Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Final Post- Redirecting

Greetings Everyone! 

I hope your summer has been a restful and relaxing one.

I've begun a new blog this fall.  If you liked the stuff written on On the Front Line with Wine, take a look at  I plan to write about education more holistically, but I'll still be tossing out whatever pointers I can give for the new teachers.

Good luck to those of you going back into the classroom this fall.  Thanks to everyone who read and commented on On the Front Line with Wine.  It was greatly appreciated.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Take Care Until September

Dear Readers,

After completing my second year in the classroom with some level of success I've decided to take, at least in part, my own advice from my most recent post- Get Your Head Out of It. At the behest of many of the people close to me and for my own good I will be taking the summer off from blog writing in order to best prepare for the coming school year and in order to fulfill a number of other commitments between now and September. I've also been told by several of the people closest to me that I need to take at least a small break over the summer to prevent burnout next school year. As I've not been through as many years in the classroom as they have and as I tend to heap as much as possible onto my plate (oftentimes too much), I'm going to listen to them.

On the Front Line with Wine was a pleasure to write, but was intended to be written through the lens of a second-year teacher. As I no longer am a second-year teacher I feel it would not be consistent with the spirit of the blog if I were to keep writing it. The time off this summer will help me in transitioning into my third year, which brings with it many added responsibilities in and out of the classroom. Taking some time off will also give me the opportunity to develop a new theme and focus for the writing I'd like to do next year and in the years to come. My new blog will be up an running by the time school begins in the fall- just after Labor Day. I truly hope that if you follow this blog or even tune in occasionally that you'll visit the new site once it's operational.

I'd like to sincerely thank everyone whose supported this effort over the past ten months. In that time this blog has seen thousands of hits and a lot of great feedback. If you could, leave some feedback on this post as to what you liked about this blog and/or what you'd like to see on the one that will be created for September. When the site is up and running I'll post to On the Front Line with Wine to let anyone who happens by know what the new link is.

For the First Years (Now Second Years):
Rest and recuperate this summer. Go into next year with a new battle strategy and playbook, and buckle down from the first minute. It will be better in the second year- and astoundingly so.

Take Care,

Nick James

Today's Wine: Louis Perdrier Brut Excellence. This was under ten dollars, uncomplicated and delicious. How could I have chosen anything but champagne for this post? Cheers!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Get Your Head Out of It

Around this time of year a lot of people tend to think that teachers have the sweetest job around. Three months off? Who wouldn't want that job?! Sadly for them, it's not that simple. First of all, it's not three months, but two months. Secondly, while some teachers do use most of the time for leisure, most are working at least part time during the summer, either taking on a part-time job, working on their own professional development as a teacher, debriefing the year and planning for the following year or a combination of all these things.

As the past week has been the first week of the summer, most teachers have hardly detached themselves from the classroom yet. This is probably especially true for the first-year teachers. Last year during the first two weeks of summer I simply had to recover. By the last day of school it's as if a freight train knocked you down, a stampede of bison ran right over you and then some jerk burned you on your forehead with a cigarette. You have little clue as to what happened and your head is spinning so hard that you're nauseous. Personally, I was in a horrible state of disrepair having not exercised in months, lacking sleep and having pushed myself to the breaking point time and again throughout the year. It was the first time in my life where I agreed that a long break was the best thing I could do in order to improve myself and support my career.

If you're a first year, you should take the next couple weeks off entirely. Go on vacation with what little money you may have saved or simply sleep in every day. Do what you need to in order to get out of the school mindset. This is important for a variety of reasons, but a short list is: it will help prevent burnout; you probably need to recover some of your previous health; and, in order to improve as much as possible next year you need to approach it with a clear head, willing to change things in your classroom. The latter is especially important if you intend to teach next year and thereafter.

After you've had that time off, we can talk about what needs to be done this summer (from a post-second year's perspective) in order to make next year a good one.

Today's Wine: 2008 Marotti Campi Luzano. This is an Italian white made from Verdicchio grapes. It's floral up front, smooth and citric on the palate. It was another of the case assembled by the New York Wine Club.

Monday, June 28, 2010

End of Days

Today marks the end of the 2009-2010 school year in New York City. In school this year and last year I felt my last days were pretty anti-climactic, if not surreal. The feeling is due in part to the fact that we've already had our 8th Grade Promotion Ceremony (Graduation), the 8th Grade Formal, etc. The other is that I don't feel like I've finished teaching- as if there is much, much more I could possibly tell my students about U.S. History that I simply did not get to.

Last year this feeling was especially bad. In the waning minutes of the last period of the day, I kicked into high gear, making everyone's head spin in the classroom, nearly panicked that I wouldn't get another few semester's worth of material into the last five minutes of dialogue I'd have with the students. Alas, all of that information was not passed on, though to be honest not a whole lot was during regular class periods over the course of my first year. Luckily that was not the case this year, as my students were far more knowledgeable about social studies when they left me on the final day of instruction.

If this was your first year in the classroom and you're still breathing, congratulations. A ton of people walk out in the first days or weeks of school, never to be seen again. Still others wait a few months, stubborn (though not enough), quitting sometime around mid-year, perhaps making up an excuse about an emergency they need to attend to across the country, such as the invasion of their town by martians. And then there are those like you who have stuck through what most veterans say will be the most difficult year of your entire life.

Well done, indeed.

Today's Wine: Any kind of champagne.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Irritable End

If you've read any of this blog, you probably could predict that the end of my first year was anything but pretty. I dragged myself across the finish line after having limped for a considerable amount of time due to what I thought was irreparable damage done by the first year in the classroom. I was way off the deep end waiting for rest and a break from everything that was my first year of teaching. To say the least I was jaded and I was irritable with everyone and everything around me.

The obvious feeling I had was being sick of my students. Had my School of Ed Self read this past sentence, I'm sure he would have reeled in the disbelief of those who ever spoke ill of students, but there it is. For ten months they'd ground into me, pushed me every second of every day, and oftentimes succeeded in pushing me over the edge to where I was a screaming, unbalanced mess. The last thing I wanted to do was extend my time with them and I was certainly looking forward to a break wherein I could forget all about the exhausting effort I'd expended every day for what was approaching 300 days nearly without respite. Even with the few I'd enjoyed teaching and depended on to help keep the class in some semblance of order, I had no desire to interact with them. I was irritable and wanted nothing to do with any of them.

It's certain that my students held similar sentiments. They'd seen me for nearly a year, standing at the front of the class demanding attention, not getting it, then demanding more still. They were tired of their first-year teacher, someone who lacked the ability to command a group of thirty students in the setting they lived and went to school in. While they were unaware of the fact that it was my first year, they knew I was not familiar with what they were used to and that I did not yet belong in that setting. Their sentiments came out in their frustration with my inability to deliver instruction in a way they most needed and they were tired of me trying the only methods I had up my short sleeves. They were as sick of me as I was of them.

Lastly, I was incredibly tired of meeting with, talking to, and generally working with other teachers in my school. Even the ones that had supported me all year began to get to me with their very well-intentioned and sincere advice as to how I should close out the year. At this point I was tired of dealing with anyone and willing to just wait it out until the end of the year- a state I'd never resigned myself to with any other undertaking throughout my life.

And so it was with my first year. It was unlike anything else I'd ever been through and unlike anything I'll probably ever go through again (hopefully). My colleagues and I speak often of how the one thing we wouldn't wish upon anyone is teaching the first year in the city. It's absurd, monstrously difficult and if you simply survive the year without running for the hills it's highly likely that your efforts were laudable. Near the end you may very well be irritable with everyone and everyone may be (or at the very least seem to be) irritable with you.

If you're in you first year and still in your classroom teaching, I applaud you. Much like a soldier on the front line, no one- regardless of their experience with K-12 education- can know what you've been through unless they have done the same. Not a single other person on the planet can commiserate with you unless they've been there, much like many professions I suppose, but is very arguably (and I say this not trying to be self-aggrandizing) more difficult than the vast majority of other professions. Make it through the next several days and then we'll talk about the summer, relaxing and preparing for next year.

Today's Wine: Mark West Chardonnay 2008. My father was nice enough to pick this up for me while we were in town to visit for my brother's wedding. The bottle bills itself as "uncomplicated," which I woudl agree with. It was a pretty fruity, not at all buttery.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Post 100

This is my 100th post. Over the past ten months I've averaged about ten posts per month, though in recent months it's slowed down a bit due to my desire to heap everything I possibly can onto my plate. Initially in this post I was going to try to post something magnanimous and terrific, but instead I'd like to use the opportunity as a general check-in with how I feel about this year.

As of right now, I'm thoroughly exhausted and ready for some rest and perhaps six hours of sleep for more than two days in a row. The year is winding down and I'm trying to grade large exit projects and the last round of classwork assignments, help administer exams, grade my students' state exams, break down my classroom, get in final paperwork, finish writing an action research piece, set up summer PD opportunities, yadda yadda yadda.

In spite of the fatigue and a To-Do List that seems unnecessarily daunting, I'm looking back at this year feeling like my students and I have accomplished something. I did not feel at all this way last year, but instead was thoroughly smashed into the ground and at this point in the year was waiting for the ref to blow the whistle and end the tragic comedy that was my first year in the classroom. While the second year certainly wasn't perfect, it was a far cry from the first year and was what all of the veterans last year told me it would be.

Today was my last day of classroom instruction for the year. While this thing isn't finished yet, I'm in a much better place than last year and I expect many other second year teachers feel the same way.

Today's Wine: At this point any wine would put me to sleep immediately, so I'm substituting a black eye from Starbucks (a tall cup of coffee with a double-shot of espresso added) for my wine today. Cheers!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The 8th Grade Prom

This past Friday was the 8th Grade Formal/Prom. We referred to it as the “formal” this year at our school because we are trying to move away from the idea that the eighth grade is any kind of stopping point in our students’ education. Eighth grade graduation is a very big deal in NYC because many students and their families readily assume they will hit no other major milestone in the wide world of education. Sadly, many of them are correct, but that does not excuse a community mentality that eighth grade is any kind of stopping point and should be celebrated as such. The group of students I began my career with last year was plagued by this general disposition, in part because there were more low-functioning, over-aged students. This year the contrast in students made me think I was a middle school teacher again, as I’d felt while student teaching in a middle school outside of NYC.

The formal this year went off far better than last year. Our science teacher led the planning effort again and based on what we did last year knew how to pull the thing down efficiently and cost effectively. Last year we spent endless hours building plastic columns and arches from a kit that cost over a grand, logging over twenty man-hours apiece in the couple of days leading up to the dance with a large group of students just to get the thing ready (during which I got some sweet second degree burns when operating a very tricky hot-glue gun while sleep-deprived). While it looked impressive and the students really appreciated the whole thing, it was clear once it was over that things would have to change for this year.

After the dance started, the difference between the two groups of students was blindingly apparent and continued to be throughout the night. A few things contributed to this rebirth of a traditional junior high dance at our school. When I say “traditional junior high dance,” I guess I’m referring mostly to the way the students were dancing and interacting with one another. Last year our eighth graders were bumping and grinding like they were eighteen or older, practically making babies on the dance floor. I spent the better part of three hours prying students apart, our large intimidating math teacher (the only one who could have really prevented it) just watching and laughing the entire time as she had done most of the year when I’d tried to put my foot down. Personally, I thought the dancing was atrocious and unacceptable, but she was on her way out and couldn’t care less. The dance this year was a far cry from the writhing mess of last year- the students danced in circles most of the time and separated themselves naturally into groups of girls and boys, awkwardly approaching one another during songs that warranted it. We spoke to a couple students near the end who started to get a bit more ambitious, but even the couple of high schoolers who came as dates were very respectful and appropriate the whole time.

Our eighth graders this year are about six months younger on average than the group we had last year. While that might not sound a like a lot, the difference between a fourteen year-old and fifteen year-old in the South Bronx (and really anywhere) is incredible, especially if the student is of the type that has been held back. This year we also did a far better job of holding students more accountable for academics and behavior as we approached the end of the year, which kept most of the knuckle-heads on the “do not admit” list - students who would have caused the most trouble, danced in the most inappropriate manner, etc.

Another factor, something that was not at all present last year, was that two of the biggest male personalities at the dance were not very interested in grinding on all of the girls in spite of the fact that the girls outnumbered the boys two to one. While they haven’t openly declared it (and probably won’t as long as they live or go to school in one of the most homophobic neighborhoods in the United States), our entire team is all but certain that the young men are probably gay. While that certainly doesn’t mean they wouldn’t bump and grind, the more boisterous of the two (and also the most boisterous at the dance in general) led the effort to keep the energy level high, marching around the dance floor like a party planner, demanding the other students join him in jumping and screaming, taking pictures like nobody’s business and inadvertently breaking up most love-connections and couples who might otherwise “lose” themselves in each other’s starry-eyed gaze on the dance floor/grind and make babies. In fact, most of the evening it looked more likely that a mosh pit would evolve than any babies be made.

When we sent them home (an hour earlier than last year- another brilliant move) the whole team agreed that it had gone off without a hitch and that it was the most pleasant dance we’d ever witnessed in the school’s history. The students and the staff had equally great times and it was a fantastic way to wrap up the year. It also sent (and will continue to send as the students talk about it next week) the message to those students who did not do their jobs this year that they can in fact miss out on great things because of their actions, even if being promoted to the next grade is not one of those things.

Today’s Wine: Martha Clara North Fork Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. The description says a lot of things and I only remember t being peppery. At any rate, this one was picked up at the Martha Clara Vineyards out on Long Island- part of a another wine tour we did this past weekend. We'd been to this vineyard before, which started to put some perspective on the size of the wine region on Long Island.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I Want an IEP!

The past few weeks have been crunch time in the eighth grade at our school. While major projects have been assigned and unseen levels of students engagement have occurred, I can't help but to think that the work being done by our students has nothing to do with the desire to learn or to succeed academically, so much as the promise that if they do very well this marking period they will avoid summer school. There are a lot of tricks and loopholes that are being implemented for a lot of reasons, all of which get our students off the eighth grade rosters and onto the high school rosters. I explained some of this in my post NYC's Grand Grading Plan. Here is a bit more about the promotion process:

About two months ago a member of our administration gathered all of our failing students together and distributed what have been referred to as their "magic numbers" (without informing the teachers). These are the grades they must achieve in each class that will get them to pass for the entire year. For some, it is a 75% simply because they need to pass the semester with a high enough average. For those who failed the first three quarters of the year in a class, they were told that if they get a 95% in a class they'll be passed.

When I heard this I was indignant. You're going to tell my students that if they get an A for ONE quarter of the year then they passed my entire class?! Is that what you think of the work I do with these kids? AND you're not going to tell me about this conversation before having it with students? I suppose it's not that severe. The goal really was to give them a glimmer of hope and motivate them to do something this marking period. A friend of mine also pointed out that if they did not pass my class for the first three marking periods, the chances of them getting a 95% (currently one person in the entire grade is pulling that off) are essentially nil. Regardless, it was pretty special to know this is one of the "easy" ways to avoid summer school, though the strategy wasn't as bothersome and irritating as what some of our students wanted to do last year.

Around this time last year my students caught wind of an entirely different way to be promoted: an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). These are designed to give students with learning disabilities extra support as they navigate their way through the public education system. Their intent is outstanding: give every single student the support they need to succeed. The actual implementation? Most frequently we see some of the intended use of the IEP, but also the slapping of IEP's on behavior problems so those kids have excuses to fail academically. Now, our learning specialist is entirely against the latter. Not only does she understand what these tools are for, but she works to help each child grow so they one day do not need the IEP. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons (including job security and a desire to procure funding), the actual de-certification part doesn't always happen.

Anyway, one of the common provisions on an IEP is "modified promotional criteria." In layman's terms that means students will be passed to the next grade if they meet alternate, specified requirements. Unfortunately this is oftentimes abused to get students to the next grade who are floundering because of behavior issues- those who won't sit in their seat and do the work and are failing because of it. "Modified criteria" becomes synonymous with "is breathing" and the student is passed along no matter what they do. When this happens, most of them anticipate it, which helps their motivation to bottom out completely.

Well, several of our students caught wind of this last year and because of it and the DOE promising like mad that there would be a crack-down on eighth grade promotion (which did not happen), the panicked cry of, "I want an IEP!" could be heard in every year-end meeting we had with the students who were failing. Students were practically crying because they realized it was their last hope of avoiding summer school and perhaps being held back (again, for most of them- more than half of our grade was over-aged last year). Unfortunately for them, an IEP can't just be dreamt up and spit out onto a Word document in an afternoon, it takes a lot of planning and legal documentation (luckily, in this case). That was a relief, though, and while it may not sound professional to say so, it certainly felt like I'd finally seen some vindication for the students who had destroyed the educational process in my classroom every single day last year.

Social promotion is a beast of an issue- one I do not support, but I am also not the one charged with making the final decision on promotion. It's also easy for me to be against it, as I know that my students are going to be passed along and out of my hair regardless of what I believe. The immediacy of whether or not my students are going to graduate high school and/or find a decent job is not what it is in the grades that follow mine. I can still hope that if they're slipping up they can turn things around once they get to the ninth grade. In spite of whether I'm held accountable for their skills or not, it's tough watching them walk on by at the end of the year knowing that I said specifically that they were not prepared to go to the next grade and that the system is essentially set up to send them there regardless.

Today's Wine: Louise d'Estree Brut Sparkling Wine.
Because my school computer crashed and died, our two home computers are on their last legs respectively and because I've wrestled and complained about Windows operating systems for years, we bought an iMac this past weekend. The champagne is to celebrate!

Monday, May 31, 2010

We Failed.

Today in our Learning Specialist's office one of my students stared a computer trying to make sense of a massive project he is to complete by the end of the school year. Our English teacher and I have combined forces to create the 8th Grade Exit Project, which is supposed to be mandated by the state but isn't actually. Regardless, it's worth 35% of our students' English AND Social Studies grades, which means if they do not do well on it many of them will be sent to summer school.

This young man in particular has been having a rough time with school lately. He's a low-level reader and has scraped by this year because he's worked pretty hard. His home life is less than stellar and his mother is, to be frank, pretty worthless (she came to parent conferences and laughed at the teachers when they said her son's 65's across the board were not good enough- he was passing after all). The student is generally not a behavior problem, but when he slips up there is no support at all whatsoever at home. To say the least, that puts much more pressure on the school to make sure he checks his behavior.

Now, this Exit Project is turning out to be different than much of the rest of this year's work. It appears as though it's a legitimate Exit Project, which means if the students lack the skills to complete it they could fail regardless of how hard they work. This was the wall this young man ran up against today. It became blindingly apparent to him how much he was lacking in academic skills- perhaps never so clear as in that moment.

Our learning specialist spoke to me about it afterward. She was startled as she explained that he simply did not understand what needed to be done with this project. It's always harsh to say that a students simply cannot get something, but this young man has a very real problem with knowledge retention. Throw as much of it at him as you want and it's going to pour out as if through a colander. For this reason our learning specialist pulled him out of the general education classroom and was working with him one on one during this project. It's important to note that this young man is not classified as special ed- mostly because his mother doesn't want him to be classified as such- but probably should be.

In spite of all of her best efforts (which are as a rule very effective with our students), this young man simply did not get what was supposed to happen with the project. When she brought this problem to me my response was such that it was obvious I was aware of this problem, which pushed the discussion further.

If I knew that he performed at such a low level, why hadn't more been done over the course of the year? Our team has a scheduled meeting every Friday devoted to addressing students who need extra support, and this student came up only once in that meeting this year. Granted, we have a whole ton of students who need extra support, but the tendency in those meetings is to talk about the biggest jerks and behavior problems running around the eighth grade instead of those who actually behave, do their jobs and need extra support.

There are several reasons the focus of this meeting can be misguided. First, all of the teachers have an incredible desire to address the behavior problems because if those students are controlled the whole class will run much more smoothly and all of the students will learn more. That desire is not misguided. A common perception, however, is that these students can be easily reformed and when that happens the lower-achieving, moderately well-behaved students being left behind will then receive the support they need. There also seems to be the assumption that the students acting out are doing so because they do not understand the material or do not have the skills to complete it. Because of the latter we talk about the miscreant students during this planned meeting instead of students like the one that is the subject of this post. Therein lies the real problem.

In my short experience, if a student acts out in an extreme way on a very regular basis it is not because he or she lacks the necessary skills. Surely that can add to it, but these students have major issues that are outside of the academics and from what I can tell outside of the ability of regular classroom teachers to address in the two minutes of individual time we have per student on average per day (in the upper grades).

Now, I'm not saying that we should leave the students with behavior problems behind, but the fact that this young man sat in my Learning Specialist's office on the verge of tears because he realized how low-functioning he is and the fact that all of the jerks and knuckle-heads got so much more of our attention this year than him is a damned crime. We failed him. Perhaps the cards and system were stacked up against him, but we're the ones that made the decision to let him go without the large amount of extra support he needed (regardless of whether his mother would allow it to be mandated or not) and instead concentrated on other students who need support we actually cannot give them, but that we are expected to.

But at least his mother's happy, right?

Last year I felt like I failed every student who needed extra help because I spent nearly all of my energy in and outside of the classroom dealing with behavior that should have gotten students removed from my classroom altogether, but did not. By this time last year I was so affected by it I didn't know what to think about my job any more. It seemed like I was the cause of students being left behind and learning next to nothing. I could draw no other conclusions than that my students had just gone through an entire year of their education and because of me (and the fact that they had three bad English teachers in one year), their literacy flat-lined or regressed and they left my class no better than when they entered it.

There's not a lot to say to a new teacher who feels that way. Unfortunately the expectations handed to them and the lack of support given to them leads many to a situation similar to this one. We go into this profession to work hard and to make a difference and the first year is slams you down and at best feels like a wash. All you can do sometimes is move forward with the faith that what people tell you-that the second year is far better- is true. While my team of four and I seems to have failed this student this year, the work we've done this year (two of us are in our second year) is a far cry from the work we did last year. Hopefully next year we'll avoid letting students like this one fall through the cracks by being better organized and focused and by giving those who will benefit from it most of everything we can.

Today's Wine: Charles Shaw Cabernet- I haven't had this in months and its return to the rotation is not without notice. I still think it's solid for what you pay, though of course nothing to write home about necessarily.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hiring Season

According to the New York Times, New York City is experiencing quite a run on teaching positions. They cite things like "3,620 applications for eight positions" and other large, frightening numbers. How in the world can someone coming out of a school of ed compete with that many new and veteran teachers? I might not know everything, especially since I'm not a principal, but here's what I've got in terms of advice.

General Tips


This should be one of the neatest-looking, concise, and descriptive documents you have ever created. It should make you sound as amazing as possible without sounding boastful, and it needs to be honest. While somewhere between a tenth and a third of people lie on their resumes, don't be one of them. Have several people read through your resume before handing it out to potential employers. If possible, find a current principal you won't be interviewing with or a former principal to check it out.

Pound the Pavement

I was told to fax my resume to the principals I wanted to interview with. That was a terrible idea. I spent $40 on faxes and never heard from a single one of them. Faxing might not have been the problem, but if you do call to follow up and perhaps send a copy via email. I'm always surprised to hear how defeated people are when they're not called back once they've submitted a resume or application (whether it's for a teaching job or a job at Target). Make it known that you really want the job and that you want to know your status with the school. Also don't assume that you're such a rock star that they'll be dying to call you back the second someone in the school even glimpses your resume. I may have been guilty of that, at least in part.

Mock Interviews
If you have access to a current or former administrator, for the love of pete use their expertise. Ask them to conduct a mock interview with you so you get used to answering the type of questions you will be asked. This might help to solidify or even get you started thinking about many of the things you will be asked to do as a teacher that they did not teach you in the school of ed. You may become more comfortable with the high-pressure situations as well.

Approaching the Interview
Show up to your interview early, polished, shaven (guys), well/appropriately dressed with plenty of resumes in hand. You should have learned everything possible about the school at which you are interviewing. While not necessarily the custom in the wide world of education, it's extremely important to show the principal or hiring team that you are interested in their school, not just a school. If you showed up to a decent job interview in the private sector and knew nothing about the company you were interviewing for, your chances of getting the position would bottom out. You need to be able to explain why you want to work at that school.

Be a Professional
In order to get the job you want you will need to have left college behind. Unlike professions like medicine and law you do not have the luxury of spending three to four more years after undergrad getting the partying out of your system, expanding your professional wardrobe and simply growing up into your mid-twenties. It is time to be an adult. Period. Without question. If your potential employer catches a whiff of your late Friday and Saturday night keg-stands or the fact that you have a tough time rolling our of bed at 9AM, the guy standing behind you with two years experience under his belt is going to get the position.

As much as we tell our students that hard work, ambition, and intelligence will get you places, we all know that is only true in part. In education it can be more about who you know than in the professions to which we generally attribute the phrase. If you did not make any "connections" while in the school of ed and you are now looking for a job, it's a bit late in the game but it is of course never too late to start. While my principal gave the go ahead on my hiring, it took my connections with my academic adviser as well as someone at the central office for the NYC Department of Education to even get my foot in the door for the interview I had at my school specifically.

Aces in Your Sleeve
You're young, you're ambitious, you're probably in your early twenties and perhaps determined to save the entire planet in one fell swoop. That eagerness and drive will work to your advantage. If you're a traditional ed student right now, you probably grew up immersed in technology and while you may not know how to implement it in the classroom, you should feel more comfortable with the very idea of it. While you don't want to exaggerate your abilities to work with them, let them know you are very interested in exploring the use of new technologies in the classroom. It's still a major advantage over many veteran teachers. I talked all about podcasting and blogging in the classroom at my interviews, though I'd just begun to figure out how to use those things in any way academic.

What You Do Not Have on Your Side
Experience. I tried to play up my subbing and year-long student teaching, but the reality is that I had no experience with the kind of work I'd be doing once I was hired. Don't act like you have no idea what's going on, but make it known that you are aware you are new to the field and that you are very eager to learn the ropes, follow the school leadership and grow into your position.

Your Administration
Based on my own experience and the experiences of my colleagues who have taught at numerous schools, if there is one factor you need to consider most when you are looking for a job it is your principal. During your first year especially, this is your commander-in-chief. As your life is consumed and thrashed about in that first year your principals' policies and ability to run the school and lead the staff will in many ways determine if you make it through year one ready for another helping, or not. If you do not agree with the philosophy of principals with whom you are interviewing, if you get a really bad feeling from them, or if you can tell that you simply won't work well on their staff, don't. I went through an interview last year where I liked the rest of the staff, but in my one brief encounter with the principal he was very cold, never introduced himself or asked who I was and told me I should consider working out of my certification area teaching something I knew nothing about. I'll never know, of course, but I hardly think that would have been a better working environment than the one I have now.

The Bottom Line
You need a job. That's clear. It's going to be really tough in the next couple of years as education funding is cut and as the people who would normally quit the field stay only because the economy is not producing jobs in other sectors. Chin up. Do everything you can every day this hiring season to get a job, ask for help, listen to people you know who are in the field already and don't give up.

Today's Wine: El Supremo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. This was under $10, a bit spicy, not fruity and very drinkable.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Lapse to Year One

Last week I had kind of an episode. Being sick certainly contributed to the mistakes I made, but it has to be admitted that I lapsed, made a couple big mistakes and was only able to save face in my classroom because at this point in the year most of us (students and staff included) have solidified our personas in the classroom.

On Tuesday I was off grading exams, which was lucky, as I felt ill enough that I was considering canceling my last-period elective and going home early. Wednesday wasn't much better and I planned something that took longer than the minutes I had in class, so I sent the classwork home to be completed. That's usually a bad idea for two reasons: half the students won't turn it in and it starts to set a precedent that the work cannot be completed in class, which in turn leads students to simply not work in class (their excuse being that they'll finish it at home, even though, as just stated, most probably won't). That was not a good way to precede my plans for the following day, to say the least.

Thursday I walked in with a lesson that could have been pulled off if the management had been clamped down, students worked quickly and if the teacher had pushed them. I've had a good number of days like this over the course of the year (compared with maybe one last year), so I strolled into school Thursday thinking I'd pump out another one without a lot of effort and while ill. Then I completely disregarded a truth I'd learned both in the School of Ed and in the classroom last year: do NOT let students pick their groups if you want them to work efficiently or diligently. As much as teachers should be able to give students directions and expect them to be followed, giving them to the option to have a social hour with friends or completing class work has only led to one end in my classroom: a lot of loud conversations and little work, if any.

That's how brilliantly I set myself up for Thursday. While my other periods either ran themselves or were barely held together by some newly-forged alliances with students that used to give me trouble, I should have known going into sixth period (the one with the largest number of crazy maniacs) that there would be trouble. It ended in a whole lot of yelling on my part and eventually my students doing something they did all the time last year, but only once or twice this year: they stopped working entirely and stared at me. This is one of the most humiliating, humbling, and excruciating things a first year teacher goes through. It's a loss of control and students determining the pace of the class- their deciding they are going to stop working and following directions until you doing something besides yelling and cajoling them to comply with your call for order. My class even topped it off one of the things that made my stomach bottom-out last year: they laughed, nearly every one of them, at my frustration with them.

The problem achieved crystal clarity when one girl said out loud, "You let us pick the groups. What did you expect?", which was a demonstration of how the students have a way of being brutally honest in the midst of their defiance. When I heard that I agreed with it in my head, reprimanded the girl for speaking out of turn, stated that there was absolutely no excuse for the class to act the way it was and then I cranked up the pace of instruction, hoping to get the class back to moving at my pace. By the end of the period I'd convinced them to stay five minutes after the bell and assigned them a good deal more work than my other classes. I was so angry at the end of the period (and sick to boot) that when my last-period elective walked in I gave them their assignment and set them to it immediately while I fumed a bit about the previous period.

It all spoke again to the fact that there are still moments like this in the second year. While not nearly as affected by them now, they come out when I'm off my game for whatever reason. All you can do is not let it affect you, follow through with your disciplinary measures (I called about half the class to inform their parents of the students' unruly nature) and walk in better-prepared the following day. Next year I hope there will be even fewer days like this. The nice thing about this May is that I can imagine it happening, whereas last year I still couldn't believe that the second year could improve enough to make me like my job.

Today's Wine: '07 Rosso Di Sicilia- Colosi, Sicily: or so the menu said. This was another at our favorite wine bar, Cavatappo. Medium bodied, a bit smokey and phenomenal. Nero d'Avola does it to me every time.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Rusty System & Moving Boxes

In light of the recent move toward using student test scores to evaluate teachers, I'd like to comment on an experience I had on Tuesday at a grading site where very hard-working teachers had been pulled out of their classrooms to evaluate the tests our students completed two weeks ago (the eighth grade ELA exam). To be honest, I agree with the idea that students test scores should be part of how teachers are evaluated, but in order for that to be helpful the way we grade these exams needs to be updated, reevaluated and improved.

On Tuesday I was sent out of my school to grade the state ELA exams. When I showed up the woman running the grading site was incredibly confused that I could possibly be there instead of the teacher that had come from our school the day before. To her credit, schools are supposed to send only one teacher for the three days of grading, as the first day is spent training those teachers how to to score the exams on the second two.

After the initial shock wore off, the woman decided to find a job for me that was not grading, as it would have been entirely impossible for me to just read the instruction manual and then grade some exams (although that is what the training consists of). After pointing out that I was the youngest person there by about ten years and therefore must be far more tech-literate than anyone else, she proceeded to hand me a stack of poster papers that had been used the day before to find out what the teachers who were now grading thought the students' "strengths" were on the exam and what their "weaknesses" were. I spent three hours inputting these into a Word document that will now be emailed out to all the schools in any way associated with that grading center, after which the message will promptly be ignored by all of them.

While completing this very important task (infinitely more important than teaching my students about the integration of public school in the 1960's- what I'd actually planned to do Tuesday), I was able to sit back and observe the scoring process. The teachers grading the exams seemed really to be a motley crew. Such a variety of hair styles (spanning at least five style decades) I've not seen in the DOE, to say nothing about the skill and diligence with which they worked. To be serious, from what I can tell they seemed pretty competent and willing to get the job done as quickly, accurately, and efficiently as possible.

What most concerned me was the way these graders were spoken to by those in charge of the site. The woman in charge of the whole shebang kept making announcements like, "We want to be fair. We want to make sure our students get the best chance possible." These were of course given after muffled conversations about how poorly the students seemed to be doing. I couldn't help but give her sideways glances over the top of the laptop. Was she serious? The "chance" she was referring to was supposed to be the instruction the students had already received, not how liberally those grading tests could bend the scoring rubric. Several announcements like this were made, and the administrators of the site had numerous hushed conversations about specific scorers that "needed to be talked to."

Dozens of boxes of scoring guides showed up around midday, apparently intended for a different site. When she called the person in charge of this delivery, she first sounded confused and then was told by the woman on the other end of the line to just give the materials to whatever school she could. Why they showed up to that testing site instead of the right one? No one knows. What happened at the site that was lacking these materials? No one seems to know. Why am I telling you? Mostly because I was the schmuck who had to arrange and rearrange boxes all afternoon in order to fit them all into a very small space in a gymnasium that was hardly full. I'm just glad I could help.

What's the moral of this story? In spite of how hard people work to defend the education system, it does need to flush out some of its workers, revamp the way it does things and start fresh some areas. One thing about this system that I've thought a lot about lately is that it does not have a market to drive change. This is because the central commodities are our children, their brains, and their growth as human beings. I do believe that this is one of the reasons teachers and other in the field are resistant to change. We are the ones who work with these children and we do not want to see policies implemented that forget about their well-being for the sake of efficiency. That said, we do need to make sure middle school teachers aren't sent to random schools in the middle of the Bronx to move boxes all day when they could be helping students to learn material deemed valuable by the greater society (during a time period leading up to a state exam that may eventually be used to judge his competency as a teacher).

Today's Wine: A glass Casa De Campo Cab pumped from the other night.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Crazy State Exams

In New York there are two tests that matter in the eighth grade: ELA and Math. Our students took both of these tests over the course of the past two weeks and I was especially happy with what I saw them do with the ELA exam. Their writing skills far exceed those of last year's eighth graders and I can't help but think that our concerted effort as an eighth grade team to promote those skills was a large part of that. During the exam I was given several reminders of how valuable their successes are, as they are achieved through far more difficult circumstances than their average peer around the state and country.

During one day of testing we had a milieu of interesting distractions. I was proctoring the exams in our multi-purpose room, which is located on the ground floor of the building facing the busy street outside. Directly above that street is a train trestle (only several yards from our third floor windows) on which trains are constantly arriving and departing as part of the NYC subway system. Needless to say they are rather loud- so much in fact that I had to pause no less than seven times while reading a passage that was part of the listening comprehension section of the ELA exam. In addition to the noise of the trains, numerous buses went roaring by, as well as a few vehicles blaring sirens. At one point a "sick" woman passerby was outside of the window screaming at herself about a quarter. I couldn't tell if she was claiming someone had stolen it from her or if some kind of evil demon was a playing a trick on her that day, but it was pretty distracting. My students thought it was pretty funny, at the very least.

Inside of the building we were placed next to a classroom full of "energetic" sixth graders, divided by a movable partition. Because their test was on a slightly different schedule they had breaks while we were testing and vice-versa. This is a the class of sixth graders we have that has a large number of students who came with "mandated self-contained" on their IEPs- a classification that is generally abused to put the kids who have huge behavior problems into small, separate classrooms. Needless to say, sometimes they can be a bit noisy.

Even without all of these distractions I was surprised by how well the students did on these tests. If you'd plopped a group of soft, suburban students down in this environment I doubt they'd test half as well as they would in their regular setting. I know that at that age whenever I saw anything that even looked remotely like the block outside of our school it was incredibly unsettling. Perhaps our students would also be uneasy being plopped down in the middle of the suburbs, but I doubt it would have the same effect.

Another thing that was astounding this year, as it was last year, was the real sense of urgency the students seem to pull out of no where when the state tests come around. They know these two tests are important and that they will not be promoted to the next grade if they cannot pass them. It would be incredible to create this urgency in the majority of our students on a more regular basis, I can't help to think that it will also be incredibly difficult to do this as long as a large number of stakeholders (not just administrators or teachers) demand that students be socially promoted en masse.

What do other folks do to create this sense of urgency on a regular basis? My only half-smoking, cap guns are: reminders of the state test, vague references to high school and explanations of how I personally have used the skills I teach since high school. Hardly what I keep keep kids trucking along on the front line.

Today's Wine: Casa de Campo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. I feel like my reviews of wine are generally very positive, which perhaps means my pallet is not yet refined enough, but it may also mean that the stores from which I buy wine know their stuff. This one was less than $7 at the Best Cellars at 86th and Lex and it was nice, a bit spicy and not too fruity. It was a solid cab.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Explicit Lyrics and Style Points

Today in class I was conducting a partially-bunk lesson on Vietnam that involved the analysis of a song from that period. Going into it I had a feeling it was too much for a single period, which meant the discussion at the end of class (probably the most educational part of the lesson) would potentially devolve into me telling students what the lyrics meant rather than allowing them to think about it for themselves, all the while being irritated at myself for being dense about time management and about the students talking too much and wasting a lot of time.

All of that happened, by the way, which left them with a shallow understanding of the war in Vietnam leading into tomorrow's guest presentation by a veteran of the war, but something else also occurred during my fifth period class that was at the very least amusing, if not helpful for me as we head toward the end of the year. After listening to Country Joe and Fish's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" and summarizing the stanzas, the students were to talk about how the music changed the meaning of the lyrics. That was fine for most of them, but one of my students located near my iPod had a much better idea about how he should spend his time.

Now, this year I've been much less paranoid about having my things stolen. I've left books out, my iPod sitting on my projector cart while I walk around the room, etc. Last year my students either destroyed or stole everything I brought in that was fragile or worth more than five bucks, so it's the huge improvement is reflected in my being able to move around my classroom without worrying about it long after the iPod has fallen silent. While I trust my students not to take all of my stuff, that doesn't mean they don't pick it up, look at it, carry it around and show it to other students. In this case the student located closest to my iPod reached over and started scrolling through the list of artists until he came to Eminem. From there he scrolled through the song titles until he found, "As* Like That," and it was all over. While kind enough not to blare it over the speakers the iPod was still attached to, a small contingent of my students started to whisper about the song, which caught my attention. What tripped them up was the fact that they never whisper in groups of more than two unless it's important or a big deal.

At first I thought they were just generally making fun of what was on the contraption, but they were hardly too shy to show me otherwise. They thought the song being on there was hilarious and said that, "I (had) a lot of explaining to do," trying to put me on the spot and waiting to see if I could think fast enough on my feet to get out of the situation. I learned too much about this last year (the hard way), which in part kept me from earning the respect of my students until near the end of the year- when I was too exhausted to be at all surprised or jarred by what my students did. This time, instead of coming off as if I'd been caught in some scandal, I just pocketed the iPod and walked off, tossing back over my should the direction to get back to work. While disappointed they didn't get a rise out of me, I could tell I'd earned points for that and more especially for having Eminem on my playlist.

Last year when I faced situations like this one I was always caught off guard. I was so paranoid about screwing up, being fired or reprimanded for doing or saying something wrong in my classroom. That was a lasting effect of hearing loads of stories of teachers being dismissed for seemingly trivial offenses (mostly in suburban schools, it seemed) while I was in the school of ed. When you get put on the spot for something like this, the students give you half a second to respond during which they'll be able to tell if you were even slightly jarred by whatever it was they discovered or heard or saw you do. Good luck getting a class back if they really want to rip into after an incident like that. That button is gigantic. In the mean time, you've got to learn to keep your mind from wandering through all of the worst-case scenarios. In short, you need to learn to react to situations like these quickly and in the appropriate way.

After school today I had the chance to sit around and chat with an esteemed colleague of mine. We talked about stakeholder accountability-something that's been on my mind lately. Within that vein what we spoke more specifically about what could be done to hold students responsible for their actions. In the setting we work in the only thing you can really hold over students is their respect for you. For the ones that give you the most trouble, if they do not respect you there is nothing you can do outside of a bribe to keep them in line. I think that idea would shock and appall my school-of-ed self, but it seems to be a reality on the front line. That version of me might also have found it shocking that I got style points for having a pretty bad Eminem song on an iPod in my classroom. I'll certainly take those point, however, as they'll help as we head toward the end of the year.

Today's Wine: Le Sciare Rocca Normanna 2008. This one was great and under ten bucks; medium-bodied, a bit fruity but also with a slight smokiness. I'd pick it up again.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Diet Pills and Overworked Teachers

A recent article in the New York Times covered the “invisible” burden of family doctors. People seem to oftentimes complain that doctors are paid quite a lot and in spite of that only really see them for a handful of minutes whenever they go in for a check-up. I think a common misconception is that doctors don’t work that much more than the time we see them, which is also a very common misconception of teachers.

The impression most adults have of the classroom is based on what they saw when they were going through school. Indeed teachers themselves are often guilty of falling back on their many years as a student and complaining about how teachers must have had it easier back then. Though I cannot speak to how much work was actually done by my own teachers, it was clearly more than what we saw of them in class. As with doctors, it seems as though what most people believe teachers do is simply stand in front of a class and deliver instruction and aside from that they might grade a few papers here and there, but life is easy once the students are gone.

Wrong and wrong. The article in the NY Times describes just how much family doctors are responsible for in addition to seeing 18 patients per day:
  • 24 telephone calls
  • Write 12 prescriptions
  • Read 20 lab/14 consultative reports
  • Review 11 x-rays
  • Send 17 emails
That does seem like quite a lot- certainly more than what the average patient might expect. While I cannot say how many hours it takes to complete all of those tasks, I’m sure it’s more than the semi-mythical forty-hour American work week.

How much do teachers do behind the scenes? It might vary widely, but here are things I am responsible for outside of classroom instruction (seeing 80 “patients”, in my case) on an average day:
  • Send ten emails per day
  • 4 telephone calls to parents
  • Writing out between four and ten detention slips
  • Making necessary copies for the day (in spite of using computers nearly every day, back-up copies are necessary for various reasons)
  • Grading 80 pieces of student work
  • Lesson Planning = research on the topic to be covered the following day, creating//finalizing/uploading a PowerPoint presentation and creating a new webpage for each day’s lesson (which will hopefully turn into simply updating those pages next year)/figuring out a way to differentiate instruction for students who cannot read and write and those who can better than most of the students in our high school.
  • One 45-minute meeting, generally centering on teacher collaboration
  • Sweeping of my classroom in the middle of the day after its use by another teacher
  • One hour of punitive duty (paperwork for detention documentation, holding detention, etc.)
  • Completion of at least one form necessary to support students with IEPs, to continue receiving breakfast for the students I have early in the morning, paperwork necessary for payroll, etc.
  • Meeting with one to five students during my lunch or after school hours to help them catch up or give them extra support
The program being set up for doctors is meant to pay them extra for improving preventative medicine within their practice. It’s meant to recognize that these doctors work an incredible amount to keep their patients healthy, but also that they will produce healthier citizens if they can ensure there are no ailments to treat. Personally, I think its a great idea and hopefully it will shift people's attention to healthy living rather than medical cures for ailments they probably brought upon themselves in one way or another.

I’m of the opinion that many of the issues in medicine mirror issues in education. Perhaps preventative medicine can be likened to solid teaching practices, as preventative medicine keeps you healthy and keeps you on track to stay that way, while sound educational practice keeps students on track to learn the skills they need be successful later in life (reading, writing, critical thinking, etc.). To take the analogy further, test-prep curricula might be likened to a diet pill. Both might get the results you want initially, but they generally cannot sustain a healthy way of doing things in the long term.

Like most of America, I have a lot of respect for the field of medicine. It’s one of the world’s oldest professions and is one in which the professionals have devoted their lives to helping others. In that way, and in many others, the field is like education. The best doctors and the best teachers work endless hours tirelessly to provide support to their fellow community members, hoping to provide them with what they need to be healthy and successful. Perhaps one day we'll figure out a way to pay teachers for their extra efforts in developing and maintaining solid teaching practices for students rather than simply looking at which teachers hand their students diet pills to tease results out of standardized tests.

Today's Wine: JP Azeitao Tinto. This one is under ten dollars and was a great deal. It was a bit fruity, but not a fruit bomb and was smooth all the way through. I give four stars out of five.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hold on Tight!

Man, I'm really just not finished yet. In less than two months my students will begin a barrage of exams that will last two weeks, taking them through to the end of the school year. Between now and then I need to figure out a way to fit in a couple gigantic projects as well as all of the 1950's, Civil Rights and Reagan's America through Obama's. In addition to all that, I still need to prepare for the behavior that will creep out of the woodwork beginning in the middle of May.

Last year at this time I'd resigned myself to the hapless fate that was my classroom. Things weren't going terribly well, but I'd squeezed out a small amount of respect from my students just for sticking around through all the chaos. That seemed to smooth out some of the rougher edges, but I was still struggling to get through every day, hardly trying to fix things anymore and really just riding things out until the end of the year. After months and months of trying new things to get the students on my side every single day, I suppose I'd given up spending so much of my energy trying to fix behaviors of kids that had been the same longer than I'd ever known them.

I'm not proud of that, but it's what I did. At the beginning of the spring semester I'd struggled so much that I grabbed another teacher's curriculum and taught it with little variation. The lessons I did plan myself never seemed to go as well because I tried to stray from the concrete, text-heavy plans to the more abstract. While the students may have been capable of such things in the right context, the wrestling match we'd had for more than half a year had established that my classroom was a place where learning rarely happened outside of worksheet-style or educational video-type work. Unfortunately the vast majority of those students didn't walk away from my class with much more knowledge of the social studies than what they'd brought in September. The only benefit that seems to have come of it was the education I brought away from it.

This spring has the potential to be far more productive than last. My students will wrap up some cross-continental collaboration instead of wrapping their hands around each others' throats. They'll write a major research paper instead of writing me off entirely. Instead of leaving my class without the vaguest idea of what has happened throughout United States history, I believe that they will walk away with a firmer grasp of history than they've ever had before.

Regardless of what happens, we're now on the downhill slope toward the end of the year and there's no stopping us. We'll pick up speed and rumble through the finish line hopefully each in control of our young charges. Hold on tight and grab the last bit of content and skill practice you can. It'll be wild.

To the First Years:
You've most likely heard it a thousand times by now- it'll get better. It probably won't get a lot of better this year, which is undoubtedly bad news, but it will be better next year, as unbelievable as that is. Hopefully you've dug yourself far enough in at this point that you can ride out the storm while delivering the best instruction you possibly can (which you've been doing the entire year) until the end of June. Best of luck.

Today's Wine: Four Graces Pinot Gris 2008. This was part of a shipment from the New York Times Wine Club, which was a birthday present of mine. I've not received wine in the mail before, but it's delightful. As for this bottle, it's fruity and I thought I tasted vanilla, but the reviews all say peach. Whatever was in there, I thought it was pretty good.

Monday, April 26, 2010

No More Fingers, Action

Great job everyone.....not.

To wrap up this series of posts on stakeholders, I thought I'd do something terribly difficult to pull off- point the finger at EVERYone for allowing American education to take a nose-dive. This is something I've thought about lately when listening to various people state how fixing one or two things in the system will solve ALL of the problems. I don't hold any super-advanced degrees in ed theory or policy, nor do I have a great deal of experience, but I'm starting to suspect, based on that little experience as well as my knowledge of American history and American education, that a system as massive as our education system (which is technically more than fifty separate systems) cannot be "fixed" through a couple simple changes in policy, but will require a movement from the masses.

What I can say is that it is not just one group of stakeholders that is to blame for the woes of our education system. Sure their are terrible teachers out there. There are also abhorrent administrators, really bad parents, and young people in schools that can certainly cannot be called students. The long and the short of it is that a large number of us are falling down on the job and then pointing fingers elsewhere instead of demanding that our own ranks improve and that we ourselves do our jobs.

Sounds cynical, right? Perhaps it is. And bit wishy-washy? Sure. Regardless, I would like for people to stop blaming the parents, the unions, the students,the teachers and/or the administrators individually as the downfalls of the students' education and get more people to start looking for solutions to fix all of these vital roles. The idea rolling around in my head recently has been to find ways to hold each group of stakeholders accountable in a way that will promote the achievement of our students. As of right now the most popular attack seems directed at teachers and teachers' unions, but their accountability is being sought in such ways that, to me, seem detrimental to students.

The entire country has a vested interest in creating the best education system (or systems, depending on your views on state control of education) on the planet for all of our children. If we're going to get serious about educating ALL Americans in a top-notch way we need to stop bitching, stop the finger-pointing, hold up our end of the bargain, and then (and only then) demand that each major group of stakeholders be held accountable as well.

More on accountability later. I feel like I've strayed away from directing these posts toward advice for the first years and those in school of education. There's not a lot to be said about this topic save for the fact that perhaps in the first year you shouldn't worry as much about this as how you hold things together in the classroom. Last year I certainly wasn't thinking as much about how to keep students, parents, other teachers, and administrators accountable because I couldn't even keep things in line in the tiny part of the system for which I was directly responsible. Telling others how they should be held accountable didn't cross my mind as much as dreams of reaming out other stakeholders for not doing a damn thing to help (aggression that was somewhat, but not wholly, misplaced).

Today's Wine: Bodega Sur de los Andes Malbec. This guy was really very good. We had it at Pasita in the West Village. The place was great and the wine well-balanced, not very fruity and not too dry. Great by itself.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Students on Board

Speaking honestly and critically about students doesn’t seem PC in a lot of ways, but I think it’s important. As they are of course stakeholders in the process of their own education, I’d like to address them as I have in the past few posts about teachers, parents and administrators.
I generally group students into two categories: those that do their jobs and those that do not. While these seem to emphasize behavior more than other factors, that is what the majority of my effort has been directed toward in the past two years and from what I can tell, it’s what drains the most energy out of most of the teachers I’ve met around here.

Those Doing their Jobs
These students show up to school nearly every day and complete tasks assigned to them. They might slip up once in a while, but they listen to directions and try to complete everything you hand them. They can be goofballs, they can be rascals, they can still make you want to pull your hair out, but they show up, they're respectful and they give you the sense that when they're given clear directions on what to do they will do what they can to get the job done.

They Struggle, but They work
Now, "doing their jobs" not imply that these are the best students academically. In fact, many of these students may struggle in school. Many of these students might not know how to read very well when they show up at your door, they may be void of critical thinking skills and they might not know a noun from a verb, but they're willing to try. Oftentimes these are my favorite students to teach. We are both in for a challenge and it's apparent, but the relationship we forge will help produce real results by the end of the year.

The Gifted High-Fliers
These are the professional students. They listen to all directions, are eager to learn and are great thinkers. Academics come easy to them and they could easily get by without pushing themselves, but they do anyway. While a small minority, these are the kids that can help pull along a class and really help a teacher support those that struggle, but work. In the de-tracked, full-inclusion model these are the ones that model great academics in ways a teacher doesn't think to as they relate to the other students.

The Bright, Albeit Lazy
These are probably the ones that are most in-between those that do their jobs and those that do not. While very bright, they simply do what needs to be done to hit C-range or perhaps a bit higher. Their potential is enormous and their delivery lukewarm. They always make teachers pull their hair out, especially if management is less of a problem.

Those Not Doing Their jobs
Students fall into this category for a lot reasons. Whatever the reasons might be, they show partial, if not total, disregard for the education system, their peers, their parents, teachers and themselves. The subdivisions I think of are the aggressive, the passive and the absent.

Aggressively Not Performing
These students tear things down for themselves and others. They refuse to follow directions, act out, demand attention and must be given it because if they do not either someone will be hurt or no learning will happen for anyone. They seem to follow as few rules to prove simply that they can, and in process screw themselves over as well as many of the other students. The most frustrating thing about this group is that they really do hold back those that struggle but work. While the bright and gifted can still get by and learn a considerable amount, those that struggle with academics and need extra differentiation in the classroom fall by the wayside because the teacher must spend time containing these fools. Of all the injustices one can find in the field of education, this might be the one that irritates me most.

Passively Not Performing
These kids sit in class (when they are there) and do absolutely nothing. Before I got to the Bronx these were the biggest "problem children" I had to deal with. No matter what you do, how you differentiate, modify assignments, give them something that any other student would find at least mildly interesting, they continue to sit and stare. When major assessments come around they oftentimes simply fail to show up and rarely complete them. To be honest, I think that social promotion has produced many of these students over the past number of years (how many I cannot say, as I'm still pretty new to this)- students know they'll be passed and therefore know that if they just sit tight and ride it out they'll be given a pretty easy option to "pass" at some point and them join their classmates in the fall in the next grade.

The Absent
These are students that simply are not there. For one reason or another their attendance is abysmal- sometimes far less than half of the school days in a year. Need I say more about why they don't do their jobs? I have a student on my roster this year who has been present less than five times. See my post on Grades in NYC for how he's still been awarded forty-seven percent of the possible percentage points in my class.

Perhaps it’s not that simple, but I hardly cringe at the students’ individual inability to perform academically- I wince at their inability to stop talking, listen to directions and then carry those directions out. A benefit to this simplification is that it does put it in terms that 99% of students can understand. By the time students come to me in the eighth grade, the vast majority of them know how to act appropriately in school, around adults, etc. We see this happen all the time when their parents come in or when we go on a trip. When they want to, nearly every student can behave and be considerate and be respectful of their peers and teachers for an extended period of time.

During my first year in the classroom I had fewer students who did their jobs than those that did not. There were some days in fact that things were so out of hand that I could count on one hand the students who were doing what they were supposed to. That's changed with nearly two years under my belt and a different set of students, but I still walk into class every day looking to support each kind of students as they need to be. For example, the High-Fliers need to always be pushed higher, the Absent need to be encouraged to attend and have their parents called about it, the Aggressives need to be controlled and contained, and the Strugglers need scaffolding, the most clear and concise everything and each and every student needs as much positive adult attention as I can muster.

Today's Wine: The Cabernet by the glass at Gina La Fornarina.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

O Captain! My Captain!

Without a strong administration, a school will capsize and teachers and students alike will be left to swim for it. In that case the students are encouraged to swim to shore where they would have disembarked, but the teachers are left to tread water and save as many as possible for as long as they can. The frustrating thing is that the captain(s) don’t necessarily go down with the ship in these cases.

What I’ve heard…

I spoke with several superintendents while in the School of Ed, and each said that the most difficult job they’ve ever run up against is that of a high school principal. Between all of the public appearances expected, the equivalent to running a business as well as being the leader of teachers and ensuring the emotional and developmental well-being of hundreds of students, the job demands every ounce of one’s energy as well as the vast majority of one’s time. Personal time is a term referring to the small amount of sleep they get. The principals I’ve spoken with in NYC have said that the most difficult job they’ve bashed into has been that of first-year teacher in the city. Perhaps they’re just being modest.

That said about the difficulty of the position, the leaders of the school- Principal, Assistant Principals and Dean of Discipline- are vital to the success at the school. Without competent and talented people in these positions it’s nearly impossible for a school to be very successful even with master teachers. These people need to be able to maintain morale, recruit like mad and rake in sponsors to support the ranks holding the line. They must keep the confidence of the community and they must understand the trials, tribulations and successes of the community so they know what the students will face during their tenure at the school and thereafter. They must also boost the morale of their troops while maintaining the support of parents- two groups notorious for infighting. Good administrators are also expected to know the names of most of their students, and increasingly the needs of each student- especially as NYC moves to a small school model.

And that’s just some of it. In spite of the fact that the job is gargantuan, the sort of people being commissioned as administrators varies widely. Some are great, some are driving education into the ground, and some seem simply to be holding on and waiting for something- at times either a paycheck or someone else to fix the problems they face in the system.

All of that said, I’ve tried to categorize as best I can the administrators I’ve seen during my short tenure in the field.

Killers of the Classroom

The Corrupt
These range from those who are administrators for the paycheck to those who embezzle from the school system. After a year and a half in the field it’s frightening how often I’ve heard instances of the latter happening. Colleagues have described storage closets full of school supplies that were off-limits to the staff. They’d be filled with expensive supplies and then emptied into non-descript white vans at the front of the school.

The Incompetent
To be a strong leader you must be able to demonstrate what it is you want those following you to do. For a lot of reasons, the default attitude of teachers is skeptical when talking to anyone who is trying to tell them what should be done in the classroom. A principal who does not radiate the idea that she herself is a master teacher will simply not inspire confidence in her staff. Unfortunately many incompetent teachers who do not want to quit the field, but who are not making it in the classroom, decide to move up the ladder to an admin position. Also unfortunately, many of these are promoted by their superiors simply to get them out of the classroom. While I respect the urgency of removing the incompetent from the classroom, promoting people because it’s impossible to get rid of them is not promoting the health of the system. To be sure, this is not the only way the incompetent get into these leadership roles.

The Tyrannical
Sometimes the responsibility of being an administrator goes to the head of those at the helm. While they may fall in the category of incompetent as well, these folks try to make up for the lack of leadership skills by flexing all of their muscle both with students and with staff practically all of the time. If you are unaware, schools can really do very little in terms of punishing students. Flexing and flexing is good and fine if you’re looking in the mirror, but not necessarily when trying to impress your staff and students simply by demonstrating your legal ability to tell them what to do.

The Insane
My girlfriend was oftentimes at odds with one of these at a school she used to work in. That AP was arrested for stabbing her boyfriend with scissors. The incident actually made the newspaper, but because the boyfriend dropped the charges the AP was re-instated without recourse almost immediately.

Follow them to the Front Line

When it comes to administrators and teachers, it’s oftentimes easier to spot the bad ones, rather than the good ones. Perhaps that’s why we concentrate so much on them. If you take any time to look, however, it’s easy to spot the great leaders. They inspire real confidence, show you what they expect and demand excellence. If they're good at their jobs their staffs will follow them in their entirety (or nearly in their entirety) and will be able to hold the line far more successfully.

Great administrators certainly have different styles and generally land somewhere on a spectrum between a very top-down, directive management style and the more bottom-up, allow the staff freedom to succeed sort of style. It seems that the most successful of them strike a balance somewhere in the middle, perhaps on an issue-specific basis. By that I mean that there are specific issues on which administrators must hand down their decisions with an iron fist, and others that must be resolved organically by lower-level staff members. Regardless, its tough to categorize them other than saying they’ve struck an effective balance somewhere on this spectrum.

This might warrant another post altogether as well, but in a nutshell, I believe that as with teachers, there is not a large enough pool of highly-trained, experienced and brilliant people vying for these jobs. These are our captains. They should be the ones directing us and determining how to best utilize our resources as a cohesive unit in order to give the best education possible to our students. Without strong leadership teachers are left to shut and lock their classroom doors and slug it out themselves. When they march off to war in isolation teachers might put up a great fight, but the students suffer tremendously in the long term. It’s also far more likely that a teacher will one day drown when this is the case.

The leadership of a school cannot be taken lightly. Unfortunately, great leaders are difficult to find. Principals vary from those young, bright individuals starting up their own schools to those who have PhD’s, a century of experience and are simply taking over for established schools. These people must be leaders, politicians and great educators. Their jobs demand that they work essentially without pause the entire time they hold their position.

As with teachers, we need to be able to get rid of the bad ones, attract more applicants to the field and applaud those that are successful in their positions. Unfortunately I’m not sure we’re doing any of these things effectively, nor will we in the near future given the way people are determining the success of these leaders.

Today's Wine: Maipe Malbec, 2009. The description at that link was pretty spot-on. It's fruity, not too dry and well-balanced. Very acceptable for a bottle around ten bucks and it went well with some cheap but amazing Mexican carry out.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Teachers Are Sinking the Boat!

...and plugging the holes, and rowing, and building new boats, and...

Teachers really tick me off sometimes. We've dug ourselves in, isolated ourselves from other stakeholders, allowed substandard educators to join our ranks and have not done a very good job of keeping up the professional edge we once had. That said, we're also sending more students to college than ever before while doing everything in our power to hold on while the arc of education is tossed to and fro by the political and social tide. We are, for better and worse, the men and women that are escorting young Americans to their futures and we range from excellent to terrible. Aside from the students themselves, teachers are the lifeblood of the education system. If there is a major problem with that system, as more of America is beginning to assume, it is natural to examine our ranks to see what is going on. It would be ludicrous not to take these steps. Upon exploring the ranks of pedagogues, one might find there is a pretty interesting mix out there.

I've now worked in three very different settings: rural Kansas as a sub and student teacher; on a U.S. military base in Germany as a long-term student teacher; and in the South Bronx as a first and second year, full-time teacher. As with the parents, it's tough to label teachers, but there is definitely a spectrum of good and bad teachers. This again is entirely subjective and also the opinion of a second-year teacher, but this is my report:

New Teachers- They're very tough to label and are very generally a hot mess. Their quality is difficult to judge accurately, as their success has more to do with the support network they land themselves in than some natural ability to teach the children.

The Good
Green and Eager- I would say I'm probably one of these. The learning curve is steep and they're dedicated. If on the good side they are, of course, headed in the right direction and perhaps one day will be a master teacher.

Solid, Not Entirely Seasoned- These are the good eggs that have stuck around a year or two or three and are developing great skills as teachers. Their management is solidifying, as is their curriculum and they make solid contributions to their staffs. They are not as masterful as those with more experience, but the veterans started somewhere, too.

Entirely Insane, In a Good Way
- I've run into a few of these. From throwing lab stools across a room to accidentally blowing petri dishes up and across the lab, these guys can inspire, terrify and potentially teach like no other type of teacher. While not the best role models, it doesn't matter because the vast majority of students want to be nothing like them- they simply learn a lot of great stuff from them.

Well-Seasoned- These folks can be the heart and soul of a school. Masterful, experienced, flexible and at times very quality leaders, they are fantastic examples for other teachers to follow. The ones I've seen are not necessarily in leadership positions, but are looked to as leaders anyway.

Master Teachers- These ones make your jaw drop and drool a bit. With management that wraps entire classes around their little finger, they strike a strong path from day one, hit the ground steaming full throttle and do such a fantastic job that only one of the so, so ugly (see below) teachers would dare criticize them- generally one of those people that criticize others for doing too good a job. If every teaching position was filled by one of these, the Americans would not only be leaders of the free world, but leaders of the universe.

Ancient, Masterful & Growing- In one of the places I taught, the most technologically adventurous teacher was past old enough to retire. He was an expert teacher and still trucking. The year I was there was actually his last, as he took up a teaching position at a major university educating future teachers. Had I been in that state, I would have been lucky to have been one of his charges. He was a master teacher whose days left in the classroom were probably not many fewer than days left in his life.

The Bad
Lost At Sea- Often green, sometimes not, these folks lack directions, whether from their administration or they simply don't have it. Many of them join the ranks of former teachers.

The Bored- These folks, for one reason or another have stopped trying. The students can tell; other teachers can tell; the administration can tell, but for some reason they stick around.

So Angry- Potentially good at their jobs, but so angry at the world and the hand they've been dealt that they cannot deal with other staff, they seem to hate practically everything. I found last year that it's pretty easy to get angry in this field for a billion reasons, but to let it consume you can be to let it tear apart you practice.

Very Bitter and Old- They tell new teachers to beware or simply not to join the field. I met one once that had a PhD in ed, but when she found out that I speak German she told me to switch to business because I could make more money- not very encouraging, nor helpful.

Ancient, Crumbling- These folks are waiting either for retirement or an excuse to leave or maybe even death . They may have stopped growing as a teachers several decades prior and had difficulty switching from the abacus to the computer (their arch-nemeses are the Smart Board and the LCD projector).

So, So Ugly
Absolutely Crazy (In a Bad Way)- These are various. From teachers who can't prevent books being microwaved in a classroom to a middle-aged man prancing around a room of would-be thugs like a fairy-godmother cawing, "No one can steal YOUR education!", these folks need the boot and fast.

Really, Really Bad- This includes the above-listed absolutely crazy and is really just an umbrella term for those teachers that are so bad that any sane stakeholder needs only thirty seconds in their classroom to realize their role in the field should be that of copy clerk (maybe), not classroom teacher.

We all know there are bad teachers out there. It is not a secret. What seems to be a secret sometimes is that there are unbelievably good teachers our there as well. Most teachers in our classrooms are on the Good side of the spectrum, rather than on the Bad or So, So Ugly, but this majority needs reinforcements. The ranks of well-seasoned and master teachers are thinning as more and more of the not entirely seasoned and newbies throw in the towel. The field simply does not recruit a large ratio of applicants to teaching positions. The bottom line, however, is that there are students to be taught and teaching positions to be filled. Principals are often faced with choices reminiscent of too many elections in recent history: the choice between the bad and the worse. Hopefully in the near future we figure out a way to fix this problem, but in the meantime we need to make sure the efforts of those on the "good" end of the spectrum are not swept under the rug.

Until that day happens I'll keep paddling around in my dinghy trying to figure out how to become a master of the trade.

Today's Wine: Tilia Malbec 2008. Yet another from Cavatappo, our friendly neighborhood amazing Italian restaurant. A bit spicy and plenty of fruit.