A Time to Rend and a Time to Sew

Teaching in an urban school has many challenges.  The frustrations are often large while the successes are often small.  Sometimes its hard for educators to remain positive with so much negative attention around them.  Its easy to get frustrated when you feel you don’t have the support of the administration, you don’t have the support of parents, and there is no one you can talk to who really understands your situation.  And, if you talk about your frustrations with peers you run the risk of moral quickly dropping.

So I self-reflect and try to always remember positive aspects of the day, no matter how small or hard to find they may be.  As I do this, day after day, I find myself more positive in the classroom and I am finding it easier to plan my lessons.

An example of this is my unit on heroes.  In the unit I start with Cesar Chavez, then I go to Miep Gies, and I end the unit with Jackie Robinson.  Students discuss how Cesar protested, fasted, and marched for equal wages for farm workers in California.  Then we study how Miep Gies risked her life to help the Frank family and others hide from the Nazis for almost two years.  Finally I teach about Jackie Robinson who endured personal abuse for the advancement of equality in sports.

The inner-city kids I work with will steal, fight, argue, curse at other students and at their teachers, however; they will also protect one another, take the blame for a friend, and help other students with answers to difficult questions. On Monday morning students are often arguing back and forth with one another and I would have no control of the class.

When the students came back from Winter vacation they were in a heated argument and they were totally ignoring anything I had to say.  I eventually got them to quiet down a bit and I decided to listen to what they were talking about because they weren’t going to stop arguing with each other no matter what I did.

There was a party over the break and everybody was there, well almost everybody.  One girl didn’t go to the party because her friends weren’t invited and couldn’t go.  Her boyfriend was yelling at her and told her she should have left her friends behind for him.  She shouted back, “If my friends aren’t good enough for those a-holes then I don’t need to be there either.”

You know I had to be there, the boyfriend shot back.  He had to protect his little sister and her friends and make sure they didn’t get into any trouble. “I wanted to be with you, but I couldn’t leave them alone.” he said quietly.

As the class quieted down I started discussing with them how small things we do every day define us.  Things started to get out of control again and a boy in the back of the room said, “Y’all can say what ever you want about me.  I’m not gonna get suspended.  I’m gonna get my education and be somebody.” I smiled.

I know these are small meaningless victories, but I’ll take them.


Teacher’s Dilemma


What should a teacher do when a student refuses to stop talking, refuses to sit down, refuses to do their classwork, refuses to leave the classroom?  It’s our job to teach, to engage students, and we are told that we can’t do that if a student is not in the classroom, however;  we often can not teach when the student is in the classroom.

The dilemma teachers run into is whether to focus on the class full of students who are ready to work or to focus on the student who is unable, or unwilling, to listen to teacher directives.  When a class is on task and there is a student off task and disrupting the class, the teacher has questions to answer; How do I get this student back on track?  Talk to the student, Ignore the student,  Use proximity, Change their seat,  Ask them to change their behavior or language, there are dozens of strategies teachers use every day depending on the situation.

If the student does not get back on task and continues to disrupt the class, the teacher has new questions to ask;  How do I keep the other students on task, Can I still teach with the disruption, Do I need to have the student removed, did I do everything I could to keep the student in the class?

The whole time the teacher is working on behavior management they are not working on instruction.  How much time should be taken away from students who want to learn and given to the disruptive student?  What should a teacher do if they ask a student put something away and the student says no?  Is it worth the power struggle or should the teacher give in?

New teachers are told that they have to establish rules and routines in their classroom, but how do you enforce those rules and reinforce the routines?  There was a time when students would listen to teachers and disruptions were handled immediately by administrators and parents.  Now, however; teachers have a larger responsibility and both administrators and parents ask the teacher if they did everything possible to help the troubled students.  The problem is that to do everything possible to help the troubled student a teacher has to take more time away from instruction.

I don’t have answers to all these questions, I just have frustration that teachers aren’t given support, understanding, or respect for the fact that we are dealing with the changing of rules regarding behavior management in the classroom and at the same time we are held accountable for the education of all students.  This means the ones who want to learn as well as the ones who want to disrupt the learning process.

Shine Your Light

I’ve been an educator for over twenty years and I’ve had the pleasure to work walan weeksith people whose passion and talent helped children grow and learn.  There is one man who I worked with for over five years and I’ve been friends with for over ten years.  We worked together at an inner-city middle school in Albany, NY and I was always amazed with his communications and interactions with students.

He taught tap, jazz, and History of Dance classes and I taught theatre, drama, and playwriting classes.  Students who had a hard time staying in class and out of trouble often enjoyed the dance classes and would try their best to remain in school just so they could participate in his lessons.

During the History of Dance classes there would always be at least one student who would notice the name of a Broadway star from the 1970s and 1980s. “Mr. Weeks, is that you?” they would ask.  He would smile and then there would be a discussion about being a Broadway actor.  I loved watching him talk to a group of students.  His voice would be bellowing and his body animated as he taught classes full of students staring up at him with interest and respect.

There were three performances a year where students with little or no experience would tap dance to a routine they had been learning.  He even let me join one of his beginner classes and learn the basics of step-shuffle-step.  After leaving the middle school setting he worked with elementary students and taught them rhythm, movement, dance, and how to have fun during a performance.

He did three shows a year; one at each of the three different elementary  schools.  At these schools he worked with students from first to fifth grade and he helped them put on a full performance in ten weeks.  I’d watch him with this giant smile on his face and groups of students surrounding him with high fives and hugs when he tells them what a great job they did.

He was always there to give me advice and to try to keep me out of trouble.  When we’d be sitting at a meeting and I’d start to say the wrong thing to the wrong person, he would kick me from under the table.  He taught me how to bite my lip and keep my mouth shut.  I don’t always take this advice, but I know I should.  His other piece of advice, “keep it simple, keep it movin'”.  I find myself saying this whenever I try to complicate things.

He retired last year and finally got the chance to keep it simple.  I received a phone call last Monday and was told that he passed away over the weekend.  He was my friend, he was my family, and I still find it hard to say that Alan Weeks has passed away.  He will be missed, but he will not be forgotten.

“Tap, tap
make a little moonshine
tap, tap
before you’re gone
shine your light
shine it bright
that light just might
go shining on…”

Tap , tap
The Tap Dance Kid

Education in Politics

I’ve been to a couple of meetings lately regarding the new budget in New York and how it affects students, teachers, and education.  On Tuesday I took part in a discussion about changes to the education law and on Wednesday Pat Fahy and John McDonald discussed why they voted for it.

The new law has changes in teacher evaluations with ratings still based on student performance and observation, however; the results will no longer be on a 100 point scale. “Instead, the results of the student performance measure and the observation measure will each be plotted on a separate matrix and combined, in a manner to be determined by the State Education Department to determine an overall rating.” Because most of the new education law is written this way no one knows what the State Education Department will do to establish its new evaluation system.

Other major education issues included in the budget are the privatization of schools, programmatic contingency of state aid, takeover and restructuring of some urban schools, and a strong push to weaken the educational flexibility teachers have with diverse student populations. This is not only dangerous for teachers it is harmful to the parents and students who are adversely affected by these new laws.

How can classrooms in low income urban schools be compared to classrooms in upper middle-class suburban schools? The classroom is different, the teaching is different, and the students are different. How can the evaluation be the same?

“These so-called solutions don’t even begin to address the problems with our education.” Phil Steck, who voted against the budget, said, “We need to address socioeconomic causes of low performance before blaming teachers.”

Pat Fahy said that it was with heavy heart that she voted for the budget and it would have been easier to vote no. I interrupted her and asked why she voted for the budget if it would have been so easy to vote no. She hesitated for a moment and then said that the assembly worked hard for some gains and if she voted no she would be excluded from further discussions. She was reminded that getting voted out of office would also exclude her from further discussions. I’m not sure if she really heard us when we said that.

There were assembly members who did stand by their word and voted “no” to the budget because they knew representing voters was more important than making deals with other politicians and businessman. Some of the assembly members who support children and education are Phil Steck, James Tedesko, and Steve McLaughlin. Please thank them and support them.

Check the voting record of the politicians in your area regarding education and child centered issues. Don’t just listen to what they say; knowing how they vote on issues is what will keep them honest.

Educational Responsibility

aschackettI remember when I was in the eighth grade and I came home with a report card that wasn’t as good as it could have been. My grades had dropped in almost every class and comments showed that I wasn’t putting in enough effort. My father handed me the report card and waited for an explanation.

My teachers don’t like me. I don’t like my teachers. The work is too hard. The work is too easy. I’m bored. All these excuses and more went through my head but I didn’t say any of them because the truth was that my grades went down because I didn’t work as hard as I should have.

Many of today’s students and parents have a much different view of educational responsibility. If grades fall it is no longer the students’ responsibility, it is the teacher’s. Homework, classwork, taking notes, and participation are activities that a student can choose to do but their grade and learning are based on what the teacher has done, or not none.

I was talking to a teacher friend of mine and he used the analogy; you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. It is not the teacher’s fault if the students won’t do the work given to them. If a student doesn’t study for a test, the teacher has failed that student. If a student doesn’t do their homework, the teacher has failed that student. If a student doesn’t pay attention in class, the teacher has failed that student. In fact the students themselves bear little responsibility for their education at all.

Common Core testing has taken this to a whole new level by evaluating teachers on the scores of their students and the students in their schools. Economic and behavioral factors are not used in this evaluation and student interest isn’t considered either. Teachers are told the results of the test and they are evaluated by these results.

No one is told how the test is scored. No one is told what questions were correct and which ones were wrong. No one is given a rubric on what they will be evaluated on. In education these are basic things for any graded assignment or test. The students are given a score for how well they did and then their teacher is given a score for how well the class or school did. No one will ever see the test, the questions or the evaluative process again.

My father knew why my grades dropped, and they improved by the next report card not because the teacher got better but because I stopped fooling around, did my work, and studied for the tests. I was also grounded for four months.


Charter School Accountability

There has been a lot of conversation lately regarding charter schools and their effects on a community. Educationally and economically, they can put stress on a district.

I have done a lot of research on charter schools and found that they can be either good or bad. Charter schools were created to offer an alternative setting for students to be successful. The problem is that they have become a way for big business to make money, and educating children has become less important.

An example of this is The Brighter Choice Foundation in Albany, NY. They are a “management company” that gives “advice” to charter schools within the Albany School District. At their highest point they managed 11 public charter schools and each school paid around $1,000,000 for fees and rent. That’s over $10,000,000 per year going to the Foundation and not the education of children.

Albany taxpayers vote on the public school budget every year and they can see where their money is being spent. Over $30,000,000 is given to charter schools and no one can tell them what to do with the money. This is why a third of the money can go to the businessmen who have no background in education. These businessmen get paid even if the schools close due to poor test scores and low enrollment. As the schools are underperforming they are still getting paid and will continue to get paid until the schools close and the undereducated children go back to the district public school.

Currently there are 8 schools in the Brighter Choice Network and 2 are set to close at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. Albany students are choosing the district schools and Brighter Choice has to find new students. They had to go outside the Albany School District and send flyers to surrounding districts to recruit new students.

These districts, schools, and taxpayers cannot stop the charter schools. They cannot stop the $1,000,000 fees that are funneled through the businesses associated with the public charter schools. A smaller district outside Albany that has 10 students decide to try the charter school can cost their taxpayers $150,000 and 30 students can affect a budget by $500,000. Within five to ten years a management company can earn $100,000,000 and if the school closes they can just retire or open another one.

I am not anti-charter school; however, public charter schools cannot remain educationally and financially unaccountable. I believe taxpayers should have control of why and how their money is being spent. This accountability will help charter schools to rise to the occasion or close down. Either way it’s ok.

To Teach or Not to Teach

Dav teachingI’ve been a teacher for over fifteen years and in that time I’ve seen dozens and dozens of teachers start and end their careers. There is nothing better than listening to a teacher with over twenty-five years of experience talking about why they went into education and nothing worse than listening to someone new to the profession talking about why they are leaving it. I started thinking about what makes someone so successful as a teacher and what makes someone else struggle.

The amount of work that a teacher has on a daily and weekly basis can intimidate even the most organized person. Staying on top of planning and grading is only part of the challenge. Classroom management, behavior management, and parental communication also have to fit into a teacher’s routine. If a new teacher learns how to juggle all of these tasks successfully they will become a good educator.

A third to a half of new teachers are unprepared for this work-load and they struggle. Most of them will leave the profession and do something that pays more or is less stressful. Struggling teachers that do stay, either get help through a mentor or are denied tenure. At least this is what I hope.

Teachers work in urban schools, rural schools, suburban schools, and private schools and they discover that teaching and learning is different in every environment. Different teacher’s personalities are more successful in different surroundings. Someone who teaches honors classes will have to change techniques to work with a skills class and a skills teacher better be prepared for the challenges of honors students.

Some teachers who excel in one environment will struggle in another. High school is different than middle school, first grade is different than fourth grade, and every school building has its own personality. On occasion a teacher will be a good fit in one class and then be put in another class where they are less comfortable. This doesn’t mean they’re a bad teacher; they’re just not the best fit in all classes.

Unrealistic expectations and unfair evaluations are the final straw for many educators. With teachers being vilified by politicians and the media, many would-be teachers are rethinking the decision to teach and people who have been in the classroom for decades are looking to retire as soon as possible.

Teachers cannot control hunger, neglect, or abuse. They cannot make students do homework, classwork, or study for a test. They cannot make them take medication or stop taking illegal drugs. They can be prepared and give their heart and soul to a classroom and school. Despite what the media tells us, most teachers give 110% every day and are rarely thanked for it.

Teaching 2015

I have been watching the news, reading articles, and listening to friends and family for the past couple of months and everyone seems to be focusing on education, or lack thereof, in America. The Governor has a plan to fix it and even the President thinks he knows what the problems and solutions are.

Teachers are the problem.
If we could only get rid of bad teachers the education problem would improve.

Public education is the problem.
If we could only get rid of poor performing schools the education problem would improve.

Teacher evaluations are the solution.
If we could only improve the evaluation process of teachers we would be able to get rid of the bad ones and the education problem would improve.

Charter public schools are the solution.
If we could only have more charter schools then students would have better, more successful schools to attend and the educatio8n problem would improve.

These problems and solutions are not only oversimplified, they’re wrong.

One third of new teachers leave within the first three years of teaching and about half within the first five years. It’s a tough job and many people don’t realize the hours that have to be put in and the skill required to teach. Once a person realizes that they can make more money doing almost anything else, they have to decide if this is truly what they were born to do, or not.

I agree that we need effective teachers in the classroom, however; I disagree with the statement that most teachers are ineffective because of low student test scores. There has been a plethora of research done on student success and the leading factor in almost every study is economic. Students with an economic advantage have less stress in their lives, are more likely to have educated parents, and are better able to focus on educational success. Teachers are responsible for being prepared for their lessons and delivering those lessons to the class. They are also responsible for classroom management and behavior management.

If teachers are evaluated on the performance of their students then we should consider it for everyone who improves the lives of the people around them. If a person gets a cavity they can assume they have a bad dentist. If a person gets lung cancer, or skin cancer, or colon cancer, or any cancer, they should be able to sue their doctor for malpractice. Diabetes and high blood pressure are because of an ineffective doctor. If a person is overweight, underweight, drinks too much, if they engage in risky behavior, sue the doctor, the therapist, divorce the spouse. If a house gets broken into it’s the police department’s fault and if a house catches on fire blame the fire department for not preparing homeowners better.

With charter schools we take the art of teaching and turn it into a business. The purpose of a business is to make money, and the business of charter schools is very good. (They are making a lot of money.) Educationally however, they are not preforming as well. They expel low performing and behaviorally struggling students or encourage them to return to the regular public school. Even with this advantage charter schools struggle to be successful. The schools continue to receive taxpayer money regardless of student performance and up to a third of the money goes to management fees and other costs that taxpayers have no vote on.

Politicians can tell you that they have the answer but if it involves money or blaming someone they don’t. There is only one thing that research has shown improves education. Smaller class sizes and experienced teachers. Everything else belongs to the lobbyists.