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Archive for the tag “Teachers”

A Christmas Story–of Sorts–for 2015

Last week our local newspaper headlined the story of an eight-year-old boy who collapsed in the breakfast line at a local school. When teachers went to his aid, they discovered he was covered with bruises and lacerations. Of course, CPS was called, and the story the boy told was beyond horrific. He reported that his father, angry with his absent mother, had taken out his belt and beat the boy mercilessly with the buckle end of it, sent him to bed without supper, then came back into the bedroom to beat him some more. The next morning, with the returned mother asleep in her bed, the boy awoke, got himself dressed, and went to school. Thankfully, by his collapsing in the cafeteria line, attention was drawn to this dreadful situation, the boy and his siblings were removed from the home, and the father is now in jail, where he clearly belongs.
That won’t be the end of it for this young boy. Even though he and his siblings may be in a safer place for the time being, he will carry the emotional scars of this traumatic event with him for the rest of his life. He will have to deal with the anguish of realizing that those who are supposed to care for him are the ones who hurt him. He must try to process how and why this happened without concluding that it was his fault. This child will need extensive psychotherapy to be able to come out on the other side of this a healthy and confident human being. Sadly, the chances of his having access to this kind of support are small, and the chances of his being returned to the same situation are high. But he will go to school and he will be expected to learn the same things and at the same rate as everyone else in his class, because those are the rules of school these days.

Yes, I sense your skepticism. You’re thinking, that’s terrible all right, but that’s just an isolated case. That’s not what it’s like for most students, certainly not the majority of students.
Yes, it is where I live.
When I moved to this community as a brand new, idealistic teacher educator eight years ago, I knew it was a rural area and I knew it was the lowest in the state economically. What I did not expect was the brutal nature of rural poverty. Early on I sat down with the principal of one of the primary schools. She shared with me how low the students in her building were academically. She took me to her “war room” where she and the teachers kept constant tabs on every student, using color codes on a large board to indicate where each student ranked at any given moment. Green was for students who were on track to succeed, yellow for students who were at risk of not being on track, and red was for students who were definitely not on track. As I surveyed the board, I saw many more yellow and red students than green. Then the principal explained that the reason these students were all so low had to do with their backgrounds. Not only were they poor, they came from homes steeped in alcohol, meth and other drugs, and domestic abuse of all sorts. Many students had an incarcerated parent or parents. Some were being raised by grandparents because the parents were strung out on meth. They had little stability in their lives and rarely was there anyone to read them a bedtime story before they went to sleep, often hungry.
I guess I looked at her, mouth open in disbelief. Finally, I said, “What you’re describing is an inner city school!”
“Yes,” she said. “There’s really very little difference. And that’s why we have to work so hard to help these kids get where they need to be to pass the tests [emphasis added]. And some of them are so far behind they may never catch up.”
I came away with a new understanding of the challenges teachers of poor students are facing in rural areas, which are really the same as teachers in urban areas. Teachers are being asked to make up for four to five years of cognitive, and usually also physical, neglect these children have endured during THE most formative period in their lives, and they must do it in a few hours of school five days a week for nine months out of the year for three to four years. It is simply an impossible task.
When I defended my dissertation, I quoted the research that says that, of all the influences in school, the teacher has the greatest impact on student learning. I still believe that is true, even though one of my committee members kept challenging me on it. Now I think I understand why. What I have come to see is that the impact of the teacher is often dulled by forces outside his or her control. Sometimes the tidal wave of external factors simply overwhelms all that a teacher can bring to the table.
Let’s suppose the boy in the opening scenario hadn’t collapsed in the breakfast line. Let’s suppose that the boy had enough stamina left to get his breakfast eaten and go on to class. Does anybody think he would have been ready to learn that day? Does anybody think he would have been able to focus on his school work? Is it just possible he might have been more focused on what might happen to him when he had to go home that afternoon? I think so, and given my conversation with the principal, I must assume that there are several other students much like him in the class he returns to. Their scars just aren’t as obvious.
But the policy makers, think-tankers, and legislators who create “rigorous standards” and high stakes tests designed to assess them tell us all of that is just an excuse. Students are just lazy and don’t want to do the hard work of learning. If teachers were good teachers, they claim, they would be able to overcome these kinds of distractions and get about the business of making sure this child, these children are ready to take the reading test at the end of third grade. This is insanity! We must stop setting up impossible standards that ALL students are required to meet because, purely and simply, ALL students can’t meet them, at least not on the arbitrary schedule that policy makers demand.
Under the passage of ESSA, the reauthorization of the federal education law, responsibility for standards and testing of those standards is being “returned” to the states. If that is so, the buck will stop with our state legislatures. They will lose the excuse of blaming the federal government for the disasters that their policies cause. However, as Joanne Yatvin points out, since the new bill is based on the same flawed theories of NCLB, convincing the states to move out of that “accountability” mindset will be a monumental challenge. The law still requires annual testing in third through eighth grades. But surely the legislatures can figure out ways to make these tests less damaging! Smart legislators should be able to come up with ways to support teachers in the overwhelming challenges they are facing with students such as I have described above, rather than simply demanding success and punishing failure. Carrots and sticks do not work, and research is full of evidence on that premise.
Yatvin fears “[w]e are not done with judging our students, teachers, and schools mainly by test scores, or believing that comparisons with other countries’ scores on international tests are meaningful.” She sees the only solution to be for “parents, teachers, and informed citizens to strengthen their efforts to support our public schools. We need to put pressure on state legislatures to use their funds and power to make intelligent decisions for our schools. If we are silent, thinking that all is well now that NCLB is dead, the future will be no better than the past.”

Parents, grandparents, teachers, VOTERS, it’s time to hold the legislators accountable. We must scream at the top of our lungs until we are heard. Recent statistics tell us that almost one-fourth of American children live in the kind of poverty I have been talking about! These children need nurture and support, not unreasonable pressure and demands that they accomplish what they are not emotionally, developmentally, or cognitively ready to do.
Let’s find a better way! There’s a bruised and broken eight-year-old in my town who needs it desperately. Yatvin’s words are ringing in my ears: “If we are silent…”


An Experience with Age Discrimination

Recently Nancy Bailey has drawn attention to the issue of age discrimination against teachers as it relates to the almost national teacher shortage. Reading this blog, I was reminded of a situation I experienced in my own life and career.

To tell this story, I probably need to go back further than the event itself. Although I always wanted and planned to be a teacher, life intervened. Consequently, I didn’t get to start my teaching career until I was in my mid-fifties, when many people are looking to retire. Having received my state credentials, I found it very difficult to “break in.” I realize that having secondary history as my initial certification and not being able to coach put me in a difficult position to start with. At the time I didn’t think about my age being that much of a hindrance, but now I wonder.

Finally, a week before school started, I was hired by a school in deep East Texas–and hour and a half drive one way from my home–and I took it. I had to go back and get a Special Education endorsement, but I was fine with that. That started me on a ten-year career in Special Education and, for the most part, I loved it. The next year I was able to move to a school closer to my home–only a 35-minute drive–and stayed for eight years. However, this position required me to teach resource reading and English to Special Ed students in 6th through 8th grades. English was no problem since that had been my minor in college, but I discovered I knew NOTHING about teaching reading. After struggling for a year, I began to look around for some help and found it in a Master’s program at a nearby (euphemistically speaking) university. As I took courses in the program, I started trying out what I was learning in my classroom, and–lo and behold!–it worked! I began having some success with my reading students.

As part of my coursework, I learned about the Reading Recovery Program, which has a proven record of helping struggling first graders be successful in learning to read. By this time I had earned all-level certification in Special Education and English as a Second Language, and had met the requirements for Master Reading Teacher. I had come to love teaching reading and wanted to devote my efforts to younger students in an effort to prevent so many older students from winding up in resource or remedial classes–in other words, catch them early. I learned that the Reading Recovery Program at a large suburban district in North Texas was looking for applicants for their program. I decided to apply. The process of applying for this program was extensive and intensive. It involved several interviews and an elaborate application. Being accepted by the program, however, did not mean that you had a job; it just meant that you had been approved to apply for a job at an individual school. The schools called in the individuals they wanted to interview from the pool approved by the directors of the Reading Recovery Program.

Having passed the first hurdle–approval by the Reading Recovery directors–I was interviewed by a couple of schools. Neither called me back for a second interview. Toward the end of summer, I received a phone call from one of the directors. All the Reading Recovery positions for that year had been filled, she said, but they really wanted to get me into the system. Would I consider applying for a Special Education position for the current year, and then I would be in a good position to get a Reading Recovery position for the following year. I said sure! I can’t remember if I interviewed at two schools or just one, but at any rate, one principal called and asked for a second interview with her committee. She said it had come down to me and one other candidate. I met with the committee and thought I had done well. I heard nothing for several days, and when I called one morning to check on things, the principal said she would have an answer for me that afternoon. The afternoon came and went–no phone call. She finally called that night at 10:00 p.m. She informed me that the committee had chosen the other candidate. She could have dropped it at that and I would have accepted it and not given it much more thought. However, she seemed nervous and kept talking, as if she were making some sort of apology. Then she said the words that have stuck in my brain: “The committee just thought that the other candidate was younger and more energetic.” I was too shocked to say anything. I thanked her for the call and hung up.

I have no idea what kind of discussions took place in reaching the decision that the committee reached. I am sure that the principal was uncomfortable with communicating to me the reason for the decision, a reason that is completely illegal. I don’t think she intended to say what she said. But as I thought about my experience with this district, I remembered that at every school at which I interviewed, I didn’t remember seeing a teacher or administrator who was beyond middle age. Was age discrimination pervasive in this district? I can’t say, but I am quite sure I experienced it.

I now teach at the university level, helping pre-service teachers learn the ropes. My duty station, however, is at a branch campus, a hundred miles from the main campus, and in a deeply rural area. Many of my students are non-traditional, coming back to school in middle age. They often make the best students, having years of wisdom to bring to the task. They are often nervous and wondering if they have made the right decision. I tell them that if they are truly called to teach, they will not be happy doing anything else.

I do believe teaching is a calling, but one that takes learning to develop the skill and knowledge base required to be a successful teacher. That skill and knowledge rarely come naturally. What a shame if these future teachers, after making a wrenching mid-life change and putting in the time, effort, and money to reach that level of skill and knowledge cannot find the jobs they deserve because they are not perceived as “young and energetic.” Looking back I now think that this may have been playing a role in my struggle to find a job as I began my teaching career.

Nancy Bailey pointed to other issues in age discrimination such as efforts to force older teachers out because they are more “expensive.” I have personally talked to many teachers who have retired or are planning to retire earlier than they would have otherwise were it not for the level of stress that has risen for teachers over the last 15 years. Think about the loss of experience any kind of age discrimination means for our schools and our children. In no case can we afford it!

When Do Ethics Kick In?

Competent, Committed, Ethical–this is the motto of the Teacher Education program at the small regional university where I teach. When I began there six years ago, I was mostly concerned with the first two aspects of this motto. I set about designing lessons and projects that I felt would help my pre-service teachers build an adequate knowledge base about how to teach reading (my particular area of expertise) and how to become a reflective, life-long learner focusing on the needs of their students and how best to meet them. I really didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the “ethical” component of the motto; I think I just assumed that everyone knew how to be ethical. After all, doesn’t “ethical” just mean pretty much following the Golden Rule?

And then along came Common Core. Yes, I hear your question–what does Common Core have to do with ethics? Well, quite a bit, it seems to me. But perhaps a slice of history is in order first.

The standards movement began to gain serious traction about 25 years ago. The idea was that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn before they leave school. Unless teachers were provided with a set of goals or guidelines related to the content that should be taught, they might not teach everything a student needed to learn. Initially, the standards that were developed were not very constraining; teachers used them as general guides in planning their instruction. Standards, it was argued, were the what to teach, not the how. Slowly, with strong “encouragement” from the federal Department of Education and other policy makers, most states created a set of content standards and required school districts to implement them. In some states, a system of statewide testing was initiated to be sure that students were learning the content in the standards and that teachers were teaching the required content. At that point, the standards began to take on a more constraining character.

It must be said that as the states developed their standards, there was a serious effort to build the standards from the ground up. Educational personnel with expertise in child development attempted to match the requirements in the standards to the developmental stages of the children at each grade level. Because that was true, teachers could feel comfortable that using the standards to plan instruction would be appropriate for their students.

With the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, everything changed in the world of standards. NCLB not only required the states to have standards taught by “highly qualified” teachers, it required the states to develop tests for those standards and monitor “adequate yearly progress.” If schools were not able to demonstrate such progress by their student populations, they were threatened with sanctions, up to and including the closing of the schools. Tests to monitor progress had now become high-stakes tests used to reward and punish.

No problem, we teachers thought. If we just keep doing good teaching, our students will be able to pass almost any test. And for schools in affluent and middle income areas, that was more true than not. But in urban schools and in poor rural areas, things didn’t go that well. Teachers and administrators lost their jobs; some schools were closed; charter schools appeared that lured the best students away, leaving a high percentage of those who struggled. Creeping into our schools came the idea that we had to focus more on what was tested, on the “bubble” kids that needed just that extra little push to pass, on skills workbooks and, although we didn’t say the words, “teaching to the test.” I suspect that push came more from administrators who feared that their schools might be the ones to be closed if their students’ scores didn’t reach that magical cut score.

Through all of this, we teachers rationalized our ethical stances. For myself, I knew that teaching to the test was not ethical, and I was not willing to do it. However, I didn’t voice my feelings. I simply took the stack of test-prep reading workbooks I was given, found whatever activities in them I could incorporate as a minilesson, and then moved on for the duration of the class period to provide a varied, differentiated fare for my students based on where they were cognitively and where they needed to go next. Nobody ever questioned what I was doing and I never offered an explanation. It was my way of satisfying my own ethics, guided primarily by the needs of my students. I made an ethical decision that my students’ needs trumped the possibility that I was misleading my administrator. Although some teachers in my building opted for the drill-and-kill mentality of the test prep workbooks, I am confident that many others were operating much as I was, guided by much the same ethical stance.

Fast forward five years. About two years into my first college teaching experience, I learned that our state had adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Okay, I thought, I’ll just dig in and learn how these standards will impact my pre-service teachers’ lesson planning and teach them to use them, and for two years I tried to do that. But the more I studied the CCSS and the Initiative that they are part and parcel of, the more I questioned.

I began to see some serious deficiencies in the Standards themselves; especially at the lower grade levels, the tasks required of the students do not match their developmental abilities, resulting in confusion and frustration on the part of the students. I learned that there would be three times as many achievement tests for the students to take, and that even kindergartners would be taking these tests which would not be field tested in any authentic way. Having observed the levels of stress students experience on high stakes tests, I can only imagine the exponential increase of such stress that will occur. (Actually, I don’t have to imagine it, since a child psychologist in New York recently testified to the New York Assembly that she had seen a 200 to 300% increase in patient load that could be tied directly to the impact of Common Core teaching and testing in her state.) I learned that these tests, taken on computer, would send enormous amounts of private data about students and their families into statewide, perhaps even nationwide, databases and that the managers of these databases could not and would not guarantee the security of that data.

I also have read that many schools, rather than developing their own curricula to align with the CCSS, are opting to buy packaged programs. Since the CCSS are the law in our state and cannot be changed because they are copyrighted by other entities, administrators in many schools are requiring teachers to march through the purchased curricula without accommodating the pace or the method of teaching. The script must be followed to be sure that we have covered everything that might be on the tests. The only result this guarantees is that many students will be Left Behind.

Competent, Committed, Ethical. It seems necessary to begin paying more attention to the third component of this motto. Together we must think deeply about what the definition of ethics is and what it means to be ethical. I must find the best way to communicate clearly to my pre-service teachers the minefield they will be entering. I must help them think through a number of possible scenarios they may be faced with. I must give them opportunities to consider what the best ethical choice may be.

Could/should a teacher refuse to follow the pacing of the scripted curriculum because he or she knows that it moves too fast for many students to stay up? Could/should a teacher use differentiated teaching in his or her classroom even though it is not recommended in the teacher’s edition of the curriculum? Some folks who oppose the CCSS are organizing parent opt-out movements, in which the parents formally notify the school that they refuse to allow their students to participate in the testing. Could/should a teacher refuse to give these tests because of his or her ethical position that the tests do more harm than good for students? Could/should a teacher join with other like-minded teachers to voice their opposition to practices in the field that are detrimental to children? These are just a few of the decisions a teacher will have to make in the CCSS environment.

I recently read an article that suggested that, in the face of the behavioristic corporate reform movement, it may be necessary for teachers to become insurrectionist pedagogues. I’m not yet comfortable with that term, probably because it translates to “rebellious teachers.” I don’t like to think of myself in what are generally considered negative or oppositional terms. At the same time, my own ethics require me to provide my students with a realistic picture of the field they are entering–and pray that the ethical stance they develop under my tutelage will guide them to advocate for the children they serve.

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