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.