Teacher Seniority – the Seat Belts of the Education Profession

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You wouldn’t travel a long distance in your car without strapping on a seatbelt.

So why do you think teachers should spend 30 plus years in the classroom without seniority?

Everywhere you look, billionaires are paying millionaires in government to pass laws to cut taxes, slash funding and find cheaper ways to run public schools for pleb kids like yours and mine. And that often means finding ways to weaken protections for teachers, fire those with the most experience and replace them with glorified WalMart greeters.

“Hello. Welcome to SchoolMart. Please plug into your iPad and begin today’s lesson.”

This is class warfare cloaked as a coupon. It’s sabotage described as savings.

And the only way they get away with it is because reasonable people buy the steaming load of manure they’re selling.

MYTH: Seniority with Tenure means a Job for Life

Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of teachers out of work.

Tell that to all the optimistic go getters who prance out of college ready to change the world as teachers and fizzle out during the first five years.

Tell it to the handful of truly terrible teachers who for reasons only they can explain stay in a job they hate through countless interventions and retrainings until the principal has no choice but to give them their walking papers.

Oh, yes. Teachers DO get fired. I’ve seen it with my own eyes numerous times. And in each case, they truly deserved it.

(Any “bad teachers” still on the job mean there’s a worse administrator somewhere neglecting to do his or her duty.)

So what does “Seniority” and “Tenure” even mean for teachers?

Basically, it means two things:

(1) If you want to fire a teacher, you have to prove he or she deserves it. That’s Tenure.

(2) When public school districts downsize, they can’t just lay off people based on their salaries. That’s Seniority.

If you think about it, both of these are good things.

It is not a good work environment for teachers or students when educators can be fired without cause at the whim of incoming administration or radical, newly-elected school board members. Teaching is one of the most political professions we have. Tenure shields educators from the winds of partisanship. It allows them to grade children fairly whose parents have connections on the school board, it allows them to speak honestly and openly about school policy, and it empowers them to act in the best interests of their students – all things that otherwise could jeopardize their jobs.

Likewise, seniority stops the budget butchers from making experience and stability a liability.

It stops number crunchers from saying:

Hey, Mrs. Wilson has been here for 25 years. She’s got a shelf full of teaching awards. Parents and students love her. But she’s at the top of the salary scale so she’s gotta’ go.

I know what you’re going to say: Aren’t there younger teachers who are also outstanding?

Yes. There are.

However, if you put all the best teachers in one group, most of them will be more experienced.

It just makes sense. You get better at something – anything – the more you do it. This could be baking pies, building houses or teaching children how to read and write.

So why don’t we keep the best teachers and get rid of those who aren’t up to their level?

Because determining who’s the best is subjective. And if you let the moneymen decide – POOF! – suddenly the teachers who make the most money will disappear and only the cheapest ones will be left.

Couldn’t you base it on something more universal like student test scores?

Yes, you could, but student test scores are a terrible way to evaluate teachers. If you wanted to get rid of the highest paid employees, all you’d have to do is give them the most struggling students. Suddenly, their students have the worst test scores, and they’re packing up their stuff in little cardboard boxes.

Almost any stat can be gamed.

The only one that is solidly unbiased? Seniority.

You’ve either been here 15 years or you haven’t. There’s not much anyone can do to change that fact.

That’s why it prevents the kind of creative accounting you see from penny pinching number crunchers.

Along with Tenure, Seniority is a safety net. Pure and simple. It helps keep the most qualified teachers in the room with kids. Period.

But look. It’s not perfect.

Neither are seat belts.

If you’re in a car crash on a bridge where it’s necessary to get out of your vehicle quickly before it plunges into the water below, it’s possible your seat belt may make it more difficult to reach safety. This is rather rare, and it doesn’t stop most people from buckling up.

I’ve known excellent teachers who were furloughed while less creative ones were kept on. It does happen.

But if we got rid of seniority, it would happen way more often.

That’s the bottom line.

Instead of finding more leeway to fire more teachers, we should be finding ways to increase school funding – especially at the most under-resourced schools – which, by the way, are the ones where lawmakers most want to eliminate seniority. We should be looking for ways to make downsizing unnecessary. We should be investing in our children and our future.

We’ll never improve the quality of the public school system by firing our way to the bottom. That’s like trying to lose weight by hacking at yourself with a straight razor. It just won’t work.

We need to commit to public schools. We need to commit to public school students. And the best way to do that is to support the teachers who devote their lives showing up every day to help them learn.

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My Students Are Addicted to Screens

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Michael sat at his desk with ear buds inserted, an iPad balanced in front of his eyes and an old fashioned paper book open on his desk.

His head was bopping and weaving. His eyes were transfixed on a YouTube video of an animated soldier blasting away bad guys. And his book was laid out in front of him, largely ignored.

This was during our class’ sustained silent reading time – a period of 15-20 minutes where my 7th grade students were supposed to read self-selected books. Eventually, they’d have to complete a project, but today all they had to do was read.

Still, many used the time the same way as Michael did – lost in cyberspace, merely pretending their eyes gloss over the page.

“And what did the teacher do?” I hear some readers say indignantly.

“If you allow this type of behavior, you’re worse than the child doing it.”

So come with me as I redirect Michael.

“Hey, buddy,” I say.

“Huh?” he responds as if awakened from a dream.

“Are you reading?”

“Uh. Yeah.”

“You’re not just watching that video and ignoring your book?”

“Nope,” he says now fully awake. And he proceeds to give me a canned summary of the text that he memorized from the Internet.

But I’m still skeptical.

“I’m going to take your iPad away just for SSR time,” I say.

BUT WHY!? I’M READING!”

“I just want you to be able to concentrate on what you’re reading.”

And as I gently pry the iPad from his curled fists, he stands up and gives me a look of pure hatred.

This is a look from a 7th grade boy who’s considering violence.

It’s the same look you’d get trying to take away a dog’s bone, or an addict’s crack pipe.

It truly depends on the child what happens next. Some will regain control, slam down into their seats and sulk. Others will whine and cause a scene. And some will lose all control and lash out.

This is what teachers deal with every day when it comes to technology in the classroom.

In point of fact, many of our children are addicted to their devices.
iPads, laptops, Smartphones – we might as well be giving them pills, joints and syringes.

According to Merriam Webster, addiction is defined as, “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance… [characterized] by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.”

For most students, their devices have become just that – a compulsion, the cause of a nearly irresistible impulse to check them, access them, use them to keep themselves entertained and plugged in.

With repeated use, it becomes habit forming, and separation from the device can lead to a kind of withdrawal.

From a neuro-psychological point of view, one wonders if repeated use is clinically damaging – especially to adolescent brains that have not yet fully formed.

From an educational point of view, one wonders if relying on such devices in class is pedagogically sound.

I’m not qualified to answer the first question (though it deserves much more study than it is receiving). But from my 15 plus years of experience in the classroom, I feel qualified to answer the second – and that answer is often a resounding “NO.”

In my kids’ everyday lives, this type of constant technology reliance doesn’t make them better students. It doesn’t give them access to more information. It makes them dependent on instant gratification and sensory overload.

Their minds are submerged in a soup of constant noise and conflicting demands for their attention. Stringing together thoughts and coming to reasoned opinions becomes increasingly difficult.

This isn’t to say that technology has no place in the classroom.

There are ways to use it that can enhance learning. However, in my experience these are NOT the ways it is being used most of the time. That takes, thought, planning, intention. Instead, many well-meaning administrators or school directors prescribe technology as an end in itself regardless of the goals of an individual lesson. They want to prove their buildings, schools or districts are cutting edge, and that only takes the constant use of technology – not surgical, intentional use.

It’s not that teachers don’t know how to apply it or don’t care. It’s that technology – especially the presence of a one-to-one device in the hands of every child at all (or most) times – creates more problems than it solves.

This is why the same people who invented these technologies strictly regulate them for their own children.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, two of the biggest tech titans in the business, famously limited screen time for theirs sons and daughters.

Gates, a Microsoft co-founder, refused to let his children have personal technological devices until they were developmentally ready for them.

“We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal,” he told the Mirror. “We didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier.”

Today, most children get their own cellphones at age 10. And if their schools have one-to-one initiatives like mine, they have their own iPad as early as 5th grade with less but still substantial hours of usage as early as kindergarten.

Jobs, an Apple co-founder, also limited screen time for his children.

When asked if his children liked the original iPad shortly after it was launched, Jobs said, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

In fact, according to Walter Isaacson, who wrote a near-definitive Jobs’ biography, technological devices were only allowed at prescribed times.

“Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things,” he said.

“No one ever pulled out an iPad or a computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.”

And this practice seems common among parents in Silicon Valley.

According to educators Joe Clement and Matt Miles, authors of “Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber,” those in the tech industry know the dangers of their own products on children.

A number of specialty Silicon Valley schools, say Clement and Miles, such as the Waldorf School, rely almost exclusively on low-tech tools to teach. This often means chalkboards and pencils. The emphasis is on learning interpersonal skills such as cooperation and respect – not the ins and outs of computer coding.

At Brightworks School, even the physical environment of the class is a tool to learning. Students attend class in treehouses and kids learn creativity by building things with their hands.

This is a far cry from the technological wonderland our kids are being sold by these kids’ parents.

No one really knows what effect it’s having on growing minds. However, psychologists are beginning to see alarming trends.

For instance, frequent use of social media makes an eighth-grader’s risk for depression 27% higher. Moreover, use of smart phones for at least three hours a day increases children’s risk of becoming suicidal. Some experts believe that increased use of technology has contributed to the teen suicide rate which for the first time eclipses the homicide rate.

We are jumping head first into an educational model that puts technological devices like a tablet at the center of learning.

Teachers assign lessons on the device. Students complete assignments on it. Projects are virtual as is research. Even conversations are conducted through a chat page, emails or messaging.

Why? Not necessarily because of any proven link to increased academic results. It’s because tech companies are marketing their devices to schools and students.

This is industry-driven, not pedagogically-driven.

There is an unquestioned bias that doing things with technology is somehow better simply because we’re using technology. However, an article written on a computer will not necessarily be better than one written with pen and ink. There are other factors involved.

Now Gates and company are pushing personalized learning objectives. Sometimes called competency based education, these continue to place the device in the center of what should be the student-teacher relationship.

Student learning becomes a video game and the teacher becomes a virtual avatar. Kids spend their time doing infinite standardized testing as if it were authentic education, yet it’s all on-line so it appears to be cutting edge. It isn’t.

It’s just another scam.

In my own classes, I’ve put the brakes on unquestioned technology. I only use devices, programs or applications that are (1) reliable and (2) when I know why I’m using them.

Even then, I find myself unable to even talk to students without beginning every lesson telling them to at least temporarily put their devices away so they can hear the directions.

Sure, I could give them a QR code to scan and get a written copy of the directions. I could upload a video for them to watch. But that limits direct feedback. It makes it more difficult for them to ask questions. And it makes it almost impossible for me to tell if 20-30 kids are actually doing the assignment before they turn it in for grading.

These are just kids, and like kids in any age they’ll take the path of least resistance. Often they’ll try to get through the assignment as quickly as possible so they can listen to music, or watch a video, or play a video game or chat on-line.

Lessons can be engaging or thought-provoking or spark the creative impulse. But you have to get students’ attention first.

That’s hard to do when they always have the option to crack their brains open over a virtual frying pan and watch it sizzle away.

To be fair, living in the modern world, we’re probably all somewhat addicted to technology. This blog isn’t written on papyrus and it isn’t being accessed in a hefty library volume.

I use social media – Facebook and Twitter mainly – to disperse it.

But there’s a difference between me and my students.

I’m an adult.

I know the concessions I’m making. I enter into this with eyes open. I have a lifetime of experience and knowledge with which to make such a decision.

Children don’t have that. They look to us to protect them.

We are their guardians. We’re only supposed to subject them to things that will help them learn, keep them healthy and happy.

But in our rush to be trendy and hip, we’re failing them miserably.

We’re letting business and industry take over.

It’s time to take a stand.

Our kids may be addicted, but we don’t have to be their pushers.

We need to get them clean and show them how to use this brave new tool with moderation and restraint.

‘Schools of the Future’ And Other Scams to Monetize Your Child

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Do you feel it?

The future is coming.

There it is hovering just over the horizon.

You squint your eyes trying to get a quick peak before it arrives. But that rarely works. By the time it’s here, it’s never quite in the shape you expected.

Yet we always stop and listen to the prophets and prognosticators. Those google eyed figures, wearing trench coats and sandwich boards standing proudly on milk crates and cracking open their mouths to vociferously voice their “visions.”

They smell like B.O. There are insects in their hair. And their mouths spray halitosis as much as haloes.

Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t trust them to park our cars, to give us directions, to do just about anything. But when it comes to “The Future” somehow we swallow their swill with conviction.

Through sheer force of charisma they convince us that their predictions will come to pass and if we’re smart we’ll invest in their brand of patented polished snake oil.

So we’ll be ready.

Just once I wish people would heed the skepticisms of the doubting Cassandras. But so it goes.

This week it’s “Schools of the Future.”

Everywhere you look it seems you’ll find some slickly produced inducement to “Rethink schools.” Some admonition to completely change public schools. Some empty promise in naked technology to save us all.

They’ll tell you that our public schools haven’t changed in a century. They’re set up for the agricultural past. Or schools are great for creating assembly line workers for the industrial revolution, but times have changed. And education needs to change with them.

Never mind that schools were never designed to supply any workforce. Their goal was – and is – to help the next generation become citizens capable of free thought.

But whatever.

This sales pitch about outmoded schools sounds really nice.

It resonates.

It makes us feel good.

Yes, I KNEW there was something wrong with my public school. That explains my own failures. I mean, I went through 12 plus years of public schooling and look at me! I’m not one of the handful of billionaires who own the world. It MUST have been the school’s fault!

Forget economic inequality, money in politics or any of that progressive crap! I could be sitting on top of the world with my boot firmly planted on the neck of everyone else – if only the public school had taught me right.

PLEASE!

But this is the comforting lie many folks tell themselves and one of the major reasons corporate school reformers get away with raiding public education. Their lies flatter white people’s vanity.

So billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs’ bought a four-network propaganda hour telling us to “rethink” high school while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ began her “Rethink Schools” publicity tour days later.

As if the thought never occurred to anyone else.

Rethink schools? What do you think classroom teachers do? We rethink every lesson every day!

It’s standard practice. We call it reflection. Some of us even keep reflection journals where we jot down things that worked and things that didn’t.

Haven’t these privileged fools ever logged on to the blogosphere? The Internet is fit to bursting with teacher blogs overflowing with ideas about how to change things up. This very blog has been pushing authentic reform after authentic reform – but the powers that be – people like DeVos and her billionaire philanthrocapitalist peers – aren’t listening.

You want to rethink schools? How about sitting down and shutting up?

Seriously.

Let the experts have a say for once.

Classroom teachers have much more experience than you do. We’re there every single day engaged in the actual practice of teaching children. You learn something about it by doing it for at least 180 days a year, for decades. And that’s not even counting the years of college preparation before even entering the classroom, the pedagogy, debate, and hard won wisdom of generations of teachers before us.

Meanwhile, all you have is a bank account.

You’ve hardly stepped foot in a public school to do more than spit on it. Nor did you likely experience it as a student or parent of students who go there.

You know nothing. And that’s no sin in itself.

Many people are ignorant of a great many things. I, for one, am completely ignorant of how to fly an airplane. That’s why I’d never dream of busting open the cockpit and preceding to tell the captain how to land the plane!

But you are not humble enough to admit your own ignorance. You think your money gives you the ability to do anything. After all, you DESERVE all those billions. It’s not an accident of birth or circumstances. You’re just that good, that special, that much better than the rest of us.

And what kind of brilliance do we get from these pampered prophets?

Here’s DeVos remarks to faculty and students at Woods Learning Center in Casper, Wyoming, from Sept. 12:

“…I’m issuing a bold challenge this week: it’s time to rethink school.

For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!

That means your parent’s parent’s parents!

Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the “average” student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell.”

All that money and the best you can come up with are that we should rearrange the desks!?

It just goes to show that you don’t know what goes on in real public schools.

My middle school classroom doesn’t have desks. We have tables that seat four.

Yes, those seats typically begin the day with students facing the teacher and the board. But you could say the same of seats at any auditorium since Plato’s day. I don’t hear anyone talking about rethinking that!

In any case, seats are mobile. I direct my students to move their seats all around the room. Just yesterday we had them in a circle. The day before, they were in small groups. And many days my students aren’t even in their seats – they’re wandering around the room doing some sort of task or project.

None of this is that revolutionary. Most middle school teachers do the same thing. You have to. Kids that age don’t have the attention span to sit in their seats in the same position for 40 plus minutes at a time.

Seats are often more stationary at the high school level, and they’re probably even less fixed at the elementary.

You would know this if you ever talked to a public school teacher. But, no. You know best because of your net worth.

Let me tell you something. Public schools today are much different than they were in the past.

For example, the way we teach special needs children is light years away from what it was just a few decades ago. We used to send these children to specialized facilities or classrooms in the basement well away from other students. Now, they’re mainstreamed and their educations are dramatically tailored to meet each student’s individual needs.

Schools used to just be about the three R’s – reading, writing and ‘rtithmetic. Today at wealthier districts, students have a wide range of courses to choose from. They have arts, music, foreign languages, vo-tech, extra-curriculars, computer science, robotics, drama, almost anything you can think of! I wish this were true at all schools, but that’s a funding issue, not a lack of innovation.

Many schools are less segregated today than they were before Brown v. Board. The courts have let us down in supporting this Supreme Court decision, instead permitting an awful lot of regression in some districts. But even at the most resegregated schools, they are rarely100% one race or another. We should do something to increase integration, but don’t tell me we haven’t made progress.

Let’s get one thing straight.

People like DeVos and Jobs only care about “rethinking” schools because they have a product to sell.

They’re promoting a problem so they can sell us the solution. They want us to buy more charter and voucher schools, more edutech competency based education B.S., more testing, more publisher and computer boondoggles.

You want real innovative reforms in our public schools?

Here’s what you do.

First step, give the reigns to public school teachers. We’ll tell you what needs to be done.

Here’s a short list:

-Stop privatizing and start supporting public schools.

-Give us equitable funding so that poor and minority students have the funding they need to learn.

Integrate schools again – both racially and economically – no more schools for rich white kids and schools for poor black kids.

Get rid of high stakes testing use funding allocation, spending decisions, principal classroom observations and student projects for accountability purposes, not scores on a limited and biased multiple choice test.

Repeal Common Core and let teachers write their own academic standards instead of being beholden to goals written by corporations to sell their own products and tests.

-Make a national commitment to reducing class size across the board, hire more teachers, increase their autonomy and salary.

Examine very closely every use of technology in the classroom to make sure student data isn’t being stolen by corporations, devices aren’t used for test prep or babysitting, and beware Trojan horse edutech applications like so-called personalized learning and competency based education.

Those are the kinds of reforms that would actually help improve our public schools.

But you can only learn that if you have the humility to listen to the experts – classroom teachers.

And people like DeVos and Jobs have proven they don’t have an ounce of humility.

Perhaps we don’t need to rethink schools. We just need to rethink our standards of expertise.

Betsy DeVos Wants Fewer Rights for Rape Survivors & More for Alleged Attackers

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As a public school teacher, you see a lot of ugly things.

You see children with bruises under their sleeves. Kids who cringe when your voice gets too loud. Young people traumatized by sexual violence.

Even in middle school.

So when Betsy DeVos decided to take up for alleged rapists while making it harder for survivors of sexual assault to come forward, I took it kind of personally.

Last week, the Secretary of Education for the United States of America blithely announced her plan to no longer require colleges and universities that receive federal funds from prosecuting on-campus sexual assault with the same severity.

Yes. Seriously.

“The prior administration weaponized the Office for Civil Rights to work against schools and against students,” she said at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.

“The notion that a school must diminish due process rights to better serve ‘victims’ only creates more victims… If everything is harassment, then nothing is.”

In other words, the billionaire heiress in charge of protecting students’ civil rights thinks there is a power imbalance between rapist and victim. And she’s right. Except that she thinks the alleged rapist is on the losing end of that imbalance.

This may be the most preposterous thing she has ever said. And she’s infamous for saying preposterous things.

In matters of sexual assault, all the power lies with the accuser!?

Has Ms.DeVos ever met a survivor of sexual assault?

I have. I’m sorry to say that I’ve met some while working in our public schools.

To put it bluntly – they were my students.

Little children afraid to go home. Kids with backpacks and cartoon animals on their shirts. Barely teens who kept to themselves, arms locked across their chests. Youngsters who just wanted to stay in class as long as I was staying, who would draw and hum and soak up the least bit of human kindness.

Some of them eventually would confide in me, their teacher. Not that I asked. I would have preferred letting the guidance counselor handle it. I really wasn’t trained for it. But there’s only one thing to do when someone wants to tell you their story – you listen.

And that’s exactly what DeVos is telling us NOT to do.

Don’t listen to accusations of sexual assault unless there is a preponderance of evidence. Start from a position of skepticism and unbelief even so far as making accusers confront their attackers.

After all, it’s the only way to protect from false allegations. As if that were at all common.

Only someone devoid of empathy or intelligence could say such a thing with a straight face – much less present it as a statement of public policy.

Yet DeVos isn’t the only high ranking member of the Education Department voicing it.

Two months ago, Candace Jackson, the official responsible for enforcing campus sexual assault laws for DeVos’ department, told reporters that “90 percent” of sexual assault accusations “fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.’”

Jackson, who heads the Department’s Office of Civil Rights, apologized for the statement after public backlash.

But now it’s federal policy!

Like much else from the Trump administration, it flies in the face of the facts.

False accusations do happen, but they are much less frequent than sexual violence. Only between two and ten percent of rape allegations are untrue, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Moreover, the same report found that 63 percent of sexual assaults are never even reported to police. Survivors of this heinous crime rarely come forward because of shame, fear and embarrassment.

That’s something I saw first-hand from my students.

They weren’t bragging about an experience they’d lived through. They wanted more than anything to forget it, to ignore what had happened, to get on with their lives. But they just couldn’t. They felt so betrayed, so vulnerable, so guilty, so frightened.

 
DeVos’ new policy will do nothing to change that. If anything, it will only embolden would-be attackers to attempt more assault – a crime that already affects nearly a quarter of college women.

According to a National Institute of Justice report, 20 percent of young women will become the victim of a “completed or attempted sexual assault” while in college. And more than 6 percent of men will also be assaulted.

We shouldn’t be making it harder for people who have been brutalized to seek justice. The accused should have due process, but that’s what an investigation is. In the rare instance of false allegations, those unduly impugned should be exonerated.

Despite what she says, DeVos’ recent actions have nothing to do with that. Before passing down her decision, she met with “Men’s Rights” groups like the National Coalition for Men – organizations that I can honestly say, as a red blooded American male, certainly don’t speak for me.

This is politics, not any concern for justice. It’s no accident that DeVos serves at the pleasure of a President who was caught on a hot microphone bragging about engaging in sexual assault. It’s no accident that his base includes white supremacists. It’s no accident that his party continually stomps on women’s rights.

If we really wanted to help survivors of sexual assault, we’d take steps to make sure the crime they lived through never happens again. At very least, we could take steps to make it more rare.

Imagine if instead of abstinence only sexual education classes, our children were taught actual facts about human sexuality. Imagine if every child learned the meaning and necessity of consent. No means no. Period.

That could have a real impact on these crimes. Over time, we could create a culture of respect and understanding. That certainly seems a worthier goal for a Secretary of Education than removing support for victims of sexual assault.

As to the handful of students who turned to me for help, I really can’t tell you what happened to them afterwards. In most cases, I don’t know myself.

In each instance, I turned to the authorities to ensure my students received the help they needed.

I hope they got it.

Unlike Ms. DeVos, I put them first.

Dear Teachers, Don’t Be Good Soldiers for the EdTech Industry

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Dear fellow teachers,

Thank you for coming to this meeting on such short notice.

I know you have plenty more important matters to attend to this morning. I, myself, left a pile of ungraded papers on my desk so I could get here. Not to mention I urgently need to fix my seating charts now that I’ve finally met my students and know who can sit with whom. And I’ve got to track down phone numbers for my kids’ parents and go through a  mountain of Individual Education Plans, and… Well, I just want you to know that I get it.

There are a lot of seemingly more pressing concerns than listening to a teacher-blogger jabber about the intersection of politics and our profession.

Is that all of us? Okay, would someone please close the door?

Good. No administrators in here, right? Just classroom teachers? Excellent.

Let’s speak openly. There’s something very important we need to talk about.

There is a force out there that’s working to destroy our profession.

Yes, ANOTHER one!

We’ve got lawmakers beholden to the corporate education reform industry on the right and media pundits spewing Wall Street propaganda on the left. The last thing we need is yet another group dedicated to tearing down our public schools.

But there is. And it is us.

You heard me right.

It’s us.

There is an entire parasitic industry making billions of dollars selling us things we don’t need – standardized tests, Common Core workbook drivel, software test prep THIS, and computer test crap THAT.

We didn’t decide to use it. We didn’t buy it. But who is it who actually introduces most of this garbage in the classroom?

That’s right. US.

We do it. Often willingly.

We need to stop.

And before someone calls me a luddite, let me explain. I’m not saying technology is bad. It’s a tool like anything else. There are plenty of ways to use it to advance student learning. But the things we’re being asked to do… You know in your heart that they aren’t in the best interests of children.

I know. Some of you have no choice. You live in a state or district where teacher autonomy is a pathetic joke. There are ways to fight that, but they’re probably not in the classroom.

It’s not you who I’m talking to. I’m addressing everyone else. I’m talking to all the teachers out there who DO have some modicum of control over their own classrooms and who are told by their administrators to do things that they honestly disagree with – but they do it anyway.

We’ve got to stop doing it.

Corporations want to replace us with software packages. They want to create a world where kids sit in front of computers or iPads or some other devices for hours at a time doing endless test prep. You know it’s true because your administrator probably is telling you to proctor such rubbish in your own classroom so many hours a week. I know MINE is.

Listen, there are several reasons why we should refuse.

First, there’s simple job security. If your principal brought in a Teach for America temp and told you this lightly trained fresh from college kid was going to take over your classes, would you really sit down and instruct her how to do your job!?

I wouldn’t.

That’s the entire point behind this tech industry garbage. You are piloting a program that means your own redundancy.

You are engaged in an effort to prove that they don’t need a fully trained, experienced, 4-year degree professional to do this job. They just need a glorified WalMart greeter to watch the kids as they push buttons and stare at a screen. They just need a minimum wage drone to take up space while the children bask in the warm glow of the program, while it maps their eye movements, catalogues how long it takes them to answer, records their commercial preferences and sells all this data to other companies so they can better market products – educational and otherwise – back to these kids, their school and their parents.

This isn’t about improving educational outcomes. It’s about bringing the cost down and pocketing the savings as profit.

It’s about replacing the end-of-the-year standardized test with daily mini stealth assessments that are just as high stakes and just as effective at providing an excuse for the state or the feds to swoop in and steal control, disband the school board and give the whole shebang to the charter school operator who gives them the most generous campaign donations.

Do NOT be a good soldier here. Do not just follow orders. Doing so is weakening our entire profession. It is putting our jobs in jeopardy. And it’s about time our national teachers unions figured this out instead of conceding the point so their leaders can keep a seat at the table. Someone needs to tell them they shouldn’t be sitting inside the building. They should be with us, outside surrounding it with signs and pitchforks.

The EdTech shell game is not about improving student learning. It’s a commercial coup, not a progressive renaissance.

Think about it.

They call this trash “personalized learning.” How can it really be personalized if kids do the same exercises just at different rates? How is it personalized if it’s standardized? How is it personalized if it omits the presence of actual people in the education process?

It’s teach-by-numbers, correspondence school guano with graphics and a high speed Internet connection.

But we give in. We don’t want to rock the boat. We’re rule followers, most of us. We do what we’re told.

Most teachers were good students, and obedience is too often a defining quality of those who succeed in our education system.

I get it. You don’t want to be a fly in the ointment. You don’t want to make yourself a target.

Me, too.

How dearly I would love to be able to just comply. But I can’t simply go along with something I know in my heart to be wrong. And this is wrong on so many levels.

I sat through a meeting much like this one earlier this year where I was told exactly which programs to force on my students. All the while good teachers whom I respect went through the motions as if nothing was wrong. They talked about how to organize our classes in the system, how to assign test prep and how often, and how to access the data.

But we never discussed why.

We never discussed if doing so was a good idea. That was all taken for granted. It was a decision reserved for someone else, someone from a higher pay grade.

Yet classroom experience is rarely commensurate with salary scale especially once you cross the line into management. Nor is the experience of a handful of administrators equal to that of a plentitude of staff!

No. I’m sorry. At very least that is a discussion WE should be having.

It is the TEACHER’S job to determine what is educationally appropriate. Not the administrators. At most, the building principal should be part of that discussion in her role as lead teacher. But the resolution to go ahead or not should be made together as a staff.

And if an individual teacher thinks based on their own experience with their own students that they should go in a different direction, they should be respected enough as a professional to have the autonomy to do so.

Teachers have to abide by best practices, but test prep in any form is NOT a best practice.

It’s time we stood up en masse and made that clear.

We are our own worst enemy in this regard.

We are too submissive. Too meek.

This world requires teachers to be revolutionaries, to be radicals.

And that doesn’t end in the classroom.

We need to educate parents and the community about what’s happening. The classroom doors are too often closed to the public. The only information they get is from anemic administrators and a mass media that invariably just reports whatever propaganda the corporation puts on the press releases.

We are responsible for our students. We must protect them from the vultures out there trying to water down their educations and reduce the quality of their learning.

We are not the only ones who can take a stand. In fact, IF we are the only ones who do it, we will certainly fail.

But, along with parents, students and concerned citizens, we MUST be part of that resistance.

We MUST take a stand for our children and our profession.

Because without us, there is no hope of success.

So we can no longer afford to be good soldiers in someone else’s army.

It’s time to have the courage of our convictions.

It’s time to rise up, walk hand-in-hand to the front of the staff meeting and tell our administrators:

NO.

Because if we don’t, no one else will.

Why I Teach

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Every year it’s the same nightmare.

I’m in front of a class of middle school students who aren’t paying any attention to me.

I point to the board, stamp my foot, even scream in vain.

But the children keep acting up – throwing pencils, swearing, hurting each other’s feelings.

It’s like I’m invisible.

And then I wake up.

Every teacher probably has a similar dream the night before their first day with students.

It’s a dream of impotence and redundancy.

Kind of like the businessmen and their political puppets claim we, teachers, are every day.

But the reality is much different.

Kids come bouncing in to my room, bristling with energy, half concealed hopes and fears.

Before they come in, I’m full of doubt: Can I still do this for another year? Will I be able to keep up with the work load? Will I be able to accommodate all the extra services for every special education student in my mainstreamed classroom? Do I have enough desks, pencils, paper? Have I planned enough for the first week? Will I be able to keep students interested, entertained, disciplined, engaged, working, inspired?

But the second the kids enter the classroom – literally the exact second – all my doubts disappear.

There’s no time.

I have more than two dozen children to see to at any given moment – and their needs outweigh any of mine.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the day that I even had an instant to myself to stop, breathe and reflect.

After my first bathroom break in more than 3 hours, then grabbing my lunch and collapsing into a seat- the first time I’m off my feet with no anxious little faces looking up to me – I think back on my day and realize – I absolutely love this!

No, really.

My feet hurt, my temples throb from making a hundred tiny decisions every 40 minutes, my body feels like it’s already been through a war… But there is no place in the world I would rather be.

Look what I’ve already accomplished today!

I took about 50 anxious human beings and made them feel like it was going to be okay.

I made 50 faces smile, sigh and relax.

I worked for hours on a new syllabus last week with manga graphics and punchy repartee, and when the kids got it today, they knew this class wasn’t going to be boring. I planned some ice breaker games to get them focused on our budding community of learners. I modeled how we can interact and still respect each other.

And in return I heard: “This is the best class!” “Mr. Singer is my favorite teacher!” “I don’t like to read or write but I’m really looking forward to doing your homework!”

How can you hear such things and not come away energized and new? How can you see such things and not feel a warm glow in your heart?

One of my first assignments is to have students write a letter about themselves. It’s now day 3 and I’m sitting at my desk reading through them.

It’s heartbreak city. Dead or absent parents, lost friends and pets, moving from place-to-place, older brothers and sisters serving as caregivers, pledges to work hard this year and make some missing adult proud. I find myself tearing up and writing supportive comments: “That’s so sad.” “I hope you like it here.” “You’ve already made me proud.”

I go through my Individual Education Plans and see a catalogue of hurt and trauma. Babies, they’re just babies, and they’ve gone through more than I have in my whole life. And I’m more than three times their age!

How can I not come to school every day and give my very best?

A public school is more than a building to me. It’s a temple to humanity. It’s where we go to offer ourselves to other people.

Every action, every thought spent on these children is holy. The tiniest gesture is magnified through infinite time and space. When I help a child gain confidence in her reading, I help not just her. I help everyone she will ever come into contact with –her co-workers, her friends, family, even her own children if she someday has some.

It’s humbling. Amazing. Staggering.

Where else can you see the accumulated hurt of the world and actually make a dent in it? Where else can you reach out not just to a cause or an idea but to a living person?

I’m lucky. I am so lucky. My circumstances allowed me to do whatever I wanted with my life.

I could have become a doctor or a lawyer. I could have gone into business and made a whole mess of money. But I never wanted any of that. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help people.

I remember the pitying looks peers would give me in my 20s. What a waste, they seemed to say. But I’ve never regretted it.

This is what I was meant to do. It’s the only thing I ever could and still respect myself.

Some folks will tell you teaching is about numbers and data. Increase these test scores. Cut costs by this much. Boost profits, escalate the graph, maximize effectiveness.

These people are fools.

Teaching has nothing to do with any of that. It’s about the children. Being there for them. Being an active part of eternity.

Thankful eyes, delighted smiles, joyous laughter. Ameliorating hurt. Igniting a tiny candle whose light will grow to encompass sights I will never see.

That’s why I teach.

Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.