Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Balance

My Dear Readers-
Something that I struggle with is finding the balance between school and a personal life. I am five years into my career as a teacher and so by now I should know what I'm doing, right? And yet, I still find myself pulling the 10, 11, or 12 hour days and working just as hard as I did my first year. There are some things that are getting easier; I have a better grasp of the subjects taught and the content in them. I know more about what students can reasonably do and what we can get done in a day. And I know more about what what is expected from me.
I think my problem is that I'm not satisfied with what or how I'm teaching. I think that even though we do have things already prepared, I am looking for ways to improve, to expand, to clarify, and to add. It seems like I can't get through a year without wanting to redo everything that I did to make it better.
A good problem, right? But in doing so and wanting to "remake" my class every year, I find that it takes a lot of time to do so. Where, then, is the balance between giving all my free time to redoing lessons and making them better and just continuing what I did last year so that I can have something that resembles a personal life? I suppose that at some point there has to be a time where I say that I can't do more than I'm already doing and am just going to have to recycle lessons used last year. I feel defeated in doing so, but I guess reasonably there just isn't enough time in the day to do everything that I could do. That seems like a rather elementary thought.
Thanks for reading the ramble. I feel better now.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Fixing" "Broken" Schools?

Dear Readers-
Every now and again I become aware of sayings, phrases, and slogans that people and organizations throw around to a point where they are said commonly without a 2nd thought to their meanings. The most common examples can be found in some political speeches and campaigns. But when you dissect these ideas you might often start thinking to yourself, "Wait, what does that actually mean?" One of my favorites is a Brad Zaun commercial in which he states "There's a plan for most of the problems that face America... it's called the Constitution". As I thought about it, it sounds good, but is that all it really does, just sound good? Throw out the words "people" "Constitution" and "freedom" in a political commericial and everything sounds good. I love the Constitution, but I'm not sure it specifically addresses the problems of Al Qaeda, the trade deficit with China, or broadband internet service in rural America. See if you can spot the meaningless phrase in this campaign commercial.

How does this relate to schools? I am growing wary of the phrase "fixing" schools that seems to be used by many media outlets, as demonstrated by this Time magazine article and cover. Because the phrase is catchy and easy, it's said with relative frequency as a nice way to sum up EVERYTHING that is going on in education. Instead of addressing the different areas in education that are and are not working, everything is lumped together into a dismissive idea that schools are "broken". To me, this kind of language conjures up images that if someone were to walk into a public school, the kids would be running amuck and the teachers would just be sitting back with their hands thrown up saying, "I have no idea what to do!" It sounds like our schools are overrun with incompetent workers who are filling positions at desks.

The thing is, my classroom is not perfect, I know this, and I know that I can always push myself to be better. But I don't consider myself or my classroom needing "fixed". I am a fully licensed professional who went through four years of schooling to learn and train in what I do. I can improve what I do and how I do it, but can't everyone? Our education system isn't perfect but it can't be summed up into "broke". And it can't really be "fixed" either. To say this would mean that we will, some day, have the art and skill of teaching perfected to a degree that it won't ever need improvement. That's not going to happen, we'll never be perfect at this.

We start in elementary school by learning that words are important, and to increase our vocabulary by picking the right kind of words to show what we mean. Let's use words like "improve" or "move forward" or "enhance" or "progress" to describe our schools and avoid lazy, negative words like "fix" and "broken" to describe what we are trying to do in schools.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Am I Reading This Wrong?

The Iowa Department of Education posted "good" news on their website.

Iowa DOE

It says, "Iowa Governor Chet Culver announced teacher salaries, which were at 37th in the nation just one year ago, are now at 26th - ahead of a majority of states and the District of Columbia. The average salary in Iowa is now $48,638."

The issue I have is not with the amount of the salary, it's with some logic of the press release. Culver says we are 26th in the nation in teacher salaries. Fine, I'll go with that. But if MY math is correct, beings 26th means that there are 25 states with higher salaries, 24 states with lower salaries, and the District of Columbia who is also lower than us. Contrary to Culver's statement, I believe that this means that we are not "ahead of a majority of states" but in fact "below a majority of states". We are ahead of 24 states, but since there are 50 states all together, we can't say that's a "majority"

My point is (besides how scary it is that our Department of Education considers "majority" to mean "fewer that 50%") that this is EXACTLY why politicians cannot be involved in education. In any way. Our governor makes a statement that seems to bring good news, but when you read into it you realize he has no idea what he's talking about. No politician does when it comes to education. They are interested in producing a sound bite, a press release, or a piece of legislation that might seem like a good thing, but when you actually analyze what's being said you realize how unintelligible, impossible, or ridiculous it actually is.

Further illustration is provided by Joe Bower's blog who provided a summary of an Alfie Kohn speech in Canada. Bower summarized one of Kohn's points this way...

Cliches like 'raise the bar' and 'higher standards' at first glance seem to make sense; however, if we were to stop and speculate - what would the government say if every child actually scored proficiently on this year's Provincial Achievement Test? Might they respond, "Wow, those teachers sure are doing a fine job." This is laughable. It is far more likely that the response would be something like, "Those teachers are too darn easy on those kids." What this tells us should disturb you - the higher standards movement, by defiinition, is designed to ensure that not all children can achieve them, because if everyone could achieve them, that would be proof that the standard was simply not challenging enough.

No politician is going to be able to help, reform, or change schools effectively. None. That is my bold statement of this blog. They will always be looking to do something that looks good but they won't know if it actually is good. They can't know this, they're not teachers. They have no idea what happens in a classroom, just as I have no idea what happens on a factory line, a fishing ship, a police officer's car, a fireman's station, a lawyer's office, or a mechanic's garage. Real change will come from those on the front lines because we are the ones who know what is actually happening and what we can actually do.

We talked about "order" in the beginning of the year in 5th grade but only reviewed it because that was covered down in 4th and 3rd. One of our Mental Math activities this week was "If you are 9th in line, how many people are ahead of you?" I kid you not. If only someone at the Department of Education had paid more attention in elementary school...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Do Not Pay Teachers $100,000

Dear Readers-

I have been reading a lot about educational reform and ways to "fix" the public school system and a common theme is teacher pay. There are a fair number of people who believe that we can create a highly effective teaching work force if we offer teachers the same kind of salary that lawyers, doctors, and other such professionals make. Doing so would theoretically bring the best of the best into education, would motivate teachers into doing the best teaching practices, and would provide the necessary accountability to the workforce. Also, which teacher in their right mind would turn down the opportunity to make that much money?

Let me counter with this: the worst thing we can do to teaching is make it attractive by the amount of money that can be made. Yes, it would be wonderful to be fairly compensated for the work that teachers do (for the time I put into my students far exceeds the amount I'm paid for it). And yes, it would undoubtedly bring smart and bright individuals into the profession who might not otherwise think of educating because there is more money to be made elsewhere.

But what makes educating a child unique as a profession is this fact: teaching has never been about the money. And it can never be. We will never be paid what we deserve, for what is it worth to change a life? Not even a life, but 22 lives, or 150 lives, or thousands of lives over the course of a career? Such work requires commitment, passion, personal sacrifice, and an acceptance of a belief that sometimes we will never know what is produced from the seeds that we sew. Teachers become teachers in spite of the salary because it's not about the pay, it's about our love and commitment to working with students. It's about a belief in helping a cause greater than our own good. It's about a desire to make a difference in people's lives and in the world. And it's about a sacrifice we willingly and knowlingly make so we can give back what we have received.

To upset this balance would mean an influx of less qualified teachers entering the workforce. They would be teachers who are doing it for the money, who would think that the effort they put into students must be equaled by the compensation they receive for it. And when the compensation is not enough (as it inevitably won't be) then the desire to keep pushing one's self for the sake of others will diminish. We should want teachers who want to teach regardless of what they make because they know they are serving a higher purpose. What we have now is a workforce of teachers who are here because we want to be without the expectation that they will be paid fully for their work. We do not want a workforce of teachers who will only put into the education of a child what they will get out of it. The want of money cannot replace or exceed the want to help.

If anything else, we need to learn that not all problems we face are solved by throwing money at it. Let us learn from the lessons of the banking industry, the auto companies, and our federal budget. Money is a necessary evil, but not a solution to education.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Introductions Go at the Beginning

Dear Readers,

As anyone who teaches knows, an effective piece of writing has a exciting beginning that captures the readers attention and bring them into the story. It will explain to the reader what the piece is going to be about and what the reader can expect. Thus it only seems fitting that I do the same with my new blog site.

I've decided to start blogging because it turns out I have a lot of ideas that I feel need to be shared, and while I can't guarantee anyone will read my thoughts, I could never guarantee anyone would listen to me say them either, and so why not? As I started reading a few blogs, it appeared that blogging seems to be the "cool thing to do" for people who have opinions. And that's when the light bulb went off in my head, "Hey! I have opinions! And I like doing things that are cool! I should blog about my ideas!" And so it begins.

You must understand something about me before you decide to subscribe to my ramblings or not. I am one of the fortunate few who absolutely loves what my job is: teaching. I love it so much that it has become who I am; it has integrated itself into who I am as a person. Education is my passion, my hobby, my job, my career, my interest... my life. Because of this reason, most posts on this blog are going to be education related. It can't be helped, if you want to know what's going on in my life then you'll need to know what's going on in education.

The other reason that most posts here will relate to education is because I have found there is a severe shortage of actual classroom teachers who are talking about what is happening in the teaching world, and of those classroom teachers who are talking about their ideas, strategies, struggles and triumphs, even fewer come from the elementary. I fear there is an information shortage coming from the early grades about what is going on in the lives of 5-11 year olds and that we need to throw our ideas/thoughts into the educational stew as well, or else we're going to be left with an school structure that will be hard to swallow.

So you can expect to hear actual, true, real, and thought out views on what is happening in schools from the perspective of the elementary classroom. Because if you really want to know what is going on with teaching and what can be done to improve our schools, the answer is elementary, my dear readers.