Winging It

I hate how time dictates the school day. I hate how we expect drastically different students to learn the same material, at the same age, at the same time of day, and even at the same pace. Sure some have drank the differentiation Kool-aid, but we haven’t yet differentiated high school as a whole. Same graduation requirements, same times, everything is the same.

From my experience, the majority of teaching takes the form of presentation of material, followed by some guided structure with the teacher, and then some independent time for the students to practice. This is the typical I do, We do, You do approach to education. When I prepared for this approach I would carefully think out my presentations. They wouldn’t be flashy, but I would take a substantial time to think about how I was going to talk about something, what I wanted students to notice, and what examples I want students to use. My goal wasn’t to entertain, but it was my goal to make the information clear. Though there are supporters of the entertainment aspect of education.

Are you not entertained?! When I used to show that to students they would remark that the class looks fun, that he makes the subject matter exciting. However, at the end of his courses, the attendance rates and failure rates were similar to other classes. So if the results were the same, what is the point of all that prep work to make the presentations exciting?

Maybe my presentations weren’t nearly as entertaining, but at least I was being clear on what I want accomplished. I started class telling the students what we’re going to do today. I wrote up clear definitions and gave clear examples with multiple steps shown. But the goal of education should be to create students with the ability to think, which involves a whole host of issues. Part of the problem with using clearly stated goals is that novice learners will only focus on the goals, most likely bypassing interesting and important connections along the way. Yes, I know that that study is talking about reading, but from my experience students do that with just about everything they do.

To put it another way, when I was presenting mathematical information I was covering information that is part of a complex tapestry of mathematics. However, my students only take in minor details, basically ignoring as much of my voice as they could, grasping for the bare minimum structure to be memorized so that they can correctly answer test questions. This picture eloquently summarizes what I think is going on in the journey from my mind to their minds, even though it really is about rubrics.

It is a visual representation of why so many of my students seem to think math is just a disjointed collection of random facts and procedures. When I thoroughly thought out my presentations, I made sure to highlight those red dots of importance, but in my mind those dots are just part of the whole picture. My students just pick up on the red dots though, which I often referred to them Charlie Browning me. My voice was the blue, my examples were the red, they copied the examples and heard this.

My good compliant complacent students were Charlie Brown. The had the appearance of listening, but really were just quietly searching out those red dots, those examples and steps to let them solve the next math question. My favorite are the students like Patty though. At least they weren’t pretending to care, yet an alarming amount of them are on the honor roll. They have internalized the process of hunting out those red dots, be it from examples in books, notes, online, or asking their friends, “How to do this?” They are obsessed with the how’s, but not the why’s?

To help try and combat this I changed my presentations. Instead of carefully planning out every individual step with concise, clear objectives, I started to wing it in class. It didn’t mean I wouldn’t lesson plan, it just means that my plans were a rough outline, a framework, that was then filled by the organic discussion in class. My goal was to make sure the students wouldn’t become fixated on the red dots. When I would be planning my presentations I would pick a topic, think of how it connected to the previous topics, and then try and use student questions and ideas to drive most of the presentation. When I know my students and my content I find this to be an enlightening experience. They start to finally see some of that blue background behind the red dots.

However, it does have a couple large drawbacks. It did give class a more organic feel, but students crave the conditioning that they have been experiencing for years and years. Charlie Browning is most prevalent in my honor roll students because it has allowed them to get success in the past, at least in terms of grades, with the least amount of mental effort. For most of my students, it takes a significant amount of time to overcome that conditioning, and some, unfortunately, never will.

It also gives the appearance that I am unprepared, but for me, it changed the hierarchy of my teaching prep. When I plan, I start with content from a teaching viewpoint, then worry about presentation and pacing, then worry about assessments, then worry about supporting activities, then worry about individual students. My ever changing schedule the past eight years has meant that I feel like I am perpetually stuck in my first hierarchy of teacher needs, focusing on content.

I guess I forever will be a rookie.

Deficit Thinking

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience at Center for Training and Careers (CTC), a contract alternative school that operated with the Minneapolis and Richfield school districts in Minnesota. The name is a bit misleading, as we weren’t a vocationally oriented school, but rather a school that offered a different setting than the traditional public school, but the curriculum was largely the same. We housed students that had been expelled from other schools, members of rival gangs at the regular public school, students that were working full time, and some whose home life just wasn’t conducive to a typical school day. I thought I was going to write about how difficult life was for some of these students, but I realized that struggle is all relative.

Some of the students at CTC had a remarkably positive outlook despite the obstacles that were placed in front of them. The problem with that thought is I would be trivializing any obstacles that my students face. It’s like I would be saying, “You think you got problems, let me tell you about problems,” without accounting for the relativity associated with problem perception. So I decided to scrap that idea.

My mind then wandered then to an idea of purpose, making sure I’m doing what my students need me to do. But I didn’t like the outcome with that draft.

This is my third attempt at writing about CTC. Each time I come back to the idea, I keep thinking about one conversation with my supervisor during my first year, during the first semester. The school year was not going good. Almost none of the students were doing homework, scores were miserable because of a horrid lack of prerequisite skills, and note taking was non-existent. I was looking at my grades, which were bad at best, and griping to my supervisor about all of the problems that I was facing. He interrupted me and asked me to think about why my students were at this school. He talked to me about all the ways that these students aren’t like students we find in normal school. He talked to me about making sure that we keep sight of what these students need.

That’s why I thought this was going to be about purpose, about realizing what my students need. In reality though, much of the purpose of my class is out of my control. The state dictates the content taught, OTES guides my practices and pedagogy, and stigma and traditions influence my behavior. So if that moment wasn’t about defining purpose, what was it really about?

I’ve come to the conclusion that my meeting with my supervisor was more about me than anything that goes on in my classroom. The problem I was experiencing was justifying my status as a teacher. To me my students were lazy, they didn’t care about school, or they weren’t prepared. I thought they didn’t have the support at home that they needed. I thought that their priorities were misplaced, that they were too concerned with social status and not enough with academics.

When my supervisor directed to think about my students he was actually forcing me to abandon my deficit perspective of them. I had to stop thinking about everything that was preventing them for having success in the classroom and focus on the ways I was preventing them from having success. It was difficult to drop it at first, because losing a deficit perspective means I take blame for my students failures. But as I gradually began to accept my part in my students struggles and failures I became a much more content teacher.

**An example of  my understanding of a deficit perspective would be the restriction of bathroom privileges in school. I should limit the number of times students use the bathroom because if I don’t, they will leave class constantly to go to the bathroom when they really don’t need to. The first time I catch a student wandering the halls instead of using the bathroom my deficit thinking is confirmed. In response, I limit bathroom privileges for all students because I don’t trust students.**

I am by no means perfect. I still find myself stumbling and placing the blame on students on occasion. I still catch myself in a conversation where I say, “I did my part, they didn’t pay attention.” But now I feel guilt every time I fall back into that mentality. It has become ingrained in me as part of who I am as a teacher. Lately, it’s been more of a struggle than it has been in the past (thanks OTES), and I have found myself leaning on faith more than I had used to. The temptation is there though, to just go back to the way things were. I don’t want to, and luckily very few of my students know that side of me.

I sometimes wonder if I would be the same teacher, or even the same person, if my first years of experience would have been in a more traditional school.

 

Impending Doom: Or Why I Hate August

I hate August. I think it is the worst month of the year. All I can ever think about in August is school, but school hasn’t started yet. I dread the coming onslaught of school; the planning, the paperwork, the grind.

Now I want to clarify something, I don’t hate school. I mean, I’ve made it my profession. I actually love the place, but I cannot deny that it becomes an all consuming monster for about ten months of the year. Of those ten months, about nine are consumed with the grind. Everyone knows the grind. It’s that systematic repetition that occurs throughout the school year. The grind is the day-to-day activity that makes a school recognizable as a school.

I get a respite from that mind numbing monster for about two months.

September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, and May. It’s all about the grind. I like the grind. I thrive in the grind. To me the grind is the beautiful cycle that happens when teachers and students spend time in synchronized learning. I have never been a good planner, but I have been a good adapter. I work best when I can do something, students respond, and then I adapt. It is a process that has made me incredibly flexible. However, there is an element of spontaneity that comes with being highly adaptable. The spontaneity that happens in my class makes it nearly impossible to produce a detailed plan, especially when I do not know my students yet.

My flexibility and spontaneity is highly dependent upon having students with which to interact. Those students give me immediate feedback about my effectiveness as a teacher, more so than any written evaluation system ever could.

The whole process becomes mentally taxing. It pushes me to my cognitive and emotional limits during the year, and why school becomes so consuming.

And that’s why I hate August. I know the storm is coming, but there is nothing I can do about it. I know the grind of the school year is coming, but without my students there is nothing I can do to prepare in a manner that works best for me. So here I sit, consumed with school, the potential classes, the activities, reworking tests. Maybe I will even take the time to work on some of those things, but it will ultimately feel like wasted time without my students to tell me how I am doing. I am missing that integral part of my feedback cycle.

I have three weeks left of my break to enjoy, but the thought of schools looms and I don’t have my students, meaning those weeks are ….

 

Why I Need My Summer Break

I have been disappearing from the media circles for the past few weeks because it is currently summer. I am a teacher that will admit that summer, for me, is largely a vacation. Well, vacation probably isn’t the most apt word. Detox, that would be more accurate. I know there are teachers out their who spend their summers attending workshops and conferences, planning for next year, overhauling curriculum or classroom management plans, but I am not among them. I still think about school occasionally, but for the most part, I cut myself off for two and a half months.

I said my summer is detoxification time for me, and I mean that. The purpose of a detox is to cleanse the body of toxins and return it too normal. It’s not that teaching itself is toxic, but the summer is a way for me to cleanse myself of the baggage of the past school year.

For me teaching isn’t just a job, it is a passion that found a career. I have worked jobs in the past, Burger King, YMCA, Target, city street department, even hotel housekeeping. I really enjoyed my time at some (BK and Target) and absolutely hated one (housekeeping), but regardless of the specific occupation they all shared some key common traits. While they might have been physically demanding at times, they were rarely, if ever, mentally exhausting. There are some jobs that pay well, even ones that were entry level can become lucrative with proper advancement. And I understand the appeal of having a livelihood where work begins at 9:00 and ends at 5:00. I have known students for which getting a job is a goal.

But, when a job entails a passion, it just doesn’t pay the bills, it becomes all consuming. During the school year education almost never leaves my mind. There is a finite time that I physically teach in front of students, grade papers, write recommendation letters, read professional research, or plan activities, but the constant is that it education doesn’t leave my mind. I don’t just make a lesson plan, I make a plan that will impact 70 to 80 students. I need to be aware that students might be distracted with musical rehearsals, basketball practices, FFA field trips, or family strife. I don’t just grade papers, but I am acutely aware that GPAs have significant impacts on scholarships, that sometimes students form unhealthy relationships and obsessions with grades. Because I am fortunate to work in a school where I get to see the same students multiple years it makes impossible to proceed with any plan without thinking of individual student impacts first. It is with me over lunch, while watching football on Sunday, or while reading a book before bed.

Society loves to glorify the super human teachers, Ron Clark, Rafe Esquith, Erin Gruwell, or my personal hero Jaime Escalantie. However, teachers like these usually sacrifice anything resembling a hypothetical American Dream. During the school year I run the danger of turning into one of those teachers, willing to sacrifice my own family and interests to my profession.

Which is why I need my summer break. The summer allows me to be the passionate teacher during the school year, doing my token familial duties at home. Over the summer I get to be the passionate father, husband, gardener, Trekkie, financial analysts, or brewer while doing my token teacher duties. I am sure there are teachers out there who have found a way to achieve some sort of equilibrium throughout the entire year, but I have failed at that endeavor.

What’s My Role?

Why am I here?

Yes, I need a job so that I can pay the bills. But why am I specifically sitting in a high school math classroom when I could be in so many other possible career locations?

I think society has set up three very incompatible goals for me to accomplish as a teacher and part of the confusion is simply how I define myself as a teacher.

Teacher as a Babysitter

School is compulsory. It is law that a child must be in some form of schooling under the age 18 (in Ohio). Essentially society is telling teenagers that we cannot handle them between 8:00 AM and 3:00 PM. While not many adults, let alone teachers, would admit it, I think many students would acknowledge that there is a daycare aspect to school. More negatively they might compare schools to prison. The sentiment is the same though, schools function as a warehouse facility to store students.

I honestly don’t have any problem with this image though. I genuinely like the vast majority of students. Maybe not as academics, but on a more interpersonal level. Recently at my school we had a reward day at the conclusion of testing. We were asked to devise activities to do with our students, not necessarily academic activities because the students could then sign up to work with any teacher. Basically, we were asked to hangout with our students. I absolutely relished the opportunity to drop the premise and rhetoric of instructional time and just do stuff. We made sushi and played games.

Teacher as Knowledge Disseminator

We send students to school to learn. In my case, I am there to teach the subject of mathematics. Whether the mathematics learned in school is of any real relevance to students is debatable at best. I really don’t think this is why I am here. I actually have trouble justifying my purpose in terms of knowledge dissemination. If a student really wants to learn math there are many more economical ways to be taught the subject, websites, books, software. Learning math in a public school setting is probably one of the least efficient uses resources imaginable.

Teacher as a Mentor

Frequently extracurricular activities seem to take precedence over academic activities in a school. The community at large sometimes seems more concerned with basketball scores and musical productions than they are with differential equation capabilities of their students. As a teacher I fit into this model by trying to help build a well rounded student who can work well with others, prioritize obligations, and manage emotions. My purpose under this model isn’t so much about teaching math, but teaching all of the little habits that lead to an effective math education.

Personally, I really like this view of education. It is the reason why I want to read essays for scholarships and other classes. It is why I go to softball games and track meets. It is why I want to discuss stories with students when they come to me from literature class. I am trying to foster an inclusive, supporting environment for learning, regardless of the particular subject. Success in math cannot come at the expense of other classes or activities in this model.

 

 

Is it really reasonable to expect us to do this all at the same time?

 

Perceptions of the Teacher

“I hope my child has an adequate teacher this year.”

I don’t think any parent has ever said such a statement. Maybe a parent would after a child experienced a horrible, bad teacher, but most children probably haven’t experienced a bad teacher. If there were a poll conducted about the qualities of a bad teacher I hypothesize that the responses would be similar. However, if another poll was conducted about qualities of a “good” teacher I think that there would be no consistency in responses, and possibly, if not probably, some contradictions.

A recent blog post discussed the qualities of a teacher, coming to the conclusion that there really is no “perfect” teacher. Every teacher has aspects of the profession for which he or she excels and every teacher has aspects of the profession for which he or she is deficient. I would agree with that axiom.

But if no teacher is perfect, and there is no clear consensus on what a “good” teacher is, then what am I?

I am an amazing, inspiring, life-altering teacher; to a couple of students.

I am a reprehensible, bullying, unethical teacher; to a couple of students.

I am just a teacher, nothing terrible, nothing great; to most students.

What I am not is that amazing teacher, then that reprehensible teacher, then the average teacher. I am all of those things at once because I am perceived by each person I contact multiple times in a single day. My reputation isn’t based upon a single student, a single colleague, or even a single evaluator. It is based upon countless perceptions accumulated over a career. But as we read headlines about how unprepared our high school graduates are for college, our students our falling behind other countries, we need something to blame. Sometimes we blame poverty. Sometimes we blame other nations for testing methods. Sometimes we blame the curriculum. Sometimes we blame the school.

When we blame the schools what often gets blamed are the teachers. What we do then is develop a system to judge the teachers so that we can get rid of the “bad” teachers. I am sure there are terrible teachers out there, those teachers that have completely checked out, that might go through the motions, and they need to find a more inspiring profession. However, when we create that evaluation system to judge our teachers, OTES in my case, we create a system that defines what “good” teaching is, resulting in a complete flip of the idea of there being a broad definition of a “good” teacher.

OTES has a rubric describing what “good” teacher does. But if I accept that there is no agreement on a “good” teacher, that there might even be contradiction, OTES will inherently label some teachers that have as good qualities as “bad” teachers and some teachers with bad qualities as “good” teachers. The perception of “bad” teachers running schools, ruining students, led the bureaucracy to create a definition of good teaching. Then the perception of one evaluator interpreting the bureaucratic perception of a “good” teacher determines a label that follows me through my career. It’s a label that will dictate my job security. It’s a label that will crush or raise my self-esteem. It is a label that will instill me with confidence or rattle my confidence.

As students move through school and interact with many different teachers, many different opinions about each individual student exist. I don’t believe there is any one student that is universally admired by every single teacher that has had a particular student, but imagine a society where one teacher was able to dictate the fate of any one student. One teacher could have the power to label a student, “smart,” “dumb,” “creative,” “lazy,” or any other potential name. Suddenly the purpose of school is not to educate, but rather to appease. But by taking away my labels that is what OTES has done to me.

OTES has diminished the feedback I get from my most important stakeholders, students. No longer does their opinion have sustenance. OTES has made my image beholden of a bureaucracy, and its definition of “good” teaching. No longer is my image dictated by hundreds of perceptions, but just one. We would never dream of doing that to students, why would we do that to the teachers?