Thursday, March 22, 2007

I spent about an hour back in my classroom today because my students were having a goodbye party for the substitute teacher. This woman is absolutely amazing. She taught for many years - a variety of subjects and ages - and was a principal. She is retired but still teaches for our intersessions and does some long term substituting. She substituted for me on my first maternity leave and I was thrilled that she agreed to do so again.

When we spoke today she was very apologetic because she felt they had not gotten through enough of the science unit that I had planned for them. This gave me pause for three reasons. The first was simply that I did not want her to be concerned about it. I know that my students' time was well spent while she was with them. Secondly, it pains me a little to think that we have to "cover" information. This does not suggest real learning to me. The unit she was teaching was on light and sound. They have done all of the lessons on light. My feeling is that if they have a deep understanding of the concepts surounding light then they have done well in science. If they had managed to get through all of the lessons but did not really understand the concepts, then the entire quarter would have been wasted. Last of all, she felt they had not accomplished as much as she had hoped because there were so many interruptions to their instructional time.

All teachers struggle with this. I think it probably becomes a bigger and bigger issue as the students get older. The interruptions they faced in the last two weeks were a school math tournament, an assembly, patrol meetings, and a school-wide writing celebration (and of course the mercury fiasco). All of these are worthy ventures. This was simply another example for me of the balance teachers and schools walk in their attempts to teach children all of the ideas, concepts, and information we have deemed necessary, and build life skills, and expand their horizons. Schools have so many more responsibilities to our children than most people realize. I think we are trying to be everything to everyone, and ultimately that is not possible. Individual schools and society at large must consider the expectations and be prepared to make adjustments as needed.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

HazMat and the Hazards of Teaching

A couple of days ago one of my students brought a small vial of mercury to school. At the end of the day, during science centers, she passed it around to about half of the class. (I am on maternity leave and missed this excitement, chaos, or insanity - depending on your viewpoint.) No one shared this information with the teacher that day. That evening a parent, whose child fortunately told her, called the principal to inform her. She immediately began taking steps to ensure everyone's safety. She called the public health nurse for advice. The nurse notified the environmental health office. The principal called the office of risk management. She then spoke to those students who were involved in the incident. Both a HazMat team and the office of risk management came to inspect the classroom. The students had to be relocated until the classroom was inspected and deamed safe. Those students involved had to be checked by the HazMat team. This means that half the class was pulled out of instructional time twice (once with the principal, once with the HazMat team) and the entire class was relocated for a couple of hours. It is challenging to teach and learn under those circumstances. In addition, those classrooms near ours were distracted by the arrival and work of the HazMat team, not a quiet process I'm sure. The teachers were highly distracted due to unease about what has happening in their wing of the building. A conservative guess would be that this impacted 120 children for at least half a day.

I recount this incident because it is an example, albeit an extreme one, of how events get in the way of teachers teaching and students learning. We are together about six hours a day for 180 days of school each year. If all we had to do with that time was teach, we could accomplish so much. However, we are teaching children, not just curriculum, and this can lead to challenges. They are people with complicated lives, just as adults are. No adult spends all of their time at work accomplishing tasks. There is time spent socializing, time spent lost in thought about wonderful or terrible things happening in lives, time spent redoing work that was orignially completed while distracted by something, and on and on. This is true for children as well, we are simply less willing to admit it and try to address it.

I do not believe that we should lower standards, change our curriculum, or make any other drastic changes. I simply believe that we need to look at our schools as places where people are learning, teaching, and living everyday.

My students have been chastised for not letting an adult know immediately about the mercury. They have had quite a scare. A couple of students' shoes were confiscated because mercury was found on them. I am glad that the adults involved made sure that the students understood the seriousness of this incident. I am also glad that the adults involved did not overreact to the situation. These students realized they were doing something they shouldn't, but they had no idea of the dangers of mercury. Nothing about this whole episode is in our curriculum, but I would suggest that my class learned more from this than they learn from a week of my lessons.