December 23, 2007

Be Not Deceived?

I am not sure of the exact statistic, and I am sure its different for different areas, but I’ve heard that a large number of new teachers quit the profession before applying for their clear credential after five years on the job. While I’m not surprised that some people don’t figure out that teaching is not for them until after they have spent time in the classroom actually teaching, I am concerned for the well-being of our students and I do not want quality teachers prematurely leaving the profession.

A handful of my university students were hired as teachers at my high school campus this year. Two have full-time contracts, one picked up a single semester, another a long-term sub, and one more was hired as an assistant coach. I’ve been checking in periodically with them to see how things are going, what are their major obstacles, and if there is anything I can do to help. For the most part, everything has gone great for these bright young warriors, and I couldn’t be happier for them.

I am always surprised at how new teachers are often given a raw deal when it comes to the schedule of classes they teach, or the length of contract they are offered. My first year at this high school I was given four different English preps. Ouch. But I muddled through as most new teachers do. New teachers will often accept temporary contracts for single semesters or partial work days just so that they can get their foot in the door. A smart move to show administrators just how talented and ready a new teacher is for a full-time contract. But it can be frustrating for both teacher and administrator when a truly outstanding candidate lands one of these assignments without somewhere else to be placed next when the abbreviated contract expires. This is the puzzle that one of my former students and our administrator are now deciphering. Two weeks after we return from winter break a wonderfully talented and able teacher will be released from our staff if the principal cannot find an open second semester teaching assignment to fill. Pity.

The long-term sub stepped into a messy situation. The contracted teacher took ill shortly after the start of the school year. A series of short-term subs then tried to take control of the classroom until the ill teacher’s diagnosis was confirmed. Then after nearly an entire quarter had passed, my former pupil stepped into the catastrophe and began the process of trying to set these students straight on course and bring some order and introduce some learning to what had yet to be a productive classroom. I’m pleased to report that after a diligent commitment to success the long-term substitute teacher has transcended his substitute title, righted his ship’s heading, and is currently experiencing outstanding success with a population of students who most veteran teachers would agree had been already lost at sea. No one knows for sure the length of the long-term assignment; but the longer the better for the kids now learning in that classroom.

Young teachers have to battle not just inexperience, but also their youth among the young. Some of the new younger teachers are struggling with inappropriate overtures from some of their immature students. Inappropriate comments or suggestions by any students toward a teacher of any age is simply unacceptable but especially from older teenaged males directed at younger adult female teachers in the classroom. Unfortunately, it seems like every exposed inappropriate teacher/student relationship gets national attention (and no inappropriate teacher/student relationship is ever acceptable exposed or private). The pressure this puts upon teachers entering the profession in their 20’s is creating and environment where some are becoming overly sensitive to any type of appropriate relationship with their students, and that will ultimately have a devastatingly negative result on their effectiveness as educators.

Without question the largest challenge for young teachers is overcoming the realty shock brought about by facing students in the classroom daily. It’s one thing to study, ponder, and discuss what it might be like to mold and shape the minds of tomorrow. It’s another thing to actually work 35 blobs of clay day after day, week after week. And if you teach middle or secondary the 35 blobs are multiplied by the number of times the bell rings. It can be frightening. Plus, no blob can be left behind so… It’s tough even for the hardened veterans. But of course children are not blobs of clay, they are instead eager young learners who are hungry to discover and improve their world. Right?

Wrong! The shiny appeal of a 2:30 dismissal 38 week schedule change-the-world crusade quickly dulls when the un-stimulated, under-prepared, unmotivated, unimpressed fill the seats of your castle of knowledge disbursement center. All the best lesson plans and scaffolded learning experiences can be quickly derailed by a smart aleck sophomore who asks the teacher out loud in class, “Is beer good for you?” How do you recover from that one? But recover we must and recover we will because we, the teachers, are often the last hope for young people who are struggling to find and make their way in the world.

Some students use their class work to communicate just how desperate they are for some positive human connection. While teachers are not therapist (and should never assume the role of any other professional) we do have the opportunity to refer students to those who can help them when we cannot. Kids often see their teachers as safe confidants they can trust when needed, even if the students do not always show the teachers the respect that all adults deserve. When some of the most challenging and distant youngsters find themselves in difficult times they will often turn to a teacher who once showed them kindness and compassion for help.

So be not deceived my fellow educators. Those little darlings are worth your best efforts and your long-term commitment.

October 13, 2007

The Metrics? (part 2)

(Read The Metrics part 1 here)
How we measure our personal success with our students is very important. Our internal metrics are, to a degree, relative to the individual teacher. I have to be careful here because I do not want to suggest for a moment that a teacher who measures their personal success with students by a daily tally of how many smiles he or she receives from their students, or how many apples are left on their desks at the end of the day are either legitimate, appropriate or meaningful ways of determining success in the classroom. They may make us feel good, but the life-long success of students is more important then the feelings of the teacher.

With so many external metrics being used to assess our students, and indirectly our effectiveness as educators, it’s easy to become very discouraged very quickly. Teachers at my campus are now working in “data teams” to evaluated the test results of the students in their classrooms. All the students’ scores on the standardized tests and the common assessments are organized by teacher and laid out for everyone in their team to see. It’s not easy to compare my Algebra 1 scores with your Algebra 1 scores when clearly my students are not as proficient as your students. Your students scored higher, but I know that I am a better teacher than you are and so on and so forth. It can get ugly quickly. The goal is to analyze the data and as a group come to a consensus on how to modify instruction to make it more useful for students. However, some truly inept instructors can be flushed out in the process, and that can be a good thing, but no one, NO ONE, wants to be considered inept among their peers. Add to all of this the steady increasing pressure laid down by NCLB (how many years until 2014?) and the teaching environment becomes one that is strained to say the least. Pressure is also applied by parents many of whom have wonderfully good intentions but that sometimes hold unrealistic expectations for their students and their students’ teachers.

I love teaching and I’m willing to work within the system (however frustrating) so that I can continue to affect what I hope is a positive influence on my students and by extension on the world I live in. That is my main internal metric for teaching.

One way I measure my positive influence is by the number of alumni that I maintain contact with, sometimes daily. My counsel for my students doesn’t end when they graduate high school or grad school. I maintain communication through personal visits and email. Currently I am working with a former high school student who is applying to film school. I am helping him polish his application essays and offering my advice on how best to take the next step. A relationship that started in a high school classroom that grows beyond into an opportunity to mentor a life. That’s how it happened for me too. My high school teachers still provide me with advice and counsel when I ask for it.

Another way I measure my positive influence is through working with other teachers to improve their craft. Four of the teachers I taught at the university last year got hired on my high school campus this year. I am working with the principal to organize an in-service day for the five of us to get together and observe master teachers practicing their craft with students in their classrooms. When I was in my second year I was given the opportunity to participate in a similar activity. I still think about that day and all of the useful tips and techniques I learned from watching the best do what they did best, teach. My goal is that this day will provide an opportunity for these baby teachers to learn and grow.

Some of my colleagues are truly über-teachers. Sublime in their ability to change the lives of their students in positive ways as they teach them mathematics, history, and English, and yes, help them pass the CAHSEE and other mandatory assessments. They may not have started out quite so successful, but they have kept at it, learned from their mistakes, and prevailed in the quest to change the world. Do you think these individuals who excel in their classrooms have allowed their ability to adjust with the ever-swinging pendulum of scholastic reform to determine whether or not they consider themselves successful teachers? Do you think that these masters have allowed the challenges presented by the evolving school population to stop them from reaching out, picking up, and molding those fragile and formidable young lives? Do you think that a falling API score or a “difficult” graduating class ever made these professionals reconsider their place in the world? Any teacher who allows the challenges of teaching to keep them from the higher calling of teaching needs to stop calling themselves a teacher, and move on to the next career.

No one can argue with a changed life. Teachers change lives. How many lives have you changed? Have you tried to keep track? Think about that the next time you get discouraged because Little Johnny won’t listen, or 3rd period failed yesterday’s quiz miserably. Just because a student is struggling, or a quiz needs to be retaken does not diminish the impact and positive influence that we teachers have on the lives of our students, and that should be the major focus of our efforts. I’d like every student in my 3rd period class to earn an A this quarter. But if that does not happen it does not mean that I failed in my efforts to teach my students. And in a population of kids who so easily give up, it’s important that we teachers not quit when the test scores dip a little. Our purpose in the classroom transcends the role of test proctor; our purpose there is to change lives.

The Metrics? (part 1)

I haven’t written in a while. I’ve had a few ideas, but nothing compelling enough to make me actually sit down and work it out. That, plus the introduction of new computers to my classroom have made me feel like a first-year teacher at the start of the school year all over again. It’s been so frustrating that once again I am considering an assignment change, a level change, or perhaps even a whole career change. We’ll see how the school year progresses.

One of the things that is making me crazy this year, again, is the kids. Yea, I know, they make me crazy every year, but this new entitlement generation is, well, special. I’ve never worked with a group that literally felt comfortable with asking for an “A” simply because they came to class occasionally. A group that so easily and openly exclaims “I’m bored,” and then proceeds to simply turn off for the remainder of the period. A population who does not respect adults and authority so boldly that they feel no shame about being asking daily, even hourly, to comply with the simplest of instructions like, “spit out your gum.” This group seems to lack motivation, desire, or any sense of urgency in their lives to do much more then to respond to their next text message, check to see who wants to be added as a friend on their MySpace web page, or get in line for the newest and goriest splatter (horror) film. It’s kinda scary.

My high school recently celebrated Homecoming. We still go old-school with a parade including dignitaries, the band and floats decorated by the different graduating classes. We have a rally, a football game half time show including fireworks, and of course, a dance. My campus educates approximately 3400 kids. At best no more that 25% of these kids participated in the festivities. And the parade that starts at the campus, tours the downtown area, and returns to the school site is increasingly being seen by many in the city as a “nuisance.” There are many traditions celebrated at this over 100 year old public high school that many hold very close to their hearts; and that many others don’t know exist, and aren’t interested in learning about. We teach in a changing world. But who are really the ones that need to change?

Frustrated with all of this, and a 2-4 football record to date, I and many of my colleagues instinctually point to the students as the problem. As a population, the kids regularly disappoint us when they fail to meet our expectations. I, along with others, believe that high expectations are the best way to raise up an individuals performance, improve their abilities, and ultimately teach them how to be successful. However, when the contrast between a teacher’s expectation for student success (hard-work, commitment, dedication) and a student’s expectation for his or her success (just give me an “A” for showing up) is so severe, what’s left is a quandary not easily solved. After all, these kids will be running the country and the planet someday, they need to be well prepared. Unfortunately, too few students in the population I teach have a tangible understanding of their future, why they should set goals, and how to plan to achieve those goals. Sadly, the main goal in life for too many of the kids in my classroom is to “get paid,” without any idea of what to do to “get paid” that doesn’t involve something they heard once in a song on their iPod, or while watching Mtv.

Contrast that with the three sister students I recently had the opportunity to chat with. The two younger girls are twins and their sister is one year older. All three want to go to college and practice medicine. The twins were born with heart problems and had to stay on heart monitors for the first two years of their lives. Now they recognize the value of those doctors and others who helped them live and have built a strong desire to contribute positively to the world. How influential their early life experience actually is on their goals and dreams now I can’t say for sure, and these girls are not an anomaly in the current population, however, they do feel like the minority.

So, for us as teachers, what do we do? We can’t change the students, we can’t change the standards, we can’t change the general blasé in the average student, and we can’t single-handedly change the world. What we can do is change our internal metrics for how we evaluate and relate to our students. Our football team may not finish this year with a winning season. Despite the best efforts of our coaches, they may not be able to turn what is a good group of light-hearted boys into a serious group of dominating athletes. But does that mean that their season will be a failure? Is the record of 2-4 the only metric they should use to measure success? It’s an important metric but it’s not the only metric. Should our student government group who worked so hard to put on a fantastic homecoming event be discouraged by the low participation rate, or by the unfortunately negative attitude of some of the locals? One of the sisters who wants to be a doctor went to the homecoming dance and told me that she had a wonderful time.

Unfortunately, I can’t honestly guarantee that every student in my classes is going to pass my course, or even learn any of the expected outcomes that I have chosen to teach. I can’t force them to participate, come to class on time everyday, or even remember to spit out their gum. I can’t make them care or choose goals for a future they cannot comprehend (yet). Does that mean that I am a failing teacher? The answer depends on how I define my personal metrics for success.
(Read The Metrics part 1 here.)

August 24, 2007

Fresh Faces?

School has started once again and too early this year as well. My school district has moved to a modified traditional calendar: mid August start, a full week off at Thanksgiving, three weeks off at Christmas, and two weeks off at Easter. Sweet. The most surprising part was that while the teachers weren’t too crazy about starting in August, the students were stoked. The last week and a half has gone about as good as any start of the year I have ever had. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, we all remember how unbearably bored we’d get towards the end of August when we were young. Now, just as the little darlings are driving their parents completely insane, they get to go back to school.

By far the best parts of the fresh school year are the fresh student faces that I get to meet. I’ve already shared my feelings about the 1:35 teacher to student ratio. Teachers who do not appreciate the benefits that the students bring to their lives personally truly do not appreciate teaching 100%. I get excited at the beginning of the year because I know that my life will be greatly enhanced by the relationships that I will form with my students. Friendships that will extend through the year, through the students’ term in high school, and into life beyond. I regularly hear from and meet with alumni whom I have taught in high school. It is an awesome gift to know that a life is positively changed through the experiences and opportunities for learning and success provided in my classroom.

I know that some teachers like to keep their emotional and personal distance from their students for “professional” reasons. With all the news about inappropriate teacher/student relations, it’s easy to get freaked out and worried about being accused of some unthinkable act, or wrongly sued for misconduct. Clearly we teachers need to be hyper-aware of our surroundings and our environments at all times. But I have to tell you, had the teachers in my younger days who were instrumental in changing my life for the better decided that they were unwilling to share their lives and their stories with their students, I would have never chosen to become a teacher and would most certainly be a very, very different person today.

Those teachers knew what it was like to participate in and contribute to the formative years of a child. They knew the personal benefits and the enriching experiences that only teachers are allowed to enjoy. They know, like we know, that teaching a child to discover who they are and what they can do is by far the most thrilling experience in life. More thrilling then jumping out of a moving airplane, riding the tallest rollercoaster, or swimming in a frenzied pool of hungry sharks; all three of which we do everyday in our classrooms anyway.

Some more fresh faces on campus this year are the new teachers added to the staff over the summer. It’s a huge group this year of over 20. But the best part for me is that three of the new hires are my teacher credential students. It was a proud pre-service day for me when I sat in our auditorium and heard the names called and watched as these three young teachers stood in front of the veteran body to be introduced. The idea that three of my own protégés would now be teaching along side of me is not just rewarding, it’s amazing. I’m so excited to see them succeed in their classrooms and adventure out solo into the educational wild lands. And even more exciting is the knowledge that the students of our campus will have the opportunity to learn from these three who bring fresh ideas, fresh energy, and a fresh attitude to our beloved profession. Awesome.

The new generation of teacher comes to campus better prepared, better educated, and with a clearer direction then any of their predecessors. While we vets complain about the inconveniences of standards, NCLB, CAHSEE, API, and AYP, the new teachers have never known teaching without them. Plus, they are standing on the shoulders of giants, gleaning all that they can from not just their teacher credential program, but also their student teaching experiences and their personal classroom experiences as students. Teaching just keeps getting better and better and it’s the students who benefit.

I met up with a not-so-fresh faced colleague on the way to the parking lot this afternoon. We exchanged niceties. She told me that at the onset of her 4th year of teaching she wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue in the classroom. (Sound familiar? That’s what I said.) I admitted that I didn’t even decide that I wanted to be a teacher until closer to the end of my fifth year, about the time I had to renew my credential. The first five years are tough, there is no doubt. So if you see a struggling face as you are walking towards the parking lot at your school, stop and give them a stroke or two. Tell them that they are doing a great job and huge service to the world. Tell them that the students need them and that it will get better, because it always does.

As I look around at the beginning of the school year there seem to be fresh faces everywhere. I’m a fresh face this year as well. Not on my own campus, but at The Apple, a website for teachers. Check it out at Over the summer I was approached through an email (that I thought at first was SPAM) and asked to be a featured author. After checking out the site I consented. They’ve posted a bunch of my previous essays and some curriculum. From what I’ve seen so far, the editors have done a terrific job of collecting and providing useful content and giving teachers both a helpful and fun place to hang-out and meet some fresh faces.

August 09, 2007

Manual Forward?

Every year I update the manual I write for the multimedia courses I teach in high school. I started writing my own curriculum because I couldn’t find any one textbook or resource that I liked. Instead, I scoured the web in search of the best projects, tutorials, and guides I could find, and wrote the ones I couldn’t find myself. I started with the production manual available online from NYU’s Tisch film school. What I ended up with is an excellent and thorough resource for any computer multimedia teacher to use in their classroom.

It’s important to note that the course I teach are NOT computer courses, they are UC approved Art and communication courses that use computers. I make the distinction because the focus of the manual is not the nuts and bolts of computer hardware and software, but rather it is focused on teaching high school students to improve their communication skills and take advantage of 21st. century communication technology. Sure, they can already use MySpace, program their iPods, and post their own movies on uTube, but this curriculum gives students a direction, background information, and teaches them the production process.

The assignments are all written to the Visual Performing Arts, Career Technical Education, and National Education Technology Standards. Most of the assignments are tried and tested, broken down into easily understandable steps. However this year I have added many new assignments to go with the new software, and I’m not quite sure how they will turn out. Therefore I am evoking the “beta” label (borrowing from computer geekdom). Since I use Macintosh computers, the manual is written specifically for those machines, and now for OS 10.4. But all of the assignments and steps could be adjusted for whatever software and hardware you have available.

Throughout the manual I give credit and web links to all the work I did not write myself. I have never published the manual as a professional work, nor have I ever charged anyone to use it, and many have. From other schools right here in California all the way to Israel, I have freely shared this resource with anyone interested. If you’d like to download it you can do so here. There is also a series of presentations and lecture notes, all free. If you have any questions, feel free to send me an email at

Every year I write a foreword to the manual. It’s the very last thing I do after I proof read and spell check. What follows now and for the rest of this blog entry is the foreword to this years manual update. It gives a general picture of what I experienced while preparing for this years update.

What a rush! This year’s manual update was completed in just four weeks, a new record. There are two reasons why the schedule was pushed up this year: first, school started two and half weeks earlier this year; second for the first time in seven years Room 1 has new computers. Unfortunately, the news about the new computers came exactly one month before school started, so I was unable to prepare much during the school year like I usually do.

The new computers are first generation Intel iMacs. We almost didn’t get Macintosh computers. The district has a Windows/Dell only policy that the Principal and I had to fight to get what I knew would be best for the students of Room 1. After two summer meetings that included presentations from Adobe and Apple, the district decided to grant my request, and we have new Macs. It’s a logical choice: Macintosh computers are widely used in the multimedia and entertainment industry and Apple now offers a certification program that we’d like to start offering the students of RHS.

This is the seventh version of the Multimedia Manual, but I am dubbing it version 8 beta. The beta status also comes as a result of the shorter writing time. I’m not sure that everything here in version seven is going to work! There are many new assignments, and many major changes. One major change is the exit of Adobe Photoshop and the entry of The Gimp. The change was made because Adobe does not write Photoshop Elements for the Intel Macs, and second because The Gimp is FREE! The Gimp is an open source application written with UNIX so it can be adjusted and molded to work with whatever environment one is comfortable with. So I was able to change all of the keyboard shortcuts and setup the palette layout to match Photoshop LE. The Gimp will also run on Windows and Linux so it’s a good choice for students who may not have a Macintosh computer at home.

The other very cool new additions to the manual include the opportunity to now use GarageBand and iDVD. GarageBand allows students to create their own music using a variety of loops. Now just about anyone can compose his or her own jingles, movie scores, and original compositions. GarageBand also allows students to create their own Podcasts, so I have added postcasting as a new focus. In addition, students may now create their own DVDs. Instead of only being able to distribute their work via a website (which is still included in the course work) students can now also create DVDs to take home and play on their televisions, or on their home computers.

This year will see a continued commitment to creating DVD documentaries for Redlands High School by the Digital Dogz. Last year we sold close to 150 Graduation DVDs making it even more successful than the Football DVD, and raising a significant amount of income for the Digital Dogz that we plan on putting to good use. The Friday Show will also return as a weekly positive reflection of life on campus.

New equipment, new software, and a new approach to teaching and learning multimedia; I’m looking forward to a very exciting and groundbreaking new year.

July 14, 2007

Administrative Support?

I’ve been critical of administrators in the past. I continue to take issue with many of the shortcomings of administrators in general. However, I have to give credit where credit is due, and recently my principal went to the mat for me, and won.

The issue had to do with technology in my classroom; the old computers needed to be replaced. I was teaching on Apple Macintosh computers. They had survived for seven years, way beyond their life expectancy or usefulness. In the Spring, the principal came to me and explained that money was available for new machines and asked me to put together a proposal. I did. I selected new Apple Macintosh computers to replace the old ones because I believe that they are the best tool for the job. (By the way, I do not work for Apple Computer, I really don’t. I can’t even get them to send me a nifty black polo shirt. Nothing.) I sent off my request and got back to teaching. However, having no power to guarantee my selection, I’m just the classroom teacher afterall, I wasn’t very confident that I’d get what I had asked for.

In addition, I had a feeling that my selection might cause some problems at the district level. You see, I work for a Windows/Dell ONLY district. Someone somewhere decided that it would be easier to support a single platform, and they selected Windows/Dell. That’s fine. I can understand the need to simplify the support process and the benefits of everyone having the same type of computer hardware and software. BUT, mine is a special case. I teach multimedia classes. More specifically, University of California category F (Fine Arts) approved college prep Art classes, not ROP computer classes. I’m in no way knocking ROP computer classes, their hugely important. I teach the elements of Art and principals of design, NOT THE SOFTWARE. Again, I believe that the Apple Macintosh computer is the better tool for the courses I teach.

To further complicate the situation, the money to pay for the new machines could not be spent until July 1st. School starts on August 15th, so the purchase process had to be expedited. The purchase requisition floated in limbo until the end of June when it finally hit the district technology coordinators desk. After the technology coordinator read the requisition we spoke on the phone at length defending our two positions without resolve. As a result, representatives from both Apple and Adobe, who writes software for Windows, were invited to make presentations to a panel including most of the district technology support staff, my principal, and myself. Five hours over two days were spent listening and carefully considering the merits of both groups of software applications. While I was thoroughly impressed by what Adobe had to offer my mind was not changed. Neither was the mind of the district technology coordinator… at first.

The last three paragraphs have been prologue to what happened next. I went on at length because I felt it was important for you the reader to see the whole picture. To recap: I was placed in a situation where I was asked by my supervisor to make a decision and I made it. However, I was given no power at all to enforce my decision, and my choices were rejected at the district level. District 1, Teacher 0, end of story, right?

Wrong, the story continues. Instead of my principal turning to me at the end of both presentations and saying, “oh well, we tried, enjoy your new PCs,” she began to ask questions of the technology coordinator. Keep in mind that this is not the most “tech-savvy” (her words) person in the world. The Principal stressed that this decision should be prioritized with the curriculum and the needs of the students at the top of the list. The technology coordinator agreed. The Principal pressed on by asking about the potential problems that having two platforms on the same network would create. What at first appeared to be a monumental problem, quickly dissolved into something “doable.” I kept my mouth shut. The end of the story was that in spite of district policy deciding against the teacher’s choice for his classroom, the principal stood up for the teacher and fought for victory and won. I’m getting new Apple Macintosh computers for my classroom.

As a teacher I have to say that it is a wonderful feeling when I am given the respect I feel that I deserve, and when instead of being told what, how, when, where, and why I will teach, I’m asked, “what do you need to be successful with your students in your classroom?” And then I get it. Sure, it’s rare, even in the best districts, with the best administrators. But it happened to me, and for that I am very thankful.

I think that sometimes we teachers forget our place in the world. Not in a bad way. But because we get dumped on so much, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance that we make as individuals building up the lives of the students in our classrooms. I can’t even get curtains to block out the sun so that the kids can clearly see my LCD projection. I’ve been asking for them for four years! But then, every once in a while we’ll get that special note, or an email, or phone message from a parent or a former student that makes us say, “oh yea, that’s why I do this.” And sometimes, after being told there’s not enough money in the budget for more microscopes, or we must teach these standards on these days, and give this test before that date by our administrators, the administrators are able to do something extraordinarily significant to support the teachers. Sure, it’s their job, and they get paid more than us, and they’re really just Sith anyway (Star Wars reference), but I believe that in their hearts, most administrators want the same thing the teachers want: to do what’s best for the kids. Sometimes the administrators fail, and sometimes they save the day.

June 28, 2007

Spit Out Your Gum!

For those of you who have been reading my posts for a while, you already know how much I HATE the end of the school year. Everyone else is giddy with anticipation about the summer to come; all I can think about is the people I might never see again. Barely a week goes by during the school year that I don’t get a visit from some alumni, but its not the same as seeing them nearly everyday for four years. However, there are some things I LOVE about the end of the year, and summer that follows.

First, I will no longer have to say, “Please spit out your gum!” for the next eight weeks. I cannot believe how many times a day I have to repeat those words, please spit out your gum. On the very first day of school I explain in no uncertain terms that in my classroom there is to be no gum. None. Not even a little bit. I teach using computers, and as you know, gum and computers don’t make pleasant bedfellows, so that amplifies the “NO GUM” rule. And every day, at least once a period, I have to tell some otherwise wonderful student to, “please, spit out your gum.” It never fails. I have seriously considered recording myself on the computer saying, “please spit out your gum,” and simply playing it back at full volume every time I have to address another forgetful student. Maybe next year.

Second, I will no longer have to fight the students in my fourth period class (right before lunch) who bring food onto campus from outside vendors. We have a closed campus. It’s sad really that students cannot leave for lunch, but keeping them on campus is much safer and ensures that more of them will actually make it to their fifth period classes. To complicate matters, my classroom is within visual and walking distance to Bakers, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dairy Queen, McDonalds, Jack in the Box and a few Mexican food stands. It’s a terrible temptation for the kids, and I really do sympathize, especially when in my high school days we had open campus for lunch. My buddies and I had it timed just right. If we ran to the parking lot and got off campus right away, we could get to In-N-Out in just enough time to order in the drive-through, slam down our lunch on the way back, and make it to class right before the tardy bell rang. (For those of you non-California readers who do not know what In-N-Out is, you have my condolences.)

Next, during my summer break, a shorter break by two weeks this year due to a district-wide change to modified traditional schedule, I will no longer have to argue with students over grades. I don’t know what it is about this generation of kids. The good news is that I am diligent in my grading and always use a rubric that I share with my pupils both before the assignments are submitted and then after they are graded. I suppose that I could simply choose to not accept resubmissions, but I have found that students learn best when they are given the opportunity to correct their errors. The problem is that I too make errors, and sometimes they catch me in it. It’s good that some students are attentive, but it’s the ones who constantly hound me for extra credit that make me nutso. What makes me more nutso are the kids who ask for extra credit in the last week of school. Yea, right.

Summer is a wonderful stress-free time of unscheduled days and long, late nights reading or enjoying time with my family. I don’t have to grade projects, or write curriculum, or blog. Oh wait, I am blogging. I never blog during the summer. What’s happening to me? Why am I still thinking about school when it’s almost the Fourth of July? Well, there’s good reason. You see, most summers I do spend time writing and revising curriculum. Every year I publish an updated version of my classroom multimedia manual. The brain energy that I would normally be spending on that project is currently idol. Idols because I have no idea what or how I will be teaching come August 15th. None. Why? I teach multimedia using Macintosh computers, nothing strange about that. But my district has a new Windows-only policy and I am in need of new machines. All the financing is in place, but our district technology guy is holding up the purchase for a while, which holds me up from updating my manual. Once the machines are purchased, Mac or Windows, I can then get to work writing. But it gets better. The number of students enrolled in my multimedia courses is way down and for the first time ever I have open periods in my schedule. Everyone else got a letter with his or her Fall assignment on the last day of school. I got an email from the AP that said, “I’ll call you.”

During the summer break I don’t have to think about staff meetings, parent calls, commuting back and forth to school, progress reports, Friday grade checks, tardy students, conferences, or in-service days. I get eight whole weeks to relax. Most of my non-teacher buddies are envious of my summer schedule, and I don’t blame them. It’s wonderful to have time to forget about all of the troubles of the previous school year, and prepare for the challenges of the school year to come. As of right now, next year will be a carefree year when I won’t have to say, “Spit out your gum,” once or more a class period. I won’t have to turn students with illegal off-campus lunch food away from my classroom. I won’t have to argue with students about grades and credits and semester report cards. I won’t have to worry about my day-to-day curriculum (oh wait, yes I will, I haven’t written that yet.)

Ah the glory of summer.

May 09, 2007

Advisory Answer?

After a week of trying to figure out how to sell our SLC model to the staff of the high school where I work, and being stopped at ever turn by the realities of scheduling, facilities, and the challenge of teacher buy-in, I have come to a conclusion: what we have designed in committee may not work for our school. It could work, but the way I see it right now, we’ve created a structure that resembles a holy brick of Swiss cheese that is precariously perched upon a bed of sandstone. Sort of like the King of Swamp Castle (if you don’t get that one, don’t worry).

However, there is one element in our SLC design that I believe will work, can be scheduled, and that teachers will buy into. It is the idea of creating an advisory period where teachers will have a heterogeneous group of twenty students to meet with every day for the entire four years that the students are enrolled in high school. The concept comes from one of my colleagues who experienced a similar course while attending college.

A radical idea? I don’t think so (certainly not as radical as a whole-school transformation). The SLC goal is to create smaller learning communities, right? That could be done through complete school restructuring, moving teachers, and complicated scheduling, or it could be done a whole lot easier by simply leaving teachers in their own classrooms and adding a single class to the daily schedule. The students and teacher within this Advisory course would be their own smaller learning community that would last over a 4-year period of time. Teachers would be given a structured opportunity to get to know their students well, and for those students to connect with other students sharing a common identity.

What’s in it for the students? Students want to feel like they belong to something. Often times, a high school of 3400 students is just too big to feel like anything other than 1 of 3400 students. But being 1 of 20 students is very different. When you are 1 of 3400 students its easy to hide away or fall between the cracks. Impossible when you are 1 of 20. Also, if a student works closely with the same teacher for all four years of high school, and their teacher serves in the role of advocate for the student for four years in a row there’s a far better chance that that student is going to be successful.

What’s in it for the teachers? Teachers want to be effective, and yet there are always some students who get left behind. Having 20 students that a teacher can concentrate on make sure that those 20 students are never lost little sheep, but instead under constant supervision. If a student is struggling in a course, the course teacher can turn to the advisory teacher for assistance on how best to help the student in question. And how much fun would it be to announce on stage the names of your 20 very own advisory students when they graduate? Very rewarding indeed.

What’s in it for the administrators? The scheduling, facilities, and management nightmare that could be brought on by a whole school restructuring gone bad make me not even want to consider ever becoming an administrator. Administration is there to support the teachers who support the students. Adding one more class to the daily schedule and making minor changes to the bell schedule seem a whole lot easier than the alternatives, and even easier to undo if things were to not work out for everyone involved after a year or two. Our SLC design pretty much doubles the workload for administrators and counselors; adding a single advisory period to the day changes little or nothing to the administrative responsibilities.

Why is this a better idea then what’s already been decided on? It’s simpler and potentially more effective. My father taught me to always K.I.S.(S). If our goal is to get kids more connected to school, then the advisory period is enough to get it done without ravaging the current campus environment. While yes teachers would be given an additional class to teach each day, and yes it would mean fewer instructional minutes for other classes (if the advisory class met for 18 minutes daily it would mean deducting only 3 minutes from each of the currently scheduled six periods), the payoff is overwhelmingly more attractive in application to the alternative.

Is an advisory period the whole answer? No. While an advisory period addresses many of the goals of developing an effective SLC, it does not address them all. For example, it does not support teachers of a common set of students having classrooms in close proximity to each other. On our campus teachers are spread out all over the place in subject unalike buildings and zones where many feel isolated and detached. But even if we did move teachers of a common set of students to classrooms in closer proximity, that alone will do nothing. Moving teachers should encourage them to collaborate, but collaboration happens best with shared ideas and with individuals who enjoy working together and is not contingent upon location.

Isn’t the advisory period already part of our overall SLC design? It’s where I believe we should start. I plan on recommending to our principal that we at least start with the advisory period and then add on the rest of the plan over time as we see the need. I’m afraid that if we swing with the big bat, and we strike out, that we may not only never get another chance in the batter box, but that the resulting failure might do irreparable and long lasting damage to our school as a whole. No one wants that. This is an unbelievably great school that does not require major reform, just some tweaking here and there. Starting with the advisory period first gives us the opportunity to do reform right.

May 03, 2007


Soon I will sit down with my colleagues and explain to them why our high school is going to be transformed from one huge (3400 student/120 teacher) institution into four smaller (850 student/30 teacher) schools. We are making this transformation because the campus administrators and 25 teachers in a design team committee (of which I am one) have studied the available research on smaller learning communities, have looked carefully at the needs of our students, and have applied for and received a large sum of money in the form of a grant to follow the current trend in public education of downsizing. I honestly believe this transformation (if executed correctly) will be a positive change for the students and staff of this high school. Now I must convince the staff of teachers and support personnel that this change is necessary and will improve the current performance and long-term success of the students.

I’m struggling a little bit with the “necessary” part. Struggling because while I believe that this is the best course of action, my belief is stronger than my evidence. Teachers appreciate evidence over beliefs, so I feel like I need to come up with a concrete argument to make beyond “I think this is a great idea,” or, “we’re doing this because the principal said so.” The high school I work in already has a 735 API score, dominates the county in most athletic and academic competitions, and sends better than 80% of it’s students to higher education. I believe in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and so I am struggling to find a justification for change at a school that is already great. But of course, it’s not really “great” for EVERYONE involved. For every successful, engaged, enlightened student who is connected to Drama, football, or band, there is one or more who isn’t connected to anything on campus. For every teacher who feels like an effective educator and is crazy passionate about teaching, there’s one or more who feel exhausted, disenfranchised, and desperate for some form of adult interaction and collaboration to help them through their day.

There is a consensus of thought that believes that a smaller population of students taught by a smaller number of teachers will result in students who are better known by their teachers and teachers who will enjoy a more collegial relationship with each other. The key to collegiality here is building time into the Master Schedule for teachers to meet and work together. Seemingly impossible within the standard 6 period day model (5 preps and 1 conference), but the standard 6 period day model works very well for this campus and these teachers. I’m afraid my colleagues will not willingly give up their 6 periods in exchange for 7 or 8 periods (or dare I say, block scheduling) unless they are shown how a change to what works will make what works work far better. In addition, many believe that teachers who usually work in an environment without any adult interaction all day, can benefit from working in closer physical proximity to other teachers of either like subject, or in our model, same smaller school. That means that some teachers will have to move classrooms. I anticipate that this will be a very unpopular aspect of our transformation.

Our born in committee smaller 4-school model has been designed and approved, but the model itself is incomplete and untested. The division including in the model is based on the current administrative structure of the school: we have assigned one of the four assistant principals to manage the discipline of one of the four proposed schools. Our administrators will have to be effective on two tiers: the first as the dean of discipline of their own smaller school while at the same time attending to their more campus-wide responsibilities in areas like testing, facilities, activities, scheduling and the other behind-the-scene support mechanisms that assist teachers in teaching.

The counseling staff is comprised of nine counselors who currently divide up the population of students somewhat evenly. Its only somewhat even because this model gives all of the special education students to one counselor, all of the ELL students to another counselor, while the remaining seven counselors service the balance of the kids. This too will have to change. For some reason the counseling department at our school (and I understand this may be true at other schools as well) is a constant source of frustration for the teaching staff. While a wonderful group of individuals, the relationship between teacher and counselor seems forever frustrated by counselors who never seem fully aware of all of the program offerings and requirements of the teachers, and by teachers who struggle to comprehend the complexity of scheduling students into classes and balancing the number of students in sections. If any one issue holds up the transformation process it’s likely to come from the counseling department that may insist that our new 4-school plan “cannot be scheduled.”

Initially I though that the design team when presenting this transformation to staff would be forced to hard-sell our plan like a used car salesman trying to move an 86 Plymouth off the lot. But after sleeping on it, I think what we really need to do if we are going to be effective is act more like therapists. If I had developed a serious disease and my doctor was explaining his or her preferred course of treatment to save my life I certainly wouldn’t want to be shown charts and graphs along with a clown making balloon animals while listening to the score of Batman. No, I would want my doctor to patiently and carefully speak to me as a guide to my recovery and outline the steps we would need to take to not just save my life but to ultimately improve the quality of my life. I would want a collaborator, a helper, and the absolute reassurance that life would indeed get better for me over time.

April 20, 2007

Teachers’ Teacher?

Which I guess is what I officially am now. Last night I finished teaching my second teacher credential course. I love teaching credential courses because the baby teachers who inhabit these classrooms are often wildly excited about their new profession, and have a genuine desire to change the world. It’s awesome fun to help them learn about classroom discipline, lesson planning, and relating to students. It gives me an even brighter hope for the future.

Teaching these courses adds to the length of my teaching day twice a week for five weeks stretching it from 7:30 AM to 9:00 PM, with a break between 2:30 and 5:30. Marathon days in front of people teaching le subject de jour. It’s exhausting, but worthwhile. At my high school I now run into student teachers that took my course last fall. We stop in the halls to chat, catch-up, and share funny stories. It’s very rewarding to see a "baby teacher” evolve into a “student teacher,” and continue to be fired-up about teaching. Very cool.

Last year about this time I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to pursue administration, or teaching at the university level. It’s obvious how that went. I actually enjoyed teaching these last two credential courses so much that I am now toying with the idea of chasing down an EdD. or PhD. in education. That way when I’m finished I can teach at the university full time. Part of me says that if I go to the university level full-time and stop teaching at the high school level that I will lose my effectiveness as a teachers’ teacher because I am no longer teaching non-teachers. (Does that make sense?) But a larger voice inside of me shouts out the need for change and growth. Change and growth that may be satisfied by even higher education. But, seriously, I don’t know if I can survive a three to four year program as a student along with everything else that is going on.

At the high school I am trying to get funding for my computer classroom. The machines my students and I use are antiquated, and in disrepair. Our principal has committed to replacing the old equipment with new machines, but the expense of doing so continues to be a challenge that is not easily met on a public high schools budget. At least not the way our budget is structured. I’m forced to make sacrifices and figure out how to make-do with what is available. I understand that computer courses are much, much more expensive to support than a standard course that does not use technology, but this generation needs to be technology literate, and without the technology to make them literate, well, you get the picture.

Perkins IV money is being made available to elective programs that appropriately prepare students for careers and follow a recommended sequence of courses, include a minimum number of hours in those courses, a connection to a post-secondary program, and that address not only the K-12 Content Standards put also the California CTE Pathway standards. Sequences of elective courses that satisfy these requirements are eligible for funding. Other elective courses that do not are left to fend for themselves and in the current environment of moneys being focused away from electives and into remedial courses for students needing to pass the required exams.

One of the changes I’ve been considering is the subject matter I teach at the high school level. I am a credentialed English teacher who is NCLB compliant in Theatre. I started off teaching theatre for two years before the computer opportunity pulled me away. I miss teaching theatre and I’ve been thinking a lot lately (really a lot) about going back to teaching theatre. I even applied for a theatre job with another school district in an area I’ve always dreamed of living in. I didn’t get the job (BTW, is being called an “enthusiastic guy” a good thing or not?) I’ve had a few opportunities this year to put my earring back in my left ear and work with theatre students. It was a real blast. I found myself working from place a passion that I’ve not visited in a very long time.

At the same time I am heavily entrenched into the foxholes of school reform working on our SLC (CASLE) model. A model we are planning to implement for next school year. Major restructuring of the high school, the campus, the school day, and the way students and teachers relate to each other. I firmly believe that if done right, we will be able to seriously improve and enhance the students’ educational experience. But this will require a variety of paradigm shifts that won’t be easy for the staff and students of the oldest high school in California still operating at its original location.

One of my ideas for our SLC will be a school of Arts, Media, and Entertainment. I want to combine both the multimedia production discipline with the theatre discipline and create new opportunities for kids to not only experience the creative process, but also participate in even more authentic “real-world” experiences that will help them learn vocational as well as academic lessons. I can envision theatrical productions that include not just the drama kids, but students from the whole school of Arts, Media, and Entertainment including obvious groups like band and choir along with kids from art, video, drafting, and even woodshop. Yes, woodshop. How cool would it be for art students to draw the set, the drafting students to draw up the plans for the set, and the woodshop students to build the set? I realize that you don’t need a smaller school to get the woodshop program to work with the drama program, but it seems like it would be a lot easier with a smaller, more familiar population of students and teachers.

Spring is a busy time of year for teachers.

March 03, 2007

Smaller is better?

The future of public schools in California is getting smaller, not bigger. Our high school is in the early stages of creating a Small Learning Community or SLC. We’ve received grant money and are now in the first year of the process making structural plans for next year. As each high school is unique based on the needs of its students, our high school has its own unique challenges when addressing our students’ needs. What works as an SLC at one campus may or may not work at our campus. Being a veteran teacher I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth a number of times on a variety of issues, but this is the first time that I have been involved in the process of making a school smaller.

Some research shows that lower achieving students accomplish more and increase their feeling of connectedness to their teachers in smaller educational environments. However, the research also shows that just changing the structure of a high school to create smaller and more intimate learning groups is not enough to improve student performance. To me it’s really about student connectedness and teachers taking a more active role and interest in the lives and success of their students. My question is: Do we really need to restructure the whole high school experience just to get teachers to pay more attention to their students and students to pay more attention to their studies and invest in their own educational experience?

It sort of sounds like I’m saying that the key to student success is simply more caring teachers. That’s nutty. Caring is not enough. The key to student success includes teachers who are invested in kids, and kids who are invested in their education. But is it possible that there are more investment opportunities in a smaller setting? Maybe. Some classes are already staffed at 20 students to 1 teacher. Teachers in these 20:1 classes express a greater satisfaction with the performance of their students. Students feel like they get more and better attention from their teachers. So there is a starting point.

It seems to me that no major changes are needed for the students who are already high achievers. I believe that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That approach can be applied to the programs (i.e. AP) and structures (bell schedule, subject alike departments, and classrooms) within which the higher achievers currently participate. These students perform well in their courses earn high marks and outstanding test scores with the opportunities that are currently available.

However the lower achieving groups need some more attention if they are going to begin to perform like the higher achievers. Our task is to figure out how to best assist them in their development. Our high school currently addresses the challenges of the 9th grade middle and lower students by placing them in “houses” where three core teachers are joined to teach a specific group of students. After a year and a half of application, the results of this type of consortium appear to be positive. We are now looking for a way to expand on this model and carry it into the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades. “Aye, there’s the rub.”

Master schedule. What changes do we make to best help the 10-12 population of middle to lower achieving students that take advantage of smaller learning environments that will still work with our master schedule? The logistics are challenging here. I am not an AP nor have I ever had to create a master schedule for a school of any size, much less one of 3400 students. I can imagine an approach that includes chicken bones and tea leaves in order to make it work. Scary. I believe its more possible to design a working schedule then to implement one, especially with a veteran staff who is more than comfortable with the “classic” 6-period day. I recently became aware of a high school that offers 8 extended periods to their students swapping odd and even periods on alternate days. Hmmm.

But working out the schedule is the easy part. The difficulty lies in providing time for teachers of like populations of students to collaborate, and then getting them to actually work together on thematic units, projects, and assessments. I think that all teachers would agree that this type of teamwork is a fine idea, but getting it to actually work is an entirely different story. The day of the maverick teacher is gone with the old west. Once upon a time we teachers were in charge of our classroom curriculum, we could choose our own assignments, and created our own assessments. If we wanted to spend a semester on Hamlet, we could. Now with NCLB, CSTs, CSTPs, CAHSEE, and the curriculum standards combined with district pushed scope and sequence documents the “Art” of teaching is quickly being replaced by the “Science” of teaching. I can’t argue the positive results as measured by API and AYP, but it feels like more and more the individuality of the teacher is being ignored.

But teaching isn’t about the material, or the delivery, or the assessment. It’s about the people, the students. Teaching is about building people, and making connections between people. Our job as teachers is to be respectable role models for our students, to share our passion for learning, and to let them know that no matter what difficulties they may face, they too can be successful in their lives. To help them find their voices, and express themselves. To help them achieve their deepest desires. To assist them in realizing their dreams by giving them the tools they need to be successful. Everything else is just the pedagogy we use to achieve these goals, and pedagogy should not get in the way.

If a smaller learning environment can better help build people then I am in favor of exploring the idea further, and will continue to volunteer to work with the exploratory design team.

February 15, 2007

My Philosophy of Education?

“Students learn and achieve more when they work with professional teachers who are fundamentally committed to each and every child’s success and willing to not just deliver effective instruction but also to share and connect with the students at a personal level.”

That needs some unpacking.

“Students learn and achieve more”
This should be the primary goal of education in general and teachers specifically. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that today students are achieving less. Some students do not master even the most basic skills after many years in the classroom. The current trend is to make sure that all students can pass the same test at a level called “proficient.” Making sure that everyone passes a standardized test at this level of proficiency requires that the level considered proficient be very, very low. Furthermore, most of the limited available resources (teachers, money, electives) must then be focused on bringing the lowest students up to proficient. This draws resources away from students already proficient and in search of excellence beyond proficiency. Remedial courses using titles like “review” and “prep” are filled with underperforming students who have been removed from their electives. Some experts believe that this is not the best practice, that students need a reason to come to school beyond the three “r’s,” but practical administrators and superintendents are making the changes that they feel are necessary to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, and those changes are seeing test scores improve.

“when they work with professional teachers”
Teaching is a highly challenging very difficult job that requires a wide variety of skills and training as well as an endless supply of patience. Many people do not consider k-12 teaching to be a “professional” occupation. However, anyone who spends anytime in a classroom, even in a simple observation, can see just how much is required of an individual who chooses teaching as his or her vocation.

“teachers who are fundamentally committed to each and every child’s success”
I think that anyone who makes the decision to become a teacher, then satisfies all of the requirements of earning a credential and finally makes it into a contract position is fundamentally committed to every child’s success. But how do we define “success?” The global definition of “success” in education has changed significantly. It’s easy to define educational success in high school as the attainment of a diploma. It’s far more difficult to understand what that diploma represents, and what it really means for the recipient. Disappointingly, it seems like the diploma means less and less every year. Once, a high school diploma meant that the bearer was more than adequately prepared for just about any entry-level job available. Students graduating from high school had adequate experience beyond the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. In addition, they had sufficient vocational experience making them attractive ready to work job candidates. Only those interested in management, medicine, or law needed further education in order to succeed in those professions. Today, not even a bachelor’s degree gives an individual the endorsement a high school diploma once represented. Many college graduates find themselves in need of a master’s degree in order to get them a “decent” job interview. Is that because the world today requires smarter and better-trained people? Sure, but it also means that the high school diploma does not represent the type of appropriate training and education that it once did.

“and willing to not just deliver effective instruction”
Effective instruction is not fixed, standard, or unchanging. The most effective instruction works for the student population being educated. As that population grows and changes, the instruction methods and pedagogy that goes with it needs to grow and change. I once taught next door to a teacher who had taught the same subject in the same classroom with the same materials in the same manner for 25 years. He was successful at some level, but his unwillingness to change with the students meant that over time he lost some of his effectiveness as a teacher. This is not to say that all veteran teachers are ineffective. The opposite is clearly true. Those individuals who survive 25 or more years in the classroom are doing some things very, very well with and for students. My ideal approach to teacher training and staff development would include inviting successful, experienced, veteran teachers to share their best practices for effective instruction with newer teachers. I believe that experienced working classroom teachers know what works for kids better than the most thorough research analysts and the most celebrated PhDs. Too often the experiences of the population of veteran teachers are dismissed in favor of the techniques and trends developed by the good people at the university.

“but also to share and connect with the students at a personal level.”
Public education is too big. We need to get small. We don’t need to reduce the size of our campuses, or even the number of students on those campuses. We need to continue to reduce class sizes and provide more opportunities for teachers to get to know their students, and for students to really learn about their teachers. The standard staffing ratio at my high school is 35 students to 1 teacher. A handful of classes are 20:1. I know of other schools who staff at over 40:1. This is nuts. High school is not college. College students don’t need their instructor’s attention. High school students do. High school students get easily lost when their teachers do not or cannot learn who they are and what is important to them. Students must personally invest in their own education. Teachers cannot help reinforce the value and importance of education to a student who they are unable to spend any time with during class because the student is 1 of 40 who need help during a 55-minute class period. Kids today are starved for personal attention and need adults to validate them as human beings.

If you have not taken the time to articulate your own Philosophy of Education, take some time and write it down. It may change the way you greet your students tomorrow, and ultimately make you a better teacher.

February 08, 2007

Six great things about teaching?

The Students
The students are the reason why teaching is the best job in the world. Working with students of any age that have a desire to learn and are willing to grow is worth every teacher’s time and patience. For those of us who have shared an “a-ha” moment, or witnessed another human being’s idea bulb light up brightly over their heads we know just how amazing and addicting the experience can be.

The Schooling

This is the art of teaching. Focusing on effective delivery and designing appropriate effective assignments that give students the opportunity to actually learn something may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but I love it. Curriculum design and delivery is a skilled craft that can be learned in a teacher credential program, but must be polished and refined over years of classroom teaching.

The Subject Matter
If you love history, I mean you are really passionate about history, then there is no better way to wrap yourself up in the past then to share your love of facts, dates, and the greatest stories of all time with others. Teaching allows you to do that. In fact, your passion for the content is critical to your success in the classroom.

The Schedule
A week off at Thanksgiving, two weeks at Easter, and three weeks at Christmas, plus two months off in the summer. The only people who spend more time away from work then teachers are politicians. Being finished with your workday at 2:30 is fantastic, especially is you have a family.

The Salary
Ok, maybe it’s not that great, depending on where you work, how many dependents you have, and what kind of debt you’re carrying around. But I am consistently amazed that I actually get paid for teaching. It doesn’t feel like a job to me. It’s certainly not a sacrifice. Unlike some of my peers, I don’t hate driving to work, and I never regret the effort that I put in during my day.

The Spotlight
I have an ego; I’m not shy about that. When I teach I get the attention of a full room of students for hours on end as I impart my wisdom about life and whatever subject I am teaching that period. Plus I get to go to bed at night confidant that I have helped to mold and change lives in a positive way. That’s cool.

Six difficult things about teaching:

The Students
There are three basic groups of students. The first group is full of self-directed, eager listeners, who have already developed a love for learning. They are fun to teach, but not very satisfying because they don’t need the teacher to do more than deliver information and assign challenging work. The middle group comes to class because they recognize that it is the socially acceptable thing to do (ok, their parents make them), they will listen begrudgingly, and learn what you try to teach them, so long as its not too difficult, and they still have time to skateboard, chat online, or play xBox until midnight every night. These students are more fun to teach then the first group because with just slightly more effort, they will not only perform, but also will genuinely appreciates the teachers’ efforts. The third group has checked out of school mentally, and for some, physically as well. They don’t come to school unless they are forced to, they have difficulty listening or staying focused on anything longer than a music video, and they haven’t yet assigned any personal value to their education. These are the most difficult group to teach, but by far, the most rewarding once they begin to turn around and achieve.

The Schooling
Non-teachers, especially parents, assume that to teach a child to read or write is a simple process of trial and error. Challenging enough for the one learner, one teacher relationship. Multiply the number of learners to 20 or more, and the challenge multiplies exponentially. Best intentions and a desire to change lives are not enough to make a good, and more importantly, effective teacher. The best teacher training helps, but to be a truly great instructor, one has to commit themselves to spending time with students in the classroom delivering instruction and studying the results. It’s hard work, harder then most people understand.

The Subject Matter
All teachers would love to be able to teach what we want to. But more and more, teachers are being told what to teach, when to teach it, and sometimes, how. Standards are important and the district scope and sequence guides are key to making sure that all students get all the content that they need. Long ago teachers could spend six weeks on Shakespeare in the spring if they felt the students would benefit from the experience. Now we are bound to the topic and the number of questions included in the standardized tests.

The Schedule
From 7:30 to 2:30 five days a week a teacher is on stage in front of their students. We are being watch hawkishly. After 2:30 the real work begins: grading and lesson planning. I no longer teach English because spending most of my Sundays grading and not with my family quickly exhausted me. And if a teacher volunteers to coach or run an after-school program, the days at work simply seem to flow one into the other

The Salary
Collective bargaining is great. Unfortunately, it also means that unequal effort and results get paid equally. Equity in education is vitally important; equity of pay between teachers who do not make equal efforts or achieve equal results is nutty.

The Spotlight
In my classroom I am ruler of my domain. Outside my classroom I am just another Joe. While sports stars and celebrities are rejecting the label of “role model,” teachers embrace it because we’re not afraid of being seen for who we are. Unfortunately, when it comes to failing kids, the teachers are always the first to blame (after all, we do give failing grades occasionally). But the same way we are only marginally responsible for kids who succeed, we are equally only marginally responsible for kids who fail. Success or failure is ultimately up to the individual student and their support group of which teachers are only a fraction.

January 30, 2007

Classroom Presence?

“People are attracted to other people who make them forget how lousy their lives are.”

I’m sure someone else said that before I did, but I don’t know who, or when. I was talking with one of my students the other day when it dawned on me that we are naturally drawn to those who brighten our days and make us feel good inside. This seems really obvious, until we consider how important it is to our classroom presence. Think about how much time you spend with your students. They often spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents, and not by their own choice. I believe that teachers have a responsibility to their students to reflect on their classroom presence in regards to my brainstorm statement and make an effort to be attractive people, positive influences, and role models to the students, even when the students do not return the same consideration.

I’m not in a great mood every day. Sometimes my students can tell, sometimes they can’t. But I make a daily effort to put on a happy face and act in a manner that improves and brightens their day, instead of darkening it. They usually smile back.

This week marks the beginning of the second semester. One of the high school courses I teach is semester long, so I had a whole new group of students who knew nothing about my class, my classroom presence, or me. I introduced the class, I introduced myself, and tried to make them feel comfortable and at ease. The following day I read and explained all of the classroom and computer rules using humor and personal stories. Some laughed, some smiled, but all paid attention if for no other reason then to try and figure out just what I would say next.

Later that same day I greeted a different returning group of students as they entered the classroom with such joy and exuberance that one of them told me she thought I was crazy. I responded that I was one of the sanest people she’d ever met. (I’m not sure she believed me.)

High school students, and now graduate students, enjoy coming to my classes because I make an effort to make each and every class meeting a special event. I share my enthusiasm, and love for learning and living with everyone. But not all teachers put this type of effort into their classroom presence. Some teachers simply show up and teach the stuff. Some of those teachers get positive results; many do not, and do not understand why.

Students need to be sold on the material they are required to learn. Very few individuals really want to learn Algebra. Most students will attend class, complete homework, and take tests because they see it as a necessary step towards achieving a goal. But they don’t always like it. Few teachers see themselves as salespeople. However, selling our curriculum to our students can be a huge factor to their success not only on the standardized test, but their ultimate success in life as well.

One way we can sell our “snake oil” is through excellence in lesson planning and content delivery. It really does matter how much a teacher plans their lessons, designs their assignments, and refines their assessments. Taking the time to design the perfect presentation, the most accurate lecture notes, and testing instruments that really do measure the students’ understanding make the difference between a master teacher and miserable teacher. Miserable teachers make for even more miserable experiences for the students (we’ve all been there).

It helps if you love the subject matter, and are willing to share that love with your pupils. If you hate science, don’t teach it. The students will immediately know that you are indifferent to the material and they will have no reason at all to get plugged into your lesson. We must also be clear on the importance of not just enthusiasm for the subject matter, but also our personal mastery. You gotta know what you’re talking about up there man.

Even more important than the finest pedagogy, we teachers must love teaching. It must be fundamentally and critically important to us that our students “get it,” what ever “it” is. We should be happy, overjoyed, and even ecstatic when our students walk through our doors to spend an hour (or more) in our presence. We should wield our powers of instruction like Thor swings Mjollnir, his magical golden hammer impacting our students with the finest knowledge, and the power of wisdom.

Like it or not, the students are watching our every move, and listening carefully to each and every word we speak not only to them, but to everyone we encounter while they are around. Our words and actions have a major influence on our students. Even the little things that we think they miss, they get. It’s not easy to be on stage all that time, but that is the teachers’ job. Many teachers feel so self-conscious about this responsibility that they choose to live away, sometimes far away, from the campuses on which they teach. The pressure of being watched 24/7 and potentially bumping into a student at an unfortunate time can be daunting. Sometimes it’s just easier to avoid the “big show” between hours of 3pm and 7am and on the weekends.

While privacy is very important to our survival as teachers, we need to remember that we are in fact the role models for this generation. Actors, athletes, and politicians, all wave off the moniker, but not teachers. Teachers embrace the status symbol with both arms because we understand the importance of the lives and the futures of our students, and we care about the future of the planet. It’s so easy to be pessimistic about the world in 2007. But I believe that we teachers owe it to our students to focus on the positives all around us, and to share our optimism.