Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ten Reasons You're Lucky I'm Not Your Teacher

"Whatever you are, be a good one."
~Abraham Lincoln

My brother got married this weekend.  It was my first time away in over two years, so for three days, I was immersed in my surroundings and forgot the other crap.  I didn't let myself think about jobs, money or insurance; I didn't even think about writing.  I decided to enjoy myself for a change, and I'd say I was pretty darn successful.

Towards the end of the weekend, I had a conversation with a woman who teaches undergraduate courses at a local university.  She is beginning her 34th year.  We were discussing various topics in public education, and at one point, she cut me off to say the following:

Paul, I don't know what the f*ck is going on, but it has never been this bad.  The kids don't pay attention; they're on their phones, they leave early - and then they complain about grades.  They don't study, can't write a paper, and don't want to do anything.  My office hours are empty - nobody comes to discuss anything.  If I offer points to see a guest speaker, I sit in the auditorium myself.  They answer essay questions in bulleted fragments and their research papers are junk - nobody can even read a rubric.  They don't belong in college, and I'm sick of it.  Teachers are not preparing them - they don't read and write enough.  There is no accountability and no reason to try.  Nobody fails; everyone gets promoted.  It never used to be this way.  In 34 years, this is the worst I've seen it.

The above statement was obviously typed from memory and is not a direct quote, but still, you get the gist.  The professor's thoughts have remained on my mind; I can't shake them because she is absolutely right.  Educational priorities have shifted, and it's incredibly frustrating.
 Cameron Diaz's 'Bad Teacher' Poster - Exclusive!

If I said everything I wanted to say, this post would be an anthology.  But the insight above sparked thoughts I wanted to share.  Good teachers are out there, but so are bad ones.  Really, really, really bad ones, and I'm not talking about Cameron Diaz.  Yet for every bad teacher hogging a classroom, an amazingly talented, highly qualified applicant sits home (to be clear, I'm thinking of many I've worked with - not myself).  And every September, they pray for a classroom to enter the next year.

Our system is jacked up.  I'm over tenure.  I'm over the impersonal online application process because "paper applications will not be accepted."  I'm over clicking a link to express interest in a job when hundreds of others are doing the same and my information will never be screened.  I'm over cuts made to educational programs.  I'm over class sizes equivalent to small fraternities and retiring teachers not being replaced.  And I'm over the really, really, really bad teachers who just don't give a damn.

Ten Reasons You're Lucky I'm Not Your Teacher:

1.  I care about the kids - not my salary.  I declared my major knowing darn well I'd never be rich.  I don't care about summers off and I don't call out.  In three years, I banked 32 sick days.  I wanted this job; I have no intention of handing my key to a substitute.  Sorry; you're most likely stuck with me the full 180 days.

2.  I make my own assignments, tests, and rubrics.  I don't print from the Internet or copy from books because those materials were created by someone who never met my students.  Yes, I take ideas from resources and consult others for suggestions, but it stops there.  Everything I hand out is made by me.

3.  You WILL write in my class.  You will read, too, and you will do both CORRECTLY.  I missed where it said you only read in English class.  I missed the doctrine stating elements of good writing are not applicable outside language arts, and therefore, history papers can be written however you'd like because we only assess content.  This teacher believes in writing and literacy ACROSS the curriculum. 

4.  I'll encourage you to revise assignments and resubmit them for more points.  We learn from correcting mistakes and nothing is ever perfect.  We can always improve; I'll expect you to take advantage of this opportunity to better yourself as a learner.

5.  I stick to deadlines.  Patterns of behavior form at an early age.  It is so important students are trained to manage their time and submit things when they are due.  Bill collectors don't budge.

6.  I can turn any game into a lesson and any lesson into a game.  My lessons are designed around student-centered learning.  Kids learn most by doing; creative and engaging activities provide interaction with the material.  I'll never lecture and I'll never assign busy work.  No "read the chapter and answer the questions in the back" around here, folks.

7.  I will not teach to any test.  If I do my job correctly, the students will learn and the test scores will reflect that.  I'm not concerning myself with possible exceptions and what ifs; I'm going to do my job.  Let the cards fall where they may. 

8.  I will not turn a kid away.  If someone needs help, they get it.  If someone needs to talk, I listen.  I don't care what time my contract tells me to leave or how many minutes I'm required to enjoy a "duty-free lunch."  I'm there for the kids.  You will also find me at a number of extra-curricular activities because I support students outside academic areas.  When that last bell rings, you don't necessarily get rid of me.

9.  If I assigned it, I grade it.  I don't walk down rows and give check marks for completing worksheets I never looked at (not that I ever give worksheets).  I don't give points because something was filled out or a certain number of sentences were written in a box.   Assignments are assessed to ensure a concept has been mastered.  If the concept has not been mastered, we will be working together until it has.

10.  I DO reinvent the wheel.  One of my favorite aspects of teaching is finding new ways to tackle material.  I like creative lessons that hook students and keep them interested.  I'm always looking for better ideas and new methods.  Sorry, but I will never be the teacher who does the same thing year after year and never changes anything. 

I don't think I'm exceptional, but I do think I work hard. When you work hard and have enthusiasm for your career, you learn new techniques and continue developing your craft. I know what my evaluations say.  I also know if I taught more than three years in the same district, I wouldn't be evaluated in the same manner.  It isn't fair.  Anything can happen when nobody is watching.  If nobody steers the ship, students can drift wherever the current pulls them.

Sitting in a desk does not make a kid learn any more than holding a pen makes me a writer.  Every classroom deserves an excellent teacher standing up front.  How much longer do we allow the economy to dictate the quality of education being delivered?  And how much longer do we protect bad teachers?  How many years of safety are we granting those who do the minimum because they're untouchable?  How many more teachers will we certify when there are no jobs to be filled? 

16 comments:

  1. You don't sound any tougher than any of the teachers I had as a kid, but then again, that was many, many years ago. I guess times have changed and not for the better.

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  2. Wow, Paul. Excellent, excellent post, my friend. As someone who used to be a classroom teacher, I couldn't agree more. I taught 5th grade before I had my children and even in the lower grades, the kids didn't want to work, the parents didn't think they should work. There was such a lack of responsibility that some days I couldn't believe it. Let's hope something changes soon...

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  3. Keep up the strong work. The truly sad thing, IMO, is that many of the kids who want to learn/do well tend to be ostracized for their enthusiasm.

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  4. No, Paul. You don't look like a bad teacher. I'm sure you will do all them above but unfortunately, most teachers who think as you give up very early. I understand them, students do make them give up.

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  5. It's a shame you can't do what you love right now, Paul. But then again, maybe you can still get your message across through your writing, especially if all kids are doing these days is reading.

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  6. This all sounds like good stuff to me. I wish my kids' teachers had a bit more balls.

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  7. This post my friend, will inspire a post from me. If you don't mind- I will be linking your post to my page!

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  8. Bravo, Paul! I WISH you were teaching my kids, and I'm so grateful for the teachers they've had with this kind of dedication. Keep speaking your mind. People need to wake up!

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  9. I left school so many years ago, we were in three digits, but one of the many things I learned there is that in your career as a student, you will (with any luck) get one really bad teacher, one really good teacher, and a whole bunch of mediocre ones. Having now put six children through what passes for school these days, I have no reason to modify that theorem.

    You, sir, are the good one, and hundreds of students will remember you as the one from whom they learned the most important truth: How to think.

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  10. I see this around me, especially since my coworker is in the exact same position: wondering if she will have a classroom in a month. The sad part is that my coworker is just like you: she's not out to get rich (why else would she need a second job working with me?). She's THAT teacher that stays till 6pm or later, helping out with student led activities like drama or clubs after a day of teaching. She's there on the weekends making sure theater kids can get their practice in. She thinks outside the box with her English lessons, and I love when she shares her ideas with me. Heck, even now, she's in England, studying in the Royal Academy of Arts to enrich a drama (and English) curriculum she may never teach. And, though she's bummed about the prospect of not teaching, she's even more upset at the thought of the kids missing out on an opportunity to THINK and LEARN.
    Anyway, I love your Ten Reasons, but honestly, that's an expectation that I have in all teachers. The way you want to teach is exactly how my teachers taught me, from JHS to college. When my English prof told the class that a paper with more than 5 mistakes in it was an automatic fail, I paid attention! When a student in my history class complained that grammatical errors shouldn't be counted in history papers, and that only content of information should matter, my teacher took the time to explain that ideas were expressed through words, and that if the words or sentences were muddled, how, then, can the student hope to express his content/idea clearly? (see, even though that wasn't said to me, I still benefited and learned from that discussion!)

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  11. I've been teaching for over 20 years and I still reinvent the wheel too :) I love my job & my kids - and I love hearing other teachers who are passionate about making sure their kids get it! :)

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  12. Thank you for all the thoughtful comments, everyone. It's so nice to see there are supportive people out there who understand.

    Alex: I always said if I went to school now, I could get the same grades with half the effort. It feels like I overpaid for something.

    Kelly: Thanks so much. It's truly a universal problem that is starting earlier and earlier. It is, however, nice to see other teachers out there feel the frustration. Too many people want to blame us.

    Bane: Great point!!! It's true, unfortunately. Enthusiasm puts a target on your back.

    Javid: Thank you. Some teachers do walk away, and it's unfortunate. They are usually the good ones who weren't prepared for some of the other situations that come with the job.

    Jeff: That is sort of the outlook I have as well. It was a big reason why I started this project in the first place.

    Michele: I appreciate the support. I'm trying to be an ambassador for the problems in the field. I can't make a difference internally, but I can still use my words and spread the message.

    Levi: Thanks for your kind comment, sir. It's truly appreciated. One of the greatest compliments a teacher can receive is being remembered for something. It's not the content that sticks around for years, but if we can provide something more meaningful, it's such a great accomplishment.

    Liza: I definitely feel for your friend, as we have discussed before. The circumstances in this country are so unfortunate and the wrong areas are being hit hardest. The kids don't get a chance to go back to public school when things get better; they have to go now and do the best they can with what they've been given. It's nice to see some people understand the benefit to teachers with high expectations. Too often, we are told to ease up, but I fail to see how that molds future generations in a competitive world.

    Jemi: Congratulations on 20 years of doing a world of good. I'm happy to hear you love your job. Thanks for all you do!!

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  13. A lot of the good teachers I know feel like they have their hands tied. They're not given enough authority or backing, elements of the curriculum are idiotic, teaching to tests rather than teaching to learn is (in the long run) somewhat pointless. Most parents offer little support for the teacher (or actively support the student against the teacher). I think a lot of my old fellow teachers just feel disempowered. They see the behaviour, but when the teachers and principals and schoolboard don't support them, what is there to do? Fail the kid and hold them back a year? That's not really kosher anymore.

    There's not much a teacher can do to fight back against a culture of rights without responsibility. Or, rather, it takes a very rare teacher who can do it on their own. Except they shouldn't be doing it on their own. We should provide the backing so that every teacher can do this.

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  14. You raise some great points, Bryan. I felt that way since I was called into my principal's office a few years ago and forced to change a grade. It was a long, frustrating discussion that I could not win, and of course, I was backed into a corner. It happened the same day the Board would be approving my contract for the following year, so you can imagine the threats I received.

    I definitely witnessed too many situations where the teacher was placed at fault. I had the one above, but I saw it happen over and over with others in my building. To me, a grade means nothing if it isn't reflecting what was earned, but nobody cares about grade accuracy. Parents are fighting to get their child on the honor roll, even if they are not demonstrating the proficiency an honor roll student should possess. Is a certificate that important?

    The biggest problem is that education is a field nobody can understand unless you are directly involved in the system. Administration is calling all the shots based on their agenda, which is keeping everyone happy. They will not bat for us, so we can't really bat for ourselves. Teachers have become robots.

    All that said, I can't get over my frustration that so many young people would do anything to get inside a classroom. I wish colleges would freeze the major; stop graduating teachers until jobs are available. I do understand the frustration. At the same time, when a working teacher whines to me about having to work on a Monday, having to grade something, or being switched to a different grade level, I want to beat a punching bag. I think tenured teachers struggle to comprehend the number of educators not working - and just what it means not to be working. It really is a tough system that nobody is happy with.

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