Monday, August 3, 2009

Another One Bites the Dust

Tomorrow morning, I will officially be depressed.

Another friend has decided to vacate Sarasota for greener pastures. Actually, it's more than one friend - it's two. And they will surely be missed.

Both were teachers. One will continue her teaching career up in Pennsylvania while the other will be pursuing another career after attending graduate school in central Florida. Sarasota County needed these two, and they couldn't keep a hold of them due to budget cuts, not to mention the way our school "system" is run. We were lucky to have them for as long as we did.

As I sit here, trying not to cry over MY loss, I am reminded that they will be much happier where they are going. They are starting over, and that is an experience I can truly relate to. Had I never left Westerville, Ohio, to start over and reinvent myself, I never would have met my fantastic husband and I never would have met these amazing people.

It's hard to not be saddened though. For whoever said, "It is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all" has never had their heart broken numerous times. I remember when it first happened, when our first friend from our tight circle decided it was time to fly the coop. He was in our wedding and claims to be the cupid that brought my husband and I together. He left 2 years ago for Philadelphia.

Then, it was like dominoes. One of my very best friends that I had worked with for 2 years decided he needed to move closer to home and left for DC. The same year, the person who I felt like was my sister moved to Nags Head because her husband relocated. I remember sobbing in the school office, asking her who was going to be here to understand me. I still get choked up when I find the walkie-talkie watch in my desk drawer that my DC friend gave to me our first year working together.

As if there wasn't enough salt in my wounds already. Now, a dear friend who I collaborated with for the past 3 years has decided to join our friend in Philadelphia.

It's a wonder I keep any friends at all, for fear that they too, one day, will leave Sarasota and me behind. Or maybe it's just a sign of what I am supposed to do next. One by one, as our friends move on, they look back and my husband and I as if to ask, "Well? Aren't you coming?"

Who knows. There are times I think I want to move closer to home, and there are other times when I am so grateful to be in the sun and 1200 miles away from family drama. No one knows for sure what will happen a year from now, so I try not to think that far ahead.

What I do know for sure is that I will cry tonight. I will miss my friends as they start a new chapter in their lives and I can only hope they find what they are looking for.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Teachers Will Be Held Accountable...Someday

Recently, I read that President Obama provided the Secretary of Education with $4 billion of federal aid to help speed up change within the American education system. In order for states to be eligible for a portion of the $4 billion, they need to expand who they allow into charter schools (not to mention close failing charter schools) and they need to implement a better way to track student achievement so that the teachers of students who demonstrate growth are "rewarded". This reward system is a type of performance pay for teachers.

I will admit, I am all for this performance based pay. I am unsure how they will exactly measure student achievement when the state standardized tests are given only a few times throughout a child's educational "life span". Science is only tested 3 times (5th, 8th and 11th grade). What if I teach 7th grade science - how will they determine if I am eligible for this bonus pay? I am not sure what the answer is or what it will be, but if bankers can be given a $700,000 bonus for doing well, why can't teachers be rewarded the same way? Now, I know we all didn't become teachers because we thought we were going to get rich in this profession, but a little additional income every now and then would be nice for my unborn child's college fund.

As of right now, teachers who are ineffective are not necessarily penalized. In Florida, if your school achieves a certain grade according to FCAT scores, the entire school receives a bonus. The unfortunate part is this: if YOUR subject area shows improvement or the overall percentage of students who are at or above grade level but another subject area that is involved in the equation to determine your school grade does NOT have a high enough score, your school will not receive as much of a bonus as it could have.

Here is an example: my friend taught Language Arts and with his 8th grade students, they earned a 94% at or above grade level. That's fanstastic, especially since the type of students he teaches are not gifted and talented.

Now, his science teacher, who was placed there last year due to surplussing and bumping (due to the reduction in students enrolled in the district) earned a whopping below 10% at or above grade level.

Her reaction, knowing that my friend was not going to have a job next year due to job cuts, was, "I don't care."

Yup, she's a tenured teacher and she doesn't care. She doesn't care because she knows nothing will happen to her. She will have a job next year and she will continue getting paid and she will have money going towards her retirement and she will have health insurance. She will not be reprimanded or penalized for her student's low performance.

So, why should she care?

This is why I support a performance based bonus for effective teachers. Because there are teachers, young and old, new and experienced, who do care about their students' educational experience and should be rewarded for using best practices.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What is fair, is not always right. What is right, is not always fair.

Last week, our school district had some tough decisions to make as well as some tough news to break. With the state of Florida cutting back on the budget and school spending, Sarasota County had to cut positions. A lot of them.

As positions were cut, teachers with seniority bumped those teachers with less seniority based on hiring date (and even for some, application dates). It was a cascading or waterfall effect. As a position was cut at one school, if that teacher had 5 or 10 yrs in the county, they were placed into a different position or a different school, or both, and bumped the former teacher out of their position. That bumped teacher then bumped another teacher in another school, and so on.

At the end of the day Thursday, 130 teachers suddenly were unemployed.

It was a sad day for many. I know of a teacher (who is phenomenal, by the way) who was bumped last year but then the teacher who took his position really didn’t want to be at his former school. So she left and he was able to get his job back. This year, he wasn’t even placed at another school. As of right now, he doesn’t have a job for next year.

Our math teacher found out that she was bumped from her position at 2PM on Thursday by reading the mass email that was sent out to all district employees. She opened the attachment and found her name listed. It came as a surprise to all of us as she was told that she “safe” less than a week prior.

Another friend was also given no indication that she was going to be let go because she was told 2 days BEFORE the news broke that she was safe and would be teaching her same reading course for next year.

I understand that the school district doesn’t have enough money as it has had in the past and I understand that there are people out there who believe that just because they have been employed for 20+ years grants them the privilege to continue teaching even though they are no longer effective or good for kids.

You also hear of stories from teachers at other schools who tell you of co-workers who show up to work drunk or who do not show up at all (meaning they don’t even bother to tell the school they won’t be coming in today), but they are still employed by the district. You hear stories about teachers who get convicted of DUIs, fraud, etc and yet they are still standing in the front of the classroom. Not to mention the teachers who it on their butt all day, hate kids or perceive worksheets to be a form of instruction.

It just doesn’t seem fair. Some of the teachers who were bumped or let go are quality teachers, regardless of their small amount of year’s experience. They are vibrant! They are energetic! We may seem young, but we love our jobs and we want to be a good teacher for the kids.

But, what is right is not always fair. And what is fair is not always right.

I say do away with seniority.

There are several districts in this country that have done this and I think it might be a good thing for schools to adopt everywhere. Why shouldn’t the best teachers be kept in the schools while those who fail to perform their jobs adequately are let go? I could care less about bonus pay or being paid more to do my job; I already work my ass off, so you think by dangling some additional income in front of my face is going to make me work even harder? I CAN’T. I already give you my all, so can I possibly dig deeper?!

This is not to say that there aren’t some fantastic teachers out there who have taught for 20, 25 or 30+ years. I know of a few. And I aspire to be like them when I have been instructing students for as long as they have. I don’t want to be this crabby old woman who complains about children and the job constantly. I want to still feel passionate about helping children succeed.

It’s sad to think that of the teachers who were let go, there were many in that pool who could do a better job than some of us who are still employed. I keep my fingers crossed that they do not lose hope and that they do not lose themselves. I pray that those teachers are able to get their jobs back before next August or are able to keep their heads above water and find a job in the school system, even if it’s not their original one.

I am grateful that I still have a job for next year. And because I do, I am going to continue working my ass off, because that is the least I can do for those who are not able to.

Monday, April 20, 2009

School Climate Surveys... does my opinion really count?

Every year, our district asks us (the school board employees) for our opinion. I am not sure how much of our opinion really matters, but I don't mean that the school district ignores our pleas. What I mean is that I don't think ANY opinion really matters that much, unless you are a registered voter and are voting in an election.

And even then, if it is a presidential election, you really aren't actually voting for the candidate, but rather someone to cast THEIR vote for the candidate.

Anyways, these climate surveys are touted to matter. We are told the union uses our comments as ammunition against schools, principals or district policies. It's not that I don't believe the union, because I am a member of the union, although there are times I question my membership due to the other individuals who are also enrolled.

I think unions are valuable. I think there should be a system in place to protect teachers, but I think that unions should protect "good" teachers. The reason I question my membership from time to time is because the union also protects bad teachers.

Seriously, I could sit at my desk, have students do only worksheets or textbook work, never stay more than 30 min after school and do a sub-mediocre job, and I would still get paid the same salary as the individual who spends their weekends grading, planning and researching ideas for their kids to work on for the following week. There are times where I wish I could be those type of teachers, because my job would be a whole lot easier.

But the truth is, I can't be one of "those" teachers. I would be miserable. Kids deserve better than that.

So back to the climate surveys. This is my 5th year, and I was brutally honest. I listed specific people on our campus who I felt deserved to be recognized as one of our school's strengths. I also reported that I was glad that I have the type of relationship with my principal that allows me to speak the truth and tell him what I think, but whether he takes my thoughts into consideration when making decisions is HIS job and once I pass on my thoughts, it is no longer up to me. I just have to hope (and trust) that he makes the best decision(s) for our school based on what is best for our children.

Which is something I think a lot of people have lost site of: what is best for students. This job wasn't meant to be easy. If you don't like the way the school is run, go find another school or better yet, become a principal yourself and see if you can do it better. I believe there are a lot of "things" that go on behind the scenes that we as teachers are unaware of, reasons that determine a principal's next move.

Regardless, I am not sure if my climate survey is truly taken into account or is taken seriously or is even looked at. I don't care if it or if it isn't. That isn't my job to worry about such things and I can't waste my time or energy on something that is beyond my control.

An athletic director used to ride my ass about the way I was coaching volleyball, until I told her one day that I was offered a job at a different school. I also told the administration it was because of our difference in coaching philosophy. What I really wanted to tell her was, "If you think you can do so much better, my position can suddenly become available." Me arguing with her wasn't going to change anything, all I could change was where I would coach. I think she got the message though when I left and never looked back.

So my point is, you can't worry about things you can't control. All you can change is YOU.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Case Against Homework

It always seems like things in education wax and wane; my parents always comment, "Oh, we did that like 10 year ago! And this guy is calling it something new?" From the best teaching practices to teaching character education, it is apparent that ideas are recycled in this field and re-packaged in some bright and shiny new label.

An article I came across today is about how parents feel that their children are being assigned too much homework. Remember how when we were kids, homework was expected every night? It was as if homework was just part of education - it's like peanut butter to jelly.

Let me set this straight: I do not disagree with homework. But I do disagree with assigning homework for the sake of having kids do work that is not relevant to the current topic of study (i.e. busy work). I am all for homework that allows kids to practice concepts or to research topics more in depth. I am not one of those teachers who assigns much homework, and it's for a couple of reasons:

1. Most of the time, I doubt many of my parents would understand what we are currently studying. So if a kid is struggling with the homework, who can he go to for support? Ok, so if that's not a good enough reason, I have a handful of kids who live in single-parent homes with parents that work night jobs - so NO ONE is home to get them to even do their homework, let alone help them.

2. I only assign homework if it is meaningful. Memorizing vocab words is not an efficient way for my students to learn science. I will assign homework if it is to practice a concept (example: punnett squares or calculating physics problems) or to research a topic for a class discussion (example: to collect data on global warming to discuss IF it is actually happening and what can we do about it).

3. These kids are in my class, right now. They are not yet in high school. Period. I don't care if they are expected to read 100 pages of textbook a night while in high school. I am not going to do something purely because some crummy high school teacher ONLY assigns textbook reading and worksheets (as opposed to actually teaching the kids or conducting hands-on activities). Why should I deprive your student of a memorable experience simply because a few high school teachers are lazy?

Note - I know that there are these same type of teachers regardless of grade level everywhere. I am only using high school as an example because that is the argument I receive from parents being a middle school teacher.

4. Kids are kids and they need time to be kids. I feel like more than ever, students are expected to not only be a 4.0 student, but they also need to be a starter on the basketball team and first chair in the school orchestra. Kids need time to play with their friends, to enjoy their life, because they are going to grow up fast enough. I want kids to enjoy their childhood, not resent it.

5. Extra homework does not mean challenging a student. Please refer to #2.

The reason I am writing about this topic is because I can distinctly remember a conversation I had with a parent at open-house. She was upset that I do not use the textbook enough and that I do not assign homework enough. I think I was professional (as least I hope so), but I just had enough of parents riding me about how I needed to "challenge" their kids with more homework. I responded to her pressing query with, "I don't think it is my job to prepare your child for bad teachers."

So if you are interested in reading this article that I am referring to, please click HERE.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I am not Ron Clark

So today was a professional day. Translation: no kids = time to grade papers, sit through important meetings, enter grades and plan out some new "stuff". I love professional days, I really do! I enjoy coming to school in jeans and an old t-shirt, getting right to work, with my iPod blaring hits from the 80's or just some David Gray (depends on the mood). I get SO much done!

Well, today was a very good professional day, but not because I was able to get a whole accomplished in my barren and quiet classroom.

Ron Clark informed me that I "smell absolutely wonderful."

Ok, so let me back up for a minute. Our community foundation was able to get Ron Clark to come and speak to our district at one of the local high schools. There are no words to describe how full of energy this guy is - dynamic, animated and powerful do not even scratch the surface of how much enthusiasm this man exudes. He's more like... nuclear.... or just atomic.

So on top of being energetic, he is also absolutely passionate about his profession and about his students. The stories he recounts from his early teaching years are so heartfelt and real. You can truly see why this guy is so darn good - he cares deeply about his job. His recipe for success does not entail any fancy schmancy theories or the latest and greatest teaching and learning philosophy. And even though he has written a book (The Essential 55) on rules all kids need to learn in the classroom in order to be successful in life, you don't absolutely need to purchase his book in order to get the message. He doesn't have any secrets that are revealed when you open the book - it's really just common sense. Care about kids and do whatever it is you can to help them succeed.

I remember when I informed my assistant principal at a differentiated instruction conference a few year back that our team was going to use the Essential 55 book in class. She was sitting with some other jaded educators who curtly responded with, "Well, isn't that their parents should be doing?!" It was at that moment that I realized not all teachers in this noble profession like kids. I wanted to respond with, "Well, yes, but they aren't. So why should we just sit around and not do anything about it? That's why the kids need us and that's what we are supposed to be doing - TEACHING THEM." But instead, I probably made a raised eyebrows-bug eyed face to display my disgust and shock.

Anyways, after the very animated presentation by Ron Clark, there was a book signing. My husband and I stood in line for over an hour to get his autograph, and the autograph wasn't even for us - it was for my husband's principal. So we HAD to stay in line, you know? I mean, we could have just ditched the event and told the principal to go get an autograph herself, but really, who wants to say that sort of thing to their superior? I'd be fearful of being moved into the classroom that doubled as the custodial closet, with spider webs and water stains on the ceiling, and that pungent smell of smoke mixed with cleaning materials.

One of my fellow science colleagues was in line ahead of me and asked me to be in a picture, so I happily obliged. As I walked up to Ron, I sarcastically asked him if I could jump on his back (this was after my husband and I were joking around with each other saying, "I am going to ask to get a picture of Ron Clark but I am going to say that he has to put me in a headlock." or "Ron Clark, will you do a ganster pose with me?"). After being asked if I could climb up onto his posterior, Ron Clark, very non nonchalantly and matter of factly replied, "Sure." He's was all for it.

First off, I was joking, but I also wanted to see the type of response I would get from him (you know, like how you look under the hood of a car when you are about to buy it - you really have no idea what you're looking at, but it makes you seem THAT much more knowledgeable). I know, I am an idiot for having such a ridiculous request, but that is what I particularly enjoy doing - saying ridiculous crap to see if 1) anyone notices or is even paying attention and 2) to be funny. Thank God for sarcasm.

I, of course, refrained from giving the guy a realignment of his lower spine. So after the quick photo op, I got back in line with my husband. 1 point for Ron.

Now, you might find it amusing that I actually contemplated what it was I wanted to say to him when I met him while I was jogging 8 miles with my husband last night. I thought about asking him a profound question that he wouldn't be able to answer with a simple yes or no, or maybe I should ask him something about his teaching practices or about what he feels is the biggest downfall of the American public education system. I was really trying to come up with something intelligent, something engaging, something significant. So when it was finally my turn, I walked up to Ron and handed him my book. Just as I was about to speak, Ron looked me right in the face and said, "I just have to tell you, that you smell SO good!"

In my finer moments, I might have responded, "Well, I DID shower today." But he caught me off guard - Ron Clark did something that truly doesn't happen very often (my husband can vouch for me on this): I blushed and was speechless.

Yep, the girl who has something to say to just about EVERYTHING didn't know what to say next. The joke was on me.

Point 2 for Ron.

Ok, so besides the fact that my well-muscled husband was standing right behind me, I just smiled and laughed. As my husband and I walked away, I smiled to myself about the entire experience. The presentation was so comforting to me. It gave me hope that there are still people out there who do truly care about kids and do whatever is best for them and want to teach them in a manner that is memorable. I also thought about the ways in which Ron reaches his target audience. You don't have to be Ron Clark or do what Ron does in his classroom (rap and dance with the kids, for instance) to be successful or to make an impression on a child. He's just found a fantastic way that works for him and his students. I also know I can't change what goes on at home for these kids, but that doesn't mean I don't try to make their time here at school worthwhile. For some children, you are their mentors, their heroes and the only mature adult in their lives.

One of the best pieces of advice my father told me before I departed to teach my very own class for the very first time was, "Know that you can't save every child, but that doesn't mean that you don't try." I think about that statement every single day while I am on my way to work, while I am preparing my classroom for the day's activities, while I am walking my kids to lunch and while I am seeing them leave for the day. My father was a phys ed teacher, by the way.

So I leave you with this question: what is it that you DO for YOUR kids that makes your classroom memorable?