2.19.2015

Your story is not as funny as you think it is.

When people learn that I am a teacher, I often become the recipient of peculiar and informative anecdotes. Through these stories, I have realized that many people see their childhood and adolescent misbehavior as clever, even laudable.

For example, pranks played on teachers are often remembered with cheerfulness. The time that every student fell asleep, the time they kept unplugging the computer, the time they lied and got away with it.

I am told these stories as though I understand, ha ha, aren't kids so funny? But my actual, internal response is one of horror. I immediately wonder, what if my students did that to me? Whenever one of my students act out, no matter how minor it is, I am, at minimum, upset. I often feel disrespected and demoralized. For some things, I have to involve administration or parents. And, if it became bad enough, I would begin to reconsider if teaching is actually the job for me.

These types of actions, at their extreme, can even fall under the umbrella of bullying and/or harassment. These actions can cause psychological trauma for the teacher, endanger his or her job, and endanger others in the environment. It doesn't matter if the teacher "should have been able to handle it". That's not the point. We are adults, and we should all agree and teach our children that this type of behavior is not ok.

I am not opposed to telling nostalgic stories about past misdeeds with humor. I think my students are funny and I tell stories about what they do, including their misbehavior, all the time. But the proper attitude of an adult telling a story should not be, Ha ha! Weren't we hilarious? but, Oh, how stupid (and even cruel) we were back then. 

What is the difference? The first response makes someone the victim of a not-very-funny joke, and it suggests (to me, at least) that the speaker has not progressed beyond an adolescent way of perceiving their past. The second indicates that some maturity has been gained.

I can deal with fourteen year olds. I can deal with their misbehavior and I consider it part of my job to teach them better ways to do things. I think it is terrifying to deal with fourteen year olds who are being encouraged and egged on by their still-adolescent-minded parents. 

2.11.2015

The Importance of Establishing Group Norms

I had the opportunity to listen in on a conversation between two teachers last week that helped me to understand how certain things work at my school.

(I wasn't eavesdropping, btw. These teachers were talking to each other while I was working nearby, and occasionally I had a contribution or question, but I mostly listened.)

They were talking about school trips. During their conversations, I learned that:

  • If a teacher takes you on a trip with them, you should offer them the choice of joining you if and when you plan your own trip, before offering the opportunity to another teacher.
  • It is inappropriate to ask to be invited on a trip, you should wait until you are asked.
  • Teachers should coordinate with one another to make sure that they are not competing for the same students, such as alternating the summers that they plan their trips, etc. 
As a person who has not participated in a school trip before, it was helpful for me to hear what some expectations might be. But what interested me was that these teachers spoke as though these norms were obvious, which was not actually the case. I could easily envision circumstances in which the norms were different or even opposite of what these teachers assumed. For example, if I was going to ask another teacher to join me on a trip, I might be inclined to ask the teacher who speaks the language, which may not be the same teacher who asked me to join their trip the previous year. And if I heard a teacher was going to a certain country that I really wanted to visit, I might have volunteered to help without realizing that it was not considered appropriate to put myself forward in that way. 

These group norms are neutral, neither good nor bad. They have been established in response to dynamics that are specific to my school. As a new person and without knowing those dynamics, it would be easy to misread a situation and inadvertently offend another.  

I have been a part of groups before where, at the very first meeting, the leader would establish "group norms". While slightly cheesy, it seems to me that those groups are able to work productively together much more quickly than those groups that leave it up to their members to slowly and sometimes painfully learn how to work with one another. And when a new member joins the group, they can hear from the start what the expectations are, rather than talking one-on-one with all the different members, each of whom may have a different interpretation on what is ok and what is not. 

Moral of the story: Make it easy for new people. Tell them what you expect, and they'll feel much more comfortable jumping right in.

2.10.2015

Examples of Disconnect Between Administrators and Teachers

"I don't want you to feel like this is 'one more little thing' but..."

(Something that will take me "only five minutes" but multiplied by twenty students = 1hr 40 min)


"Your focus for next semester's evaluation will be to create engaging lessons not just once in a while, but every single day."

(So many implied insults. 1. I already work hard to create interesting lessons every day. 2. I cannot physically spend more time on lesson planning than I already do, I am already behind in everything always, and I stay at school until 5 pm and work on weekends. It's not like there's extra time that I just don't feel like giving up here. 3. What's wrong with having the kids do some writing and book work once in a while? Sometimes, it is just what they need to do.)


"You should call five parents per week, and contact each parent at least once per semester."

(Ha ha ha. See above.)


"The student said that they were not texting, they just had their phone out and were not using it."

(Why are you assuming the student is telling the truth, and that I misjudged the situation?)


"You need to make retakes available to every student, even if he or she cannot stay after school."

(Because unsupervised retakes in the hallway during class time is such a great idea, and it's not like I am trying to do anything else during class.)


"You need to make your lessons more student-centered, not teacher-centered."

(I am the only Spanish-speaker in my room. Who is going to speak to them in the language if I don't?)


"Maybe you should translate more things into English so that he/she doesn't get confused."

(1. This is contrary to every single pedagogical development in language education in the last twenty years. 2. Do you really think that I don't have any back-ups built in to help them figure things out? 3. Do you understand at all the amount of work it has taken for me to have my students accept any amount of Spanish-only instruction? 4. Did you not see the twenty-nine other students who were getting along just fine even though I spoke exclusively in Spanish for fifteen straight minutes in a level 1 classroom?)


"Can you stop by during your prep so we can touch base on ____? It won't take long, just ten minutes."

(Sure. Even though it will take five of my fifty minutes of prep to walk to and from the office, ten minutes to find you, another ten to talk to you, and another five to make small talk, and then I only have a twenty minutes left to do anything, which is basically enough time to answer emails. Fifteen minutes for you, practically an entire prep period sacrificed for me.)


"You need to keep every student engaged for the entire class period."

(Because students always do what I want them to do?)


"Why doesn't your class website only have the homework for the week, and not from previous weeks? And can you attach documents organized by chapter so that absent students can just download them from the website when they are absent?"

(I MADE A WEBSITE. IT TOOK ME TEN HOURS. IT IS THE BEST, MOST FUNCTIONAL WEBSITE OF ALL THE STAFF IN THIS BUILDING. Sure I can do that for you.)

2.01.2015

Learning doesn't always feel like learning.

Sometimes my perception of what occurs in my classroom does not always match up with my students' perception.

I remember one day a student said that her friend had told her that we were "doing a worksheet" for the entire class. I told her, "Oh? Well, wait and see." 

I handed out a page with some notes and practice problems on it, yes. But we also learned and practiced a rhyme that included motions, used whiteboards and props to practice writing, and had a class discussion. Technically, the page with notes was in front of students for most of the class period, but we really only spent about ten or so minutes "doing the worksheet."

"So, did we only 'do a worksheet' today?" I asked her as the students were packing up. 

"Yeah, we did," she answered. 

Le sigh. 

She's by no means alone in her perception. It seems that students - of any age - often feel that nothing much is occurring in their classrooms. 

Students focus on what is concrete, for one thing: a worksheet completed, a song memorized, an item produced. Classroom discussions, for example, often lack in durables, and so they do not "feel" like very much has occurred at all. 

Also, students don't always see their own growth. They don't think about how, at the beginning of the year, they didn't know more than ten words in Spanish, and by the end, "all they knew" was how to introduce themselves, say what they liked, and "conjugate a few verbs". They have an attitude that dismisses the complexity of those tasks, and their memories only hone in on what is memorable, and they forget the daily work of developing each of those skills. 

Finally, while students often equate effort to learning, teachers work hard to make learning feel effortless. That girl left the room knowing at least twenty words in Spanish that she did not know before, but by the time she left, those words were obvious to her, and wouldn't anyone be able to figure them out? But if I had sent her home with a list and told her to study for a quiz the next day, she might have "felt" more learning occur, even if the quality of that learning was less. 

I see this in myself sometimes. Not so much as a student, but as a person. I have certain goals, you know. Like becoming more efficient, procrastinating less, or showering at least a three times per week. I often feel that I fall short of those goals, but then sometimes I look back and think, hey. Wow. I never would have done that two years ago, or five, or ten. 

Sometimes, things take a long time. That doesn't mean that nothing is happening. 

1.28.2015

Education Fifty Years Ago vs. Today

Every once in a while, older people will compare the knowledge of students today to what they learned in school. Others will go even further back in history: could students today pass a test given to their grandparents? Their great-grandparents? The Founding Fathers?

But this is a false comparison. Our understanding of the learning process, and how to adapt our teaching to maximize that learning, as well as our standards for what is expected of students and teachers, has changed in significant ways in the last fifty years, let alone the last 200 years. 

Take a look:

Education Fifty Years Ago
Teacher-centered lectures. The teacher talks, students write and memorize.

Grammar-centered language education. Can you conjugate the Spanish verb "hacer" correctly in three different tenses? Also, world language is an elective course, generally for the college-bound student.

Facts-centered math education. Have you memorized the quadratic formula yet?

Information-collecting. Encyclopedias are a lot of extra work. Better memorize stuff to save yourself the trip to the library. 

Western focus. Roman Empire, English literature, French language. 

Lower stakes. You could still get a job if you only had a high school diploma, and even if you didn't, a person could manage without one in a factory job with union benefits. 


Education Today
So-called "student-led learning". This style of teaching, incidentally, takes a lot more work on the part of the teacher to prepare and guide students to figure things out on their own, rather than just telling them what's up. It also requires more work from the students, because they cannot just sit passively and wait for information to be given to them.

Communication-centered language education. Can you have a polite conversation with this Mexican grandmother? Also, 2 years of a world language are required for graduation; more to be a competitive applicant at a highly-ranked university.

Function-centered math education. Use the quadratic formula to solve a real-world problem. 

Information-interpreting. Information is easier to acquire than ever. How can you access this information? Why does this information matter? Who wrote it, is it reliable, and how does it affect my approach to the world?

Whole-world focus. Middle Eastern and South American history. Contemporary literature, including works by underrepresented demographics, often with nonstandard English. Spanish and Mandarin are every year increasing in popularity. 

Higher stakes. Both teachers and students are told that simple failure is unacceptable. A teacher must demonstrate effort to help low-achieving students. Low-achieving students can expect to put in extra work with teachers, tutors, special-ed specialists, and even administrators. 



Can you see what I mean? Almost everything we do in the classroom has been flipped around, pushing toward developing the skills to analyze and interpret rather than simply know, and to, well, "leave no child behind."

And ok, I agree, there are no clear-cut lines. Many teachers in previous eras inspired their students to think for themselves, to see beyond the collection of data and guide students toward finding real-world significance in what they learned. And many teachers today are glad if they can get their students to know that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. But overall, the trend is toward less factual knowledge, and more functional knowledge across the board. 

We have a bad habit of assuming that the way things were done in the past were automatically superior to the way we do things now. But even if students do not score well on a test that was written fifty years ago***, perhaps the reason is not that students are dumber, but because the skills and knowledge they have is fundamentally different, and cannot be demonstrated on a test written for an entirely different era with different pedagogy. So let's stop comparing apples to oranges as though they were the same thing.



***Besides all of this, the assumption that every American kid is failing is simply erroneous. On the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) US students have increased their test scores in both reading and math since 1990. Additionally, dropout rates have decreased, graduation rates have increased, and school crime and violence are in decline. Also interesting, more students every year are taking advanced math courses, such as Calculus and Statistics. Check out this report from the NCES and look around: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cnb.asp. 


1.26.2015

When is it ok to tell a woman she is attractive?

When is it ok to comment on a woman's appearance?
1. When she is your close friend in a non-work context.
2. When you are shopping for clothing and she asks for your opinion.
3. When you are going out together for a special occasion, such as a date, that required a little extra work.

When is it not ok to comment on a woman's appearance?
1. When you are her boss.
2. When you are a co-worker.
3. When you are her subordinate.
4. When you are a stranger.
5. When you first meet her.

1.23.2015

How I make my work day more enjoyable

often work fifty or sixty hours per week. It is the purpose to which I devote the vast majority of my mental, emotional and physical resources. 

I do not think that this is, of itself, a bad thing. Honestly, left on my own, I collapse pretty quickly into hours of idle Internet browsing and multiple days of wearing the same stretch pants. My work keeps me moving, learning, growing. I suppose I am also fortunate that I have such a multifaceted job: each day, I stretch myself in new ways. My work makes me a better person. 

So many people seem to live for the weekends. I like weekends, too. I really like doing nothing. But weekends make up a tiny portion of my life, and I want to enjoy every day, not just the two days I don't have to be in my classroom. 

Things I do to make my work better:
--Arrive to work early, like, almost an hour early. I've found that although I am a "morning person", I need time to warm up. If I have to talk to a horde of students only ten minutes after arriving myself, I feel off-balance and rushed the entire day. But if I have enough time to make a pot of coffee, check my email, check my lesson plans, and read through the newspaper before I have to start work, I feel like I've got my mind in order and I am ready for the day's work as soon as the first bell rings. 

--Pack a good lunch. No way am I going to eat cafeteria food or convenience food every day and feel good about it. I make big meals on weekends, and pack it for lunch the rest of the week. 

--Drink fresh coffee. There is just something comforting and indulgent about having something for myself on my desk during my prep. 

--Make friends at work. Because I am a social person in a social place. Friends make it more fun. 

--Joke with the kids. Because that makes it more fun, too. 

--Stop working sometimes. Because sometimes, it is time to go home. 

--Go to sleep early. Because another hour of Internet browsing isn't going to do anything for me, anyway. 

--Wear comfortable clothes that look nice. I move around a lot in my work, so my clothing needs to be able to move with me. And if I look nice, I feel better prepared for anybody who stops by, including surprise visits from the principal, a parent, or the vice superintendant. 

--I never leave the building without having my lessons planned and copies made for the next day. It just stresses me out to not know what is going on, and trying to lesson plan from home is often three times more work. I do take home grading because there isn't usually time to get to it during a regular day, but it usually doesn't have a hard deadline, and so if I don't get to it or forget something, it doesn't throw everything off. 

--Grade with coffee and a friend/TV on the weekends. Because if I'm going to work on my weekends, might as well make the environment enjoyable to make up for the misery of grading first-attempt essays in beginner Spanish.