30 September 2013

Walking Wounded

I recently heard a conversation that surprised me. The teachers talked about how college was not for their kids (but maybe community college). One spoke of how he threw away his lessons from the middle class district he taught at before moving...because his new kids just couldn't do them. I listened as they described such abject and overwhelming poverty that their kids couldn't plan for tomorrow...that dreams about the future was a luxury they couldn't afford...because they were too focused on just trying to make it through today. There was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness described for the children these teachers had in their rooms.

But this was not an inner-city school. Not the ghetto. It's a school that might be described as ideal in other ways. Classes have no more than 15 students. There are no drug or gang problems. Nearly all of the students are native English speakers. Little classroom time needs to be spent on management---in fact, things like theft are so non-existent that kids don't even bother to close the doors on their lockers.

What would most teachers do, I wonder, if faced with a classroom where nearly all of the barriers we typically worry about were gone---where you could just go in your room, shut the door, and teach your heart out every day?

I won't marginalize the utterly debilitating effects of poverty---and generational poverty, at that. And I don't think a school will "fix" those ails. Instead, we have to look inside and think about what is within our locus of control during the time those children are in our classrooms. And I have such a hard time hearing adults in schools deciding that kids can't/shouldn't. No college for you. You're too poor and will just drop out anyway. No challenging work for you. Good literature is wasted on those who won't appreciate it. No art for you. You won't do it right or follow my directions.

This bothers me greatly. Students whose future has already been determined before they step inside the classroom are one thing. But the teachers who have given up on these kids is also troublesome. It's as if they are becoming as hopeless about the future as their students. "Wake up!" I want to say while shaking them out of their haze.

I don't know how to change the heartbreaking dynamic here. It weighs on my mind quite a bit. Did you ever have to rededicate yourself to the classroom? How did you do it?

03 September 2013

Handle with Care

I work without a net. That is, my job can end at any time (only 24 hours notice required) and my worth to my employer is judged solely on the merits of my work. I know this would cause heartburn for a lot of teachers, and it has meant a rollercoaster for me on occasion; but overall, I really like the basic premise.

There is a lot of turnover, however, from those of us in the rank and file. This doesn't seem to bother anyone, although it should. And when someone passed along this article on Why Talented Creatives Are Leaving Your Shitty Agency, I saw the parallels. I think there's a lot there that corresponds to what happens in schools, too.

Here are the reasons listed at the beginning of the article:
“I want to work on an actual product people want to use”
“I want to build my own thing”
“I want to explore more new technology and ideas not gimmicks”
“We never do any interesting work”
“We only care about hitting targets”
“I don’t feel like I’m learning”
“We never push back and tell the client their ideas are shit”

Hmmm...that does sound familiar. Maybe not so much products and gimmicks in education, but the general gist is in the right frame of things.

The author then goes on to detail six places where employers go wrong:

1. You won't stop taking on shit work.
In other words, we all understand that there are some things we have to do because, hey, it's a job. But if that's all we're given to do, then that sucks the soul right out of your employees. Are you the teacher who always gets stuck with that one group of kids because everyone else says you're good at it? Maybe it would be nice to be asked what you'd like to do now and then, eh?

2. You don't innovate.
How often do I hear that professional development uninspired...not pushing us to heights as a teacher? A lot. Do we play it safe in schools, turning in the same plans year after year, instead of making some changes?

3. You keep hiring shit (and not doing anything about it).
Raise your hand if you've worked with someone who's just phoning it in each day. You know, the teacher with the lesson plans for the year in a binder...the one who reads the newspaper while students mindlessly copy out of a book? Someone hired that person...and someone is being paid to manage them. Maybe if we fix #1 and #2, people won't slide into uninspired work.

4. You don't stop taking on projects that can't be delivered unless we work 12 hour days.
Educators often work 12 hours days, but not for the same reasons as the private sector. So this point might take on a slightly different meaning in education, but I see it as chasing the shiny new thing. We need to stop doing that and just focus on the work we have. It's enough.

5. You don't give staff any credit.
Oy. I've worked for numerous people now who are guilty of this...and I'll bet you have, too. Is there anything more deflating than busting your ass on a project and then never have your name mentioned?

6. You don't buy us decent equipment.
I can't tell you the number of schools that I've been in that are using computers that are many years old and several operating systems behind the current version. Yes, you can teach without computers, projectors, iPads, etc.---but the same level of efficiency should not be expected. You get what you pay for, employers.

I would like to add one more here.

You don't listen to your teachers/employees.
Those at the top surround themselves with a few people to feed them information. But they never hear from those who do the actual work. What a difference it would make if a superintendent made an effort to get to know every employee and find out what they need to make the most of their job.

It's a new school year. Which of these things can be changed this year? What can we do tomorrow to make our work environments more positive...our work more satisfying? And assuming we can't, where should innovative and creative teachers go? They are far too precious for us to lose from the profession. We need to handle them with care.