Friday, June 28, 2013

I'm Just a Teacher

I'm ashamed and pained at how often I think that. "I'm just a teacher." I firmly believe my job is a challenging one. I firmly believe I work really hard at that job. I firmly believe I'm reasonably darn good at that job.

So why do I so often think, "I'm just a teacher."? That word, that 'just,' says so much, doesn't it? It says I don't value the job I do the way I believe it should be valued. It says I consider myself inferior to others because of my job.

A brilliant teacher wrote recently about hitting the ten year mark as a teacher (something I reached five years ago):
And yet, I have the same job that anyone right out of college could have. Although I've personally made huge gains professionally none of these really matter. I hold the same job 22 year olds are qualified for. We have the same voice, are treated the same professionally, and are considered the same in the eyes of the district. For that matter, we're treated the same in the eyes of society. Or maybe not. Maybe the 22 year old is given more respect because there is still time for her to get out. This isn't her career yet - it's just a stopping place.
(There's a lot more brilliance there and I highly encourage you to read the entire post.)

Do you hear some of the 'just' in her words? Maybe it's just me, but I do. The difference between me and a new teacher is how much we are paid. That matters, I'll grant you, but is that really all there is?

Deborah Meier, in her Bridging Differences blog, wrote about young people feeling a need for more than 'just' being a teacher:
So many say they are interested in teaching, and then imagine they will go on to more earthshaking occupations that influence more than 25 to 100 youngsters a year. Like making policy and/or becoming entrepreneurs of some sort. I recognize it—and it isn't bad. But it also worries me.
I don't want to leave the classroom. I love what I do and feel no need to more on to 'more earthshaking occupations." But I also don't want to 'just' be a teacher. Is it me? Do I need to change my attitude? Or is there something bigger here?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Jay Mathews Gets Me Again

I think I might be a glutton for punishment sometimes. I keep reading Jay Mathews' Class Struggle in the Washington Post in spite of how often I get angry as a result. (I do have to admit that he's had some recent posts that surprised me in quite a positive way.)

Recently he wrote about end of year math tests in Montgomery County. Apparently half of the students fail these tests. These aren't state standardized tests, these are county created. Montgomery County students are doing significantly better on the state tests than on the county ones.

Mathews sees this failure as a positive thing.
Those big failure rates prove that Montgomery is one of the rare school districts that administers end-of-course tests challenging enough to flunk, thereby exposing poor student preparation and weak state standards.
I don't buy it.

An end of the course test covers a ton of material. Material students may have been quite successful with back in October, but can't recall as well by June. (Quite possibly, these tests cover too much content.) It's also a test that is given at a chaotic time of year. The end of a school year is full of events, fun and stressful, that impact students and teachers in many ways. One impact is that students may not be at their peak for attention, focus, and recall. That could impact end of course test results.

In addition, has anyone considered that these students may be all tested out? How many state, county, school, and classroom tests have they taken before these end of course tests? How much energy do they have left by the end of the year?

And if these students had phenomenal pass rates for these end of course tests would that prove that they are smarter than other students? Would it prove they learned more? Or would it prove they are good at cramming and taking tests?

I might have let all that go and moved on with only minor irritation if Mathews hadn't brought up one of his favorite stats near the end.
Graduation barriers are similarly low in most other states, even though in the past 30 years there has been no significant increase in average reading and math achievement for 17-year-old Americans.
Are my children (my daughters and my students) expected to be smarter than I was at their age? Am I expected to be smarter than my parents were at my age? Why do we expect that average reading and math scores will go up each year? Why must the next group of kids do better than the ones before them? When do we cap out? When do we say, "We did it. We achieved our goal."?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Why I Teach

I don't know about you, but I get asked why I became a teacher quite often. It's not a bad question, but I don't have a ready answer. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a teacher. (Although I had a brief period during which I was determined to be private detective thanks to my fascination with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. That went away not because of the danger but because I eventually realized how much of a private detective's time is spent in terribly boring ways. Teaching is far from boring.)

Today, I found my answer. Diana Laufenberg, an idol of mine in education, wrote about the past year she has spent out of the classroom. I've been lucky enough to see Diana a few times in period so I had some sense of her thoughts before reading this post. Then I was smacked upside the head.
But, I will also share that nothing is as good as teaching kids.  Teaching is like a puzzle that just keeps needing solving, everyday.  It made my brain spin, inspired hope and anger and frustration and joy and heart break at times. 
That's it. That's why I am a teacher. Thank you, Diana, for saying it so well.

Teaching is a puzzle. And a puzzle that is so worth working hard to solve. Every time a piece fits in it is astounding. So often we try a piece, it looks so close, but it doesn't work. But it still gets us closer. It's never finished but that's just fine. We're lucky enough to get up tomorrow and keep trying to solve that puzzle. What an amazing thing to get to do.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reasons for My Exhaustion

There are about a dozen drafts waiting here from the past couple of weeks. Most of them are slightly cryptic one or two sentence drafts. Things I didn't want to forget in the chaos of the end of the school year and really wanted to ponder more. In the next week or so I'll have to see if I can figure out exactly what it was I wanted to reflect on and write about. We'll see how well that goes.

For the moment, I thought I'd share some of the reasons those are all drafts and not actually posts. As is so often the case with me, I had several big, time-consuming projects going at the end of the year. In math each student created a movie about graphs and a movie about a number sentence. For the graphs one they had to survey their classmates, create the graph (from a template), and describe it. For the other I had put a number sentence (an addition or subtraction problem) in for them and they had to tell and illustrate a story to match the sentence.

During our language arts time we had two projects going. One was creating a scrapbook of our year. I put pictures from the year into Word and the students captioned them. They managed to caption 73 (I think) pictures. Some are, not surprisingly, better than others. Often their captions do not capture what I remember from the moment. It gives me a new perspective on our year. 

Our final project involved the books we have read this year. Whenever I read a book aloud to the class I take a picture of the cover and post them all on a bulletin board in our room. It's a great visual reminder of all the books we have read. Here it was very early in the year.

Rather than just throw all these covers away at the end of the year, I take them down and the kids make a book of reviews from them. They pick a title they liked, glue it on a page, and write a review of it. Then we have a book for next year's first graders to enjoy.

Between those projects, school and grade-wide end of the year activities, and packing up my classroom (which is about 98% complete), my brain and body are wiped out.

Sunday, June 09, 2013


I'm a bit behind in my comic reading, as this Foxtrot comic by Bill Amend, is from June 2nd. (I only manage to read the Sunday comics and I can still fall weeks behind.)

I've noticed my own interactions with students lately and they resemble this panel. One child goofing off during language arts block might get a quick, gentle reminder to focus on becoming a better reader and writer while another student doing the exact same thing might get moved off on their own with a stern reprimand.

One child pushing another in line gets a brief eye contact reminder to stop while another child gets to walk the rest of the way holding my hand.

One child defiantly ignoring another teacher gets a one-on-one talk about respect, with time to share their thoughts and work through the issue, while another one gets removed from the group without any discussion.

When I'm not in the moment of these situations I want to always react in the first way. I want to always give gentle reminders, give children second, third, fourth chances, give them the benefit of the doubt, and give them a chance to talk through the problem.

In the moment, however, their reputations (not from others but based on my year with them) weigh too heavily. I respond quite differently to children who have been defiant to other teachers again and again, to children who regularly push others in line, and to children who are often not focused on becoming better readers and writers. 

Stepping back I understand why I respond in the way that I do. The problem is, I don't think it's helpful. I think most children, no matter their reputation, will respond better to gentle, kind reminders and redirections and will be more thoughtful in the future if they are given the opportunity to talk through an issue rather than simply being removed.

As this post percolated in my drafts folder, this video came across my facebook stream.

The power of reputation, being one you have earned or one that has been thrust upon you based on race, ethnicity, geographic location, gender, whatever, is powerful.

I don't have an answer to this. I try to be hyper-aware of how I respond to students, regardless of their reputation, and still struggle with it. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013


I can remember doing this in college (maybe high school, too, I'm not sure), staying up late, reviewing notes, rereading as much as possible. Then taking a test the next day. Sometimes it helped. Sometimes it didn't.

I don't think anything I accomplished in those late night sessions was actually learning however. I don't even remember some of the classes I took in high school and college, much less what was on those exams. What did I gain by cramming? A better grade, I guess. But not much more.

I'm seeing this happen a lot, at all grade levels right now. Kids with flashcards for all subject areas, Jeopardy games being played on a daily basis, rapid fire questions shot at kids whenever possible. Cramming isn't just for high school and college students anymore.

As we live in time of testing, testing, testing, that can impact our jobs and our school funding, we are doing all we can to ensure kids score well.

Are we doing all we can to ensure students are learning as well? Learning that will last?


Valerie Strauss posted this one sentence from Cognition: From Memory to Creativity by Robert S. Weisberg and Lauretta M. Reeves:
Rote repetition can result in some information being retained, although it is not  a particularly effective method of encoding information into memory.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

We Need to Be Together

Larry Cuban has a new post about online learning in K-12 education. If you aren't familiar with him, he's worth following. He was a teacher, superintendent, and college professor through the years. He's written quite a few books on education reform. (I was first introduced to his work in graduate school when I read Tinkering Toward Utopia.)

He is clearly skeptical of online learning, in general and in K-12 education.
Regardless of the quality of research on new technologies, cheerleaders continue to trumpet online learning as the “disruptive innovation” that will replace regular schools. 
While I don't always agree with Cuban about technology in schools, I think we're on the same page here. Maybe it's because I'm looking at this from the perspective of a primary teacher or even an elementary school teacher. Maybe if I taught middle school or high school I would have a different perspective on online learning.

It's hard for me to imagine my little six and seven year olds spending anywhere near half their time with online learning. Not only for the various reasons Cuban lists, but also because there is so much more to learning than content. What can be done online misses a lot of what happens in a classroom.

I fear that education is becoming solely focused on content. We are losing sight of the rest of what makes up the human beings that are our students.

In my classroom my students are learning to read, write, work with numbers, observe the world around them, share what they are learning, classify information, etc. I think that could probably all be done online (how well is still uncertain, in my mind).

My kiddos also learn to talk to other people, make eye contact, problem solve together, speak in front of a group, collaborate on projects, advocate for themselves and their needs, etc. I don't think these things can be done online, much less done well.

Maybe I'm missing something or unwilling to see the change that is coming, but it is hard for me to envision a time when face-to-face-with-peers education is gone. Time with other human beings is too important to the development of human beings.