Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

So, for all 649 of you who have come to check out this blog, I apologize for taking a nearly year long hiatus. First of all, I had a whole bunch of things to say, said them, and then wondered what the hell I was supposed to say next. Secondly, I was in the middle of the most stressful year of my life, working my first full year as a new teacher on my own (previously I had been a teacher’s assistant while getting my teaching certificate and degree, and then working half time for most of a year, teaching just math and science in the elementary grades). Last year was rough. New teachers have the well-known and exhausting task of constantly reinventing the wheel, and nothing except nose-to-the-grindstone experience can truly initiate a new teacher – especially in a large urban school system with a weak administration.

And work I did. Just getting there was a trial, since the school is on the opposite end of the city from where I live, and the only direct highway link was under construction the entire year. It often took me an hour and a half to get home – a distance of about 24 miles. Remember Michael Douglas in the movie “Falling Down”? On more than one occasion I was seriously tempted to ditch my car on the highway parking lot and just wander off into the ether, muttering incoherently to myself about overpopulation and the cruel tyranny of gridlock and inept city officials.

Once I got there, I was continually disappointed about the lack of support. The principal came to observe my classroom once during the entire year, and that was at my request. There was no official curriculum to follow, other than the continual and overwhelming threat of “state standards,” which the school textbooks only marginally addressed, and in a very schizophrenic way. The principal was not up to speed on current orthodoxy, and didn’t understand how a spiral curriculum (math) is designed to be followed sequentially, not dipped into willy-nilly, depending on which “standard” one was attempting to cover.

I also became painfully aware of how much teachers are expected to compensate for all of the shortcomings of society, the ravages of poverty, the lack of parental support, and the horrors of grossly dysfunctional families. Test scores are test scores (I’ve addressed some of my concerns about the very fundamental nature of standardized tests here), and schools are held accountable all the same, regardless of mushy, qualitative things like poverty levels, cultural mores and family lives. Teachers work themselves into an absolute frenzy, and the weeks approaching the tests are almost laughable, if one could remove oneself emotionally and look in from the outside. I almost wished, at the time, that I could be one of those perky, cheerful types who doesn’t even think to question all of the systemic problems plaguing public education. I said I almost wished, because the reality is that my questioning, analytical nature is fundamental to who I am as a person, and even though it complicates my life at times, it has been part of my essence since I first learned, at a precociously young age, to ask “why?”

Not far into the year I began having doubts about how effective I could be given all I was up against. Clearly this is not unique to me, as well over half of new teachers do not make it to their five year anniversaries in this particular system. This is an important landmark, since “studies show” that teachers usually have the most impact on their students’ test scores after they have been teaching for five years. Chicago my district is aware of this and has attempted to enact various mentoring programs, but it has different rules for different schools, and since my school has good enough test scores (for now anyway), the board allows it to make up its own mentoring program. What mentoring program? Did I say mentoring program? Sigh.

At the tail end of the year, rumors began circulating about low enrollment, budget cuts and the need to eliminate some teachers. I had been at the school for four years (2 1/2 as an assistant, 1 1/2 as a teacher), so I cautiously figured I was safe. Several people had been hired since me, but a controversial little clause in the union contract allows principals to release a nontenured teacher without needing to state a reason, so none of us recent hires were truly safe. A fairly substantial part of me, however, almost wished that I would be laid off (almost wished because, you know, bills and stuff). Then I wouldn’t have a choice about it, and the thought of returning the next year to do it all over again made my stomach flip. But when reality hit, when the principal handed me that white envelope and an attempt at a sincere apology, I buzzed all over with shock. I had never been fired/let go/laid off before in my life. I have always been known to be dependable, hardworking and dedicated, and I just couldn’t believe that someone else was staying while I was being let go.

That someone else had less seniority than me by about two months. That someone else shared with me the little modular unit behind the school, built during the days of overpopulation. That someone else could be heard by my entire classroom screaming at her students multiple times a day. That someone else continually complained about how rotten her students were, and how she was cancelling such-and-such field trip because her students “didn’t deserve it.” That someone else also had a sterile, immaculate classroom that looked like it had never been used. That someone else kept lesson plans and grades in a crisp white binder with little pink and purple tabs. That someone else had about 20 fifth graders, while I had 13 third graders and 13 fourth graders, many special education students, and a third grade population that was entirely new to the school that year. That someone else quickly insinuated herself into the inner circle of sycophants who stroked the ego of the often besieged principal. And so that’s how it goes. I can’t do that, have never been able to, and probably not even to save my life could I do it – I just can’t be false, can’t present to the world one persona, while privately or with subordinates/students behave differently.

The thing that redeemed my whole experience, the one thing that made it worthwhile, was my students. I loved each and every one of them, even the ones who tested my very limits of patience and endurance. I don’t know if I am going to teach again. I truly am in limbo. In retrospect, I can see that I am a bit of an introvert – I have a very rich internal life and rarely get lonely in solitude. Even though I live in the city, I come from farming stock and have always dreamed of having a little patch of earth, some chickens, a little milk cow and real, physical work to do. In teaching, you are always “on,” always performing, always there to attend to the needs of your students, their parents (God bless you, Mrs. G!) and the administration. It’s exhausting work for an introvert, let me tell you. I love the kids, though, and miss every single one of them. Kids are amazing creatures and we should cherish, and thank our lucky stars for, each and every one.

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“The only way to be sure of whether or not every child is learning is to test regularly…”

– George W. Bush

I respect the intentions of the No Child Left Behind act. In no way should a school, through lack of organization, lack of will or lack of resources, ignore the needs of any of its students. All students should have an equal opportunity to succeed.

However, success is a very subjective idea – my definition of success for myself is probably different from your personal criteria.

That said, the vast majority of us are average. Yup. Ho-hum, Joe Lunchbucket average. We are mostly average athletes, average earners, average-looking and of average intelligence. Most of us are private material.

Private material? Ok, I’ll explain. The first standardized test, or at least the one that would look most familiar to us, was schemed up during World War I, when the military was looking for a quick and efficient way of finding potential officers among the sea of privates. (My grandmother knows about this. When we were discussing this very topic, she said, “Oh, your great-grandfather took that test. He had just finished his officer training when they sent him home. The war had ended.” This is clearly a gratuitous aside, but hey, it’s my blog. I can be proud of my officer material great-grandfather.) It was a test of intellect, of inherent cognitive ability, not of academic achievement. It was specifically designed to rank people, much like the military’s use of a hierarchical ranking system as its basic structure. It seems to work for them. The problem, though, is that educating children is different from developing a well-trained, robust military.

Here is the astonishing thing (I say that only ever so sarcastically), given the structure and stated purpose of modern education: standardized achievement tests are still used in the same way – to rank people. “Achievement” is a misnomer. The tests are structurally, by intent and design, used to rank students into the familiar bell curve, with the vast majority of students falling within the realm of “average.”

Now, I’m no statistician, but there seems to be a problem here. Public schools need to state certain goals (primarily for federal funding purposes), stating what percentage of their students should be at X percentile by year X. For example, ABC Elementary has to have a plan like, “By the year 2008, 95 percent of our students will score at or above the 55th percentile on the Acme Test of Student Achievement.”

Here’s the problem: it is statistically impossible for 100 percent, or even 95 percent of all students, to score at or above the 55th percentile. The nature of the tests simply does not allow that outcome. 50 percent of students within the testing population will fall at or below the 50th percentile and 50 percent will fall at or above the 50th percentile. That’s just how it works.

This is one way that happens: Standardized tests are examined and reviewed question-by-question each year. If, say, 60 percent of students got question X correct, the review panel will generally toss the question in favor of a “harder” one, because question X was “too easy.” But wait! If 60 percent or more of students know the correct answer to the question, doesn’t that mean that TEACHERS ARE DOING THEIR JOBS BY EFFECTIVELY TEACHING THAT CONCEPT!? You’d think. In practice, though, if the kids know it, it’s too easy. Since the test is designed to rank students, a question that is too easy must be scrapped in favor of a harder one.

Hence the opening quote – whenever somebody says, “the only way to achieve X goal is to…,” I get suspicious. Nothing gets under my skin more than black-and-white thinking. That said, sure, I’ll accept Bush’s judgment that we have to have some sort of method for evaluating student learning. Let’s call this method “testing.” But let’s design a test that truly does measure learning, not one that is inherently designed to show that, unlike in Lake Wobegone, your kid is probably…average.

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