids learn.

 

They recruit people in college who didn’t major in education to become teachers for a few years before moving on to bigger and better things.

 

Often these rookies have only a few weeks training and just hours of experience before taking over their own classrooms. And unlike education majors, they only need to commit to the job for two years.

 

This not only does our children a disservice, it does very little to make these former teaching temps into education experts.

 

But that’s how they’re treated on Capital Hill.

 

Through programs like TFA’s Capitol Hill Fellows Program, alumni are placed in full-time, paid staff positions with legislators so they can “gain insights into the legislative process by working in a Congressional office” and work “on projects that impact education and opportunities for youth.”

 

Why do so many lawmakers hire them? Because they don’t cost anything.

 

Their salaries are paid in full by TFA through a fund established by Arthur Rock, a California tech billionaire who hands the organization bags of cash to pay these educational aides’ salaries. From 2006 to 2008, alone, Rock – who also sits on TFA’s board – contributed $16.5 million for this purpose.

 

This isn’t about helping lawmakers understand the issues. It’s about framing the issues to meet the policy initiatives of the elite and wealthy donors.

 

It’s about selling school privatization, high stakes testing and ed-tech solutions.

 

As Ocasio-Cortez said on a recent call with Justice Democrats, “I don’t think people who are taking money from pharmaceutical companies should be drafting health care legislation. I don’t think people who are taking money from oil and gas companies should be drafting our climate legislation.”

 

I’d like to add the following: people taking money from the testing and school privatization industry shouldn’t be drafting education policy. People who worked as temps in order to give themselves a veneer of credibility should not be treated the same as bona fide experts who dedicate their lives to kids in the classroom.

 

But that’s what many lawmakers of both parties have been enabling.

 

It’s not hard to find authentic experts on education.

 

There are 3.2 million public school teachers working in this country.

 

There are still 116,000 fewer public education jobs than there were before the recession of 2007, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive nonprofit think tank.

 

If we add the number of teaching jobs needed to keep up with growing enrollment, we’re missing 389,000 educators.

 

So that’s hundreds of thousands of laid off and retired teachers out there – a huge brain trust, a plethora of professionals who know – really know – what goes on in our schools, what they need to succeed and what policies could fix them.

 

THAT’S where you should go to find your educational aides – not TFA.

 

And these experts are not hard to find. You can contact the teachers unions – the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. Or, better yet, contact the various education activist groups focused on policy – the Badass Teachers Association or the Network for Public Education. And if you want experts at the crossroads of education and equity, you can contact civil rights groups who focus on our schools like Journey for Justice, a nationwide collective of more than 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in several cities.

 

Or you can give education bloggers (many of whom are teachers or former teachers) a call – people like Peter Greene, Mercedes Schneider, Nancy Flanagan, Jose Luis Vilson, Julian Vasquez-Helig, and others.

 

Heck! You can give me a shout out.

 

We’re here.

 

We want to help.

 

So congratulations on your election victories. Let’s work together to transform them into intelligent policies for all our children everywhere.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

 

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When I think of the modern day public school teacher, I think of Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Not because I’ve ever taught the Jonathan Swift classic to my students, but because of its most indelible image.

 

Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of the Lilliputans – tiny people who have tied the full sized sailor to the ground with thousands of itty bitty strings.

 

If that is not the picture of a public school teacher, I don’t know what is!

 

We are constantly restrained – even hogtied – from doing what we know is right.

 

And the people putting us in bondage – test obsessed lawmakers, number crunching administrators and small-minded government flunkies.

 

You see, teachers are in the classroom with students day in, day out. We are in the best position to make informed decisions about student learning. The more autonomy you give us, the better we’ll be able to help our students succeed.

 

But in an age of high stakes testing, Common Core and school privatization run amuck, teacher autonomy has been trampled into the dirt.

 

Instead, we have a militia of armchair policy hacks who know nothing about pedagogy, psychology or education but who want to tell us how to do our jobs.

 

It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that educator self-determination ever was a value people thought worth preserving in the first place.

 

Whereas in generations past it was considered anywhere from merely advisable to absolutely essential that instructors could make up their own minds about how best to practice their craft, today we’d rather they just follow the script written by our allegedly more competent corporate masters.

 

 

The way I see it, the reason for this is fivefold:

 

 

  1. Testing

    School used to be about curriculum and pedagogy. It was focused on student learning – not how we assess that learning. Now that standardized tests have been mandated in all 50 states as a means of judging whether our schools are doing a good job (and assorted punishments and rewards put in place), it’s changed the entire academic landscape. In short, when you make school all about standardized tests, you force educators to teach with that as their main concern.

  2. Common Core

    Deciding what students should learn used to be the job of educators, students and the community. Teachers used their extensive training and experience, students appeal to their own curiosity, and the community tailored its expectations based on its needs. However, we’ve given up on our own judgment and delegated the job to publishing companies, technology firms and corporations. We’ve let them decide what students should learn based on which pre-packed products they can most profitably sell us. The problem is when you force all academic programs to follow canned academic standards written by functionaries, not educators, you put teachers in a straight jacket constraining them from meeting their students’ individual needs.

 

3. Grade Promotion Formulas

It used to be that teachers decided which students passed or failed their classes. And when it came to which academic course students took next, educators at least had a voice in the process. However, we’ve standardized grade promotion and/or graduation policies around high stakes test scores and limited or excluded classroom grades. When you’re forced to rely on a formula which cannot take into account the infinite variables present while excluding the judgment of experienced experts in the classroom, you are essentially forbidding educators from one of the most vital parts of the academic process – having a say in what their own courses mean in the scheme of students educational journeys.

 

4. Scripted Curriculum

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this whole process has been the attempted erasure of the teacher – as a thinking human being – from the classroom, itself. Instead of letting us be people who observe and adapt to the realities in front of us, many of us have been forced to read from a script. It should go without saying that when you constrain educators to abide by scripted curriculum – what we used to call “teacher proof curriculum” – or pacing guides, you remove their ability to be teachers, at all.

 

5. Value Added Evaluations

 

We used to trust local principals and administrators to decide which of their employees where doing a good job. Now even that decision has been taken away and replaced by junk science formulas that claim to evaluate a teacher’s entire impact on a student’s life with no regard to validity, fairness or efficiency. However, local principals and administrators are there in the school building every day. They know what’s happening, what challenges staff face and even the personalities, skills and deficiencies of the students, themselves. As such, they are in a better position to evaluate teachers’ performance than these blanket policies applied to all teachers in a district or state – things like valued-added measures or other faith based formulas used to estimate or quantify an educator’s positive or negative impact.

 

It’s no wonder then that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

 

You can’t freeze someone’s salary, stifle their rights to fair treatment while choking back their autonomy and still expect them to show up to work everyday eager and willing to do the job.

 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a representative sample of more than 37,000 American public school elementary and secondary teachers showing widespread dissatisfaction with the job in general and a lack of autonomy in particular.

In fact, they cited this lack of self-determination as a leading contributor to the nationwide teacher shortage. Having control over how you do your job is essential to being fully satisfied with your work.

Teacher-Autonomy

 

If you’re just following orders, your accomplishments aren’t really yours. It’s the difference between composing a melody and simply recreating the sounds of an amateur musician with perfect fidelity.

Today’s teachers rarely get to pick the textbooks they use, which content or skills to focus on, which techniques will be most effective in their classrooms, how to discipline students, how much homework to give – and they have next to zero say about how they will be evaluated.

And to make matters worse, sometimes it isn’t that educators are forbidden from exercising autonomy, but that they are given such a huge laundry list of things they’re responsible for that they don’t have the time to actually be creative or original. Once teachers meet the demands of all the things they have to cram into a single day, there is little room for reflection, revision or renewal.

School policy is created at several removes from the classroom. We rarely even ask workaday teachers for input less than allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

We imagine that policy is above their pay grade. They are menial labor. It’s up to us, important people, to make the big decisions – even though most of us have little to no knowledge of how to teach!

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says that this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we really cared about improving both the teaching profession and the quality of education we provide students.

In the United States, autonomy usually stops at the district or administrative level and results in decision-making that ignores the voices of educators and the community, he says.

Sahlberg continues:

“School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for those who manage or own private schools, charter schools or other independent schools. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another. In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increased autonomy is political.

Lawmakers and pundits conflate teacher professionalism and increased decision making with union membership.

And they do have a point. Having a seat at the bargaining table is vital to educators’ self-determination.

In some states, local teachers unions negotiate annual contracts with their districts. However, most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated only by state teachers unions.

These contracts can directly affect exactly how much independence teachers can exercise in the classroom since they can determine things like the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

There are even some tantalizing schools that are entirely led and managed by teachers. The school does not have formal administrators – teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. But such experiments are rare.

In most places, teacher autonomy is like the last dinosaur.

It represents a bygone age when we envisioned education completely differently.

We could try to regain that vision and go in a different direction.

But if things remain as they are, the dinosaur will go extinct.

Autonomy is a hint at what we COULD be and what we COULD provide students…

…if we only had the courage to stop standardizing and privatizing our country to death.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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