The Last Day of School

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On the last day of school this year, my 8th grade students gave me one of the greatest salutes a teacher can get.

 

They reenacted the closing scene of “The Dead Poets Society.”

 

You know. The one where Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating has been fired from a boarding school for teaching his students to embrace life, and as he collects his things and leaves, the students get up on their desks as a testament to his impact and as a protest to the current administration’s reductive standardization.

 

That’s what my students did for me. And I almost didn’t even notice it at first.

 

The whole thing went down like this.

 
The bell rang and an announcement was made telling us that the day was done.

 
I was immediately rushed by a crowd of children turning in final projects, shaking my hand, saying goodbye.

 
In fact, I was so occupied with the students right in front of me that I didn’t notice what was happening with the ones just behind them.

 
I heard someone say in a ringing voice, “Oh Captain, my Captain!”

 
I looked up and there they were.

 
About a dozen students were standing on their desks, looking down at me with big goofy grins.

 

Some had their hands on their hearts. One had raised his fist in the air. I think someone in the back was even making jazz hands. But they were each standing up there with the same look on their faces – a mixture of independence, humor and gratitude.

 

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that this happened. Some of them had threatened months ago to make just such a demonstration.

 
We had watched the movie together back in April at the introduction of our poetry unit. I guess it was my way of trying to show them that poetry could make a deep impact on people. But I certainly hadn’t wanted them to put themselves at risk by standing on the furniture.

 

In fact, I had specifically cautioned them NOT to do this exact thing because someone might fall off their desk and hurt themselves.

 

But on the last day of school after the last bell has rung and my tenure as their teacher has expired – well, things are different then.

 

“Thank you,” I said. “That is really one of the nicest things students have ever done for me.”

 

Then I took out my phone and asked if I could snap a few pictures, because who’d ever believe me if I didn’t? They didn’t mind.

 

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When I was done, they hopped down one at a time, many of them rushing forward to give me a hug.

 

This class will always be a special one in my heart.

 

We’ve come a long way together.

 

For most of them, I was their language arts teacher for two years. When they first came in the classroom they were just babies. Now they are going off to high school.

 

Unless you’re a parent, you wouldn’t believe how much kids can grow and change in just a few short years. And the middle school years are some of the most extreme. The line between child and adult fades into nothingness.

 

I’ve had a handful of children who were enrolled in my classes for multiple years before, but I’d never had so many. In some ways, we were more like a family than a classroom.

 

I had been there when parents got sick, left, died. I knew them all so well – who would ask questions just to stall, who never got enough sleep and why (often Fortnite), which ones had athletic aspirations, which were incredible artists, etc. Some had come out of the closet to me and their classmates but not at home.

 

Many of us went on a school field trip to Washington, DC, together. We’d toured the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. When I was invited to do a TED talk, they tracked it down on YouTube. They even found my Twitter account and made merciless fun of my profile picture. And when I actually had my book published on education issues last year, a bunch of my kids even came out to hear me talk about it at local book stores.

 

It’s hard to explain the depth of the relationship.

 

At the end of the year, I always give my students a survey to gauge how they think I did as their teacher. It’s not graded, and they can even turn it in anonymously.

 

The results are almost always positive, but this year, I got responses like never before:

 

“I love you, Mr. Singer. Thanks for a great 2 years. I will terribly miss you.”

 

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“I’ve never been bored here. You are the first teacher that made me want to go to their class and has been one of my favorites.”

 

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“He stayed cool as a cucumber and was never angry… Basically the greatest teacher I’ve had all year.”

 

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 He was “fair to all students.”

 

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“He was more inclusive to many different groups.”

 

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“He made sure I didn’t fool around. He let me hand in my work late. He was always very kind and he cares about us. He shows us that he cares about how we feel. He made sure everything was fair.”

 

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“He breaks things down A LOT better than other teachers. He’s a very nice person. I like the way he teaches.”

 

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“Mr. Singer did well to motivate us and help us to succeed and get a better grade.”

 

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“He explained things better than other teachers.”

 

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“He helped me mentally and physically to be ready for the PSSAs. Also he gave us good books to read and not bad ones such as “The Outsiders,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Also you taught me a lot these past 2 years to be ready for high school.”

 

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“To be absolutely honest, I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He actually has done more than the rest of my teachers.”

 

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“Well he encouraged me to succeed more in his class and in life as well. He also taught me that the meaning of life is not how you take it but where you go with it. I’m thankful that he taught me more than the history my actual history teacher taught me. He also told me the truth of our history. He talked about the parts no one else would talk about.”

 

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I’m not sure there’s much to say beyond that.

 

As these now former students reluctantly walked away in ones or twos, a few stayed behind.

 

I did a lot of reassuring that 9th grade would be great and that I’d probably be right here if they needed me.

 

I overheard one girl say to another that a certain teacher was good but not “Mr. Singer good.” I thanked her and she blushed because I wasn’t supposed to hear that.

 

There were tears. Some of them shed by me.

 

But when the last student left, I remained at my desk surrounded by a hum of fluorescent lights and ear numbing silence.

 

There is no emptiness like that of a space that has just been filled – a space that cries out for more.

 

My classroom is like that. And so is my heart.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I need this summer break to recover.

 

But I also need the end of August, when a new group of students will come rushing through those doors.

 

Here’s looking forward to the first day of school.

 


 

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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I Assign my Students Homework Despite Scant Research It Does Any Good

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In academic circles the debate over homework rages on.

Does it actually help students learn or does it just cause undue stress and frustration for children and parents?

As a teacher and a parent, I see both sides of the issue.

In class, I assign my students homework every week – Monday through Thursday. Never on the weekends.

My daughter’s teacher does the same. So at home, I’m on the receiving end, spending hours with my little munchkin helping her get through mountains of assignments for her classes the next day.

Perhaps this is what they mean by the proverb – you reap what you sow. Except my daughter isn’t doing the homework I assigned. She isn’t in my class and we don’t even live in the district where I teach.

But it sometimes does feel like payback plodding through seemingly endless elementary worksheets, spelling words and vocabulary.

After a while, even I begin to question whether any of this junk does any good.

As a teacher, I know the research on the subject provides slim support at best.

In fact, the closest we have ever come to an answer is a reformulation of the question.

It really comes down to a matter of causality – a chicken and the egg conundrum with a side of sharpened pencil and crumpled paper.

If we look really hard, we can find a correlation between students who do their homework and those who get good grades.

The problem is we can’t PROVE it’s the homework that’s causing the grades.

It could just be that kids who excel academically also happen to do their homework. If we removed the homework, these kids might still get good grades.

So which comes first – the homework or the grades?

There has been surprisingly little research that goes this deep. And almost all of it is anecdotal.

Even the investigations that found a correlation did so in tight parameters – only in secondary grades and usually just for math.

Some wealthy districts have even reduced the amount of homework without seeing a subsequent drop in learning.

But nothing has been tested across socioeconomic divides or with any consistency and very little has been proven definitively.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no consensus on the matter.

Both the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Parent Teacher Association (NPTA) suggest educators assign no more than a standard of “10 minutes of homework per grade level” per night.

In other words, a first grader should have no more than 10 minutes of homework on a given evening, a second grader no more than 20 minutes, etc.

However, it appears that students – especially in the primary grades – are getting more work than these recommended maximums.

A 2015 study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy surveyed more than 1,100 Rhode Island parents with school age children.

Researchers found that first and second graders received 28 and 29 minutes of homework per night – almost double the recommended maximums. Even more shocking, Kindergarteners – who according to the guideline should receive no homework at all – actually were assigned an average of 25 minutes per night.

That’s a lot of extra time sitting and slogging through practice problems instead of spending time with friends or family.

Though I live in western Pennsylvania, this study is certainly consistent with what I see in my own home. My daughter is in 4th grade but has been assigned between 30 minutes and two hours of homework almost every weekday since she was in Kindergarten.

It’s one of the reasons I try to abide by the guidelines religiously in my own classroom. I give about an hours worth of homework every week – 15 minutes per day for four days. If you add in cumulative assignments like book reports, that number may go up slightly but not beyond the recommended maximums.

I teach 8th graders, so they should not be receiving more than 80 minutes of homework a night. If the teachers in the other three core classes give the same amount of homework as I do, we’d still be below the maximum.

I’m well aware that the consequences of giving too much homework can be severe.

A 2014 Stanford study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found that giving too much homework can have extremely damaging effects on children.

Still this isn’t exactly hard science.

The researchers used survey data to examine perceptions about homework, student well-being and behavioral engagement in a sample of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class California neighborhoods. They also used open-ended answers to gauge the students’ views on homework.

They concluded that too much homework was associated with greater stress, reductions in health, and less quality time with friends and family.

So where does that leave us?

We have anecdotal evidence that excessive homework is harmful. And limited evidence that homework may increase academic outcomes in the higher grades in math.

Frankly, if that was all I had to go on, I would never assign another piece of homework ever again.

But I’m a classroom teacher. I don’t have to rely solely on psychological and sociological studies. Everyday in school is an opportunity for action research.

My classroom is a laboratory. I am a scientist. Nearly every decision I make is based on empiricism, hypothesis and testing the results.

Maybe X will help students understand Y – that sort of thing.

This applies to homework, too.

I’ve had more than 15 years to test what works with my students. I’m not saying my results would necessarily be reproducible everywhere, but they’re at least as scientific as the body of research we have on homework. In fact, within these parameters they’re even more rigorous.

So why do I give homework?

For several reasons:

1)  It prepares students for the higher grades.

Most of my career has been spent in the middle school teaching 7th and 8th grade. In my district, high school teachers give a lot of homework. I need my students to get used to that rhythm – homework being assigned and handed in – so that they’ll have a chance at being successful in the upper secondary grades. Too many students go no further academically than 9th grade. Giving homework is my way to help provide the skills necessary to avoid that pitfall.

However, this isn’t a sufficient reason to give homework all by itself. If high school teachers stopped assigning it – and maybe they should if we have no further reason to do so – then I’d have no reason to assign it either.

2)  It makes kids responsible.

There’s something to be said for getting kids used to deadlines. You need to know what work you’re responsible for turning in, getting it done on your own and then handing it in on time. This is an important skill that I won’t apologize for reinforcing. I’m well aware that some students have extended support systems at home that can help them get their assignments done and done correctly, but I design the work so that even if they aren’t so privileged, it should be easily accessible on an individual level. Plus I’m available, myself, as a resource if necessary.

3)  It’s good practice.

In school, we learn. At home, we practice. That pattern is necessary to reinforce almost any skill acquisition. I know it’s trendy to flip the classroom a la Khan Academy with learning done through videos watched on-line at home and practice done in school. But when Internet access in not guaranteed, and home environments often are the least stable places in my students’ lives, it makes little sense to try to move the most essential part of the lesson outside of the classroom. After all, it’s easier to find a place to do some low tech practice than it is to find space, silence and infrastructure for high tech learning.

Don’t get me wrong. We practice in school, too. But there’s only so many hours in the school day. I use homework in my language arts classes for a few select things: increased vocabulary, word manipulation, grammar, self-selected reading and the ability to do work on your own. I think it’s important for my students to increase their vocabularies. Having kids read a self-selected book (both inside and outside of class) helps do that. It’s also a benefit to be able to play with words and language, find words in a puzzle, recognize synonyms and antonyms, etc. Grammar may not be essential, but a rough knowledge of it is certainly useful to increase recognition of context clues and better writing skills. Finally, some students benefit from the simple opportunity to do an assignment by themselves without an adult or even a peer looking over their shoulder.

That being said, I think it is important that the homework I give be seen as something students can achieve.

I’ve had numerous co-workers tell me they don’t assign homework for the simple reason that their students won’t do it.

This isn’t a big problem in my class. Almost all of my students do the homework. Why? Because we go over it and they know it’s something they can do without too much difficulty.

I scaffold assignments building the difficulty progressively as we proceed through the year (or years). I make myself available for extra help. I accept late work (with a penalty).

And most of all – I stress that I’m not expecting anyone to be a genius. I’m looking for hard work.

I tell my students explicitly that anyone who puts in their best effort will pass my class – probably with a B or an A. And that’s exactly what happens.

Homework is a part of that equation. It demonstrates effort. And effort is the first step (the key, in fact) to accomplishment.

Do students complain about the homework?

Sure! They’re children!

I’d probably complain, too, if I were them. No one really wants to be given extra work to do. But it’s all part of the pattern of my classroom.

Students know what to expect and how to meet those expectations.

None of this makes me a super teacher. It certainly doesn’t put me on anyone’s cutting edge.

I’m just doing what educators have done for decades. I’m attempting to use best practices in my classroom with a full knowledge of the academic research and the pitfalls ahead.

I may assign homework, but I made sure to do my own before coming to that decision.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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I Used to be a Reporter. Now I’m a Teacher. I’ve Become What I Used to Observe

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A long time ago, in a newsroom far, far away; your humble narrator was a respected journalist.

Today I am a beloved school teacher in a suburban middle school.

Okay. That may be laying it on a bit thick.

Like any human being whose job it is to get children to do their best and learn something, I’m beloved by some and beloathed by others. And if I’m honest, when I was a reporter, I was never all that respected. But I did win several state journalism awards.

The point I’m trying to make is that like a caterpillar into a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog, I made a startling transformation in career paths that flies somewhat in the face of popular wisdom.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American Lives.” Well, I’m on my third or fourth act and nowhere near ready for the curtain to come down yet.

It’s shocking how far I’ve come, though there’s a surprising amount of overlap between my two professions. In fact, the biggest difference is one of orientation.

I used to get up at 4 a.m., weave into the newsroom and type away for a few hours about the previous night’s school board or city council meeting before my deadline came down, the presses rolled and the morning edition went on sale.

Now I get up at 5 a.m., hobble into the classroom and go to meetings, grade papers or otherwise get ready for a 7-hour invasion by 12- and 13-year-olds, followed by more meetings and papers and planning.

I used to go into the classroom to interview teachers and students about special lessons, state and federal programs or standardized tests.

Now I’m in the classroom questioning myself about my students and what works best to help them learn, trying to navigate the state and federal programs so they get the best return and bang my head against the wall about the constant standardized tests.

I used to independently bebop all over my coverage area, asking questions, doing research, discovering things that many people would rather remain secret.

Now I independently plan my lessons, ask my students questions, do research on best practices and discover things about my children and their lives that many people would rather remain secret.

You’ve heard the old chestnut about education being a career for those unable to act. I’m living proof that it’s a lie.

As a journalist, I reported on. As a teacher, I do.

In my former job, I told. In my current one I show.

Perhaps that’s why I now find it so strange that many of my former colleagues have gone into public relations, communications or have become policy analysts.

I’m not surprised. I can’t say I didn’t know that that door was always open. But it’s peculiar.

In the newsroom, we all heard the stories about grizzled newspapermen and women with shelves stuffed full of awards and prized Rolodexes bursting with hard-earned sources who gave it all up for a 9-5 desk job writing the very press releases we disdained.

We all had friends who were making bank managing people like us and trying to get us to write what the company wanted or spin the story in the direction the advertisers liked.

There is no scorn, no disgust, no derision to match that of a journalist for a corporate sellout, and that’s because in our hearts we all secretly wondered if it wasn’t the better deal.

Every good reporter – like every good teacher – is a radical at heart.

You don’t get into either field to support the status quo. You want to rock the boat. You want to shake things up. You want to change the world for the better – all from the comfort of your swivel chair behind your computer screen or from the well worn tread of your classroom carpet.

Journalists live for the scoop, the big story, the article that shouts off the front page above the fold and which has everyone talking. Teachers live for the student epiphany, the moment the light comes on behind a child’s eyes, the transformation from ignorance to knowledge and – dare I say – wisdom.

But being a press agent or policy hack has none of that splendor.

You have to give it up – all for the right to have a chance at a life.

I loved being a reporter. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I got to do things, see things, talk to people, be there for things that I never would have been able to access otherwise. But I could barely pay my bills.

I was dirt poor in the newsroom. We all were.

We worked 50-60 hours a week, had no time for a second job, no time for a social life, no time for a family or kids, and we wanted more.

So I understand the allure of the steady paycheck and becoming a housebroken professional communicator of someone else’s message.

But being a teacher is different.

You still don’t get paid much. You still work long hours – though maybe not quite as long. But you can get that second job – often in the school, itself, tutoring students or in a summer or after school program.

And you get union protections that I only dreamed about as a reporter. A safe workspace, clean and tidy, no outrageous demands (or at least an upper limit on them), and a schedule you can predict and plan a life around.

Best of all, you still get to keep your idealism intact. Or you can try to keep it as you dodge this directive and that unfunded mandate and that deeply racist policy passed down from above.

Don’t get me wrong. Becoming a teacher was hard work. I didn’t go about it the easy way – no Teach for America, one-foot-in/one-foot-out, cheating for me. I dove in head first.

I went back to college and took an intensive, accelerated masters program designed exactly for people changing careers. To get there, I had to swallow a few prerequisites I’d missed in college the first time. Then they placed me in a high school where I watched and then took over multiple classes – all while enrolled in education courses at night and in the summers.

By the time it was all over, I still had the most important things left to learn – (1) whether I could actually teach a full schedule, and (2) whether I liked doing so.

For me, the answers were unequivocally positive. I took to it like I’d taken to journalism. I needed lots of fine tuning, but the basics came naturally. And I loved every exhausting minute of it.

I regret nothing about becoming a teacher. It’s the best job I’ve ever had and am ever likely to have.

As a journalist, I got to rock whole communities with exposes about corruption. As an educator, I get to impact individuals.

I no longer get to be the talk of the town, but I get to change lives all the same – one person at a time.

And there’s something deeply satisfying about it – to look in another person’s eyes and see the need right there in front of you, and to be able to heal it even a fraction of the way well.

This world is hard. It takes people, chews them up and spits them out. There is so rarely a helping hand, a smile, understanding. But to be able to offer your hand, to be able to share a smile, to attempt to understand – that’s pure magic.

When the day is done, I know it was well spent.

I’ve come a long way from the newsroom. And in doing so, I’ve broken journalism’s number one rule – don’t become the story.

I no longer report on the action.

I participate in it.

What a way to make a living!


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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How Many Decisions Do Teachers Make Every Day?

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Teaching is an exhausting job.

 

If you’re a parent, you know how tiring it is with just one or two kids.

 

Imagine having a room full of them — Twenty to thirty children, each demanding your attention, each requiring your urgent help – every minute, every day, for hours at a time.

 

 

Back in the late 1980s, before education became totally absorbed by standardized testing and school privatization, we used to wonder about the effects of such need on a single individual.

 

We used to wonder how much was really being asked of our teachers.

 

Today no one outside of the classroom really gives it much thought. We think of educators as part of a vast machine that is required to give us and our children a service.

 

We’re stakeholders. They’re service providers. And the students are a national resource.

 

None of us are people.

 

Perhaps it’s this dehumanizing economic framework that’s helped the edtech industry and testing corporations make so much headway trying to replace educators with apps and iPads.

 

We no longer give the teacher an apple. We displace her with a Mac.

 

But back in the days before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind or Barrack Obama’s copycat Race to the Top, or Donald Trump’s blatant Destroy Public Education, we wondered about teacher psychology and how to best help our human workforce meet the needs of our human children.

 

That’s when researchers observed elementary school teachers and noted that, on average, they made at least 1,500 decisions a day.

 

That comes out to about 4 decisions a minute given six hours of class time.

 

In the decades since, this figure has come to be associated with elementary and secondary teachers. In fact, it’s become so ubiquitous that I wondered where it originated.

 

The first reference I can find to it comes from C.M. Clark & P.L. Peterson’s article “Teachers’ Thought Processes” published in the Handbook of Research on Teaching from 1986. (3rd ed., pp. 255–296). New York: macmillan.

 

Though subsequent studies came up with slightly different numbers, the basic argument holds.

 

Researchers Hilda Borko, Carol Livingston and Richard Shavelson mark the low end of the scale. In their 1990 article “Teachers’ Thinking About Instruction,” they summarize studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching or 42 judgements per hour, 252 a day.

 

 

On the upper end of the scale is Philip Jackson who wrote in his 1990 book “Life in Classrooms” that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 of these determination generating exchanges with students every hour (between 1,200-1,800 a day). Most of these are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teachers to make what they term shallower decisions or deeper judgments (p. 149).

 

So because teaching involves waiting for the right opportunities for learning, neither student nor teacher can say with confidence what exactly will happen next. It requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

 

As a classroom teacher with more than 15 years of experience, none of this is surprising to me.

 

Just imagine the various tasks teachers are required to do every hour. We take attendance, review homework, help with seat-work, ask questions, etc. And that doesn’t even take into account all the times we’re unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected – upset students, administrative announcements over the PA, student questions, equipment breakdowns, etc. Each one of these requires us to make spontaneous, unplanned calls before the lesson can continue.

 

It just goes to show some of the various roles teachers are expected to fill in the lives of their students. They are expected to be information providers, disciplinarians, assess student learning, administrate school policies, facilitate student inquiry, act as role models and even be foster parents.

 

In any given lesson, we have to make decisions based on our plans AND decisions based on things that just happen to crop up unexpectedly – multiple times each day.

 

In fact, it seems to me that the research fails to account for innumerable situations that also require determination and deliberation as part of an educator’s everyday routine.

 

What about curriculum and instruction design? Grading? Written and verbal feedback to students? Reflection and revision of lesson plans?

 

When you think of all that, 1,500 decisions a day seems like a conservative estimate indeed.

 

Perhaps the most troubling thing about this is where it impacts teacher quality.

 

And when I say that, I don’t mean the basterdized modern meaning of that term – that teachers are responsible for maximizing student test scores on standardized assessments. I mean the quality of authentic instruction teachers are able to give their classes.

 

When we expect educators to turn on a dime more than a thousand times a day, doesn’t that impact the depth with which we can accomplish the job?

 

Busyteacher.org certainly thinks so. I’m not sure where the Website got its statistics, but they are sobering.

 

In a fascinating infographic, the site claims that multitasking leads to a 40% drop in productivity. It causes a 10% drop in IQ. It causes people to make 50% more mistakes than concentrating on one task at a time.

 

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I don’t know if these statistics are accurate, but the general principle is sound. When we’re forced to “do more with less” we actually end up producing more with less quality.

 

Focusing on fewer things increases ones accuracy. Therefore, teachers who have to make fewer decisions in a day would probably be able to do their jobs more effectively.

 

And there are plenty of ways to accomplish this.

 

We could reduce class size. If educators can concentrate on the needs of fewer children, they would be more effectively able to meet those needs.

 

We could reduce the amount of time teachers have to be in the classroom in a given day. I’ve often thought teaching was analogous to being an actor up on the stage – but we’re also responsible for writing the script, operating the lighting, etc. And we have to interact with the audience many of whom would rather be elsewhere, and we have to do multiple shows each day.

 

In some countries, teachers spend a significant part of their days planning and grading and less in the classroom. They don’t have to do all that behind the scenes stuff on their own time without any additional pay.

 

In Finland, for example, teachers are paid 13% more than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average but spend 100 hours less in the classroom. And class size is between 9-14 students, the lowest in OECD countries. No wonder their children are near the top of the scale in international comparisons!

 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we lived in a society that valued education and didn’t try to turn everything into economic quantities for corporations?

 

We could actually focus on the real phenomena of educating children and not have to fight warped education policies more concerned with turning it all into dollars and cents.

 

Perhaps teachers wouldn’t have to make so many thousands of decisions if our lawmakers could just make this one.


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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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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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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College Remediation is Less About Bad Students Than Academic Elitism

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Ah, college.

 

The school on a hill.

 

The marble columns, wood paneled studies and ivy encrusted gardens.

 

It’s never really been a place for everybody. But in rhapsodizing the college experience, our lawmakers have pushed for universities to enroll an increasing number of students. The demand for free or reduced tuition – especially for low-income students – has meant more kids putting on a letterman jersey and giving it the ol’ college try.

 

Teenagers who wouldn’t dream of higher education in previous decades are going for it today.

 

And the result has been a greater proportion of incoming college freshman taking remedial courses before they can even begin the normal post-secondary track.

 

According to a 2017 report by the Hechinger Report, more than half a million students at two- and four-year colleges in 44 states had to take such courses.

 

This costs up to an estimated $7 billion a year.

 

So, as usual in our country, we’re looking for someone to blame. And look! Here’s our favorite scapegoat – the public school system!

 

The gripe goes like this: Incoming college freshman wouldn’t need remediation if the public schools had bothered to teach them correctly!

 

However, the argument ignores several important factors and jumps to a completely unearned conclusion.

 

 

1) Public schools don’t decide who is accepted at colleges. College admissions departments do.

 

 

If people in higher learning think all these teenagers don’t belong in college, don’t accept them. Period.

 

But that would mean fewer students, less tuition and forgoing the lucrative revenue stream provided by – surprise! – these same remediation courses!

 

We pretend that colleges are special places where honor and scholarship rule the day. It isn’t necessarily so.

 

They are run by people, and like anywhere else, those people can be ethical and egalitarian or petty and materialistic.

 

Colleges aren’t immune to small mindedness or the economic realities facing institutions of learning everywhere.

 

Like most schools, they’re starved for funding.

 

The state and federal government have slashed subsidies to colleges and universities just as they have to public schools. Colleges have to make up the shortfall somewhere.

 

So they enroll students who don’t meet their own academic standards and then charge them for the privilege of attempting to get up to snuff.

 

It’s a good deal. You get to blame kids coming in AND reap the rewards.

 

 

2) How exactly do we determine that these kids need remediation?

 

 

 

In many schools, they use standardized tests like the SAT or ACT to make this determination. Others give their own pretest to all incoming freshman and assign remediation based on the results.

 

You’d expect more from institutions of higher learning.

 

You’d expect them to know how inadequate standardized tests are at assessing student knowledge. After all, most of the mountain of studies that conclude these tests are worthless are conducted at the college level. However, it seems people in admissions don’t always read the scholarly work of their colleagues in the departments of education and psychology.

 

I remember when I was in college, several classmates were being pressured to take remedial courses but refused. It didn’t stop them from graduating with honors.

 

 

3) Let’s say some of this remediation actually is necessary. Why would that be so?

 

 

These are high school graduates. What has changed in public schools over the past few decades to increase the need for these additional services at colleges?

 

It seems to me the answer is three-fold:

 

1) School budgets have been cut to the bare bone

2) Schools have to fight for limited funding with charter and voucher institutions

3) Standardized testing and Common Core have been dominating the curriculum.

 

If you cut funding to schools, they won’t be able to prepare students as well.

 

That’s a pretty simple axiom. I know business-minded number crunchers will extol the virtue of “doing more with less” and other such self-help platitudes, but much of it is nonsense.

 

You never hear them explain how cutting CEO salaries will mean corporations will run more effectively. It’s only workers and schools that they think deserve tough love and penury.

 

Look, schools with less funding mean fewer teachers. That means larger class sizes. That means it’s more difficult to learn – especially for students who don’t already come from privileged backgrounds.

 

None of this is bettered by the addition of charter and voucher schools sucking up the limited money available. We don’t have enough for one school system – yet we’re asking two or more parallel systems to exist on that same amount. And we’re stacking the deck in favor of privatized systems by prioritizing their funding and not holding them to the same accountability and transparency standards as traditional public schools.

 

It’s like deliberately placing leeches on a runners back and wondering why she’s started going so slowly.

 

Moreover, it’s ironic that the Common Core revolution was conducted to make students “college and career ready.” It has done just the opposite.

 

Narrowing the curriculum to weeks and months of test prep has consequences. You can increase students ability to jump through the hoops of your one federally mandated state test. But that doesn’t translate to other assessments. It doesn’t mean they’ll do better on the SAT or other college entrance exams. Nor does it mean they’ll possess the authentic learning we pretend we’re after in the first place.

 

The bottom line: if we really want to improve student academic outcomes in public schools, we need to fully and equitably fund them. We need to abandon school privatization schemes and fully support public schools. And we need to stop the obsession with standardized assessments, curriculum and – yes – even canned standards, themselves.

 

That might actually reduce the numbers of students who allegedly need remediation at the college level.

 

However, there is another aspect that we need to consider that is harder to remedy…

 

4) Developmental psychology.

 

 

Schools – whether they be post-secondary, secondary or primary – are built to meet the needs of human beings. And human beings don’t grow according to a preconceived schedule.

 

Just because you think someone should be able to do X at a certain age, doesn’t mean they’re developmentally ready to do so.

 

Speaking from experience, I was a C student in math through high school. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to excel in that subject and earned top marks.

 

I didn’t have to take any remedial courses, but I was forced to take a quantitative reasoning course as part of my liberal arts majors.

 

I’m not alone in this. Many people aren’t cognitively ready for certain concepts and skills until later. That doesn’t make them deficient in any way nor does it betray any problems in their schooling.

 

That’s just how their brains work. We can whine about it or we can accept human nature and do what we can to help students cope.

 

 

And this brings me to my final reason behind the college remediation trend – a problem that is more insidious than all the others combined.

 

 

5) The elitism behind the whole post-secondary system.

 

 

For centuries, higher learning has been seen as a privilege of the wealthy and the upper class. Sure a few exceptional plebians were let into our hallowed halls just to “prove” how egalitarian we were.

 

But college was never seen as something fit for everyone.

 

As such, the attitude has always been that students are on their own. Many who enroll will not end up graduating. And that’s seen as perfectly acceptable. It’s part of the design.

 

It’s the baby sea turtle school of education – thousands of hatchlings but few survive to adulthood.

 

However, if you really want to make college the right fit for an increasing number of students, you have to get rid of the elitist attitude.

 

If students come to college and need remediation, stop whining and provide it.

 

And it shouldn’t incur an extra cost from students, either. This should just be a normal part of the process.

 

If a patient comes to the emergency room with heart disease, you don’t penalize him because he didn’t eat heart healthy. You do what you can to help him heal. Period.

 

That’s how colleges and universities need to approach their students.

 

You know – the way public schools already do.

 

 

SOLUTIONS

 

 

In summary, it’s not a case of colleges vs. public schools. And anyone who tells you differently probably has a hidden agenda – the standardization and privatization industry, for instance.

 

We need to support colleges and universities. We need to support public schools. Both need additional funding and political will.

 

However, colleges need to become more accepting and supportive of the students enrolled there. They need to meet them where they are and provide whatever they need to succeed.

 

Moreover, public schools need the autonomy and respect routinely given to college professors.

 

The answer is a transformation of BOTH institutions.

 

That’s how you make a better school system for everyone.

 

That or we could just keep grumbling at each other, forever pointing fingers instead of working together to find solutions.


 

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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