Laugh or cry?

We have a long-term sub in our building. She is a certified teacher, but she has yet to run her own classroom, so she is sweetly naive about certain realities.

In talking about deciding on a master's degree: "Doesn't the district pay for you to continue to go to school?"

In talking about resources: "Don't they have an online video library where you can get videos for free?"

In talking about professional development: "Don't they pay for you to attend conferences?"

In talking about curriculum: "Isn't there a textbook that already has all of this material so that I don't have to make it myself?"


Teacher Detox

Okay, friends. Let us agree that our job is hard. In addition to being hard, sometimes we are required to meet impossible, irritating, and/or stupid demands.

That said, there are some attitudes that I and you sometimes carry around with us that hurt us more than help us. They make us angrier than we need to be, or more cynical, or more depressed.

Don't get me wrong. I am a realist, and I was born with a healthy dose of skepticism that has kept me snarky to this very day. But I am also realistic enough to realize that some attitudes have no benefit, and yet carry many dangers. Since my goal is to stay in teaching as long as possible, and to enjoy it as much as possible, while doing as much good as possible, I can identify toxic attitudes by performing a brief cost/benefit analysis and asking myself if they support or hurt my end goal.

If your end goal is not, in fact, to stay in teaching as long as possible, to enjoy it as much as possible, and to do as much good as possible, then let us remember that nobody is forcing us to do this work, and we can leave at any time we choose.

So what are some of these toxic attitudes?

1. Teacher vs. Students

Your students are not your enemies. Your job is not to force, coerce, manipulate, or shame them into doing what you want. It is not to "train" them to act in one way or another. It is not to blame them when things go wrong. It is not to destroy their reputations with your colleagues in the lunch room.

Your students are your allies. Your job is to work with them to accomplish cool and interesting and occasionally boring things. Your job is to demonstrate through example the benefits of planning, preparation, and diligence, and to support them when they inevitably do not meet your standards. Your job is to recognize that they are individuals with self-agency and who deserve to be treated with dignity even when they act in ways you dislike. Your job is to remember that even the most mature of them is still a child, and when they fail, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do at their age.

Your students will take up more time, energy and patience than any other single element of your job. If you don't enjoy being with and helping your students, then it might be time to GTFO.

2. Teacher vs. Teachers

Your colleagues are not your enemies. Sometimes your colleagues will be frustrated with a student or a circumstance, and they will take it out on you. They will criticize - rightly and wrongly - something that you have done. You will criticize them, and they will take it the wrong way and become defensive. They will do things in exactly the way that you would rather not. If they have more authority than you, they will mandate that you do things in exactly the way that you would rather not. They will say things that offend without even realizing it, and you will be tempted to carry that hurt around with you for the remainder of your working life.

Don't. Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. They are most likely not intentionally trying to make your life more difficult. They are not your competition. Some are smart and others are less so, but not a single one of them is brainless. Assume that they have good intentions, and that they are just struggling to do their work well under the same adverse circumstances as you. Problems arise among colleagues, this is true. But a little bit of forgiveness, understanding, and grace can smooth away many difficulties, and clear the way for us to identify and deal with the true problems like actual grown-ups.

3. Teacher vs. Any New Way of Doing Things

Yes, your job will change every year. The curriculum will change, the standards will change, the students will change, the procedure will change. Yes, it might change back to the way it was ten years ago. Yes, some changes will be unsuccessful, and we will abandon them shortly. That doesn't mean that it was never worth trying. Someone somewhere was trying to do something good, and they misjudged or messed up or things just changed. Let us forgive them. And when some changes seem to be legitimately damaging, let us oppose them on the principles upon which they stand, rather than our resentment over having to do the work.

Instead of rolling your eyes, maybe be grateful that you work in a field that is dynamic rather than static, that stretches you rather than lets you become lazy and stagnant.

4. Teacher vs. Your Actual Job

Did you become a teacher because you expected every day to be rewarding? Did you underestimate the number of hours you would put in, or overestimate how grateful your students would be? Did you become a teacher because you excelled as a student, but you now realize that you are a terrible manager of people? Do you resent the students who require you to work harder than really ought to be necessary?

I think some teachers might be confused about the job that that they think that they have compared to the job that they actually have.

This is your job: Convey mandated information to up to one hundred and seventy students on a daily basis. Corollary responsibilities include managing the classroom environment, creating and organizing curriculum, disciplining disruptive students, motivating unmotivated students, identifying and working with struggling students, soothing worried parents, and praising successes.

If you frequently find yourself angry or resentful about performing any of the above responsibilities, then maybe you need to ask yourself if the job you think you have is different from the job that you actually have, and adjust accordingly.

Of course, sometimes it is not us. 

Sometimes, it is not we as teachers who are carrying toxic attitudes, but our schools themselves that are toxic. Sometimes, we really are put in competition against our colleagues. Sometimes our students really are intentionally sabotaging what we are doing. Sometimes we really are required to work far more than any one person should be asked to work. If that is the case, we all have a choice: accept it, see if we can change it, or leave.

Nobody is forcing you to do anything. You always have a choice. Whatever choice you make, accept what it is and be happy with it.


The Classroom as a Stage

I am a HUGE Stephen Colbert fan. I loved the sharp satire on The Colbert Report, and laughed with him at his hyper-conservative, self-obsessed alter ego. 

It has been intriguing to see his stage persona develop on The Late Show the last few weeks. No longer bound to the political spectrum, he seems more relaxed, goofier. Of course some other aspects remain: his flair for the grandiose and his quick intelligence. 

But even his Late Show stage persona is a creation. A more natural one, certainly. But I doubt that he regularly hosts national figures at his home for idle chat about their latest movies, or that he performs a monologue for his wife at breakfast. 

One transition that I struggled with as a new teacher was to accept that as the teacher, I am not really myself. I am a version of myself, yes. I am not a hyperbolic character on Comedy Central. But I do become the host of a variety show (albeit a less entertaining one than Colbert's) every time I step into my classroom. 

Like a show host, I exaggerate some aspects of my personality, and downplay others. I exaggerate my niceness, and downplay my skepticism. I act more outgoing than I really am. I dress more conservatively. 

I do things that I might not normally do in another environment. Things like:
--tell other people what to do
--interrupt people or refuse them a turn to speak
--demand that others pay attention to me
--make people put their phones away
--intentionally make a scene in order to make a point about appropriate/inapproptiate behavior 
--be excited about school events

And I avoid doing other things that I would readily do otherwise, like:
--talk about my personal beliefs
--have extended one-on-one conversations 
--wear leggings

In a way, I am creating soundbytes for my students to share. In managing my image I am managing my message. Do I want them to tell their parents X? Or do I want them to tweet Y? If this were to be snapchatted, would I like what I saw? I constantly repeat the things I want noticed, and I avoid drawing attention to things I want unreported, even if I myself have a different view of the situation. 

I think this is challenging, and maybe particularly so for me, since I am a naturally quiet and non-demanding person. A more outgoing, society-conscious person likely already has many of these skills, whereas I am still developing them through careful observation and sometimes painful trial and error. I suppose this is why some people seem more "natural" at teaching than others. 

But I think it is encouraging that the showmanship of teaching can be learned, no matter who you are and what you are naturally like. And though you may have to exaggerate some parts of yourself and downplay others, you can find a way to present yourself that is comfortable for you; there is no "right personality" for a teacher. 

Best of all, unlike Stephen Colbert, we don't lose our jobs if we aren't as funny as the other guy. Thank goodness, because my John Kerry jokes are waaay underappreciated by my audience.

Un poema sobre la soledad

Un poema sobre la soledad:


A Christian's Guide to Loneliness

1. You are infinitely precious to God. 

“...that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us,” Ephesians 3:16-20 ESV

"All Christians are meant to grasp it, not to understand an abstract concept but to perceive that they themselves are loved by a love that has no measure. I get the feeling that Paul, as he reduces his thoughts to language, has to struggle to contain powerfully explosive concepts in such fragile vessels as words." John White, "Daring to Draw Near", p. 141

2. What you want is not too much, but too little.

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory

3. Time is not running out.

"We Christians are visually handicapped. Our perspective is distorted. Bombarded from all sides with false values, living perpetually among people whose goals are material prosperity, security, pleasure, prestige, it is inevitable that we absorb the atmosphere around us until heaven seems remote while the here and now looms large in our thinking." John White, Daring to Draw Near, p. 133.

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” 2 Corinthians 4:17 ESV


What is Communicative Language Teaching?

Next Tuesday, the first day of school, I will terrify my students by speaking exclusively in Spanish for an entire ten minutes at the start of each class. Then, to make it even worse, I will start asking them questions in Spanish! And they will have to respond in Spanish! There will be red faces, nervous giggles, and atrocious pronunciation, and it will probably be one of my favorite moments of the school year.

Don't worry, it isn't going to be that difficult. I will speak slowly and clearly, and I will model for them what everything means, and how to respond. I will repeat the same thing about twenty times so the sound of it sticks and they will leave my classroom turning the words over in their minds. 

My teaching practice is based on a philosophy called "communicative language teaching". Sometimes it might be called "teaching for proficiency". That means that I want my students to be able to read, write, listen and speak in Spanish, and I give them plenty of opportunities to practice each of these skills. 

It probably doesn't sound particularly revolutionary, but it should. Have you ever heard someone say something like, "I took French for six years and I still can't speak a word!"? One reason is that the way in which language was taught for many decades was grammar based: if you learn this grammar and how to conjugate these verbs, then you will be able to use them when you need to communicate. This is called the grammar-translation method, and it works great if your mind is a computer, you have a decade or so to practice, and if you mostly want to read in the language. But obviously, we want to set our sights higher: four years of language classes need to have some kind of practical outcome if we high school language teachers want to keep our jobs. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, people began to realize that the grammar translation method wasn't working so great and started emphasizing the ability to communicate over the need to get every verb exactly right. New styles of activities were developed, including "unscripted" partner dialogues, information gap activities (in which students must ask questions in order to obtain unknown information), interviews, question and response drills, and role playing. There is also an emphasis on helping learners understand the process of language learning, to help them feel comfortable with taking risks, and how to decipher and convey meaning even if you don't know all the words. 

This turnover process has been slow, and while most teachers today incorporate some communicative learning activities in their classes, a significant number continue to emphasize grammar mastery. Why would they do this? 
--Well, to begin, many language teachers were themselves taught and thrived within the context of the grammar-translation method, and it is hard to let go of something that served them so well.
--Additionally, it is more demanding on the teacher to set the model for language in the classroom. Many communicative theorists suggest that the teacher should be teaching 90% of the time in the language, and only 10% or less in the students' native language. 
--Communicative activities are more interactive and therefore more chaotic than grammar drills. Classrooms are noisier and less controlled.
--Communicative activities are more difficult and more time-consuming to grade than grammar worksheets. Did student A, who spoke one sentence perfectly, perform better or worse than student B, who spoke a paragraph that conveyed more information, but was littered with minor grammatical errors? 
--Students are occasionally resistant to communicative methods, because it can be uncomfortable to take language risks in front of their peers, and it demands a greater effort (worksheets are easier to blow off).
--It can be a challenge to balance giving enough grammar background to help students understand, but not making it the foundation of what you are doing.

In my district and in my county, we are working on turning over our curriculum to something more communicative based. It is undoubtedly a messy process. After all, we are language teachers and not curriculum publishers. But maybe publishers will get the hint and start creating resources that are more streamlined and consistently communicative-based, rather than the mix-and-match of resources that I have struggled through these last three years. 

I think many people are puzzled about the state of our schools today. Why are they doing so poorly? Obviously there are many complex reasons, but one of them is certainly this: we are still using methods from the 1950s!! Honestly, this is a bit of a joke. We have been moving in this direction for more than half of a century, but based on the stubborn loyalty of educators, textbook publishers, and test administrators to their grammar drills, you would think a kindergartner dreamed this up only last year. LET'S GET IT TOGETHER PEOPLE.


How do you identify an effective teacher? Five Misconceptions

What makes an effective teacher? I have found that many people seem to paint a picture of an effective teacher based on their experiences as a student, and often as students a long time ago. When I became a teacher, I realized the world looks a whole lot different from the front of the classroom, and that my definition of what marked a teacher as effective or not changed dramatically, not only because I am more sympathetic but because I understand the job better. So what are some of these misconceptions I have held or heard, and how has my thinking changed?

1. Teachers are ineffective because they are not "passionate" about what they do

What is "passion" anyway? Every educator I know believes that education can make a difference and thinks that their content is interesting and worth students' time. When I hear a person complain about an educator isn't "passionate", I can't help but wonder, how many years did that teacher work without administrative support? How many years were their resources cut? How many hours did they work for no pay, only to have everything changed on them with no warning? Yes, teachers can become burnt out and worn down. Sometimes people have a high ideal of what teaching is like, and they become jaded when it is grittier than they expected. And also true, a healthy teacher probably should care about what they do. But saying a teacher is ineffective because they lack "passion" is like saying that your knee is bleeding because you need a bandage. No, your knee is bleeding because it is hurt. A bandage will help it heal, but lack of one is not what caused the problem in the first place.

2. Popularity is a good indicator of teacher effectiveness.

Popularity could be the result of all sorts of things: charisma, attractiveness, easy tests, being the football coach. Not all popular teachers are effective ones, and not all unpopular teachers are ineffective. And not every teacher is going to be the favorite, and that is okay. There can only be one favorite, after all, you can't have a whole school of them. But you CAN have a whole school of teachers who prepare and deliver clear and effective lessons. Will some be more boring and others more funny? Sure. But that doesn't mean that either one is doing a bad job. 

3. An effective teacher is like "X"

I think that there is a certain personality that people believe makes the best kind of teacher: outgoing, warm, enthusiastic, inspirational. But teachers are people (you know this, I don't need to tell you), not characters in a film script. We are sometimes introverted, acerbic, hands-off and skeptical, and that is okay too. Kids benefit when they have all kinds of people to look up to, it shows them that it is okay if you don't fit the mold. 

4. People who have worked in their field outside of teaching make the most relevant teachers. 

People who have have had careers outside of education can absolutely be great teachers. However, many people who have been successful outside of education can also be terrible teachers. Teaching is a distinct skill that you have to develop. Knowledge and experience in content does not transfer to a classroom without a lot of hard work. So maybe a person has real world experience and that enhances their teaching, but they are great teachers because they developed the skill of teaching

5. Some people are "naturally" effective teachers

I don't think anyone is "naturally" good at anything worth doing. Some people may have a few raw inclinations that make a few steps a little easier or that keep them motivated longer, but becoming a successful teacher (like most professions) takes A LOT of training, hard work, reflection, disappointment, and dedication. I am not "naturally" good at my job, I work really really hard for it. 

So what does make an effective teacher? The question of the decade. Everyone is trying out different formulas for teacher evaluations, some are better than others, but none are perfect. But generally, these are the factors that indicate effectiveness: reasonably organized curricula, measurable student learning, a classroom that supports learning, engaged students, informed parents, and a content teacher. The good news? Any teacher can do a good job (even if they aren't popular). The bad news? It's a lot of hard, hard (and often thankless) work.