Wednesday, February 24, 2010

State Testing: Life or Death?

I hope this is taken in the tongue and cheek way in which it is written, but state testing is coming up and I'm fairly certain that some teachers really believe that they will die if their students don't do well, that their students performance somehow determines their worth.

Now, maybe it is because I haven't been threatened with my expulsion due to test scores, merit based pay has yet to be implemented, or simply because I live in a world where all of my students are still learning the English language, but I just do not get all stressed out and scared about state testing. Even if I was scared to death about the ramifications, I wouldn't share that with my students because school is where I want them to learn, not the place where I want them to develop an early anxiety disorder.

When the climate of the school turns to "testing mode" the students are directly affected. How can they not be? If you are a talented educator and the students have any regards for you at all, they have become adept at reading your moods and respond in kind. A scared/stressed out/frazzled teacher leads to less-than-read-to-learn children. Less-than-ready-to-learn children can hardly be expected to perform well on anything, much less a foreign-looking high stakes assessment.

So my advice during these times is to trust yourself. Know that you did your best. Prepare your students in small chunks (so as not to overwhelm them) and then just let them go and show off all that knowledge that you've imparted. I know I might be oversimplifying, but what are you going to do if they fail? Life will not end, I assure you. We might as well give them a fighting chance to prove our worries wrong by calming down and making them feel secure enough to get to work.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Overwhelming Truth

At the beginning of the year, I started a new job in a new district. While this has definitely been a positive move overall, it (like most things in teaching) has not been without it's challenges and adjustments. During my first meeting with my principal to discuss my progress and how the year was going, I admitted that I was happy but there were definitely times of feeling overwhelmed. As realistic as anything, she simply replied that if I wasn't feeling stressed in this job, I was probably doing something wrong.

A few days ago (and many months after the original incident) a fellow teacher at another school in another district entirely told me almost the exact same story about her own interactions with her administrator. In fact, I don't think I've ever met anyone in the education world who has ever made a secret of the fact that our job asks us to go above and beyond social norms when it comes to the amount of work involved, as well as when and where that work takes place (i.e. ALL THE TIME, EVERYWHERE).

In a world where my commitment to my students is unyielding and in a career where the importance of smarts is rivaled by the importance of heart, it is easy to lose yourself in the "job" (if you can even call it that, sometimes I just call it "my life".) I've had numerous conversations with other young teachers who fear that they'll sacrifice their own chance at a social life/family life because of the amount of effort that it takes to truly be a quality teacher. Indeed it is a concern that I share.

This post doesn't come with a solution or a neatly wrapped ending. It actually just leaves me wondering, "How then can we be super-human and achieve everything without losing...something?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Connecting the Dots

I have come to realize that there are concepts in history that students just can not fathom at their age, even though they are topics that are required of teachers to impart. The best that we can do is relate these subjects to things that are close to our students' understanding and build on them from year to year. They are concepts that, we ourselves can not truly fathom, having not been a part of them and experienced them for ourselves.

For example, my students are currently learning about segregation in the United States and, while it was not so long ago, it is a completely foreign concept to them. In most ways, I think that it is an amazing blessing that my students couldn't imagine hating/being afraid of another person just because of their skin color. It's a testament to how far we've come in such a short time. And yet, those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them, and because of this students must gain a deep respect for the past which our present was born out of.

Something that immediately excited me about reading our first selection about Ruby Bridges is that the students had a million questions. Unfortunately, the first whopper of a question was something to the effect of, "Why didn't the white people like the black people?" All of a sudden a brainstorm hit me.

One of my students is deathly afraid of spiders. So I asked her, "Has a spider actually ever hurt you?" She admitted they had not. I asked how many students hated spiders in my class and most of them raised their hands. Then I asked why. "One of my students explained that they look creepy." I further asked them what exactly they did upon encountering a spider and they unanimously agreed that they kill them. After this I said simply, "So you hate something that has never hurt you just because it looks different and that scares you. In fact, instead of spending time with it and realizing it is harmless, you would rather hurt it OR KILL it than accept it's existence in your life."

As we talked about how people are afraid of things that they don't understand, the students started to connect the dots.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


This week, a friend and coworker, upon detailing some of the nasty things her students have been doing behind her back, brought up the adage, "Character is who you are when no one is looking." It will be here theme for the next C.A.R.E. meeting and highly apt for her classroom, as well as (unfortunately after yesterday) some of the students in mine.

The problem came about yesterday when I was out of the classroom for bilingual testing all day. I came back in the last 30 minutes to find out that several of my students had teased each other and made each other feel bad and one of my students what just outright defiant with the substitute. While these issues aren't uncommon in any classroom around the country, they are completely unacceptable and I told my students as much. But the "punishment" as it may be can not just be a firm talking-to. Something in their training needs to actually stick with them so that they are intrinsically motivated to be good people ALL of the time, not just because they are trying to please an adult that they respect.

According to brain research, until late teens/early twenties, the part of the brain that is responsible for emotion and empathy is not yet fully formed. This is supposed to explain (excuse?) a student who walks up to you and says something like, "Eww, why would you wear THAT shirt?!" (We are to assume that they can't make a connection about how it would feel if someone would say that to them.) It is because of this, that we ask students to LEARN what IS appropriate, whether or not they understand why. To EXPECT them to be rude and uncaring is the same as having low expectations for succeeding in a content area. Just because a student may be underdeveloped in personal understanding does not account for their ability to learn proper social norms and expectations. If presented in an impactful way, I have no doubt about their abilities to comprehend the "why" (whether or not they feel it) and adhere to these expectations.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Learning (and Teaching) Styles

When I started teaching in a new district, I knew that there were bound to be big changes. Every school district has their own requirements and expectations which shape the way that teachers and administrators handle their business. The one thing that IS consistent in my experience (and I pray in all teachers' experience) is the consensus that all teachers need to cater to their students' varied learning styles.

Now, I'm more than happy to be in my new district and new position, but there are some changes that I didn't anticipate. In my former district, for example, I wasn't required to turn in lesson plans with the exception of during a formal observation. In my current district, a full weeks lessons are due once a month and our entire lesson plan book (or in my case, binder of lessons) is due at the end of the year.

To be honest, I fully understand the need to determine the caliber of education that is occurring within the schools. But, like in all cases of education, I believe there are multiple ways of accomplishing this.

As a student teacher, I learned something about myself. I am a creative and dynamic teacher...ONLY if I'm attending directly to my students and the direction in which their learning needs to go. I am a talented lesson planner for sure, but if I get a detailed plan in front of me, I will literally follow it to the death with blinders on as to what is actually happening in the classroom. I don't know what it is about that kind of restrictive step-by-step process that renders me incapable, but that's what happens. Instead, if I have a brief outline (and I mean brief!!!) of things that need to be accomplished, I find that I am no longer boxed in by time and exact procedure and the caliber of learning that occurs is exponentially better. I also find that writing out lessons day by day ends up being an insanely large time drain. I feel that it would be more productive to use that time creating things that would actually supplement learning (or resting so that I have the energy to be the most dynamic teacher possible.)

Either way, sometimes I feel like the requirements that we place on ourselves are directly contrary to those that we know happen to be best practice. By that I mean, if teachers are not allowed to plan in the style that best suits them, why are we asked to teach in the way that best reaches our students? I believe that it would truly be best practice to believe in the caliber of teacher hired (and their ability to follow curriculum), assess them sporadically to ensure consistency, and then trust them to do the job that they were hired to do.