Sunday, October 28, 2012

Desolation Crossroads

 Desolation crossroads, yeah, that's the expression I have come up with as I look at this presidential battleground.  The current attacks on teachers and the teachers' union are muddled with duplicity, obfuscation and false representation. On the national stage we, as teachers and union members, need to thread the needle here and really, "strait is the gate".  What do I mean?  The R/R ticket professes to love teachers and of course, this makes us all laugh because we know that they would really love us to death.   Hey, remember the '60's when Nobody For President had the rally with Wavy Gravy at the UN Plaza? Ah, the good old days.  Ya know some of us even considered voting for George Wallace with the hope that it would revolutionize by extreme. But I digress. So, here we are, still free to choose between O and the Green Party or you can take your pick of pointless choices. The problem with O is Arne Duncan is calling the plays on the court and the only people who can touch the ball are those on his team. Is this new?  No, it just happens to go along with the usual trajectory of power and for some reason, I guess we all kind of expected that this roadmap would have changed.  But not.  The RTTT is riddled with dubious distinctions and claims and is, again, typical of top-down solution thinking that policy makers seem to embrace.  In any case, for those of us in the classroom who see this as an end-run to privatize, the hope was with the true representation from our union. Surely, an educational policy designed with input from, oh, let's see, maybe some teachers would lend some credibility to the output. Surely, our union, our teacher's union for public education would see the Broad virus of privatization insinuating itself into the effort of school deform. So, what do we get? An endorsement without qualification and barely a mention of the media assault on our very existence.  Teachers with hard-earned tenure, who can withstand real evaluation and who understand that they are on a mission (see Blues Brothers) are going to find that they are standing alone at those crossroads and neither way will get them to their goal. We kind of thought that someone had our back, that we as unionized teachers had the backing of the D party but that has not quite worked out. And that is why our backs are now against the wall. Well, I guess we gonna have to make a new road; here we go again.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mark Twain and the Dirt Eater.

Interesting yet bewildering; this idea of letting the DOE take over the certification of aspiring teachers.  Especially bewildering is the notion that placing a new college graduate with an experienced teacher in a "thriving" school would somehow provide the framework and support for that newbie to take over a class in one of our famous hard-to-staff schools.  Let's get this straight from the git-go.  I do believe that the best preparation for a teacher contemplating a career teaching in NYC is not only a degree in education but also the essential fieldwork that introduces the novice to the daily reality of the teaching profession.  When I returned to school and enrolled in a graduate program in education, part of our assignment was to do the required fieldwork in a school of their selection.  The fieldwork is the first step into a classroom - where you, as teacher, are finally facing the class and not the other way around. I was sent to a number of  schools but I want to focus on two experiences that relate to the subject of this post.
The first school I was assigned  to was a 5th grade class in an elementary school on the Upper West Side which is, by all accounts, a great school.  Great staff, facilities, parental involvement, money, and a student body that valued education.  I can recall being asked to do a read-aloud of a Mark Twain story. Having some experience on stage, I gave it my all with animated gestures, character voices and audience engagement.  The kids loved it, even applauding the performance - my mentor congratulated me on my efforts and gave me suggestions for the lesson follow-up. What I was expected to gain from this experience was to know how and when I was "on my game" as a teacher.  What did student engagement actually look like?  What did it sound like?  All of this out of the learning room of the graduate school into the teaching room of the public school.  Wow, I thought, this is going to be great; here are the budding minds, eager to learn, eager to show off what they already know, respectful, knowledgeable and wanting to know more.  So, this is what teaching is like and this is a teacher's classroom.
The other school I wanted to mention is located in East Harlem.  Not a difficult school by any means; nice modern building, helpful staff and just elementary school kids being kids. I was assigned to a lower grade - maybe 2nd or 3rd with a teacher who used "Shhhhhhhush" after every other word.  This was the first indicator that perhaps I have chosen the wrong second career.  My engagement with children so young was ineffectual and frustrating (thus my stint as a Middle School teacher).  However, I did learn an important lesson from one child and it is a lesson I always keep in the back of my mind.  Due to some malfeasance on part of the student, I was instructed to deprive said student of a privilege held dear.  As I was trying to explain my action to said student I was met with an impenetrable and defying stare that accompanied the words " I don't care.  I can eat dirt".  Clearly, the deprivation tactic to change behavior was not going to work here.  Wow, I thought, this is NOT going to be great; this is not as easy a being an animated reader to a group of inquiring minds.  Where is the desire to learn?  How can I get to make these children care?  Two starkly contrasting experiences of the daily reality of teaching in an urban public school.

So how does this fit in with the topic of the post?  Needless to say, I am basically against the DOE taking over certification but I am aiming at what I see as a misguided strategy for preparing any teacher to take over a classroom.  You cannot teach unless you can manage and you cannot learn classroom management out of a book; it helps and give you some tools to work with but you will only get it in the classroom itself.  Design for a teacher preparation program for an urban public school must place primary importance on classroom management and, in most cases, lack of management is not a big issue in a "thriving school".  The idea that you would mentor a teacher in a thriving school as preparation for that teacher to take the helm in a struggling school is to miss the mark, big time. We know that there is more learning than teaching in a teacher's first years on the job and the steepest learning curve to navigate is classroom management.  This is why it would make so much more sense to place a last year graduate student into a "managed classroom" in a hard to staff school in order to hone their skills in this critical area. To succeed in the trenches you need to learn in the trenches.  All this would seem quite self-evident to any teacher already in the system, so I am not offering any revolutionary ideas and, in fact, this "mentoring issue" is subsumed in the larger picture of the DOE efforts to drive experienced tenured teachers out of the building.  As I consider the bigger picture and how this "bogus route to certification" is being contemplated, I am tempted to suggest that their "mentoring' idea is valid with the idea that if implemented it is doomed to failure - another disaster policy brought to you by the DOE.  The only drawback is that another class of students will fall by the wayside as the DOE clumsily grasps for more power with their oversized hands.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Evaluate this!

If you are following the ATR blogs and such you know about the recent suggestion that the evaluation of the ATR's be based on the field observer's assessment of how well you manage a classroom.  How, really, HOW can anyone who has any teaching experience think that an appropriate measure of an ATR value as a teacher, their profession,  is to be in the arena of substitute classroom management.  The reasons one can come up with against this ridiculous suggestion are too numerous to mention.  However, it would have taken some creativity and coordination to actually come up with a true overall evaluation system; one that includes how well the entire ATR system has been implemented; what good has it done any school, excessed teacher or over crowded classroom.  Until we do that I don't see why we don't just use the evaluation system I just put together.

How to Evaluate a Member of the ATR

Said member of ATR still desires to work as a teacher in the NYC system despite being disrespected, devalued and demeaned...............................................................................10 Points

Said member of ATR arrives every school day prepared to step into a classroom that they know
nothing about and do the best they can..........................................................10 Points

Said member of the ATR has adapted their gastro-intestinal clock to a daily schedule that may have lunch at 10:30am or 11:15 am or 12:00 pm............................................................... 10 points

Said member of ATR has managed to survive the assault on their career and continue to believe that they have made the right career choice when they decided to teach........ ..............10 points

Said member of the ATR has cultivated a Zen like stillness that comes in handy as one sits on a pointless chair in a pointless room staring, always staring...............................................20 points

Said member of the ATR has developed the dexterity, reflexes and increased peripheral vision to combat the daily assault of UFO's during lunchroom duty...........................................10 points

Said member of the ATR has remained real and vocal despite the growing efforts to make them ghostly apparitions that  have no substance................................................................10 points

Said member of the ATR  has decided not to tutor, teach at a charter, work as a tour guide, nor start a career as a stand-up comedian instead of being a member of the ATR............10 points

Said member of the ATR insists that the UFT stand up for their rights and that representation not be denied the dues paying members...............................................................................10 points

The ATR is a good thing in that we are not in Washington DC.  The ATR is also a public relations nightmare and the sooner the DOE and the UFT come to realize that they can benefit the schools and children of NYC by utilizing the teaching resources we already have and that are being paid for the better off everyone will be. This "evaluation" is a poor effort to justify an unjust system by making believe that it has a solid educational framework as its base when it is nothing but a scythe to cut down tenured teachers. We are, after all, educators are we not?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Accordion Lessons

In the ongoing conversation about education we often hear of the necessity of teamwork in tackling the multifaceted problem facing our public schools today.  Teamwork...nice word.  And it is most often through playing sports that we learn the meaning of the word. I played Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, and baseball and football in high school where I tore up my knee playing the first football game of the season and then later, I had to leave the baseball team because I got caught smoking a cigarette on the field (after reading Last Exit...). In the end however, I did learn about teamwork from playing ball.  Another arena where teamwork is played out is music. From an orchestra to a jazz trio, teamwork is the only means of achieving the desired end. In my own case, I was a member of the much maligned but also feared army of ten-year old accordionists known as the Polka Devils being pumped out of the esteemed Palumbo Academy of Music in the Bronx. We were being primed to audition for Ted Mack's "Amateur Hour" or (my preference), shaping up for a stint in Venice;  I saw myself, propped in a gondola offering renditions of O Sole Mio to all.  In any case, my point is that the inherent value of teamwork is often truly revealed only to those on the team, so to speak. How that team fares on the field or on stage is determined by many factors, but the simple experience of being on the field or on the stage with the others, that shared event whether you win or lose, is a valuable character building experience. And it is always part of the manager's skill to assess the players' abilities - to weigh their strengths and areas of needed improvement in order to piece together a unified entity that is established for a specific purpose and for a specified period of time.
And there are many parts to a team and each is important to the composition of the whole. True for the baseball team, true for the Polka Devils and certainly true for our schools.  Wouldn't you think that it would take a team to make something like a school succeed?  This can't be done alone or by teammates at odds with one another.  It is here that the structural integrity of the idea holds and guides the team through the contest or path to accomplishment.  With schools, the integrity of the idea is that all the participants -- and that means teachers, administrators, parents and students -- are accountable because being a player means participating in the decisions that affect your future. With all this comes responsibility, and in this case, responsibility for a school that is struggling.  But somehow, as of late, the responsibility, the sole responsibility for failing schools, has fallen on the shoulders of the teacher in the classroom.  Not on the administrators who for some reason are not evaluated by either the teachers in the school (if you're thinking SQR, think again) or the parents in the community.  And as far as the parents go, I wouldn't be the first to call for evaluations, but who am I to judge?  We must call for and support any parental involvement we can get.  To do otherwise is to betray the integrity of the idea that the team can withstand flaws and still move forward. As far as instilling a feeling of teamwork in our students; well, it is very difficult to do this without the glue of shared experience. Just being in the same classroom without engaging in "teamwork" experience does not leave the indelible stamp of being on a team; of being an integral part of or a member of something bigger than oneself. Schools are woefully ill-equipped to provide the environment where teamwork can flourish, and our students bear the consequences.  And they endure these consequences year after year that the Arts and Sports program are reduced or cut from the budget and positive changes are not implemented.  You can't just say the teachers are shirking responsibility when in fact, teachers are only part of the larger team effort.  Yet we are the ones who are graded, evaluated, threatened, accused and excessed.  Teamwork...yeah, it's a nice word.
 Answers are organic.  They grow up from the ground and unless it is for the prayed-for rain, the answers don't come from above. Now here I am; standing in the doorway of my classroom wondering where all my teammates have gone.   A month in and still no school assembly, it's bulletin board update or die time, warnings of upcoming observations are circulated along with murmurs of a school closing.  As for the rest of the team, let me provide an anecdote to make a point.  A call goes out to a  parent that their little angel brought a gun to school; the parent's response: "What caliber?"  So, are we waiting for this parent to come into school or is this just a perverse play on the "parent trigger"?  Will it take a team to turn around a school? Yes, it will, but right now we don't have the uniforms. And more importantly, we don't have the vision.

Here is a shout out we can all hear -- and maybe this is what having a vision looks like.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Teacher v.Teacher

It seems that  the old adage that knowledge is power may still have some play.  Or at least we can say that the more you know about your situation the better off you are.  Let me be specific.  I have linked to two very informative and well written pieces that all of us in this education battle would do well to read.

The first link is to a letter written by a principal to is nothing that you would expect.
Principal's letter - YOU GOTTA READ THIS

The other piece I read was about teachers and again, please take a moment.the teacher speaks.

Simon Letgo Lives!
Sometimes we can find relief? or consolation? or camaraderie when we learn that so many teachers are experiencing that same situation - it is as though we are all in the same fight.  Hey, guess what?  We are!  I read, in the various teacher blogs, how some of our brother and sister teachers fail to recognize that those ATR people sitting in the lounge alone and ignored, are your colleagues. It doesn't take but a minor decision by a minor functionary to have your career go up in smoke.  You really have no control over what will happen to you and your career as a public school teacher because if you thought that tenure was your security ticket, you need to heed the serious wake-up call that many of us have heard. Look, once you are excessed, it's like, oh, I dunno, one of those experiences that after which you are never the same, perhaps like getting ...what? (and you will always remember your first).

 I personally think that every teacher in the union should think of themselves as on the edge - let's make it the serrated edge-of the blade and that the ATR fight for representation, transparency and fairness is a fight that must engage us all. However, I must confess, that as I sat with my ATR friend in the closet we now have as a lounge for the PUBLIC SCHOOL teachers, I was annoyed when a few CHARTER people moseyed their way into the lounge to use their cell phones.  They ARE teachers, right? We all have that in common, right? Then why did I get that same itchy skin and evil thoughts as when I am surrounded by people with Romney/Ryan buttons. I guess I am suspicious.  When Charter first invaded our school building I recall that the administrators thought it would be a good idea to have a crummy, certified DOE luncheon to meet and greet the marauding hordes. Now, that went over like West Side Story's "Dance in the Gym". We just happen to co-exist in the same building and there is an inherent resentment built into the relationship: we eat lunch at 10:30 am,  they can dine at noon; we have to share classrooms; they get a yoga studio;  we get a 75% IEP population and they can pick and choose who opens their classroom door. We are two sides of some coin - and these two sides will never meet and I don't know if that is because there are philosophical, political, or simply economic reasons for the two camps.  Don't get me wrong...I wouldn't trade my South Bronx kids for a Greenwich, Ct. middle school ever, and it is every urban school teacher's mission to help these kids to care about their future and have a will to succeed. But when we take a careful look at the school we cannot but see the discrepancy in funding, opportunities, school environment and parental involvement and that discrepancy is by design and for a purpose--and we, unionized, public school teachers are in the cross hairs.