Category: Expectations

Our Miss Brooks

After the War, teacher self advocacy remained muted but other sectors of the culture ramped up to alter public education as the primary tool for building a modern society, and with it, the public’s perception of what it meant to be a teacher.

 

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The movie movement began in earnest to influence the perception of public education. In 1955 Hollywood chose to highlight violence in “The Blackboard Jungle”. Rather than providing an impetus to problem solving, it became a rationale for criticism and downgrading of public education’s image. On Broadway Continue reading “Our Miss Brooks”

TOP TEN SLANDERS OF TEACHERS

frog

The public has been encouraged to target practice on teachers and education in general because it is free of any accountability for accuracy or verification.

The ease with which I can find negative images for teaching in free graphics is one proof.

Here are the top ten slanders I hear from my point of view that demoralize teachers:

  1. They don’t teach what they need to.” Or “Teachers don’t take time to make the class interesting.”

This charge is leveled whenever there is any societal ill or agenda that patrons believe is not being addressed. This is a favorite no-win Continue reading “TOP TEN SLANDERS OF TEACHERS”

Summer Jobs for Teachers

Every summer I see an ad for Worlds of Fun distributed to high school students. Included is an invitation to teachers. Just what I want. To work the Icee stand next to my student.

Imagine an ad that reads, “Doctors, applications now being taken for summer work at Walgreens pharmacy.” Or “Lawyers, add to your income by working community service with your convicted clients.” “College professors wanted for residential dorm managers.”

It’s no secret that teachers need to make extra money. But in earlier days the teachers I had owned ice cream businesses, their own painting companies, or coached for community leagues. No one would have dreamed asking them to take a minimum wage job because the community understood the importance of the teacher-student relationship. People understood the need for maintaining some respect and regard in the community because it affected what the teacher could do in the classroom. We were on the same page in the common goal of developing young people in a positive way. Continue reading “Summer Jobs for Teachers”

The Real Estate Board and Your School

Working in community development for a Midwestern urban government, I had my innocence shattered around the illusion that the school district, as an agent of the state government, was actually operating quasi-independently of other major groups in the city.

I soon learned how the collusion of the real estate board with controlling media outlets affects schools. Here’s how it works:

People like to live in a good neighborhood. A good neighborhood is one that has a good school. People may be very content with their school. However, their home may be getting old. You can’t charge as much to live in an older home as a new one. The real estate board exists to promote the interests of the realtors. Realtors like to sell new homes.

Q: How do you get people to move out of their house often enough to sell enough new homes to keep you going at the level you want?

A: You start trash talking the school, or even the district.

By reporting on problems and not reporting on strengths, the reading and viewing public begin to question the quality of the school. The quality of the school, mind you, may not have deteriorated at all. Or any negative stories about schools in outlying areas are suppressed.

Soon homeowners with children begin to get nervous. “Perhaps we had better begin thinking about moving out to a neighborhood with better schools,” they say.

Glowing reports of the fabulous quality of the school in the developing residential area begin to flood the news. Simultaneously, trouble, trouble, trouble is publicized about the school or district designated for downgrading. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative media leads to negative parental and student perceptions leads to more hostility toward the school leads to making the job harder, you get the picture.

I have personal experience with this. I worked and lived in an urban district. I knew firsthand about the skill levels of the teachers, their dedication, the innovative and effective techniques they used, the programs the district had that offered opportunities to the students.

While it was true that students from less affluent families attended, that did not equate with those students being inferior in character, behavior, desire or skill levels. It didn’t mean the teachers didn’t care. It didn’t mean good teaching wasn’t going on. Not yet anyway. But the forces were at work.

Our urban district had had a preschool for decades. An outlying district decided to provide a preschool program. The news media lauded it as the most progressive program to be seen in decades. No mention was made of the older district’s programs or their successes.

Then my coworker moved to a suburb with a “premium” school district. Their security guards did not wear uniforms so the parents didn’t know they had, or needed them, or if they did, they didn’t want the image of needing them. Their student problems never made the news. Their students crashed cars, tore up property, and generally were teenagers, but it wasn’t publicized. The desire was to keep the property values up so the news about the school had to always be stellar.

Before “A Nation at Risk,” the state was pretty much content to let the schools do their job. They did not overtly participate in the campaign. However with pressures increasing, and consulting with business groups including real estate boards, the state legislators and administrators began to pressure  ill-advised and ill- planned “reforms” or “improvements” on the urban districts especially. Most of these were invented by college professors who had not taught in the demographic, not teachers in the district. Each year was a revolving door of a new program when the previous program had not been given a chance to succeed. States were afraid to be seen “behind the times” so whatever educational fad was being touted was enforced. Thus began the instability which the urban school or district was then blamed for and which compromised the educational process itself. This contributed to the attack on older districts as well.

Then, after No Child Left Behind, the state, relying on the merciless and useless testing programs (which also made money for testing and textbook companies by mandating changes every year) the state began to “grade” districts and the schools in them. Of course the urban districts always got the worst grades.In an “add insult to injury” move, they tied the funding formula to this. So districts that were already challenged because the property values of older areas were declining (schools are funded through property taxes) were now doubly beat up by the state.

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One urban district decided to fight back. They had good schools, good teachers, and good kids. The parents wanted their kids to get an education. They had motivating programs and activities for the students. In other words, they kept doing a good job. But each testing season showed their ranking declining…and their funding and possible accreditation. Why? Because they were in an older residential area.

They took the state to court for unfair practices…and they won! They challenged them to show how the same measures were not begin applied uniformly. They challenged the evaluations. They challenged the definitions and the formulas. They challenged all these things, not because they were against good education, but because they recognized a political game when they saw one.

Kudos to those who stand up and fight! A home does not depend on the house. Education doesn’t depend on how new the school building is. In both cases, it’s the people inside that make it made with love.

 

A Week of Disconnects

2015-01-01 17.35.37A 71 year old teacher trips over a pre-K special needs child and is arrested; a university professor emerges from  the “n” word debate, and the greed of a for-profit college leads to its demise. What could these three incidents tell us about the climate around educational expectations today?

There is scarcely any mother or adult who has not been trying to walk somewhere who has not felt a small child in front of them. In fact, the common phrase “children under our feet” refers to this. 71-year-old Amelia Stripling in Tifton, Georgia’s Pre-K Center resigned after bumping into a small child in front of her as she was trying to go through a door to leave the building. She probably hoped that the powers that be would be appeased. Not so. She was arrested after the mother alleged she pushed her knee in the child’s back, even though the child was not hurt. A sane approach would realize that the mother herself might have had the same experience, but the witch-hunt mindset seized this moment as another excuse to browbeat a teacher who already regretted her misstep and who in no way intended any harm to the child. A simple mistake by a tired teacher was blown up out of proportion and with no empathy for any human mistakes.

A University of Kansas professor, Andrea Quenette, had been on paid leave since November 12th for using the “n” word in a class discussion focusing on helping undergraduates talk about sensitive racial issues. One might say that she was not doing a very good job if this sparked a backlash. However she would not be the first white educator who has been forbidden to use the word in an instructional setting and as part of an effort to encourage tolerance and commitment to create shared understanding. It is the old idea that one’s family can insult each other but don’t let anyone outside do it. It is the same reasoning behind other positions that are allowing only one party a voice at the table. Only blacks should adopt black children; only Latinos should teach Latinos; only Asians should…. Shared cultural backgrounds are very important in communication and education, but we also have to make room for allowing members from other cultures to learn, especially those who value multicultural relationships. Any other position is a one-way street and not communication for mutual understanding.

More damaging than these individual cases, though, is the lack of education that consumer students have when making institutional choices. For-profit colleges like Corinthian, only one of many, operated on a treadmill of financial aid, churning students like fodder to keep the till full. The slick advertising can appeal to busy adults looking for a quick degree and a promotion. But that is the wrong message:  the commodification of education. Education is not a product; it is a process, a lifelong process. Some students have gotten so misinformed or misled as to believe that they are actually paying for the piece of paper called a diploma. There have been news reports of individuals selling GED diplomas up to college ones. It began with buying term papers and turned into diploma mills. Colleges like Corinthian are not much above this mentality.  An entitlement attitude is now expressed  even to college professors as “I am paying your salary; now given me my grade.” And it better be a good one.

How we view the teacher reflects how we view education as a whole. How we view education as a whole, is how we will survive, thrive, or die as a nation.

 

 

 

The Latest Blame Game: Trump’s Supporters

Recently a Facebook post issued the latest societal ill to be laid at the classroom and therefore the teacher’s door: Trump’s followers. The post asserted that there wouldn’t be as many Trump supporters if education was just doing it’s job. Familiar image of an upset parent poking the teacher in the chest for failing their student who has not attended. The student did not attend because the teacher/school was not “doing it’s job” and by God my taxes pay your salary and if you would just do your job…..

On a recent Colbert show, Stephen estimated that Trump’s voters in the primaries represented about 12% of the voters. Let’s look at what was going on in public education when these supporters were in school.If these voters
are an age range of 30-40, they would have been in high school in the mid 80s to mid 90s. That is, if they went to high school.

Then let’s look at what happened to public education in the mid-80s. Reagan and his party decided to issue a report called “A Nation At Risk”. It claimed that our nation was drowning in the ocean of international competition. This was at a time when the nation’s public schools were doing the most excellent job yet. But a gleam had grown in a monied eye: how about if we can make profit from tax money? How could we do that? We could use educational tax monies through private charter schools and proprietary (for profit) colleges as well as promoting home schooling (it doesn’t cost as much tax money). We can make lots of money by controlling the textbook and testing industries. We can do this if we just destroy people’s confidence in the public education system. Not to mention Reagan’s antiunion movement. The attacks have been relentless and comprehensive, to the point that now no candidate is brave enough to say that education is not broken.

As a counselor in a lower socioeconomic income school, I routinely saw parents remove their students from school if they did not like something. They would pretend they were going to “homeschool” them but they would move to a smaller town. In my state as in many others, there is no monitoring or accountability on homeschoolers. No curriculum plans must be filed; no hourly instruction scheduled; no testing; no validation of instructional credentials. That’s because the state, being the agency constitutionally charged with education, saves a bundle of money if students aren’t in school. They don’t have to pay any ADA (Average Daily Attendance) rates to districts for absent students. To make it even better, the legal age they can drop out is 16 but the district must accept them until they are 21 and keep records on where they go if possible if they leave the previous school. So the district is required by the state for reporting on students that the state says don’t have to be there.

So Trump’s supporters – if they attended, if they earned any credits, if they graduated – were coming through just as this concerted effort to undermine education was getting into full swing. A plethora of media (books, television shows, movies, news reports) emerged about how terrible the system was. And it worked.

Teaching and education is a power vacuum. It depends on community support, both financially and socially. It is a handy political football. Teacher unions lost a lot of leverage. Teaching lost a lot of cooperation and support. Parental anger and frustration found a convenient and close target for their frustrations, be it the economy, joblessness, or other stressors. Not to mention the frustration of being the parent of an adolescent.

Some have said that the conservative movement is reaping the wind from their policies of 15 years ago. If that were true, maybe we would just have a thunderstorm. Their policies began much longer ago, enough for the wind to be a tornado now. So if this is related to education, I’d say it shows that, as usual, educators have done a herculean job in spite of enormous opposition. I’d say we’re lucky if it’s only 12%.

Band-Aids for Teachers

After my mother passed, my middle sister (the one who controlled everyone contrary to birth order theories), sat us down and divided up the boxes of Band-Aids left over in my mother’s closet to make sure no one got more than anyone else.

Previously, my other sister and I had learned, she had absconded with our grandmother’s china cabinet and the diamond earrings Mother had promised me.

The paltry nature of her concerns was a fitting metaphor,  I thought, of the efforts to help teachers in recent years by a well meaning public. Recently Stephen Colbert featured a campaign, #Best School Day, which raised $800,000 for teacher projects. Previously Donors Choose offered a similar opportunity: teachers post their projects and the public can choose which ones to fund. All wonderful shows of support for teachers.

Colbert’s show featured celebrities picking up the tab for a city, state, or educational level projects, more impressive than a car for every teacher a la Oprah.

I am grateful. Don’t get me wrong. But for those outside of education, I just want to suggest how this translates when you are a teacher.

As a teacher, one year a magnanimous corporate leader gave each teacher in our district $100 to spend at an office supply store. That was great, since lack of budgets for teacher supplies are the rule. We wanted to spend it at another office store, however, with much lower prices where we could buy more for our money. We learned that was not to be, since a high level administrator had preferred we spend it at his buddy’s store with higher markups.

I share this to let those who care know that rarely if ever do well meaning gifts accomplish the intention. With direct funding on the surface such as DonorChoice or #Best School Day, the chances are better that the teacher will actually get to spend the money. However I have seen too many times when teachers have developed grants, received the award, and had to fork over monies to the district or go through so many hoops to get the money that it was discouraging. These teachers have also worked extra unpaid hours to come up with the project ideas beyond an already exhausting schedule. And of course this aid is for the students, really, via the teacher.

A second reality that those who care need to understand is the social status this type of effort reveals. Teachers are charity cases, so much so that now states are offering housing because salaries are so low. That’s a great new provision too that is benefitting many teachers. Yet underneath realize what it says about the value of our work.

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We would never dream of offering charity to doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. Yet that is how we classify teachers. They are not considered professionals in spite of equal amounts of education. In our cultural mental consciousness, teachers are still babysitters. (Actually if you do the math, babysitters get paid more). The education of children, as with many other human services, is not high status work in our society.

Teachers are often more vilified than praised. It’s great to see some teachers benefitting from positive PR ( even if the celebrities and not the teachers were on stage). On a few good days, we get praise and some extra Band-Aids. We could really use the bigger checks already cashed elsewhere. Society would be richer.

 

 

Parable of the Hoop Jumpers

Parable of the Hoop Jumper

Once there was a young man who decided he needed to make more money.

He had been told that he could get a promotion by going to school. So he went to enroll in school but thought he should check on a class first.

When he got to his first class, he read the directions, which to him seemed like a lot.

He went up to the instructor and said, “How little can I get for my money?”

The instructor looked at him in confusion. He asked the student what he meant.

The young man said, “Well, how many classes can I miss and still pass?”

“If I only do half the assignments, can I pass?

“If I submit a term paper I have bought, can I pass?”

“If I fail the exams because I am working two jobs and have a family, can I pass?”

“In other words, how little can I do and still make it? I just need the credit.”

The instructor looked at him for a moment and said, “Wait here just a minute.”

He took out a very old book and began to read to him.

“Once there were many very poor and suffering people in a kingdom. The king could treat them very harshly because they were uneducated. They had very little food or work. They got tired of this and went to a new country where they set up the delicious privilege of learning. Some of them fought and died to be able to go to the schools they set up. And after a person got an education, they spoke better, they were better citizens, they were better parents, they knew how to get along with people, they knew how to read and evaluate a proposal, they contributed to their towns, they had, in short, improved themselves because they have participated in a process called education.”

“Then a businessman came into town. He called the people together and said,

‘You don’t need to know about your history. You don’t need to read the great writers from your culture. You especially don’t need to know anything about anyone from another culture for they are your enemies. All you need to know how to do is this job I want you to do for this small wage. In fact, I plan on sending the lowest paying jobs overseas.

‘Those of you, however, who will sit in a room, pay a lot of money, and wait it out, can get a piece of paper that says you have been to what we call a college. You will then earn more money. Because the idea of college is to train you for a career, not to get an education. You don’t have to train your mind to understand the relationship of ideas, or how one event influences another, or how one situation came out of another, or what will happen if you pursue a course of action. You don’t have to value thinking at all. In fact, we don’t want you to really learn to critically think. We just want you to do your job for us. And some of our jobs need higher skills until we can figure out a way to automate them.

“So just jump through the hoops they give you. Those hoops are called assignments, papers, projects and tests. You don’t have to understand how one lesson relates to the next lesson. You don’t even have to remember anything. You can be watching a movie, taking a selfie, or listening to music while you do the work. Your mind doesn’t have to be on it at all. Just do it and get it over with in the easiest way you know how.”

So the young man decided that even that was too much work. He put his money back in his pocket and switched schools. He enrolled in the free University of YouTube.

Shirley Fessel. All rights reserved. 2016

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Shooting Our Feet

Jessica Lahey, a middle school teacher, recently had an excerpt from her new book “The Gift of Failure” published in The Atlantic. She points out that the relentless pressure to achieve has devastated the love for learning that students begin with. This pressure comes from parents, teachers, and society at large.  I appreciate her honesty and am glad she has had the opportunity to be heard.

However she does what too many of us do – she includes herself in the blame. This would be authentic if teachers had not increasingly lost professional autonomy since the 1980s. Schools by definition are always swinging between contradictory mandates that vie with each other at different times, but which leave teachers swinging like a pinata. One end, the more predominant one, says schools must prepare students for life (economic) success and social adjustment. On the other end is the need to uphold the myth that society wants to support individual freedom to pursue one’s own talents and interest. Even teacher unions have not advocated enough for teacher autonomy and power but have lost leverage, along with other unions, to corporate and political forces. A compelling explanation of this development is Michael Apple’s “Teachers and Texts.” (You can read a review of this work at Levin, H. M.. (1988). [Review of Teachers and Texts: A Political Economy of Class and Gender Relations in Education]. American Journal of Education, 96(4), 560–562. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1085226)2015-01-02 13.49.57-1

The unrealistic expectation of teachers, which I call the “Scapegoat Syndrome”, is that, in spite of all pressures, teachers will somehow rise heroically above conflicting expectations and “save” our precious children from the effects of society at the same time they prepare them to meet them. It is an ongoing outgrowth of the idea our culture holds dear: that whatever social or economic ill we  have can be laid at the classroom door for solving. Of course this is impossible. We go, then, from the Messiah view of teaching to blaming them for failing us. Historically, the role of women, society’s scapegoat.

Nursing, another traditionally female profession, has gained a greater measure of leverage because problems in service delivery are more quickly and visibly felt. Even they, however, are continuing to chafe under impossible demands. Educational fallout takes longer to realize and, unless you are in the profession, less visible. When the fallout begins, the cycle just repeats: it’s the teacher’s fault. Let’s increase the demands and legislate more.

Jessica points out that we have taught her student  “‘that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character.'” We have also taught her that it’s better to quit if success cannot be assured and to worship perfection.

From a woman’s experience, the first statement is different but the second is already too familiar to us. I was raised to believe my intellect made a difference and made me equal. However this has not changed as much as we would like. We still see the ceiling operating. But character? That has been the job of women forever. It’s up to make everyone good. Perfection,  on the other hand, has been our operating principle for a long time. As scapegoats, it is our first tool, a futile but persistent attempt to escape being blamed.

Because education is beholden to public support which has been systematically eroded for greed, teachers must find alternative ways to take professional autonomy back. Some have used the charter school option, but running a school is not the same as teaching. I’d love to hear success stories. But I know the first step is to stop being willing to again take responsibility without authority. Otherwise, we will just keep obeying the order to make bricks without straw, after we wrap our feet.

 

 

Nice Teachers Don’t Have Needs

Recently Oxford Academic posted an article about Jane E. Dmochowski’s affection and respect for her students. This is what she loves about teaching. And I am so glad for her.

Quoting from the Chronicle‘s article, “Affection and respect do far more to  improve student behavior in the classroom than snark and irritation.”

Snark? What a profound academic term. Few teachers go into teaching, I would venture to claim, without an initial affection and respect for students. That is a foundational belief right up there with “all moms love their babies”, apple pie and baseball.

The article goes on to list eight more things she loves. A college professor, she had previously posted “10 Things Every College Professor Hates” on her website (lifted from an unnamed “sociology professor at Occidental College”, another problem of our lack of educational self-respect, forgetting to give credit where credit is due). With little student response, she converted it to “10 Things This Instructor Loves.”

I like this – it’s always a goal to take frustration and find the advantage it can be turned into. The list showed her as a human being (often a revelation to students, parents and administrators). Her inclusion of items like having an open mind are totally agreeable. This is the one that got me: “Students who give eye contact during a lecture.”

Lecture? I have not lectured for years. Students tune out the minute I open my mouth. I have taught at college level at four year institutions, community colleges, propriety and public colleges, as well as secondary institutions in urban, rural, and suburban settings. Ten minutes is the longest presentation I ever make. The rest of the class is devoted to engaging students in activities, peer learning or other more active approaches.

The best practice thinking for years has been that lectures are passé. So to get this published in the Chronicle was interesting. It sheds light on the lack of agreement about what best practices are at any level of education.

More disturbingly, it sheds light on the outmoded attitude toward teachers at any level, almost always women. We are not to have any “bad days”. We are not to have any negative feelings and we definitely, never, ever, should express any frustration to our students. It is not motivational, and that is definitely one of the cardinal sins.

Because, as we know, sin is part of the human condition and we wouldn’t want to allow teachers to be human in that way, only in the positive ways of unconditional and unrelenting  acceptance, compassion and patience. But sometimes, you know, you just have to snark on.