Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Breaking up is hard to do

So, as eager as I have been to get out of CMS, the actual parting is somewhat bittersweet. Not because I will miss the district, but because I will really and truly miss my students and my mentor. CMS has put me through some really terrible things, but my students have been my raison d'ĂȘtre of teaching. Don't get me wrong- they can be monsters sometimes, but they are my monsters, and I'm their bruja.

I have a very close relationship with my students- not a friendship, per say- but a rapport. My students like me and they know that they can trust me. They understand that even though I may reprimand them or assign work they don't like to do, it's all with their best interests at heart. They understand that I am here every day because I care about them and their futures. As a result, we have a mutual respect and get along very well- it all translates to a wonderfully laid-back classroom atmosphere. Our ongoing joke is that I call them my monsters, and they say I'm their bruja, which means "witch" in Spanish.

Of course, all of this made it super difficult to explain to them why I'm leaving. I hope they understand (they say they do) that I love each one of them, and my decision to leave has nothing to do with them. It has to do with finding a place where I can truly give my best to the staff and the students of the school that I'm working at. Here in CMS, I've been split between different schools for 2 out of the 3 years I have been here. Being split makes it nearly impossible to fully serve the staff and students of either school.

I'm looking forward to greener pastures in teaching, and the better life in a new city that will go with it. But I sincerely hope that each student I've encountered here will be the better for it. I hope I've touched each one in a positive way that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

And I hope I'll continue to do it in Maryland, too.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Teach For America?

Each spring for the past three years, school districts all across the country have been cutting teaching positions by the hundreds. We’re talking licensed professional teachers who went through a real teacher education program. Then, in fall, when school districts find that their budget is slightly larger than expected and they have a shortage of professionals, they bring in the TFAers…..Teach for America.

Teach for America, like pay-for-performance, is another one of those ideas that sounds good on paper, but when it comes right down to actual practice, leaves a lot to be desired. Here’s how it works: TFA recruits newly graduated college seniors, puts them through a 5 week training program in the summer, and then places them in high-need, low-income inner-city schools. Schools where many veteran teachers (with years of experience and a teacher education program under their belts) often do not want to go…

Even worse, when a school district asks for TFA recruits, they sign a two year contract with these “teachers”…meaning, that during the next round of budget-induced reduction in force, teachers who have experience and certification will receive pink slips, while TFA “teachers” will keep their jobs for another year.

What makes a TFA teacher more qualified to teach students than a licensed, certified teacher that has gone through a teacher education program and passed the required exams? Most of TFA’s recruits are recent graduates who can’t find jobs in their own field, or who want to pad their resumes with something that appears “noble” and “selfless”. These teachers are here today and gone tomorrow. How does this really help the students?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these individuals can’t become excellent teachers, but starting out, they have even less skill and training than your average first year teacher. The first year of teaching, even for someone who went through a teacher education program and was equipped with the appropriate classroom management skills, is trying at best. I can't imagine walking into a classroom with only 5 weeks summer training under my belt! This can cause a nightmare experience for both teachers and students.

Then, let's take a look at their "summer training". How many of the people that are training and evaluating these TFA "teachers" are actually (or have been) educators themselves? How many of these trainers have spent one minute in the classroom in any capacity other than as a student? According to the article linked above, half of that summer "training" consisted of the recruits being thrown into a summer school classroom. Sink or swim for teaching? Really?


Even worse, why are these individuals taking jobs away from tried-and-true teachers? TFA was developed at a time when the economy was in full boom and class sizes were getting smaller and so there truly was a "teaching shortage". However, now the economy is bad, career teachers are losing their jobs, and yet TFA continues to add districts to its ever-growing list of placement options. Seattle, WA is the latest city to consider signing a contract with TFA, despite the fact that most of the schools targeted to receive TFA teachers are overwhelmed with applications for their open positions.


Let's hear your comments- which programs with 5 week summer training sessions do you want to subject your children to?
Surgeons for America
Pilots for America
Dentists for America
Anesthesiologists for America
Gynecologists for America
Bus Drivers for America
Nurses for America
Tattoo Artists for America

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pay-for-performance?

One of the biggest debates in education today is the idea that teachers should be paid based on performance. On paper, it sounds good, right?  But for teachers, pay for performance doesn’t mean that we are paid based on how well we do, but rather, how well our students do on standardized tests.
We all know that person in the workplace, the one who absolutely nothing. Getting work from these individuals is like pulling teeth. There are students like that….not ones who don’t do the work because they can’t, but simply because they don’t want to.
Should my pay be docked simply because a student doesn’t want to do the work necessary to be successful on the state tests? Or because a parent doesn’t stress education enough so their student doesn’t care?
Even worse, should my pay and my ability to care for my family suffer because a student can’t be successful on the test due to language or learning issues? When it comes to pay for performance for teachers, how do you account for Special Education or English as a Second Language students and teachers?
Most of these students are in these programs because of their inability to succeed like their peers. If we start penalizing the teachers who devote their lives to these students by taking away their pay when the students don’t perform, then we won’t have any teachers to take care of the different needs of Special Ed and ESL students.
On the other end, what about teachers who teach only talented & gifted students or honors students? Should these teachers get big bonuses on their paychecks simply because they lucked into getting the brightest, best, and most motivated students? And what about students who simply have a bad testing day?
Then there’s the question of where the extra pay will come from, and how we will know which teachers have students who perform better.
CMS has a solution- up to 25% of each teacher’s pay will be put into a pool, out of which bonuses will be taken and paid to the high-performing teachers. This means that teachers (who are already paid less than equally educated workers in other fields) who struggle to make ends meet on their paltry salaries are going to be expected to give away 25% of their pay. 
The average teacher in the United States, according to payscale.com, is making about $40,000 per year, so let’s do some math. 25% of $40,000 is $10,000, which the teacher is expected to give away under CMS's plan. Take another 15% (at least) for state, local and federal taxes, and the teacher is now making $26,000 per year. In CMS, 6% of pay goes to state retirement, which would bring the teacher’s salary down to $23,600 per year. Remember, new teachers make even less than the average. No wonder teachers are nervous.
Even more astounding, In order to better determine who those “high performing” teachers are, according to the Charlotte Observer, CMS is spending nearly $2 million to create 52 new district-wide assessments covering everything from Kindergarten skills to high school Journalism. These new tests will be used to determine which teachers are having the greatest impact on student achievement. So now, not only will teachers be affected by pay for performance, but students will be impacted also. Will adding more stressful testing days to the school calendar really benefit our students?
Teachers, parents and administrators need to band together to make our voices heard. Teachers (and students) across the country in places like Florida and Idaho are protesting education cuts right now. Unfortunately for teachers in CMS, without a union to speak up for them, and reductions in force looming on the horizon, many are afraid to speak up.
In order to improve education in our country, it is important to consider what is best for both teachers and students. I believe that pay-for-performance will drive teachers out of the profession, place unnecessary extra stress on students, and cost districts millions of dollars. Of course, I'm only a lowly, over-paid teacher....what do I know?
Read what Charlotte's Creative Loafing says about CMS's particular situation.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Midnight oil and candles with two wicks....

Sometimes when I get home at night, I am so exhausted that I can hardly think. In addition to spending quality time with my husband, keeping my house from becoming totally filthy, and cooking (or nuking) something that resembles food of some sort, I still have papers to grade and lessons to plan.

That's right. While the average American is vegged out in front of the TV, enjoying a few mindless hours of entertainment before heading to bed and getting ready to do it all over again, your child's teacher (or a teacher somewhere if you don't have children) is planning how he or she is going to educate your child tomorrow at the expense of quality time with his or her own family.

Many people argue that teachers are provided with a planning period and if they were more time-efficient then they wouldn't have to take work home. Ha ha. Planning periods are a joke. My first year of teaching, 4 out of 5 days a week, my "planning" time consisted of meetings, but no actual planning time. Since my position was split between two schools, my "planning" time is actually travel time. So am I supposed to do lesson plans behind the wheel of my car? Read and correct persuasive essays while on the interstate?

Even now, I have a quiz to create and some projects to grade. My eyelids are weighing heavily, and I'm wondering if tonight I can actually get enough sleep before I have to get up and do it all again.....?

So appreciate your night off....and somewhere, sometime soon, say "thank you" to a teacher. Even better, seek out a teacher who left his or her mark on your life, and thank them.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Blinded by the light (of my own ambition)

Have you ever been preparing for a trip to somewhere new and exciting? In your mind, you pictured the hotel and the things that you would see...only to find when you arrived that things were different or maybe even disappointing compared to your excited imaginings.

Teaching is sort of like that. Every new teacher, fresh out of school, starts his or her new job with the brightest and most brilliant ambitions...only to find that things are not what we imagined. We go into teaching blinded by the light of our own ambition to make a difference. Low pay? Long hours? Not enough thanks? Not important because I'll be making a difference. Only, there is so much focus on standardized test scores and AYP and common assessments and data that it gets in the way of the most important thing- actually teaching, which means you're not making the kind of difference you hoped you would.

Standardized test scores cannot accurately measure some of the most important skills that a student gains in a good education, and yet many things are based on those scores, from federal funding, to teacher pay (or even whether they keep their jobs), to program availability. Furthermore, they are not indicators of one of the most important aspects of education- self-motivation.

Every school teacher can tell you that there are plenty of students who absolutely can be successful, they simply won't do the necessary work to pass their classes and tests. Should teachers lose jobs and schools lose funding because some student simply doesn't want to do the work?

One of the biggest problems with education in America is the fact that those who make educational policy are not educators, but politicians who are trained to worry about the bottom line, which more and more seems to be "How much will it cost?"

There is so much paperwork and policy that gets in the way of truly educating our students. New teachers are bogged down with paperwork, extracurricular responsibilities and overwhelming expectations. Teacher education programs do not prepare you for most of the extra responsibilities that come with a classroom teaching position. By the time teachers have trudged their way through bus duty, progress reports, phone calls home, intervention and referral paperwork, LEP paperwork, testing accomodations and modifying and differentiating assignments, their flame of passion is exhausted of fuel.

Even more terrifying, according to this articule from edutopia, nearly 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within five years. It's not because of the low pay; edutopia says that less than 30% of those who left cited salary as their primary reason for leaving. What is the reason? According to edutopia, it is a lack of support from parents, colleagues and administration.

One teacher in the article mentioned that there was not a day when she did not go home and cry, and I knew how she felt. My first year of teaching was terrible. I was blessed to find an experienced ESL teacher at my school who was more than willing to assist me in any way possible, answer questions, and help me prepare for observations, but the pressures and the stress were overwhelming.

Without my wonderful mentor, I certainly would not have made it through my first year. I was also blessed to have been through a strong teacher education program under the wonderful and brilliant Dr. Clara Lee Brown. I credit my training and my mentors for my making it through that rough and terrible first year. But many teachers are not so blessed.

With less and less money for budgets each year, teaching positions are being cut by the hundreds and class sizes are increasing. Budget shortfalls also mean fewer basic supplies and technology for students and teachers. Add to that a higher attrition rate than for most other professions, and it is no wonder than America's educational system can no longer compete with other leading nations.

The question to ask yourself for tonight is, what is truly best for education in our country? Is it time to re-examine No Child Left Behind? I personally think that it is time for an education revolution to take place in our country. Teachers, Principals, Parents, and other educators need to speak out and let our voices be heard. Only then can America's education system truly begin to prepare our students for the world that they will be living in. Weigh in and share your opinion!

Oh, and don't worry. Pretty soon I'll start keeping the rhetoric to a minimum and share more about the daily challenges of a tried and true public school teacher.

Where does the Odyssey begin?

Growing up, I never expected or wanted to be a teacher. Who would spend so long getting out of school only to return to these halls that smell like hormones, sweat, angst and stale corn chips? My own school experience was not the best- I was not popular or well-liked. I had plenty of friends, don't get me wrong- we just weren't part of the "in" crowd. We were more likely those kids that your mother warned you about.

Academically, I did enough to stay out of trouble at home, but looking back, I realize that I certainly didn't do my best. As a teacher myself now, I have a much better understanding of my own teachers' frustration with me. I graduated with a respectable GPA, but not one that truly mirrored my abilities. It seems I wouldn't truly live up to my potential until I was in graduate school, studying for my MS in a subject I was truly passionate about....ESL and Foreign Language education.

Leaving high school and heading to college, I planned to major in Journalism. I also already had credit for Spanish 201 and 202 under my belt and realized that it would only take a few classes to complete a second major in Spanish. But, I resisted....my argument? You can't do anything with Spanish but teach. And I don't want to be a teacher. Can anyone say 'irony'?

Fast forward a few years....I had earned my journalism and Spanish degree, but most of the jobs I was finding were for less pay than I was able to make waiting tables, and were likely more degrading as well. So I start looking into other avenues....what about translating? Or, (heaven forbid) what about teaching Spanish?

And so, I applied for a few jobs. Spanish was considered a high-need area and many states offered alternative routes to certification. But, the more I considered and thought about it, I knew I would like to take a teaching route that would eventually enable me to teach overseas...so, I thought, how about ESL?

I began looking into master's programs, since I already had a bachelor's. I settled on one at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, since I was already living in Fort Sanders where most of the University students lived anyway. I went into the program intending to use it as a means to obtain a degree and licensure that would enable me to teach not only in the US, but also overseas. I knew that might mean a few years in US public schools...but like I said, a means to an end, right?

Wrong...turns out, during my student teaching, I loved teaching middle school (which was the one rotation I dreaded above them all!). Plus, I learned that by working for a Title I school for 5 years, I could get some loan forgiveness from the federal government. So...when I finished my degree, I got a job in Charlotte, North Carolina with CMS, and my husband and I packed up and headed out.

I was finally ready to begin my odyssey as a public school teacher.