December 13, 2006

Baby Teachers?

I firmly believe that future of teaching is bright. It is bright because there is an entire generation of baby teachers at the universities who can’t wait to leap into teaching and make a difference in the lives of students. These people are optimistic, excited, enthusiastic, and passionate about the classroom and the learning experience for both students and teachers.

More than a month has passed since I completed my first university level teaching experience. As I think back on the baby teachers I taught I am encouraged by their enthusiasm for the classroom. These folks really want to be teachers! That’s saying a lot when you look at all the hoops these individuals have to jump through in order to one day land in their classroom. I have to admit, if I was starting my teaching odyssey today, I doubt that I would have completed the journey. Between the heavy load of course work, the testing, and the volunteer student teaching, I’m afraid that I would get discouraged, change my mind, and move on to something else. Luckily there are many willing souls out there who are undaunted by the challenge, and ready to jump into the world of education with both feet.

I have been helping some of my university students (I keep referring to them as “kids” like I do my high school students, but baby teachers is more appropriate) apply for internships and teaching positions by writing them letters of recommendation. Crafting a decent letter for a student is time consuming, but well worth the effort. In California, teacher candidates can bypass the “teach-for-free” student teaching process by getting hired as an intern. It’s a scary proposition. Baby teachers are placed into a classroom with a regular schedule and regular students, but without a master teacher. It's kinda like learning to swim by being thrown into a pool of sharks. Seriously. If you see an “intern” move into the classroom next door to you, walk on over and lend them a hand; they desperately need your help.

One of the letters I wrote was for a woman who wants to become and art teacher. Well, she already is an unbelievably great art teacher, she just hasn’t been hired as one yet. Her presentations in class were thoughtful, thorough, engaging, and genuinely interesting. Her students are going to love her and will produce fantastic works of art in her classes, I am convinced. The other student I wrote a letter for thanked me by cooking my family a turkey meatloaf. Who says teachers don’t get perks? She is currently a home hospital teacher working with injured or ill students who cannot make it to school. She too is already a wonderful teacher who will excel when she lands in her own classroom assignment.

I have also run into a few baby teachers on campus, and around town. I had breakfast the other morning with one who is a coach on my high school campus while he also substitute teaches to support his family and pay for his graduate courses. This man is pure, honest, and inspirational. Every time we talk about teaching I can see the fire burning so brightly in his eyes that sometimes I have to look away. I look away because I have seen this light before, and I’ve seen it extinguished after a short period of time working with reluctant students who can sometimes snuff out even the brightest infernos. There are few things more pathetic than a teacher who has lost his or her passion for the classroom. We should have some type of rehabilitation program for these sad people. But I honestly don’t suspect that this baby teacher will come to that type of unfortunate end. His passion is infectious and his students will feed on it daily, while their great accomplishments in the classroom will encourage this man to keep on fighting the good fight.

Another not-so-baby teacher that I met and taught has been teaching nearly as long as I have. Unfortunately, he is only now getting around to completing his course work, and his credential. I learned a huge amount from this man who specialized in teaching alternative education students. When he spoke of his classroom experiences, we all listened attentively as the master shared his nuggets of wisdom. I felt like there was very little I could teach my peer during those class meetings. And yet he seemed to have taken something positive away from the time we spent together. After the course finished we agreed that if we taught on the campus we would become good and long-time friends. That may yet happen; who knows?

Last week, two students from the university (but not students I taught) who are finishing their student teaching at my high school asked me to help them assemble a DVD of them teaching one of their lesson plans to a classroom of students. I was given the privilege of watching two newcomers practice their craft. They were both dynamic, engaging, entertaining, and most importantly, were clearly having fun in front of the class and working individually with their students. I’m hoping to get asked back to teach again at the university. If I do, one of the jobs I’d like to try is working more closely with baby teachers while they student teach. The student teaching experience is so critical to the first-year success, I’d like to help guide and counsel those working through their “dress rehearsal.”

If you are a veteran teacher and you’re feeling tired and stale, then I encourage you to spend some time with a baby teacher or two. Trust me when I tell you that they are starving for your experience and wisdom. Many of the daily routines, methods, and tricks that you use everyday are completely foreign, and completely needed by our younger troops. So go share. Get inspired by their enthusiasm, and rekindle the passion you held when you too were a baby teacher.

November 20, 2006

It's what they learn?

As I now reflect back on my first university level teaching experience I begin to realize that its not what we teach that is important, moreover its what the students learn. What I mean is that as teachers we can plan the best lessons, the coolest examples, and the most innovative activities, but in the end, all our manufactured efforts may have no impact at all on our students. I’ve decided that the most important gift we can give, and as teachers, the most important lesson we can teach, is to share our enthusiasm for learning, and our passion for our subject matter.

Now, this may chill some of you right to the bone because you may be thinking, “wait a minute, I don’t have any passion for my subject matter. The best enthusiasm I can muster on a daily basis is to actually get to work on time.” Fair enough. But there is more to teaching then designing the world’s greatest lesson plan, or the most thorough and exact to-the-standards assessments. Teaching is about sharing the joy of learning, and the thrill of addition, spelling, and decoding.

Something special happens in my classroom(s). I still can’t quite put my finger on it exactly. Most kids who call me “teacher” and now most adults who call me “professor” and perhaps even some of you readers whom I’ve never met are changed by the time we spend together. My hope is that you would be encouraged to continue on in the pursuits that make your life a wonderful experience.

To me, teaching is not about the stuff of the classroom, it’s about the changes that individuals make as they discover who they are and realize what they are capable of accomplishing. In effect, its not about what I try to teach, but about what they learn from me whether I am trying to teach that or not.

Over and over I have returning students tell me about what they learned from me in my class that had nothing to do with the curriculum, and that I had no intention of teaching. How do you control that? You can’t. Our students pick up right away on who we are and why we are there. They can spot a phony in a minute and when they do, they tune-out and often drop out. Are you losing your students? Or are you fighting to hold onto them on a daily, hourly, moment-to-moment basis. If you can tell that your students are not paying attention, not engaging in the lesson, not learning from you, then the place to start looking for answers is not the students, but YOU!

Now that I’ve spent some time working with baby teachers I understand that almost everyone who is drawn to teaching does so out of a genuine desire and need to help others. This is a good thing. But not all teachers come equipped with the dynamic personality, or the broader understanding of what it takes to really capture the interest of the students, and then hold them there for 55 minutes while you pour knowledge into their brains.

Some of the students I taught were naturals. They no more needed me to teach them how to teach then they needed their parents to teach them how to breathe. The just did it, and they did it with ease, grace, and precision. Other students were not so well prepared. Not that they couldn’t be, they just needed some help.

I tried to cover all of the material that the university asked me to share with the students, I gave the required assignments, and I showed up ready to fill each and every session with important and worthwhile experiences for these growing instructors. Did my efforts help those who needed this type of guidance? I’m not sure; time will tell.

I believe that I made the most progress with those who really needed my attention through private conversations that occurred before, after, and during session breaks. It was at these times that I could be approached privately. Students came to me with their questions and concerns and I tried to pass on my sagely wisdom. I answered as honestly as I could and when I didn’t know the answer I said so. Even though I tried to teach the syllabus, the students drew from me what they needed to learn.

I believe it is not the subject matter but the person, the teacher, in the classroom that lights up a student of any age’s imagination. Being genuine with students is important. Being honest about who you are and what you care about shows students that they can trust you and that are worth listening to. Once their hooked, you can teach them any subject matter you want. And while you’re teaching the reading, writing, and arithmetic, maybe you can throw in a story or two about that starts, “When I was you age…”

Storytelling is one of the most basic methods of teaching (and one of the most fun). As we share our life’s experiences we cannot control exactly what the students learn from us because we have no control over what they need from us. However, we can use our experiences to engage our students and control their focus. Once we have their attention, the most important thing we can share with our students is our passion for learning. Once they have that, everything else is easy.

I still haven’t figured out the chemistry of the snake oil that makes everyday in my classroom a special event. But I’m getting closer. True, not all of my students share my enthusiasm for life and learning yet, but the year is still very young.

I wrote these words tonight in a end-of-class email to my university students, now I’ll share them with you: Remember, what you teach your students in your classrooms matters to your students and the world in ways both measurable and immeasurable. Go be the great teachers you are.

October 22, 2006

Main Attraction?

Recently, while talking after class with two of my new teacher grad students, it dawned on me that in education the delivery of content should be the sideshow; the building of people should be the main attraction. But it doesn’t appear that way. Right now all of the attention is focused sharply on test scores. Schools live and breath by standardized test results. It’s warped. Of course accountability is critically important, and the accountability of the education system that trains today’s youth and tomorrow’s leaders should be taken very seriously. But the current pendulum swing emphasizes training outstanding test takers over creating exceptional people. We need to remember that it is the students who are the reason we are teaching, not the test scores. Sadly, today the "education of exceptional people" is bumped over to the side-stage, falling in the shadow of the headliner, "achieve higher test scores."

Any teacher can tell you that the external pressure to “teach to the test” is greater than ever. I don’t have a problem with the “teach to the test” approach in general, but if “teaching to the test” means that all the lessons in the classroom must be focused on test taking, there is a problem. When you add up the amount of time consumed by the number of standards in any curriculum framework, the rigor of the scope and sequence guidelines, and the schedule of frequent common formative assessments, there isn’t much time for anything that is not going to be assessed on the tests in the spring.

It’s happening at every grade level. A friend and colleague of mine has a student in kindergarten. His son’s kindergarten class is devoid of play-dough, musical chants, and letter or number dances. They have been replaced by carpet-time drills, severe discipline, and homework. Yes, homework for kindergarten. Kids are learning right away that school is serious business, and rarely any fun. The amazing thing is that kindergarteners don’t take the tests that count for overall school accountability. Well, we have to start somewhere.

My children attend the same school district. We recently received a letter explaining that my son and daughter’s school did not achieve an adequate overall score in math, so changes are being made. Actually, it was only the low SES (socio-economic status) subgroup that did not hit the benchmark. However, all students are now receiving more instruction in math that has materialized in even more math worksheet homework for my kids. Both of my own children achieved proficient or advanced scores in math on last years test, but they are still receiving the extra math homework. Many of the kids from the low SES subgroup who failed to reach the mark in math also failed to attend school regularly last year. Even with a free bus pass for 95% attendance as an incentive, many of these students did not or were not able to attend school a sufficient number of days for the teacher to prepare them adequately for the spring tests. So the whole school pays the price.

Speaking of paying the price, I was thinking that the answer to the problem must be a fine for the parents whose students do not attend school either because the parents don’t send them or they children decide to be truant. However, I asked one of our security guards about this and he told me that there is already a $100 fine for students caught truant. He also told me that he didn’t feel that it was fair to the parents to fine them when the problem at the high school level was really with the students, and that $100 was a real hardship for many of the parents involved.

Education should be valued. It should be the most important thing in a child’s life outside of their family. But I’m afraid that education is not valued in our society today, and that many children and parents don’t take it seriously. It seems like getting educated is less important then “gettin’ payd!” Forgetting of course that at least up to high school one with a diploma is likely to get paid more, then one without the paper. Why don’t people take education more seriously? Could it be because public education is free? Generally speaking, people tend to value less that which cost them less, or nothing. Furthermore, if the general public starts to realize that the best public education can do for their children right now is to make them outstanding test takers, then I’m afraid that the devaluation of education will continue.

But teachers know better; at least we hope for the better. We know that regardless of where the pendulum currently swings, that our roles in the lives of our students are far more valuable then simply those of a test proctor. We know that when these young minds sit in our desks and listen to our voices that the messages behind what we say is far more important then just how to bubble in A, B, C, or D. We recognize that while we may have to “teach to the test” that there are hundreds of “teachable moments” that occur so that we can continue to include the sharing of our own life’s lessons, the fruit of our wisdom, and the passion of our hearts. Our enthusiasm for life and our insatiable appetite for learning will continue to be infectious and our students will continue to cling to those moments as they hinge on our every word and the true classroom learning occurs.

Like the sideshow at the circus that includes the amazing magicians, the incredible contortionist, or even the bearded lady, we lure our students into the classroom with promises of great feats in algebra, biology, and economics. Then we keep them glued to their seats with our parade of lions, elephants, and standards. On the way to the Grand Spring Testing Finale, we teach them how to be better humans, and prosper in the big top of life.

September 09, 2006

Be Positive?

On the first day I give my high school students four rules: Be polite, Invest in yourself, Be positive, and Obey the rules. This year I really emphasized “Be positive.” I explained that to have and maintain a positive attitude was a choice. That the world was an ugly, dirty place and that we as individuals can either choose to be negative, or be positive. I gave the example of my parents. My father died in 1999 of colon cancer. Once diagnosed, he only lasted 10 more weeks. My father was a fighter, but his attitude about his illness was very negative (naturally) and that hurt his chances of survival. My mother was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (blood plasma cancer) just over a year later. She was given 18 months to live. My Mom immediately made a purposeful choice to be as positive about the time she had left and her treatment as possible. Today she is still living strong and leading a very healthy and vigorous life. It’s a choice.

But then something happened that challenged my positive attitude. Actually, its been happening ever since last school year. While my multimedia students were enthusiastic and ready to get to work, I soon discovered that not all of them qualified for the course. In fact, fully one-third of the students enrolled did not take the prerequisite course (taught by another teacher). That’s a problem. The multimedia courses are sequential. Allowing a student to stay enrolled in a second year course without completing the first year course work is setting that student up for failure. The immediate source of the problem lies in the counseling department. Over the years I’ve made every adjustment that I have been asked to make by the counselors to make their task as simple as possible, including changing the name and duration of the courses. However, the problems remain. Add to this the fact that for the first time in seven years, I don’t have a full schedule of multimedia courses, and you can see why I started to feel negative.

The larger issue here is the broad and systemic threat to electives. With the current pendulum swing in education placing more and more emphasis on test scores, schools all over the country are scrambling around trying to figure out how to make sure that no child gets left behind, and that their campuses achieve an acceptable API and AYP. Many administrators have elected to place failing students in remedial classes (only we don’t call them remedial, we call them “review” or “support”.) In order to make room in the schedule of an underperforming student something has to go. The most logical class to reschedule? The elective. So instead of woodshop, or drama, or multimedia, students who are already disengaging from school find themselves in two or more periods a day of a subject they probably dislike or do not enjoy. The idea is that by devoting the extra time to the students’ weaker core subject areas, the students will improve. And in many cases, the individual student’s score do rise. The end result is that the high school has created a more accomplished standardized test taker, and the API and AYP ratings improve. Mission accomplished.

But hold on a second. What about the electives? Aren’t they important to the students’ education too? Why are the subjects that regularly challenge the students to think critically and analytically calling on the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy the ones to get the axe? And this isn’t the first time. Electives in general and the visual and performing arts specifically are often the first disciplines to go along with Music and P.E. (By the way, are you familiar with the money coming for Arts, Music and P.E.? Finally!) But of course it’s not about the money; it is about educating children. Sometimes I wonder if we are trading the education of students for the training of students? I’m afraid that this “teach to the test” philosophy of education is having a stronger and stronger punch every year, and is now threatening our professional futures.

Elective courses challenge students to synthesize and utilize everything they absorb through their core course work. Electives teach students skills they can use in the world to succeed and compete right now. Even more importantly, electives give many students a reason to come to school. In the current environment, if a student loves woodshop but is struggling in English, he or she loses the class they are passionate about to double down in their weakest area. I have to be honest here and interject that if that had happened to me in high school, if I had been denied my drama class to take an additional English class, I would not be writing this now. Ironic, isn’t it? But that’s the reality for a huge population of students.

The other amazing realization I had during the first week of school was the impact of advanced placement (A.P.) courses on electives. At my high school, A.P. courses are only offered during periods 1-4, and some only once a day. I lost two of my advanced students to A.P. courses that were scheduled in conflict with my advanced multimedia course. My advanced course is technically A.P. since the students are eligible for transfer credit at our local junior college. But it is not recognized by the University of California as A.P. and the grades are not weighed. I’m not sure if this is true, but I heard that a student can only transfer three A.P. courses. One of the reasons the higher kids take so many A.P. courses is to boost their G.P.A. above 4.0. making them a more attractive college applicant.

Electives are losing both the high kids and the low kids. It’s a fight. But like Rocky Balboa, I am committed to staying positive. Even though I may lose a few rounds, I will keep fighting on and make a comeback in the sequel.

September 04, 2006

Post 51?

After a long summer off I now return to one new school year, two new teaching opportunities, and the 51st blog post. What do I write about now? Do I reflect on my fantastic summer? Do I try to articulate the pre-first day angst I feel every year? Do I complain about the wasted back-to-school in-service time I spent sitting in a chair and trying to stay attentive to our administrators as the ushered in the year? I don’t think so.

Two very significant educational career developments (three if you count my new 20” iMac that I’m writing on at the moment) occurred over the summer. First, I was hired to teach in the teacher credential program at our local university. During the interview process I had to make a presentation. It bombed. I then sat down for a one-on-one interview. I brought a few selected blog entries and a host of other materials with me. Something convinced the Dean that I was an appropriate choice to work with new teachers, and a few days later I received an email that asked me to teach a course called Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools. This is a dream come true for me. I’ve known for some time that I wanted to work with young teachers to help guide their path into the classroom. It’s why I started writing this blog. This October I get my chance.

In August I audited the course while another instructor was teaching it. The instructor was a former colleague of mine from the high school I currently teach in. She has done a wonderful and gracious job helping me prepare. Even better, she’ll be teaching a different group of students during the same time period I will be teaching this fall. What luck! I’ve reviewed the texts and I am currently putting my lesson plans together. It’s fun to go back to the basics and mix in my experience and observations. I hope that the students are encouraged by my teaching, and go on to great success in their own educational careers.

The other development is a new high school course I will be teaching. Well, its not a new course, and I’m not new to it; but it’s been 10 years since I last taught Drama. In addition to my regular multimedia courses, and this year I will teach a section of Theatre Arts CP. I’m looking forward to going back to my roots and sharing with a whole new generation of students. Walking into the theatre last week for the first time in a very long time was amazing. Just the smell made me melancholy.

I suppose that my blog entries this year will be colored by these two new challenges. I intend to include blogging as one of the requirements for students in the college course. You may see links to their work from this site in the future. I’m looking forward to a great and challenging school year!

June 09, 2006

Go the Distance!

One thing I've always wanted to do was to give the charge to the class at graduation. If I was asked to speak, I think this is what I'd say.

Congratulations to the class of 2006! You've successfully survived 12 long years of education. For some of you, this has been a wonderfully happy time of discovery and growth. For others, this has been a challenging time of adversity and change. For all of you sitting here tonight, I hope your school experience has been a worthwhile introduction into the great unknown we adults like to call, "life." On behalf of my fellow educators, let me say thank you for the opportunities to be your teachers, administrators, coaches, confidants, motivators, disciplinarians, and most importantly, friends.

We’ve all seen the famous Kevin Costner film of the W.P. Kinsella story where the voice from above tells the corn farmer to “go the distance.” Understandably the corn farmer is perplexed. He is forced to make some decisions. First, he has to define what the “distance” is. Next, he needs to take a first step in a direction that will lead him towards the “distance.” Finally, he has to commit to “go” this “distance” no matter how difficult or frustrating the journey may become.

Like the corn farmer, you are being commanded to “go the distance.” Now it’s your turn to make some decisions. What will your personal “distance” be, and in what direction will you go? Will you take the first step? And will you follow through and “go” all the way to your destination?

Tomorrow, (or the maybe the next day), when you wake up after having graduated high school you’ll step out into a brand new opportunity to live your life and exercise your most recent, and most important achievement so far in your life: high school graduation. What does it mean to be a high school graduate? Well, it means that, to this point, you’ve gone the distance!


But the distance doesn’t stop with the end of high school. In fact, it’s only the beginning. From this night on and for the rest of your life each one of you will define your “distance” in your own unique and personal way. For some, the “distance” will be attending and graduating college. For others, the “distance” will include going to work and exploring a career. At some point your “distance” might include marriage, and parenting a child, or many children.

The best survival tool I know is holding on to a good attitude. It all comes down to attitude. In your life you can’t change most of the things that affect you. You can’t change your parents. You can’t change where you grow up. You can’t change your grades (not now anyway). What you can change is your attitude. Attitude is one of the few things you can control in life.

Of course, some of you have learned the value of a positive attitude. We all know that nobody likes the high school bell schedule and how it controls us hour-to-hour, day-to-day. It’s frustrating at best. As a student, you can either fight against the bell schedule, and consistently show up late for class, or follow the bell schedule and avoid the terrors of detention, or the dangers of ditching. You don’t have to like the bell schedule, but if you keep a positive attitude about the benefits of six consistent periods of study a day, you’ll have a better high school experience… maybe.

By the way, I don’t know if you know this or not, but you will never again have to follow the high school bell schedule.


Unless of course you end up like one of the many alumni that return to here to become teachers.

Some of these people will tell you, “its not the destination but the journey that’s important.” I’d like to suggest that both are vitally important to your life. You may be afraid to take a first step out into the world. That’s totally normal. Here’s a tip: it’s always easier to take a step after you’ve chosen a direction. Life is full of choices, including making no choice at all. If you want to be successful, if you want to “go the distance,” you must make the choice to do so. The next choice must be a direction.

Does that direction matter? Not really. It could be college, or military service, or going to work. But you must make a decision, and take a step in the direction that will take you the distance to your goal. Along the way you may change course, many, many times, and that’s OK. I tell my students, you must first make up your mind before you can change your mind. No matter what you decide, you’ll need a way of surviving the path you take to reach your distance.

In order for the corn farmer to “go the distance” when the voice spoke to him he needed first to take a first step. That’s a scary proposal! Take a step to move forward without any idea of which direction to go. Sound familiar? Don’t worry, stepping forward into the unknown is a common experience we all share. Look at the people on this stage. Each and every one of them has been where you are now. Some of them even sat where you are sitting at their own graduation. Of course, that was back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.


But each and every one of these people took a first step into the unknown so that they too could “go the distance,” a distance that has brought them to where they are today: right back here at graduation.

Where did these scholars get the courage to take a first step? The answer is as unique as each individual. For me, it was my faith that gave me courage to continue. My belief that life was about more than just a bell schedule, or a diploma, or about doing what I thought my parents wanted me to do. I now take comfort in knowing that I am part of something bigger than myself, and that no matter how badly I may slip up, that there is Grace to save me. You too will find the courage to take the steps necessary to go your distance.

You may be asking, “How far is the distance I will travel?” And, “When will I arrive?” I don’t have those answers for you. No one does. The corn farmer thought he had realized his “dream” when the ball players magically appeared to play baseball on his field in the middle of his corn farm. But that wasn’t the end. There was still a distance to travel. Ultimately the corn farmer would join a youthful representation of his father in a game of catch. That’s where the movie ended, but the story, and the corn farmer’s journey, continued on.

The corn farmer stumbled upon his life’s purpose while he traveled his journey to “go the distance.” You too were created for a purpose. Tonight you fulfill part of that purpose by graduating high school. Some of you have already realized the purpose for your life, others are still searching, wondering, dreaming about what your may one day achieve.

Recently on television Taylor Hicks was voted the 2006 American Idol. What I appreciate most about Taylor Hicks is the reckless abandon that he brings to singing and performance. No one (especially Simon Cowell) would have guessed that a gray-haired white Ray Charles fan would be the next idol, but every time Taylor performed on stage he did so with such genuine joy and enthusiasm that he became contagious. Taylor has realized his life’s purpose and is celebrating his victory. I want to encourage you tonight to continue to seek out and ultimately realize your life’s purpose, and celebrate your own victory just like Taylor Hicks.

Once you’ve realized your life’s purpose you may think that you have arrived at your destination. But much like tonight, or the corn farmer playing catch with his Dad, it will simply be another lesson on your journey as you continue to “go the distance.” The collection of lessons you will learn on your journey will be like discovering gold nuggets that you will invest in your future. You won’t always know how you’ll use these lessons, but as you continue to “go the distance,” be prepared to use them all.

I can tell you with complete certainty that every moment of my life, every lesson that I have learned, every experience that I have had has prepared me for this moment, right here, right now.

But this moment does not belong to me; it belongs to you, the class of 2006. Make no mistake about it, all the experiences in your life have prepared you for what you will do here tonight in this place. Regardless of how you started out, tonight you prove that you can indeed “go the distance.” Well done Class of 2006.

June 02, 2006

Teachers Matter?

What is the heart of a teacher? What are the elements that constitute a teacher? What is the essence of teaching? What does it mean to teach? In the last few months I’ve written just about everything I can think of (so far) on these topics. I’ve used “Teachers Matter” as a subtitle for this blog because I truly believe that teachers not only matter but they are also crucial to our society and our future. If you are embarking on a teaching career then read this carefully.

If you choose to become a teacher my first suggestion is to read this and as many other teachers’ blogs as you can find. Why? Because this blog format that is taking over the Internet gives a voice to anyone willing to sit down and take the time to write. Are all blogs worth reading? No. You need to pick and choose. However, within the lines of a teacher's blog is the reality of teaching, and what teaching is really all about: working from your heart and soul and giving up your self to improve others. Teaching is about service, just like medicine, law enforcement, fire fighting, and other jobs that require those who choose them to sacrifice their time and energy to help others survive life.

My second suggestion is to start substitute teaching right now, before you pay any money into a teacher credential program. Credentialing programs are necessary and useful, but a collection of university courses cannot give you the same experience as you will get standing in front of a classroom full of up to 35 students who do not know who you are, or why they should care. Learning how to use your lasso to rope and tie that steer and bring it down to a level that you can manage for a day must be learned first hand, not simply discussed in theory.

When you student teach (assuming you can afford to work for free) pay close attention to your master teacher. True, there are some rodeo clowns out there, but the odds are in favor of you being placed with an individual who “knows the ropes.” I would not suggest soloing right away, but waiting until you have a very clear understanding of how your master teacher conducts business in his or her classroom; and make sure that you chose a lesson that incorporates content you know backwards and forwards. I taught part of Julius Caesar during my student teaching experience. I thought I had Shakespeare down… There’s never anything wrong with saying, “that’s a good question, let me get back to you on that one.”

Once you have your preliminary credential in your back pocket apply for jobs everywhere you might want to teach. Go to every interview, and DO NOT ACCEPT YOUR FIRST JOB OFFER! Unless of course it is your dream job at your dream campus in your dream community. Of course you need to get your foot in the door somewhere, but be very selective about where that somewhere is. Why? Burnout. Working in some districts is like “battle pay.” Many young inexperienced teachers are literally thrown to the wolfs or tossed into a pool of hungry sharks by being given classes they are not prepared to teach. Don’t be a statistic.

Yes, somebody has to work in these districts and teach these kids, but those teachers should only be the ones who are willing, well equipped, and ready for the assignment. That may not be you. I once visited a school in the Los Angeles Unified School District that was in the center of gangland. The teachers there were brilliant. All of them were veterans who had chosen to teach in at this school because they wanted to help these kids. However, I would not want to be a first year teacher in this environment.

If you find yourself drowning from day one, it may not be because you are not a “good teacher.” It may be that you just aren’t ready for that difficult of an assignment yet. Unfortunately, its fairly typical for the “new guy” to get slammed with the worst class assignments. My first year of teaching English at my current school I taught 4 preps! That means out of 5 classes I taught during the day, 4 of the courses were different. I survived, but it wasn’t easy; it wasn’t my first year teaching either.

Sometimes it’s the teacher that is the problem; and sometimes it’s the assignment that is the problem. The best way to survive your first few years in the classroom (until you’re offered tenure) is to befriend a veteran who is teaching like subject matter and willing to share. Our Social Studies department does a fantastic job of helping new teachers along. They have written curriculum that can be quickly learned and easily taught to high school students. New teachers have an advantage in the Social Studies department because they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

But not all new teachers are so lucky. Sometimes you will be faced with a blank white board and no idea of what to write. Good luck. It gets better over time for most of us. Do your best to draw a single prep to teach all day. If you are loaded up with multiple preps, see if a compassionate veteran is willing to trade (yes you can do that.) New teachers should be babied into their departments and given a more manageable class load so that they can work up to the more difficult challenges. But veteran teachers feel that their tenure gives them the right to “have it their way,” so at course assignment time (this time of year) the new guys get to pick up the leftovers.

Some teachers love the end of the school year. I hate it. I hate it because the end of the school year means that I will be saying goodbye to people with whom I have spent, in some cases, every working day of the last three years of my life. I’ve watched them grow, mature, learn, and become amazing young adults, (well, at least older teenagers). Saying goodbye is difficult. Sure, many will come back to check in, but we will no longer be working together, and I always miss that.

My favorite time of the school year is the beginning. Of course, that’s the time most teachers and students dread. While everyone else is moping around, lamenting the loss of summer, I am smiling and happy. I’m weird that way. I love the opening of the school year because it means that I will have up to 210 new people to get to know, to teach, and most importantly, to learn from. Teaching is a blast and a great reason to be optimistic about the future. When I go to bed every night I know that my efforts during the day have been worthwhile because teachers matter.

Please post your comments below.

Administrative Update
Thanks for all your support on the administrative question. However, I've decided to wait a while longer before I take that leap. I am going to pursue teaching at our local University, and focus my attention on working with fellow teachers in their classrooms at my campus.

May 26, 2006

Administrative Awakening?

I recently met with an old friend and former principal who responded to my previous essays on principals and administration with this email note:

Your ideas on administration are right-on. Of course, you would try to do too much, but that's what makes a good educator. You'll never get everything you want, but the goal setting increases the possibility of getting much of it. When you are finally ready to recognize the sacrifice of giving up teaching can mean dividends for other teachers and their students, you'll begin to think about administration. If that day never comes it's perfectly OK. However, the fact you're thinking about these things puts you in danger of acting on them....

He also just happens to be the interim Dean of Education at our local University. I think I'm in real trouble here. So how does it sound, "Cal Administrator Blog"? Not quite as catchy, but maybe...

What really struck me about what he wrote was, "When you are finally ready to recognize the sacrifice of giving up teaching can mean dividends for other teachers and their students, you'll begin to think about administration." Isn't “dividends for other teachers and their students” what I've been writing about? Does taking the next step mean that I have to leave the classroom?

We also spoke about my teaching at the University level. I'd like to be the first face a teacher candidate sees in his or her teacher education program. The one who asks the question, "Are you ready to become a teacher?" And, "Why have you chosen teaching?" Followed up by, "What are your goals in education?" That would scare at least a few of the meek away. I could be like James Naughton in the Paper Chase, "You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a..." teacher.

Am I experiencing an administrative awakening, or something else? Is this simply a "grass is always greener" moment? I don't think so. I must be crazy. Most of the teachers I know and spend time with would never consider a move to administration. Those people are the suits! So why is it nagging at me? Why am I writing about administration? What have the last six months of blog entries really been all about? Is this the natural conclusion?

I am afraid that if I become an administrator that I will spend my days suspending students and attending meetings that have nothing to do with improving the experience students have in the classroom. Well, I guess they might, but not with the direct influence I currently enjoy. My friend described administrators as the “teacher of teachers.” That’s what I want to do, not spend my day on the phone with Johnny’s parents because he’s been a naughty boy, or arguing for more funding because my budget is in the red.

I’ve been investigating credential programs. I haven’t even paid off my Master’s degree yet and here I am considering going further into debt. I’m still paying off my teacher credential loans and that was 12 years ago. I have a few options to consider, but I’ll end up taking the path that gets me to the goal the fastest and with the least amount of time spent away from home. I like online courses (naturally).

The other thing that concerns me about administration is the increased time commitment. Right now I enjoy my afternoons with my baby daughter and being available to attend all of my sons’ baseball games. I’m afraid that I’d have to forfeit some of that personal time to be on campus later, longer, and for more days during the year. The brighter side of that concern is the increased income. The pay scale in my district shows our principal earning 6 figures. That would be nice. But money is not my main motivation, and never has been. If it had, I wouldn’t have chosen education as a career path in the first place.

As far as trying to “do to much,” is concerned, well, I spend a portion of my free time each week writing a blog about teaching that is not widely read or recognized so… I am already trying to “do to much.” Maybe as an administrator my efforts would be put to better and for effective use. Imagine if I required my staff to read my blog entry each week. They’d hate me.

However, I have already considered the first person that I would hire wherever I ended up administrating. She is a substitute teacher here completing her pupil personnel service credential. She was also the Pep Commissioner during her senior year when I was the ASB Advisor. We established an excellent working relationship. She is hard working, dedicated, brilliantly intelligent, and passionate about education. A perfect employee. I wonder how many more like her that I could find to staff my school? Email your resumes to…

Just as I believe that teaching chose me (to the point that that is possible), if I am to become an administrator, the process will be much the same. I had to be convinced to substitute teach, but once I did, I was hooked from the first day. I’ve already performed some quasi-administrative duties at my school. I’ve enjoyed working with my colleagues in leadership positions. I’ve received some positive feedback, and some suggestions for improvement. I’m not yet as excited about administrative leadership as I was about teaching, but that could change.

Often we don’t see ourselves as others see us. I am guiltier of this than most. I am reluctant to change and if it weren’t for my wife, I’m convinced that I would still be stuck somewhere in 1991 (the year that we were married). I rely on the advice and perspective of those around me to help me make the best decisions possible. I’ve been consulting my friends and family seeking their guidance on this decision to make the administrative change. I haven’t made up my mind yet. If you are an administrator, or have ever considering taking the leap, I’d be interested in your observations and experience to help me make this decision.

Please post your comments below.

May 20, 2006

Diplomas Matter?

Earning a high school diploma is a great achievement. It’s one of the challenges that most Americans share and that unite us as a community. From kindergarten to senior year we follow a structured schedule of demanding courses that do more than simply teach us to read, write and add. The diploma at the end of the journey represents a lifetime of accomplishment earned through a rigorous and common course of study and reflects a mature level of preparation for adult life.

There seems to be a philosophical battle between those who recognize the personal and social importance of receiving a high school diploma, and those who understand the intellectual and academic impact of earning a high school diploma. It feels like the personal and social group is winning the war when employers continue to complain about the inadequate job public schools do preparing the work force. It seems like every year we hear about more and more public schools that graduate or promote students into the world without teaching them to read, write and add at the most basic level.

However, California schools today are more focused than ever on rigorous standards and common assessments to make sure that the students do meet at least the most basic levels of proficiency. The current push in California is for all high school students to meet the A-G requirements as determined by the University of California whether or not they plan on attending college. There is additional pressure being applied by California Career Technical Education to teach more vocational education courses that incorporate the standards and better prepare students for the job market. And yet there remains a population of students who either fail to graduate, or instead receive their diplomas without mastering basic skills.

In an effort to ensure the high school diploma maintains its relevance, the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) was recently mandated by the California Department of Education as a requirement for graduation. The CAHSEE is intended to prevent students in California from receiving a high school diploma without first proving that they can indeed read, write and add as assessed on a standardized exit exam.

Last week an Alameda County superior court judge issued an injunction that may remove the requirement for the class of 2006. In an article from the Redlands Daily Facts posted on May 14, 2006, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said, “The preliminary injunction against California's exit exam denies the vast majority of students in the Class of 2006 the opportunity to graduate with diplomas that certify mastery of essential skills in reading and math, and it's bad news for California students who have worked hard to pass the exit exam."

If diplomas don’t, “certify mastery of essential skills in reading and math,” then what do they certify? Is the high school diploma losing its value? Why isn’t the course work completed over 13 years of study adequately preparing some students at even the most basic level? The CAHSEE graduation requirement promotes it to significance almost equal to the catalog of course work required of students to earn their diploma. The effect is huge. Students still have to earn a predetermined number of credits in a variety of subject areas to graduate, but without the CAHSEE, their course work is insufficient to earn them a diploma.

In recent years, California high schools have focused major class time and resources to preparing all students to pass the CAHSEE test. If a student fails the CAHSEE on their first attempt as a sophomore, their elective course choices in some high schools are restricted to review courses designed to help them pass. Students who fail the CAHSEE on subsequent attempts are put at the front of the scholastic line and given even more resources to help them attain the skills needed to pass the test, and ultimately receive a diploma.

O’Connell also stated, "we do no favors to students who have not mastered basic skills by handing them a diploma," he said. "We can better serve those students by helping them to complete their education. I look forward to appealing the case so that, at the end of the legal day, the exit exam will stand as an important measure of accountability in California schools."

How is it possible that students who “have not mastered basic skills” can still receive a diploma? How large are the cracks and how deep are the chasms these students are falling into? So long as social promotion continues to be a normal and acceptable practice, and students continue to move between districts and campuses without a strong support mechanism to ensure an appropriate transfer and placement, kids will continue to fall behind. Add to that the large immigrant population in California pouring students into the system late in their academic careers and it’s not hard to see why some kids struggle to master basic skills despite our best educational efforts.

Accountability in California schools is crucially important. Measuring accountability by a single standardized exit exam that all students must pass in order to receive a diploma may not be as crucial. The problem is the “all” part of the statement. Of course we need a measurement by which “all” students can be assessed. But isn’t that what their course work already measures? How do we design a single test that equally assess a student who was born and raised in California and spent 13 years in the education system the same way it assesses a student who has just moved here from the Philippines and is just learning English?

Diplomas matter. They are a significant and consequential document, not just a simple symbol of mastery of the most basic skills. This year at graduation when we watch our students walk through the gateway of destiny and out into the world armed with their diplomas we should be confident that they are more than adequately prepared for whatever new challenges await them.
5-25-2006 UPDATE

EXIT EXAM REINSTATED Today, the Supreme Court of California issued a stay in the case of Valenzuela v. O’Connell, regarding the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE). The stay reinstates the requirement that public school students pass the CAHSEE in order to graduate from high school.

Please post your comments below.

May 14, 2006

Moments Matter?

Kids need to know we care about them. That it’s important to you that they come to class everyday and give their best effort. By taking a moment to talk to them personally they come to understand that you care not just about their attendance but also about their personal success.

Some people call them “teachable moments.” But that term generally refers to those moments during class when your instruction takes an unscheduled but welcomed turn. While those moments are very important, and can be wonderful affirmations of our efficacy as teachers, the more personal moments we spend with students, when we make a connection between individuals, has an even greater impact.

When I was student teaching high school English my master teacher gave me a great tool for the last six weeks of school. During the first week in May he gave the students a list of vocabulary words, short stories, and essays that they could complete at their own pace without direct instruction (having already occurred). It was an opportunity for the students to work independently while the teacher began to close out the school year. Brilliant.

I’ve used this technique ever since to great success. By the end of the third quarter I am effectively finished with any type of instruction and students are heavily involved in completing both group and individual assignments due in late May and June. At this time of year I am freed up to grade projects, and work more closely with students. Since the format of the day is less teacher-focused and more student-structured, I am able to move around the room checking in with groups and answering individual questions.

More than any other time during the school year, I now have opportunities to develop and refine relationships with the students. These relationships often lead off topic and into the kids’ more personal concerns. For example, one of my students stopped me after school Friday to ask for my guidance concerning a close friend of his involved in drugs. I counseled him the best I could. Another student just bought his first Jeep. I gave him some suggestions as to where to go for service and parts.

These conversations may not be a regular part of the curriculum, but the impact on the students is long lasting. Of course I would never commit an entire hour to Jeep repair, but within the context of a working environment, there should be time allowed for sharing beyond the confines of the class work. Students learn from teachers in obvious and intentional ways as well as ways unseen and unplanned.

My high school Algebra and Geometry teacher was named Bob. Bob loved to tell us stories about his time in the war. We soaked it up like syrup on pancakes. Students learn from us when we share our stories. But storytelling is only one-way communication. Dialogue is a far more effective tool when we pay attention to who they are and are willing to connect at a level they understand.

This year my advanced students are a little nutty. Enthusiastic, exuberant, and fun to spend time with for sure, but they are also a little bit out of control from time to time. One of their assignments is a 5-minute personal project video. One student is recording different dance styles to put to music. He wants to include my dancing in his project. I’m no dancer; but I do feel the “movement of the beat” occasionally. I’m a good sport so I let him record just a few seconds of my moves.

Another thing I have time for at this time of year are letters of recommendation. Taking a moment to write a letter about a student for their college application or personal portfolio is important. I am always shocked, usually in good ways, by the things people write about me. I just don’t see myself the way others do, and neither do our students. A great deal of positive good can be achieved through taking a few moments to write down your observations about a student in a professional format that can be used to expand their horizons. I’ve even written a few letters to vouch for the good character of students facing expulsion. Those letters can sometimes by difficult to phrase correctly. However, taking time to write a short positive letter that helps a reformed student return to school is worth anybody’s time.

I don’t have an office, so like Fonzie in the men’s room, when I need a private moment to speak frankly with a student we have to step outside my classroom. I have had many important, perhaps even life-changing, discussions with kids I felt needed to hear an adult speak honestly with them about their choices. Without judgment or pretense I have shared my perspective and what I hope was useful experience. (I made enough rotten choices in my own life to be an expert.)

It’s in these moments that our job as teacher transcends the cold distance between lecture and desk and takes on an intimacy when lives truly can be changed. Not all teachers are comfortable with sharing their life stories, or taking the time to get to know their students, and that’s fine. But it is the teachers who do put forth the extra effort who will be remembered fondly by their students.

Every morning in the fall a young lady walked into my classroom looking down at the floor, sat at her desk, and would not talk to anyone unless she was forced to. I got into the habit of welcoming her to the classroom every time she walked through the doorway. For the first few weeks she would wait outside for other students to walk in, and then hide behind them so I wouldn’t see her come in. That never worked. Eventually she would show a small smile when she heard me say, “howdy.” At the semester break she was moved into sixth period. A few weeks later she began to say hello to me when she walked into class. Quiet and shy, if anyone else was speaking near me I would miss her greeting. Now, every day she walks into class with a bright smile and makes sure I hear her say, “hello.”

The little moments we take to acknowledge our students matter a lot more than we might think. With all of the standards, and test preparation teachers are required to do today, it’s not easy to take time to communicate to the kids that they are important individuals, not just test takers, worthy of our personal time and attention.

Please post your comments below.

May 07, 2006

Classrooms Matter?

“You’re in a good mood today,” a student remarked.

“Always,” I replied.

“Its a great class,” another responded.

The environments we create in our classrooms matter to our students. Our classrooms are our spaces, our kingdoms, our universes, and when our students enter our dominion they should feel invited, welcome, and comfortable. We’ve all been present in someone’s classroom that felt cold and inhospitable. Most university classrooms are that way: sterile, undecorated, and impersonal. But that’s at the university. College students are self-motivated, focused, and already committed to their education. The students we teach are not. They need more from us then just our assignments and our assessments. Kids need our personal attention, and that starts the moment they pass over the threshold and into our classrooms.

In my classroom I display some artwork, a few posters, notes on the whiteboards, and a bulletin board of important information. The desks are arranged in “pods” of six that work efficiently for both individual and group computer work. I can move around the room and through groups of kids with ease. One wall is full with windows that reveal a huge oak tree, a view of the 1938 theatre building, and a staff parking lot. The room was recently renovated and is now carpeted. I have a fairly reliable air conditioning unit on the roof. The building was constructed in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s and shares the typical architecture of that time. But none of these things that make up this classroom actually make up this classroom. The kids don’t come to this classroom everyday to view the artwork, stare at the oak tree, or enjoy the air conditioning. They come to classroom to enjoy the company of their teacher, and maybe to learn something.

Classrooms are as unique as the teachers that occupy them and should be a direct reflection of the teacher’s personality and educational philosophy. Elementary classrooms are different than middle or high school classrooms. But the same techniques that create warmth in an elementary classroom will work in the high school classroom as well. From posters on the walls, to seating arrangements, to the display of the American Flag, the classroom should be not only a haven for learning, but also a feel-good safety-zone for the children. Positive messages should penetrate the atmosphere coming from the visual decorations as well as the teacher.

Do your students look forward to coming to your class? Not just look forward to the learning the day’s lesson (although that is vitally important), but do they look forward to being in your presence? Sometimes teachers can take advantage of their position because of the captive audience. Kids really don’t have a choice when it comes to enrollment. Sure, a parent can request a teacher or period change, but most of time, once a child becomes your pupil they are stuck in your classroom.

Elective teachers understand this better than most core subject instructors. We live and die by the number of students enrolled in our classes. Next year, for the first time since I began teaching multimedia, I will probably not teach a full six-period day because not enough students signed up for my classes. That is not a symptom of me personally, but of the stringent requirements and prerequisites I have built into my courses to avoid becoming the campus dumping ground. (I’m planning on writing more about that soon.)

Here comes another heretical statement: teachers should entertain their students. Education is not, and should not be competitive. However, because most teachers do not compete for students, many teachers do not work as hard as they should to capture and hold on to the attention of their pupils. I am not suggesting that a course in stand-up comedy should be added to all the already nutty teacher prep programs. But there is nothing wrong with having fun in the classroom while learning is happening. Everyone is more comfortable and at ease when they are laughing and enjoying the moment. We release tension and relax. Add a little laughter to the beginning of a stressful day of testing, or in-depth day of study and you’ll get students who test better and work harder. Plus it’s just more fun.

I’ve already written that I believe school should be fun. That generated a lot of surprising discussion. Some teachers reject that idea that classrooms should be anything other than learning laboratories. That’s fine for some teachers, and some subjects, at some developmental levels, when appropriate. However, I believe that many younger kids (pre-university) need more than a simple empty space if they are going to turn on the light in their heads and open their minds to new information, concepts, and ideas.

Teachers hold the keys to not just the classroom doors, but also the hearts and minds of the students. I good instructor will make even the most mundane subject come alive and seem exciting. I’ve seen it happen. Our Physics classes are packed not because of an innate love for Physics among the student body, but because the Physics teachers are dynamic, passionate, and just plain fun to be around. Kids line up to take one of the toughest courses offered because they want to share the yearlong experience that is Physics at this campus. I hated Physics when I took it in college. I hated it because the teacher failed to make the subject accessible to the students and his classroom environment was impersonal and barren of any personal identity or connection.

We must connect with our students and our classrooms are a good place to start. Mario Cipollini, a professional cyclist from Italy, signed one of the posters on my wall. It caught the eye of a new exchange student from Belgium where cycling is a huge sport (even before Lance Armstrong). As I recall, she was sitting in class on the first day evaluating her situation grimly. Then she saw the poster and brightened up. After class she came to me and commented on the poster. We had made a connection. From that point on she was engaged in the course work and look forwarded to attending the class. I enjoyed our ensuing conversations about cycling.

What kind of a king or queen are you? What does your empire look like? Are your subjects happy with your leadership, or are they preparing for rebellion? These are important questions to consider when teachers prepare to work with kids. We should be focused on making our students’ experiences in our classrooms pleasing, pleasant, and positive.

Please post your comments below.

May 03, 2006

Activities Matter?

School is about more than academics. School is about sharing a common experience when we grow into young adults, learn about the world we live in, and sometimes score a touchdown, win a debate, perform on stage, and for the really lucky, fall in love at Prom. Some teachers think that extracurricular activities like sports, clubs, performing arts, and dances are not an important part of school since they can sometimes distract from the academic experience. I think that an equally important amount of education occurs when students are on campus, but not in the classroom. For some students, extracurricular activities are the reason they come to school everyday.

Think back to your own school days; did you really passionate about Social Studies? Did Spanish class make you rush to school everyday? Maybe for some of us it did. But I think that most high school students find their reasons to come to school outside the regular classroom schedule.

I have some experience in this area as not only a student, but also a teacher and advisor. In middle and high school I was involved in the Drama department. I performed in plays, hung lights, and hung out with my friends in the “cafetorium.” It was the time of my life, and the reason I loved coming to school. I didn’t love my academic class because I struggled so hard to simply survive. I was a fair, but in no way outstanding student, and I hated, really hated subjects like English, foreign language, history, P.E., pretty much everything other than Drama, band, and math. Because of my school experience I never wanted to become a teacher; that happened much, much later.

As a teacher I spent two years advising the Associated Student Body student government group at the high school where I currently work. During that time I worked closely with students and administrators planning and implementing numerous activities for the students on campus. (I even wrote a manual you can download here.) The goal was always to provide a positive experience for the students and to give them an additional reason to come to school. Student should love the school they attend and should be made to feel not only a part of the campus, but also to feel like their presence and the contributions they make to their school are part of the institution’s biology. Most of the time that doesn’t occur naturally in their academic classes. Its not that teachers don’t make students feel welcome, but that the daily focus of class should be on learning, not necessarily campus inclusion. That’s what extracurricular activities are all about.

The students I currently teach are not created from the same mold as the ones who participate in student government. Most of my advanced students would be branded “at risk.” While bright and fun to teach, most are not on their way to university, (however I am proud to say that I have two attending USC in the fall.) These kids need a reason to come to school and they don’t find it in English, Algebra, and Science. They come to school to shoot and edit video, make web site, and create animations. Those types of assignments aren’t (yet) available in most A-G course offerings. I think eventually elective courses like mine will vanish when the type of work students do in my classes becomes a regular part of the general academic curriculum. But for now, electives like multimedia along with football, cheerleading, and choir draw students in and give them a motivation to at least maintain the 2.0 GPA required to participate.

Friday nights in the fall you can find me on the football field. No, not playing, or even coaching, but working with a group of students who videotape the football game for the football coaching staff. Three students shoot from two angles, and one runs back and forth on the sideline getting up-close shots of the players and action. I love contributing my time to the football program because the students I work with love to participate and contribute to the team. We even eat dinner with the players. My students, who might otherwise look forward to party-central come Friday night, instead spend the week talking and thinking about their jobs on the field. The kids even get a small amount of pay from the parent boosters for their work.

My high school is known for more than just the football program. There are numerous elective and after-school student groups that recruit kids into positive experiences that offer them a wide variety of opportunities to shine and grow. From Mock Trial and Academic Olympiad to Speech and Debate to AFJROTC, there is a place for every kind of student to call home, and group to call family.

My lovely wife and I chaperone Prom every year. I love Prom for all that it represents: a celebration of the school year and all of the student’s accomplishments. For four magical hours on Prom night everyone looks great, the kids are on their best behavior (well, most of them) and all of the stress and complications of the school year seem to evaporate. Every year I take a group picture with my senior students. Those photos are some of the treasures I hold on to after another class of students has said goodbye.

Of course academic classes lead more students to higher test scores than do extracurricular activities, but what leads students into those academic classes? What keeps students coming to school everyday? What motivates them to earn good and even great grades? Where do kids find a place to belong? Where do they discover their unique and individual identities? Where do they have the chance to contribute to and become a part of something bigger than themselves? Where do they battle apathy and realize compassion? How do students broaden their collegiate opportunities? Where do we teachers have the most fun spending time with our students? The answer is usually on campus, but not within the boundaries of the six-period day or within the confines of the four walls of the classroom.

If you teach high school and are not involved with a club at lunch, or a sport, or an activity after school, give it a try. Sure it will require more of your time, but it will time well invested into the lives and success of your students. Like the kids, involvement in an extracurricular activity may actually make you look forward to coming to school. The more you enjoy coming to school, the harder you will work, and the more you will improve as a teacher.

Please post your comments below.

April 30, 2006

A leap into administration?

I don’t want to be an administrator. Of course, there was a time I didn’t want to be a teacher either. I once held a Teacher on Assignment position for two years where I only taught three classes and spent the rest of the time advising a student group on campus. When I went to my then principal to resign I explained that part of the reason I was quitting that position was that I didn’t see myself as an administrator, and that I wanted to spend more of my time in the classroom. He accepted my resignation, but shared that he didn’t see me the same way I did, and that, like it or not, administration would be in my future sometime.

The last time I wrote about administration I really stepped in it. Part of the reason I don’t want to make the leap into administration has to do with what I wrote before:

…I also believe that the minute you lose daily contact with students, you lose your effectiveness as an educator. I believe that one must have the best intentions and desire to improve schools if they take on an administrative position, but that motivation often gets set aside by the requirements of security, discipline issues, parent contacts, and now, test scores.

But if I were to become an administrator, what would my “best intentions” be?

First, I would make sure that the life-long success of the students was the primary focus of the campus. Seems obvious, but sometimes I wonder if that is really the goal of education today. By that I mean that the current educational environment measures student achievement in test scores. How well do they perform on the standardized test? While testing is an important measurement for student progress, in my opinion, standardized tests do not reflect a student’s ability to survive in the world we send them into after graduation. I don’t know about you, but once I graduated college, the only tests I took were to become a teacher. If a person doesn’t plan on teaching, or medicine, or law, then what is the value of making them professional test takers? I think we are doing the students a huge disservice by focusing so much attention on test scores. I don’t know what difference I could make from a campus administrative position to this nation-wide current in education, but I would do my best to make sure that my students left my campus with more practical skills than just test taking.

The second thing I would do was to make the teachers the educational leaders of the campus, and not the administration. I believe that administrators are there to support the teachers, and not the other way around. Frustrating when not all teachers are willing to take on leadership roles with their colleagues. But it’s the teachers, and not the administrators, that have the daily, hourly contact with students. Teachers should be given all of the support they require to do the best job possible for the students. Support in the form of funding, time to prepare, and appropriate staff development. I would schedule time to not only visit every classroom at least once a week (if physically possible), but also sit down and talk with my teaching staff about whatever they wanted to talk about. Our conversations could be school related, or not. The important reason to talk to the teachers would be to make connections and build relationships with the staff, just like we should be doing with our students. Teachers, like students, will work harder for individuals they know, and who they feel know and appreciate them. Once I knew my teachers better, I would encourage them to exercise their areas of strength by sharing and collaborating with their fellow teachers within and outside of their subject areas.

Third, I would strive to include more parents in the educational process. After all, its their kids were teaching. Not all parents feel like they have a place at their children’s schools. That feeling needs to be changed to one of invitation and inclusion. Kids do better when they see their parents actively involved and caring about their education. Parents volunteering in the classroom (yes even in middle and high school) and office, parents involved with activities, parents as not only guest speakers, but also guest instructors. The teacher credentialing process makes becoming a certificated teacher very challenging, and excludes some very qualified candidates. However, that does not mean that experienced parents cannot contribute to the education of students in the classroom with credentialed teacher supervision. Of course parents work and have commitments that keep them occupied while they send their kids to public school, but with a little creativity, and maybe through the use of technology, parents can become even more involved. The school belongs to the community; the education of students should be a community effort.

Finally I would require my administrative colleagues to work directly with students for some portion of their day. Not in the role of disciplinarian, but as a teacher. Whether it is teaching a single class during the day, or working with student government, or coaching a sport, or sponsoring a club, this type of connection with kids is vital to staying focused on the most important thing schools do, teach students. In exchange for time not spent administrating, I would encourage teachers to share in part of the administrative burden. Instead of teachers always sending their problem student out to administrators, relying on admin to handle parent contacts, I would leave that up to the teachers to handle on their own. In this way it would require teachers to improve their classroom discipline, relationships with students and parents, and gain a real appreciation for what administrators face everyday.

I’m not an administrator and that’s probably a good thing. It’s likely that after reading this few teachers would want to work for me anyway. A current administrator reading this might remark that I had no idea what I was writing about. There is a whole world of administration I don’t know anything about, for example: working with the district office, maintaining buildings and grounds, the expulsion process, attendance issues, operating a security force, holding cabinet meetings, dealing with legal issues, and of course making sure that every student performs adequately on the standardized tests. Maybe if campus administrators didn’t have to deal with any of these issues they could spend more time on the four areas I listed above. I suspect that if I did join the administrators it wouldn’t be long before my idealism was weighed down by the realities of marinating a public school. And maybe not. Sure my ideas may be wishful thinking, but change and reform does not happen until somebody dreams up a crazy idea and then takes a leap of faith.

Please post your comments below.

April 27, 2006

Grades Matter?

I am concerned about teachers who subjectively assess their students without a clear-cut and firm grading structure. Whether a student receives an “A” or and “F,” a “6” or a “1” in the classroom, that grade should be based on concrete evaluations and transparent to all stakeholders.

Grades need to be based on tangible items that kids can identify and understand. If a student doesn’t understand the grading system, or why they are been assessed, then their grade, no matter what it is, loses meaning. I recently spoke to one of my son’s teachers about a quarter grade. One of her evaluation items was initiative. My son’s grade wasn’t higher because he, in her opinion, did not show enough initiative. It’s hard to quantify initiative. My son did the work he was asked to do, but because he did not complete the work with an attitude that satisfied the teacher, he received a lower grade.

I once shared students with another teacher for one semester. At the end we sat down to record semester grades. I brought my grade book, and she brought hers. We began to compare notes. I quickly realized that we did not assess our shared students the same way. I shared the student’s score for my portion of the class, and then my colleague shared her score. With many students my colleague changed the mark the students had earned based on her own impression of how hard the student worked, or what grade she felt they student deserved. I was shocked. Does this type of subjective assessment have a place in a grading system when standardized test scores are given such a high priority in the overall performance of our schools?

The feedback between teacher and student that is communicated through both classroom and testing marks is key to the educational progress of the student, and the educational effectiveness of the teacher. Grades should be as important to teachers as they are to students. However, grading philosophies and standards are as varied as the teachers who record them. While I fully support teacher independence and individuality, I wonder sometimes if the same independent spirit and individual personality should be applied to something as objective as pupil’s grades, especially those that go on the transcripts and could potentially hurt the students in their future academic endeavors.

Try and see it from the students’ perspective. We’ve all been there. I can remember taking a college course where the instructor refused to tell us how much our projects were worth until she completed our finals. What??? I remember thinking. How could I prioritize when I had no idea what was going to make or break my grade. Unfortunately, grades are not equally important to all students. Many students, especially younger kids, fail to understand the value of succeeding in the courses they take. One of our jobs is to teach the importance of good grades and draw connections to success outside the classroom.

Grades do matter so they should matter to teachers. Take a look at your classes. How many kids do you fail each semester? If the numbers are very high, say greater that 50%, then maybe it’s time to take a look at how you are teaching. Sometimes it’s just a rotten class, or a few bad apples, and sometimes it’s the teacher. I have colleagues who regularly fail a large number of their students and yet stubbornly refuse to make changes to their curriculum, teaching style, or classroom personality. Teachers need to be willing to meet kids wherever they are, and then teach them to be successful in whatever subject matter we are teaching. It’s not easy. Sometimes we have to make changes. But that’s our jobs.

I teach project-based courses, so my grading is designed for that type of course. What I do may not work for all teachers and all subjects. I use rubrics for all of my assignments and I grade on a point system. I design the rubrics myself based on whatever content and standards I am teaching. Each area is given a certain number of points that when added together equate to a total score that corresponds to a letter grade. Most, but not all, of the time I follow the standard 90-100% A, 80-89% B, and so on. Some teachers argue that a 90% is really an A-, but I always count anything that breaks the 90% threshold as an “A.”

Most of the time I give the student the rubric I use for grading before I score their projects, so that they can see exactly upon what it is they will be evaluated. To me its fair disclosure. I always hated when teachers “surprised” me by testing on something I didn’t expect, or adding in points of evaluation after I had submitted my work. I also offer students the opportunity to resubmit for points after my initial evaluation if there are areas of weakness they want to improve upon.

The most important thing to me is that my students “get it,” that they learn the material. If that means the students need to revise, edit, and resubmit then that’s all right with me. (I almost never submit any of these essays without pouring over them a number of times and letting them sit for at least a few days, sometimes longer.) Many teachers would argue that this type of revision should be done before the assignments' due dates. I don’t disagree with that, but I do think that kids need to be taught the process.

While I am still struggling with the concept and implementation of frequent common formative assessment, and I will always support a teachers independence in the classroom, and while I am frustrated by the current level of emphasis placed on standardized test scores, and the ensuing death of the high-school elective I see brewing, I do think that some type of objective, formal, consistent grading method across subject matter and grade levels could be a useful and important reform. If rubrics are the method of the day, then lets all use them on not only assignments, but quarter and semester grades as well. If it’s something else, that’s fine too. We teachers are committed to educating our kids and motivating their personal success so we need to get organized and consistent about the way we assess our students and the grades that we record.

April 23, 2006

How to deal with your principal?

This post is a response to an email request.

"Principals come and go." That’s what I was told early on in my teaching career. Since then I've survived four principals in 10 years. So, the statement is true. In fact administrators are far more transitory then are teachers. However, at my high school we have not only experienced a high turn over of administrators, but also a 60% turnover in teachers in the last five years. When I was a kid it seemed like teachers and administrators were fixtures of the high school: they never got older, never changed jobs, and never retired. But that of course is untrue, and in the world of education today, it’s understandable how administrators, especially principals, find it difficult to stay put, at least at the high schools.

The pressure attached to administration of public schools is unbelievable. I have no desire to become an administrator because I don’t want that pressure in my life, and I also believe that the minute you lose daily contact with students, you lose your effectiveness as an educator. I believe that one must have the best intentions and desire to improve schools if they take on an administrative position, but that motivation often gets set aside by the requirements of security, discipline issues, parent contacts, and now, test scores. The threat of complete administrative staff dismissal and alternative agencies taking over campuses is real and frightening. I don’t know if it is actually happening anywhere yet, or if improvements were made, but the intimidation alone is enough to scare most willing administrative souls to be very cautious, and focused on whatever means are necessary for them to keep their schools, and more importantly, their jobs.

Teachers are often completely frustrated with their administrators because the teachers don’t feel like the administrators are paying the right kind of attention to the teachers’ classroom or personal needs; or that the principal, or anyone is actually in their corner. Teachers are often blamed for the lack of student achievement. When teachers do get support from administrators, it is often not in a form the teacher is seeking. Example: test score data in our district is collected by district officials through end-of-course exams, and then returned to the teachers to be analyzed and disaggregated in a timely fashion. It’s the “timely fashion” part that makes the teachers crazy, because while the student results are given to the teachers the same day they give the test, results by question results are not always returned within a significant and useful time frame. The data is critically important to teachers who desire to improve their students’ performance. The data is available, but not delivered quick enough to make appropriate changes. The principal and other administrators serve the unfortunate role of go-betweens and receive the brunt of the teachers’ frustration. But there is little administrators at the campus level can do to improve the situation.

I’m not defending administrators, or suggesting that there is nothing they can do to improve their job performance from the perspective of the classroom teacher. However, I believe that in much the same way that the demonization of teachers for poor student performance can be disingenuous, teachers blaming site administrators for what isn’t happening at our public school campuses can be equally inappropriate.

I’d like to see my high school make changes that I feel the administrators could be more effective in making happen. But to be honest, I don’t completely understand the administrators’ jobs. That’s a little like a parent expecting me to turn their child into a computer genius when their son or daughter doesn't understand keyboarding. Administrators, like teachers, have a lot on their plates. Teachers get frustrated and disappointed when their administrators cannot effectively attend to their problems. Understandable, but perhaps not realistic, for teachers to treat administrators that way.

Perhaps we teachers need to do a better job of handling our own issues and being more effective educational leaders when given the opportunities. (Heretic! I can hear some saying aloud.) Seriously. In my entire teaching career I’ve only written a handful of referrals, and only when I absolutely had to due to fighting in class, theft, or some other egregious act. When little Johnny is a pain in my class, I deal with it myself; I don’t send him to the Dean of Discipline every other day. But then, I don’t have many Johnny Pains in my class because my students are actively engaged in learning.

There are some areas that are out of our control completely. I am continually frustrated beyond words by our counseling office. Year after year I go to the counseling staff with clear and precise information about my courses, and year after year I am either ignored or… For example: my Multimedia CP course is a SOPHOMORE level Art course that carries a prerequisite. The prerequisite is an authentic preparation for the work in the multimedia course. I literally pick up exactly where the prereq finishes off. Yet every year I have freshman students or others who did not take the prerequisite course show up on my class roster. Infuriating! Then there was the year that our programming courses were omitted from the course listings. Students cannot sign up for courses that are not available to them. Had my colleagues and I not caught the error, well it didn’t matter, because we caught it after the course lists had gone to print and had been sent home to parents.

I don’t believe that you can “deal” with a principal anymore than you can “deal” with anyone. Nor would it be appropriate or effective to approach an administrator with such an attitude. I believe that most administrators do the best job they can given the requirements of their position. I think that many teachers fail to recognize what exactly the administrative job requirements are. It would be a very eye-opening experience if every teacher spent one day shadowing any administrator, (but who has time for that?) Teachers need to be willing to work with their administrative staff. Of course we should always voice our concerns, but stubborn insubordination is a dead end. Frustrating, disappointing, even angering at times, but unless teachers are willing to take on even more responsibilities then we already do, we cannot expect more from the principal and his or her assistants who are equally overwhelmed by the current state of education in which we all struggle.

Am I saying just get along and get over it? No. Teachers have two choices. Either work with the current administration as best as possible, or wait it out. The burnout rate for administrators is so high these days that it won’t be long before another one comes along to govern the campus. Maybe they’ll do a better job.

Please post your comments below.

April 20, 2006

WASC Process?

I kept this journal during our WASC accreditation week this year. I shared this blog entry with my Principal before publishing as a professional courtesy, and in an effort to self edit. She had some concerns that we discussed in a private meeting. Mostly she was interested in my motivation: was I trying to use this writing as a catalyst to take on a educational leadership position, or just expressing my thoughts and sharing my experience. The latter. I'm not bent on changing education in a single blog post. So if you are approaching your WASC week, take comfort in knowing that you're not the first, and you won't be the last to go through the "process." You will survive.

Day 1, Sunday 3:00 PM First Meeting.
The visiting team arrived today and toured the campus. The team consists of 8 administrators and teachers; some power players and some regular guys. The leadership team (I was co-chair of the Assessment Focus Group) sat down for a 75 minute meet/greet/Q&A session. The good news is that we did a great job on the self-study document so there weren't many questions that we hadn't already covered in some capacity. Everyone volunteered some response, but not me. For a change, I kept quiet. Not because I didn't want to contribute to the discussion, but because I wanted to listen and pay attention to the process. The visit is a 4-day process, I'll have many opportunities to share.

Day 2, Monday 6:45 AM Meeting.
Many follow up questions from Sunday afternoon. This morning the visiting team asked about the AP program; specifically what we are doing for the higher level kids. Redlands High School traditionally excels at helping higher level kids from a mostly middle to upper level income background succeed and go on to college. We offer a full schedule of H, E, and AP courses. But RHS is changing: we are now officially designated Title 1. The current challenge is to continue to send a large number of students on to college, but now from a population with greater than 40% low SES. The atmosphere among the teachers has always been more like one from a university: very professional, committed to teaching, and expert in the individual content areas. The good news is that this group of professionals is excited about the new challenges it's facing.

Day 2, Monday 2:00 PM Observation.
I planned a great lecture/presentation for today in anticipation of being observed. I was demonstrating the use of the digital video camera. I had my PowerPoint presentation going, the camera plugged into the LCD projector, and the kids were taking notes. It was perfect. (Not only that, but I bribed each one of my classes with doughnuts if they behaved well when observed.) Traditionally 6th period is a tough room so of course that's the one that got observed. I think my overall presentation was pretty impressive, and the kids were actually great, but as luck would have it, my observer came to watch during the worst possible part of my lecture. As she took notes, I sat in a chair in front of the live camera, with a bright light on ME, while the kids watched the cool built-in camera special effects on the projector screen. Of course, I was clowning around having a great time so I probably looked like an incompetent who spends his days "playing" with technology and "entertaining" the kids. Oh well.

Day 3, Tuesday 6:45 AM Meeting.
The visiting team leader shared some concerns after a full day of meetings and observations. First the visiting team saw a lack of what they consider "differentiated instruction" in classroom visits. This is tough since the week is topsy-turvy with multiple meetings, teachers pulled out of classrooms at irregular times, and visitors showing up in classrooms unannounced (see the previous paragraph). The second issue concerned formative assessment at more regular intervals. For example, testing for progress at 3 weeks, 6 weeks, and 9 weeks instead of just a the midterm or end of year. This too is problematic since teachers already assess their own students in their own classrooms nearly daily. The fact that this type of assessment is not formal, regular, or coordinated with other teachers of the same subject does not mean that the teachers are not using the assessments correctly, or making appropriate modifications. Hmmm.

Day 3, Tuesday 8:00 AM Focus Group Meeting (the BIG Show).
We were divided into two groups. Being a Co-Focus Group Leader I was separated from my partner, a math teacher. In my group I had a handful of "aces" and other teachers and staff members who made excellent contributions. I was the "lead man" so I got the first question concerning process directly at me. I stumbled through some incoherent response, and was pleasantly bailed out by some of my colleagues. The questioning continued in a non-confrontational atmosphere of respectful curiosity. There were two important points I wanted to make. First, when asked about structured meeting time, I responded that while the staff in general resented formal meetings when little was accomplished, they took advantage of multiple informal opportunities to collaborate. This staff genuinely enjoys each other's company. For example, the Science department barbecues every Friday at lunch. Sure they spend time visiting socially, but they also use that time to improve their teaching by sharing useful experiences. Two teachers walking down any hallway on campus will most likely be discussing something school related, usually positive, and almost always constructive. The second talking point on my list concerned our approach to the changing demographic. The good news is that this staff is not stuck in the "that's the way we've always taught it" mentality. However, there is a "that's the way we've always done it" approach to the traditions on campus, as there should be. These teachers come to school everyday ready to face the challenge of the kids that show up everyday, to fulfill their needs wherever the kids are at. That is how this high school is going to survive and continue to excel.

Day 4, Wednesday 8:30-10:30 AM
The worst part is being pulled out of class during random hours. The same random hours. This is the second day in a row that I will miss 2nd period. The problem with that beyond the chance of my class being observed without me in it, is how my absent throws off my teaching schedule. I try to keep my five similar classes heading in the same direction at the same pace. I can't do that when I miss the same period two days in a row.

For two hours this morning I sat through a word-for-word reading of the rewrite of the chapter 4 self-study. Why a visiting team who spends less than 20 hours on campus is qualified to rewrite our "self" study I do not know. Mostly they used what we wrote with minor adjustments. However there were a few areas I am concerned about.

The first one goes back to what I wrote previously about random observations during irregular days. They wrote that based on their observations in the classroom, "daily instruction appears to be predominately teacher-centered with few research-based instructional strategies..." This seems to imply that our teachers don't use other than teacher-centered instruction, and that is simply untrue. Unfair in my opinion to site such a finding based on very limited classroom observation time under strained circumstances. We provided evidence to the contrary in our original self-study, but that was not referenced in their rewrite. A few paragraphs later they list some of the ways technology is used in instruction, but leave out specific examples that could have been observed if a better schedule had been created for observation time. Perhaps I am being a bit whinny here, but I don't like the idea that our teachers might be misrepresented.

The second and much larger issue relates to the lack of Frequent Common Formative Assessments. Apparently "everybody" is doing it these days. Really? My problem here is that this is already happening by the teachers on this campus in their own unique (and I think unique is important here) way. Teachers are constantly assessing, and reteaching based on data collected from these assessments. The current method allows teachers to assess specifically to their own unique population of students. Apparently the research shows that teachers who create these (shall we call them FCFAs) do show improved results. My question is, where do they start from? From a 700+ API? Part of the reason we do as well as we do here is that teachers are allowed some freedom in their teaching. Freedoms that have already been restrained by standards, standardized testing, and NCLB. It feels like we're heading to a place where the "art" of teaching is being replaced by the "science " of teaching and (to make a leap) computers and software alone will be sufficient to teach kids. All we really need is labs of really fast PC's (Macs are for "artists") and a tech who can turn the power on while Read 180, NOVANET, and the Rosetta Stone take over. Am I nothing more than a future iTeacher or is it I, Teacher? Seriously, if my teaching schedule is going to be so regimented, my quizzes and chapter tests written and given to me by a "testing committee," my finals provided and scored by the district office, then where exactly is my input going to be used? Oh, that's right, to make sure that no child gets left behind. But what about leaving the teacher behind? Thank God I'm an elective teacher; we get ignored because we're Dodo birds (soon to be extinct). Someday I'll be back in the English classroom. When I am I hope that the job requirements includes more than simply unlocking the classroom door.

Day 4, Wednesday 2:30 PM The Final Meeting?
The staff collected for the visiting team's presentation of the WASC report. They shared the same basic information I had heard earlier in the day. We all applauded. We also applauded a woman, a retired teacher of over 40+ years, who did a wonderful job organizing the entire experience for our school; without her, we would have never made it. And so it ends.

One of the comments I heard, and I've been hearing since the current administration took over awhile back, is that ours is a "good" school working to become "great." I resent that. Maybe it's my ego. I think my school is not just good, or great, but unbelievably, off-the-charts, cosmically GREAT! Sure, we have areas we need to improve upon, and the "WASC Process" helped us identify and created an action plan to address those needs. My father used to tell me, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." My school is not "broke." I fear that in an effort to fix what isn't broken we may actually become "good," and then need to strive for "great." Or perhaps we can indeed put the WASC recommendations into action and move from "unbelievably, off-the-charts, cosmically GREAT" to "SUPREME GREATNESS!" Time will tell, or at least the midterm WASC report in three years.
My hostility towards the Frequent Common Formative Assessments is wearing off a little. While I still reject anything that forces teachers into unbreakable look-alike molds, I do see the benefit of sharing comparable data and collectively choosing the best test items. As for post-WASC cleanup, we're now faced with the challenge of figuring out how to bank time. I still feel that our WASC report misses some very important issues on our campus, but the areas it does address will be important to our continued success educating kids.