Category Archives: Being a better teacher

Control issues.

All together now...
All together now…

So, I wasn’t surprised this morning when I woke up to read a front-page story on the Seattle Times Internet page regarding that the teachers’ union and the school district still haven’t reached a compromise. Maybe the word “compromise” is too generous. Compromise suggests that both sides are willing to give up a little bit to gain a little bit to make everyone happy, or at least satisfied. I’m getting the sense that both sides have become entrenched and are not willing to budge. This is my impression, and I don’t know what the truth is.

The individuals in groups are usually well-intentioned, caring people. And when you get them in a large group, sometimes mob rule can get out of hand, or “group think.”  As Agent Kay said in Men In Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

And having never been in the middle of this type of negotiation, many things have surprised me. I guess if I had really thought about it, I wouldn’t have been taken aback. (I’m building schema, making new inferences, drawing conclusions, and synthesizing information!)

When the union called for the strike and the majority of teachers voted for it, I knew from my gut and experience that it would take a few days for it to really “sink in” to feel the effects of this. Check that one off the list.

When we receive updates and new information, I knew from my gut and experience that the information presented would still be unsatisfying, emotional, full of rhetoric, both useful and trashy, and not very detailed. Check.

Detailed? That’s where my personal control issues come in, and why I’m a little emotional right now. The ‘nuts and bolts’ of what it means to go on strike were not presented in a very clear manner. I keep thinking I missed something, didn’t get enough information, that maybe somewhere, somehow, there is a clear list of what precisely happens when a teachers’ union strikes. The information presented from both groups is murky, riddled with inaccuracies, and covered in muck. My instincts are to dig deeper and ask more questions. For example, why are teachers required to belong to the union in the first place? Are there alternatives? Who decides when things have gone far enough, and in order to ‘save face’ what are the two sides willing to do? When does strength in unity become stubbornness?

Well, here’s what I do know: The only things I can control are what I’m doing today. I will move forward with organizing lessons. I will go ahead and write my congratulatory notes to some of my students from last year, and get them ready to mail. I will read more regarding National Boards and start to organize my thoughts on the portfolio entries. And, I will empty the dishwasher and fold some laundry. Check, check, and check!

And I will keep waiting for tomorrow, and what I’ll know.

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Wow. That was weird.

 Well, last night I had a surreal experience. I went to my first large group teachers’ union meeting. I’m still trying to untangle how democratic the process was, what benefit it created, or detriment the outcome threatens. But before I go any further with my thoughts, I will say this: I am darn glad I know how to read. Why? Because these are some life-changing issues, and I really needed to be informed on what both sides were saying and doing about MY JOB, MY LIFE, MY PROFESSION, AND MY FUTURE.  I am not that different from many of the 1,500 or so teachers packed in that gymnasium last night. Many have my same credentials: a Master’s Degree in Education, many additional college credits, many hours of professional development classes, hours spent developing top-notch lessons, creative ways to motivate students, the latest teacher’s professional publications such as In the Middle by Nancie Atwood or anything by Robert Marzano.  I have spent a large percentage of my salary on setting up my classroom library, only to find that if a student lost or stole a book, there would be no recourse on my part, no chance of reimbursement. (But at least they have a book, right?) I am in the process of seeking National Boards’ certification to sharpen my reflective skills as a teacher, always asking myself, “How can I do better? How can I help one more student reach his or her potential? How can I motivate my students to be the generous and courageous young men and women I know they can be?”

So, last night, here’s what happened: For months, the union and the district had been in negotiations over workload, time, and compensation. The numbers are there, but they’re a little fuzzy. There’s no clear answer on what money is there. (And mind you, this is the most precious money of all: taxpayers’ money.) There were some clear cut recommendations on class size. I do think reasonable caps need to be put on class sizes, and when I say “caps” I don’t mean they all need new hats. That means a stopping point, a lid, a maximum number. (I know the adults reading this blog understand the idiom, but some students may not.) Also, they couldn’t agree on the reasonable amount of meetings. We do have too many, maybe,  but most teachers complain bitterly about them. What upset me is I’ve been in charge of many of the meetings, and I strive to make them meaningful, informative, and time well spent. I’m not going to take it personally, however; planning those meetings for the department or the school is hard work, and mostly I’ve found them fun and a good time for everyone to get together as a school. Perhaps other schools don’t do such a great job with the meetings. One of my colleagues has a difficult time getting to the meetings because of childcare issues, and when “they” take roll call during a last-minute meeting to check who’s there and who’s not, well, that might get a little demoralizing. The class size issues are valid. It is very difficult to meet and confer with each and every student if a class size is over 25, much less so if over 30. The heart of this issue is, many of our students do not have the home structure they need in order to succeed in school. In my own household, we have two working parents, and it’s extremely difficult to juggle home and our jobs. I get it. So, my job is to, before, during, and after school (when I”m not going to a meeting, running Anime Club, or trying to figure out what to make for dinner) is to be there for every student, every day, because every one of my students counts.

Now, as far as compensation goes, well, every teacher will tell you they didn’t go into this job for the money. And, I really hope that if the first two issues are resolved, then maybe they can come to an agreement about reasonable pay. Some have said we’re top heavy as far as administration goes. I also know that I know many of the skilled and dedicated professionals who have ambitiously and purposefully risen to the ranks of administration, and they are some of the most dedicated, intelligent, and creative people I know and have the honor to work with. So, the vilification on both sides is very tough to hear, too.

I wish there was a third option for public schools, where there wasn’t this “us” and “them” dynamic, but truly a “we,” a genuine professional learning community. I do think the seniority scale needs to be reviewed, meaning one doesn’t keep their job simply because they’ve managed to do it for 30 years. I also think one should reach the “top” sooner than 25 years–having entered this career later in life, there’s no way I’m going to make it for 25 years! Well, maybe I will…who would want me for a teacher when I’m 70 years old? (Shivers and horror, I know!)

All of this is my opinion. I’m still trying to sort it out. And, I feel a little powerless in the process, too. The only thing that helps me feel better is reading about it, and writing about it. Those are the only things I have true control over–keeping informed and working it out with words.

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How I spend my summer vacation…

I realize most of my students would understandably consider I am in a plastic, encased pod over the summer weeks, being as I must be an alien. No, I am only human, earthlings. Did you ever wonder what teachers did over summer break? Do they just play all summer, crafting new and better ways to harass students during the school year? Well, we spend our time in a variety of ways. Right now I’m in the middle of a writers’ workshop group with other teachers, from fifth grade to college. It’s pretty cool. And, I watch movies, read a lot of books, and, oh, yeah…try to clean up my teacher clutter. I love to plan and create really cool lessons that will be interesting, and it takes a lot of mental work. My books are like my paints, and my computer like my blank canvas, and I’m trying to create a masterpiece or two before school starts again. Oh, and by the way, that will be August 31. See you then!

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I was an 8th grade zombie…

Okay, I wasn’t really an 8th grade zombie, but sometimes it felt like it. Wondering around, being self-absorbed in my own quest and hunger for human connection, brains, and eternal unrest. Sigh.

It’s no secret I love to read, and I read for a multitude of purposes. One of my main reasons for reading is so I can learn from other teachers and become a better teacher myself. I came across this article, http://siobhancurious.wordpress.com/2007/09/02/characteristics-of-adolescent-thinking/ on a blog, and it was pretty darn interesting.

To quote:

There are four important characteristics that distinguish adolescent thinking from more mature thinking:

  • adolescent egocentrism (intense preoccupation with one’s own feelings and lack of connection to feelings of others),
  • imaginary audience (the belief that one is the focus of others’ thinking and attention)
  • personal fable (the belief that no one else can possibly understand one’s feelings and experiences because they are unique), and
  • illusion of invulnerability (the belief that bad things only happen to other people.)

Although it reminded me of things I already know, such as teenagers are self-centered, hyper-critical, self-obsessed, world-revolves-around-me beings, and I am a mature, grounded adult (she wrote rolling her eyes sarcastically), it also helped me remember I need to find the patience and compassion needed to be a good teacher.

All year long students get so many mixed messages: you are told to talk and discuss on topic, stay on task, be kind to each other, take risks, sit down, stand up, don’t shut down, but shut up, listen, talk, listen, talk, stop the drama, read drama, act out drama, but don’t be the drama queen, I’m the queen, don’t be so mean, work hard, be nice, and look out for natural consequences. Make good choices. Do this. Don’t do that. It’s black and white and grey all over. Confused yet?

The “personal fable” and the “invulnerability” are my two favorites, really. No sarcasm. I think we all need to create and appreciate our own personal fables–that’s where writers are born and thrive.

As far as invulnerability goes, the adults can tell you all they want that you are not ‘bullet-proof.’ However, here’s advice you should heed: yes, you do need to learn for yourself, BUT, don’t make it a permanent choice, one that will hurt you, your family, and your chances for success forever–find a way to get back into good graces.

So, future 8th grade students: bring it on. Come to my classroom, ready to cocoon and emerge as young adults. I’ve already met many of you, and I can tell I like you already. Time to eat some brains.

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