May 22, 2009

Easy for the (Elective) Teacher?

For 5 years I have “reflected” on my teaching experience. I’m not sure what motivated me to begin beyond an overwhelming feeling of fullness; I needed to get rid of some things to make room for others. Of course that snowballed into a habit of binging and purging on teacher stuff. Then came the readers who actually made comments on my ramblings and, well, the rest is recorded here in the last 99 essays on teaching. This is number 100, and my last, at least here, for now. Here is a link for those who wish to continue reading on.

I am a teacher of elective classes. Some think the teaching of electives is easy. I teach a subject that students like to take, but I am a department of one and I write most of my curriculum alone. My pupils are not automatically enrolled; they have to choose the course. So elective teachers live and die by the number of students that enroll into their classes. Not enough students? No class. Yes, some students walk in enthusiastic and ready to learn. Others have a low expectation for the quantity of work they are required to complete in their elective.

It’s easy for an elective teacher to claim that school should be fun; we often teach “fun” topics. But why are they fun? Is multimedia fun by its very nature? Maybe. Or maybe it’s the teacher that makes it fun. Is English fun? How about Algebra? I believe it depends on the teacher, their attitude, and their approach to class. Notice I didn’t say the students. The students will react to the tone set by the teacher. The teacher must be passionate about the subject he or she is teaching, well qualified to teach students, and committed to their success.

These may be dark days in education, but I am optimistic. Budget cuts have lead to teacher layoffs, increased class size, and fewer teaching resources. Although we have grown to love our smart boards, LCD projectors, and computers in every classroom, the technology and visual aids are NOT what makes teachers great. Teachers have successfully taught throughout the ages without all of the extras that we currently enjoy. And students have learned. Sure it’s frustrating right now, and of course we’d like it to be different, but teachers will endure. We will continue to teach our students regardless of circumstances.

If I had to sum up my message to teachers in a paragraph, it would be this one. Invest in your students. Don’t just share your passion for learning, but infect your pupils with it. Teaching is the most important job in the world; and teachers change and improve the world. What we say to our students, how we treat them, and what we teach them in our classrooms has a deep and lasting impact on their lives. The words and actions of one teacher ripple throughout the classroom, and into the entire world. It is not an easy job.

May 15, 2009

Stay in the Game?

You already know that I HATE the end of the school year. While everyone else is excited for summer, all I can think of is the loss of graduating students. Of course I am overwhelmingly happy to see my students go off into the world, I just get a little too overwhelmed sometimes. This year we are not just promoting 600+ students, we are also losing about 30% of our staff due to SERP, RIF, and a new high school. In addition, it was announced this week that my favorite administrator is leaving for a position at the district office.

This is the end of my 10th year teaching the same subjects, in the same classroom, on the same campus, parking in the same space, eating lunch at the same taco stand on Tuesdays. My closest friend on campus is leaving for the new high school that opens in the fall. It’s “state of the art” in every way led by a motivated and dynamic administrative staff. Do you get a sense of how I’m feeling? Still, it’s been an amazing decade full of personal and professional growth. I have helped many students up the next rung of their ladder.

This spring, like every spring, I explored the teacher job market. I found an interesting position teaching technology in a nearby state where I would love to live. However, the good advice of friends kept me in place. So now as the 2008-2009 school year draws to a close, I am preparing for the 2009-2010 school year: meeting with next year’s advanced students, making plans for the summer, and revising the 9th edition of my multimedia curriculum. I am focusing on the positive tasks so that I do not get distracted by the impending loss of my graduating students.

Teaching is like that. Teachers pour their heart and soul into the success of their students. We work alone most of the time and cherish the few moments we get with other adults. We commit ourselves to a job that does not offer the opportunity for advancement (administration does not count), or even a merit-based paycheck. We are told what standards to teach, and when to teach them. We are told by the “professionals” that while we too are considered “professional” that “anyone” can be a school teacher, and that “everyone” knows how to educate children. Of course they do.

Teaching is a job that is full of disappointments. I know, they never tell you that in teacher school, but it is. More importantly, teaching is a job full of hope. And not just imagined, or wished for hope, but actual hope. Teachers serve their students daily. We lift our pupils up and often out of their situations, however dire. We educate children giving them hope for their lives today, and for their future tomorrows. Teachers inspire their students to learn, grow, and succeed. It is crucial that committed and confident teachers stay in the game. I plan to continue.

May 11, 2009

Aquistion and Application?

To borrow a phrase from one of my esteemed colleagues, and a concept that sounds like it came out of a round table conversation between 3 old friends, what if modern education focused more on the acquisition and application of information, and less on the memorization? Because of the Internet, students literally have the world’s knowledge base at their finger tips. Within seconds they can find the answer to any question that any teacher can ask them about, well, anything. The problem is that many pupils don’t know the difference between fact and fiction, or what to do with their answers.

So what if instead of focusing on the memorization of names, dates, locations, events, and even some concepts, teachers focused on the most effective ways to gather the most accurate information, and then, how to synthesize and apply this information to reach a conclusion? Of course it is important to know stuff, but what stuff is the most important to know? My father use to argue for the use of calculators. His point was that once the basic math was understood, that a calculator could speed up the math process allowing people access to high-order mathematical equations and algebraic concepts.

I have taught computer classes for 10 years. Most students come in with a working knowledge of how to use the computer and the internet, or so they think. Just because a kid can create a MySpace or Facebook account, does NOT mean they can properly take advantage of the Internet. We need to teach kids how to use the most powerful knowledge resource of all time. The problem is that many teachers don’t know how to use it themselves. We need to teach kids the different between fact and opinion, and what makes a web site an appropriate resource.

I am worried that today’s kids don’t know how to think. Yes, they know how to take tests well, and of course they can fill out packets of worksheets like champs, but how well do they think? How much time do you spend in your classroom on analysis, criticism, and critical thinking? How many classic novels do kids read in middle and high school that are followed up with valuable discussion? We all know it’s important for teachers to reflect, but do we teach reflection to our students and give them time and require them to complete the same exercise?

Our goal is to build better human beings. Perhaps we need to adjust the methods we use to build these beings. I’d like to say that I have memorized the names and years of service for each President of the United States and that I can rattle them off sequentially at will. But I can’t. However, I can find that information in .32 seconds on Google. If I had stayed in Mr. Carey’s AP US History course, then I could follow this up with a witty response to your essay prompt. Times have changed; the way we teach needs to change.

May 06, 2009

Miracle Grow?

The most important lesson I teach my students is time management, and I’m afraid I don’t teach it very well. Most classrooms in most schools are very structured and organized palaces of instruction full of meaningful and complex coursework assigned and submitted on a regular and reliable schedule. Vocabulary words on Mondays, definitions due Wednesday, spelling quiz on Friday. New chapter on Monday, lab time on Wednesday, chapter test on Friday. It’s a schedule ballet that teachers and students have danced for years. If students can keep pace with the teacher and tender their completed work on time they pass.

But what happens when the structure is loosened up? Have you ever transplanted a plant from a smaller to a larger pot, or into the ground? When my father taught me to transplant I was shocked by what he did to the roots. My dad would pull the plant out of its happy and comfortable home and then “massage” the base breaking up most of the dirt and loosening up the roots. As my dad put the plant into its new home he explained that by properly preparing both the roots and the soil the plant had a better chance.

The plant did not look happy in transition, in fact it looked more like it might die. The exposed roots were tangled and twisted. Dad explained that was because they were “root bound,” the old pot was now too small for the growing plant; If the plant was left in the smaller pot, it would die. We needed to provide a larger space, with looser dirt in order for the roots and the plant as a whole to continue to grow. And he was always right. Whatever plants we transplanted always came back bigger and healthier. Miracle Gro helped too.

What does transplanting plants have to do with teaching and time management? I wrote earlier about how I handle late work. I always take late work, and I rarely assign makeup work. When the students ask what they can do to improve their grade, I tell them to do the work that I have assigned, and if they didn’t like the grade they earned, then to go back to the assignment, redo or finish it, and then resubmit for a re-evaluation. Returning to unfinished work forces the students to reflect on their efforts, make needed improvements, and complete the assignment.

Offering students the opportunity to return to their work does not fit the schedule ballet experienced in most classrooms or into most teacher’s idea of proper time management. But students who are doubling up on assigned work must manage their time appropriately to complete all of the requirements by their scheduled due dates. This forces students to do two very important things: spread out their roots, and find fresh dirt to grow in. The transition may be ugly and uncomfortable, but the end result will be a student who is learning and growing into a better and healthier human being.