Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pay your phone bill!

Today my third period went off the reservation. Of the 14 students in attendance, 6 of them earned phone calls home or referrals in our behavior management system. I really believe it was all because of two kids -- one of whom has a 0.6% in my class for this advisory -- who have realized that they cannot pass this semester, and are hellbent on taking as many other students down as they can. These two exhibited appalling behavior in class, and they managed to get a lot of other kids off task with them. Of course, we're in high school, and those other kids are responsible for their actions. So I settled down to make my phone calls.

6 parents. 6 phone numbers. 4 disconnected. 1 rings into infinity. 1 has a full voice mail.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Teaching for America

I've been having an ongoing conversation over the last week or so with a colleague about the merits and drawbacks of programs like Teach for America and DC Teaching Fellows. I am a TFA alum, but my colleague went to school to get a legit teaching degree. She's a first year teacher, but she is in her thirties and this is not her first job out of college. She's an outstanding teacher who has made huge academic gains with her kids this year, and I really respect her opinion.

As a TFA-er, I am obviously a proponent of the "mission," as it is referred to in TFA parlance. But I'm also not a drone, and I accept that there are shortcomings with Teach for America's model. In my discussions with her, I've identified three main criticisms of the program.

First, many people feel that alternative route certification programs undervalue the teaching profession by giving the impression that anyone could do it. This criticism seems weak to me, because I don't think anyone affiliated with TFA would tell you that they think teaching is easy. But I can understand how a person outside the world of education might look at alternative certifications and say, "well why would anyone go through teacher school?" For this, though, I think the fault lies with university education programs who have by-and-large done a poor job getting enough people to commit their careers to the education of low-income students. Alternative certifications, to me, aren't born from a disrespect of teachers, but from a desperate need for people willing to teach in difficult schools.

Second, many people doubt the efficacy of Teach for America's teachers. Trolling around the internets (as I'm known to do) looking for information on the effectiveness of TFA will give you studies that range widely from extremely positive to extremely negative (sorry that the second link is just an article about the study -- I searched for a bit on google for the real thing, but then got bored). Whether or not Teach for America teachers are effective obviously differs on a teacher-by-teacher basis, but I can tell you that, in my experience, I've never seen a TFAer fall asleep during class, curse at students, or be generally incompetent. We might not all be great, but at least we're trying. There are some veteran teachers (definitely a small minority of them) about whom this cannot be said. Compared to those teachers, I bet TFA teachers rock it out.

Third, and probably most important, many people are bothered by the fact that Teach for America is only a two-year commitment. Although I'm a relatively new teacher, I have decided to make education my career, and I think more TFA alums should do the same. I whole-heartedly agree that two years is not enough time to become a great teacher. Also, in high schools, kids see a revolving chorus of teachers coming in and out every year, and I think this is hurtful both to their psyches and to the school community. Leaving after two years also decreases veteran teachers' willingness to help you -- why invest their time in supporting someone who's going to leave for Goldman-Sachs in two years?

All these are fine points. But I also want to push back against this criticism for a second. A lot of Teach for America teachers leave not because they were planning to leave all along, nor because their kids were so poorly behaved, but because their schools are total ass. My first year, I was placed in a room without a white board, with only 12 desks, and with no textbooks. It wasn't until November that I got a computer, not until April that I got a printer. I still don't have a phone. The only other teachers in my building who offered any assistance that first year were other TFA and DCTF teachers. I admit that I strongly considered leaving after my second year of teaching to go work for a high-performing charter school (as many TFA alums do), but ultimately decided I wanted to stay with my kids and watch them graduate. Although I didn't enjoy many supportive relationships with veteran teachers, I also didn't encounter many problems. I've heard horror stories about the ways other corps members were treated at their schools by their colleagues and administrators. Perhaps more TFA teachers (and new teachers in general) would stay longer if their workplaces weren't so toxic. Maybe if more established teachers were willing to help out the new teachers, fewer of us would go running for the hills. While the two-year commitment is problematic, I think it's important to understand the ways in which schools themselves exacerbate this problem.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Time to Rethink Parent Teacher Conference Days?

Today is the final installment of the DCPS parent-teacher conference days, and schools all over the District are eagerly awaiting parents so that teachers can discuss their children's progress. The problem with these days is that they don't work. They serve mostly as a colossal waste of time for teachers (who have to be here from noon until 7 pm), students (who miss an instructional day), and parents (who come up to school and spend 5 minutes either being praised or denigrated by teachers, depending on their child's performance). So maybe it's time to rethink conference days.

Obviously, parents and teachers should spend more time (not less) discussing student progress. For parents and teachers who really take advantage of these days, a lot of good can come from them. My objection to parent conference days is that they are applied all in the same way throughout the district, as though the needs of high school students are the same as the needs of kindergartners.

My thought is that conferences at the high school level should be drastically different from conference days in the elementary schools. In high schools, students should be required to discuss their progress themselves along with teachers and parents. The conferences should be spread out so they are ongoing throughout the year, on the off chance that an issue arises some time other than the four prescribed conference days. And, the conferences should be done on an as-needed basis. Perhaps this could be accomplished if schools could have the authority to modify their schedules or introduce half-days every other week to accommodate these types of meetings.

The reality is that teachers who are really doing a good job are in contact with parents throughout the year to discuss issues in the classroom. In general, the only parents I see on conference days are the ones I don't need to see -- the ones whose children are earning A's and are star students. Perhaps if we rethink the way we structure conferences, we could focus our time on helping parents and students solve problems. Until then, though, I sit in my room and wait for the parents to come.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ginny Weasley-Potter v. Weingarten

One of the best things about being Mr. Potter is being married to my wife (for the purposes of this Harry Potter blog, we call her Ginny). Today we were talking about all of the hullabaloo about the 90 day plan, and she was expressing confusion about why so many teachers are freaked out about it.

Her question was "I hear so much from the WTU, the AFT, and Randi Weingarten about how Rhee's proposal and the 90 day plans are bad because they mean teachers will be fired arbitrarily. But certainly not all firings can be arbitrary. Some must be legitimate. So isn't the union there to protect good teachers from being fired arbitrarily? And if the union leaders are competent, then shouldn't they be telling teachers to not be concerned because they'll protect them from arbitrary firings? So why would you be concerned about being fired arbitrarily if you've got a union to protect you? Unless you don't think the union is competent enough to actually help you."

Pretty and smart. Sorry, folks, she's taken.

Obviously, teachers don't think the union leaders are competent enough to help them. And the union leaders, for their part, seem to agree. If the leaders felt they were themselves competent, wouldn't they just be against arbitrary firings instead of against all firings?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Harlem School closes the Achievement Gap(?)

I'm sure that many people read the op-ed piece in the NY Times last week by David Brooks about the Harlem Children's Zone. It's an article that is worth a read, whether you agree with Brooks' opinions about education reform or not.

The piece is about Geoffery Canada and his network of charter schools, specifically Promise Academy in Harlem. A new study is claiming that Canada's schools are substantially reducing and in some cases closing the achievement gap between black and white students.

I'm sure that there is a ton of room for debate, and of course I haven't read the official study -- just Brooks' interpretation of it. However, I do want to focus on one specific part of the piece. Brooks writes,

"These results are powerful evidence in a long-running debate. Some experts, mostly surrounding the education establishment, argue that schools alone can’t produce big changes. The problems are in society, and you have to work on broader issues like economic inequality. Reformers, on the other hand, have argued that school-based approaches can produce big results. The Harlem Children’s Zone results suggest the reformers are right."

My question: is Brooks correct in his assertion that the "education establishment" argues that schools cannot have a big impact while "reformers" argue that they can? I hesitate to make such generalizations, but then again they make a lot of sense. The "establishment" -- colleges of education, public schools, and teachers unions -- had for decades a monopoly on the education of low-income students. Now, charter schools and alternative certification programs have come along and are challenging the establishment. It only makes sense that the people who feel they are being attacked -- the establishment -- would say that schools alone can't have a big impact on closing the achievement gap, since the achievement gap developed on their watch.

To me, it seems like Brooks may have hit the nail on the head in a way that really helps in the debate. He doesn't say that public schools caused the achievement gap. He doesn't say that bad teachers are to blame. But he does say that the problem can be solved by excellent schools with excellent teachers. Whereas reformers are usually portrayed as "anti-teacher," this analysis celebrates the teachers and the huge impact they can make.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To Improve My School

As this year is drawing to a close, I'm beginning to think about the things that I want to be different about next year (probably most teachers do this -- at the end of my first year, I recall thinking, "well, I don't want to do any of that again"). And one of my new-school-year's resolutions is to be more active in helping to improve my school. It's all too easy to sit in my classroom and not think about what goes on outside my four walls, but I don't think I'll ever see the results I want to see unless the whole school climate improves.

I'm also beginning to think about ways that I can engage with / challenge my administration at times. (For starters, I won't EVER do that test-prep baloney again -- and I've decided that if I'm asked to do it next year I'll simply refuse. It's not fair to me and it's not fair to kids.) I've decided that I'd like to write a memo to make some suggestions of things my school leaders can do -- little things -- that would really improve the quality of life for teachers and, by extension, students. Here are my thoughts..

First, I want a teacher work room. Do these exist in DCPS? It certainly doesn't in my school. I want a place where I can get some very basic supplies, without having to go through some cantankerous business manager who yells at me. Why can't there be a room with pens and folders and -- gasp! -- paper that I can just go and get when I need it. You know, like EVERY OTHER WORK-PLACE IN THE WORLD. When I have to spend my own time and money securing basic materials, it leaves less time for planning instruction, helping students, or calling parents. Or watching Law and Order.

Second, I want to use email (and not the intercom) to communicate. Seriously, is it 1974? Is there any adult that still hasn't mastered the technology of email? If there is, we work in a building full of people who have expertise in explaining things, so my guess is someone could teach you. The lack of email (and general communication) is really starting to get to me. I generally find out about meetings I'm supposed to attend when someone makes an announcement 3 minutes after they've already started.

Finally, I want keys to the building and the library. It sucks when I get here early but can't make photocopies because the library (where we keep our copier) isn't open. It sucks equally when I try to come in on weekends only to discover that the whole building is locked. When I worked as an accountant, I was given keys to the building on my second day. If we're trusted professionals, we should be allowed to have keys.

Those are my ideas for little things my school could do that would make my life much easier. Obviously, addressing these issues won't fix my school. But they would sure make me less cranky. Any other ideas?

Monday, May 4, 2009

The end is nigh

Today during my second period Algebra class, a student asked me when the Final Exam for my class will be. "June 10th" I responded, knowing full well the ire that this answer would produce. And I wasn't disappointed -- the wrath was significant. They felt that the 10th was far too late, and made such feelings known (loudly). I, of course, didn't care.

I was shocked during my first year of teaching when I told students that the final exam would be the last week of school, and they informed me that they "don't come to school in June." I was so confused. You don't come to school in June? But you must! I asked come colleagues and heard from them, "yeah, no kids come in June." Turns out they mustn't.

Where on earth did people get the idea that students don't have to come to school in June? Perhaps their parents told them, perhaps they got the idea from other students, perhaps they've just realized over the years that many teachers stop teaching in June. Or perhaps they just don't want to come to school in June, and thought that if they presented it to me as a fact -- "I don't come in June" -- I'd just say OK. Whatever the reason, they maintained that no one would show up if I held the final any later than May 31. I stuck to my guns and gave the final the last week of school. Lo and behold, all of the students who had a mathematical chance of passing the class (which was most) showed up for the final.

So today, when kids pitched a fit and told me that they don't come to school in June, I had my snarky response all ready: "Sounds good, see you next year." They didn't think that was funny.

Friday, May 1, 2009

You know you've screwed up when...

... you've made me feel bad for Nathan Saunders. (Our beef goes back to last summer when he told me that, because I'm a relatively young white male, I won't stay in DCPS. Racist and moronic. But I digress.)

The Washington Teacher has got a whole slew of emails and letters showing how WTU President George Parker is abusing his position and essentially forcing Mr. Saunders to return to the classroom or face dismissal from DCPS. It's obviously a little silly that the district is allowing Mr. Parker to do this, and other bloggers have posted about how this situation really boils down to a competition to see who can be a bigger douche.

Here's my real problem with this: the fact that, everywhere I read about this story, being sent "back to classroom" seems like such a punishment. If it sucks SO HARD to go back to the classroom, doesn't that mean that the union leaders aren't doing a good job? I get that it's unfair / maybe illegal to stop the union leaders from doing their jobs, but I also think that the union leaders have a lot to answer for in terms of their consistent inability to do what's right for teachers. Maybe Saunders, Parker, etc. should be sent back to the classroom for a while.