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Fear, Frustration, Failure and State Tests

ScantronThis will be the fourth year that my students and I have suffered through the New York State high-stakes elementary school tests.  Although the mayor and the chancellor tell us this year’s tests are all new, my stories from the classroom are similar to years past.

As a new teacher and New York City transplant, I was astonished to discover 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-grade students were held over based on their scores from a series of limited assessments.  After that realization, I was much less surprised to see the effect of these tests in the classroom.  Both schools I have worked at ended regular instruction in early February to opt for test prep units designed to milk a few extra points on the state exams. Students’ and teachers’ health began to slowly decline around the same time of year, and behavioral incidents began to rise.

In my own classroom, I have fought to ameliorate the stresses of testing season by reminding my students how hard they have worked and telling them that their only job on state testing days is to try their best. But my efforts have been less than successful. One year a 9-year-old 4th grader asked me if it was okay to put the classroom trash can near her desk in case she got sick to her stomach during her English language arts exam.  The next year a mental block caused a little boy to flip his desk over in a moment of panic and frustration while trying to craft an extended-response essay. Just last week, Natashi, a girl in my 5th-grade class who has only been in the country for two years and is still transitioning to English, asked me whether I would be disappointed in her if she tried her best and still wasn’t able to pass. “What if I just need another year in 5th grade to keep practicing, Mr. Thompson?” she said to me with tears in her eyes.

With a broken heart and tears in my own eyes, I turned to Natashi and told her I would always be proud of her. “You have fought so hard this year!  I will be proud of you no matter what score you get!” Natashi feigned a smile and asked to go to the bathroom to wash the tears off her cheeks.

My students, Natashi included, have been attending an extended-day program on Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school all year long. We have spent the last few months keeping students late on Mondays and Fridays for an hour and a half of extra instruction focused on test sophistication.  For the past two months, we have asked students to come to school from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays for extra help to boost scores on their state tests.

Still, all the Common Core-aligned data I collect are telling me that my students are not showing mastery on the vast majority of Common Core standards. Many of the “grade level” reading passages and math problems I share with my students are far beyond their ability levels. The confusion these tasks generate leads to an overwhelming sense of failure among my students. And, of course, when my students feel like they are failing, I feel like a failure myself.

Should it surprise any of us that high-stakes tests, coupled with new standards, little-to-no teacher training, and no citywide curricula are a recipe for disaster? Should cheating scandals, state test boycotts, low teacher retention rates, and teary-eyed students come as a shock to the American educational system?  Should I be surprised that my students score 30 percent lower than last year, as predicted by many educational experts? No!

The only surprising part about this whole process is the process itself. We have created a demoralizing atmosphere of fear, frustration and failure for teachers and students. I will always be proud of the hard work my students put into their education, and I sincerely believe they will succeed regardless of what their state test scores suggest. But if the mayor or the chancellor were ever to come up to me like Natashi did to ask whether I was proud of the reforms they had made to education, my answer to them would be quite different from my answer to her.

Mr. Thompson is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school teacher in Brooklyn. A version of this post first appeared on the UFT blog edwize.org, where “New Teacher Diaries” is a regular feature. If you’re interested in writing a New Teacher Diary entry for edwize, send an email to edwize@uft.org.

Evaluate This!

Everyone’s talking about the breakdown in the teacher evaluation talks between the mayor and the union as if it were the only chance to fix public education in New York City. Do we need an evaluation system? Absolutely. Is it a cure-all for our educational ills? Absolutely not.

I am still in the middle of my honeymoon period with teaching, the first career I’ve truly loved. Sadly, like so many teachers in our city, newbies such as myself and grizzled veterans alike, I am developing a profound sense of regret linked to the growing sensation that I may not be cut out for the classroom, or at least the New York City classroom. I rarely feel recognized for my work. I rarely feel effective in the classroom. I rarely feel like I’m giving my students what they will need to succeed in college and beyond.

Certain mayors, governors, members of Congress and leaders in education reform constantly denigrate teachers. In fact, there are times when I feel like that is the only topic of national interest where there is a degree of political consensus: Our students are failing and teachers are to blame.

Along with most teachers I know, I’m spending 12 to 15 hours every day teaching, planning lessons, grading papers, developing presentation slides, completing paperwork, enhancing my classroom environment and calling parents. Once you add in my meals and commute, there’s barely enough time to sleep!

And, new evaluation system or no, I’m being held accountable for everything I do. Nearly every email in my inbox is marked “high importance” and then followed up with countless check-ins. Danielson rubric “feedback loops” are happening every month. Administrators march through my room nearly every week. My student data binder is thoroughly reviewed by teachers, administrators, network consultants and our superintendent.

Every time I turn around, I’m being told “Good job, but …” And every time a change is suggested to me, I implement it. Not enough student work on the walls? Fixed! Student work hung too high? Lowered! Process for completing an assignment unclear? Posted!

But when teachers need help, we’re given sympathy without assistance. Sorry — there are no office supplies available, but you’re supposed to have color-coded charts, class sets of dry erase markers, an array of options for organizers and manipulatives, and even a variety of paper choices to allow for student agency in every assignment. Sorry — there are no aligned resources for the unit you’re teaching, but still you’re supposed to find content-aligned, leveled, authentic literature for every student in every subject. These items are presented to me as non-negotiables by the city and my administration. But what about teacher non-negotiables?

Isn’t it interesting that Common Core Learning Standards were introduced without aligned curricula? Isolated task bundles full of grammatical mistakes as part of a vast trove of online garbage that I’m supposed to wade through during my free time just don’t cut it. Isn’t it unfortunate that special education reform and SESIS have been launched without effective citywide training and data-based suggestions for implementation? Principal- and network-led professional development sessions on these topics reflect the fact that school leaders themselves don’t know what’s going on with special education in New York.

Isn’t it shameful that the people demanding Universal Design for Learning, scaffolding and differentiation, Danielson-aligned teaching practices and data-driven instruction could not offer any of these cutting-edge teaching techniques themselves? I’m absolutely sick of being told the importance of visual anchors at presentations without any visual anchors!

So is a new teacher evaluation system — one that helps teachers improve — important? Absolutely. But let’s not forget that without standards-aligned curricula, robust learning resources and a dramatic improvement in teacher morale, there may not be many teachers left to evaluate.

Mr. Thompson is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school teacher in Brooklyn. A version of this post first appeared on the UFT blog Edwize.org, where “New Teacher Diaries” is a regular feature. If you’re interested in writing a New Teacher Diary entry for Edwize, send an email to edwize@uft.org.

Flood of Questions Follow Floods from Sandy

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After a week without classes, my 5th-graders filed back into school. Fortunately for my class, no one had been directly affected by Hurricane Sandy beyond some minor power outages, though others in our school were not as lucky. But that is not to say we didn’t feel the effects of this tragedy in a very personal way.

My students’ eyes were full of conflicting emotions — a mixture of excitement and fear. Excitement from having experienced something so new to them, from knowing they had survived a powerful threat, and from hours of storm-related news coverage that was far beyond their 10-year-old understanding of the world. Fear about whether it was appropriate to ask questions of their teachers, about whether everyone they knew had weathered the storm safely and — especially after the onslaught of emotions they had seen in their own families — about whether they were safe yet themselves.

They had heard some schools were still closed, and the instability of childhood’s most important institution was terrifying. They had heard some teachers were not ready to come back to our school, and the vulnerability of their authority figures destroyed their sense of security. They had heard that many people, even children, had not made it through the storm, and the fragility of human life was completely overwhelming to them.

Questions and feelings quickly flooded out, unfiltered. Did I know anyone who had been killed? Did my house get swept away? Did I see all the people crying and screaming on TV? Did I hear about the kids who had been washed away from their mother? Wasn’t it exciting to have a week off? Wasn’t it boring to have a week off? The news says another storm’s coming next week — I hope we get to miss school again! The news says another storm’s coming next week — I hope I’m not stuck at home with my brother again! What’s a FEMA? What’s a nor’easter? What’s a storm surge? Why can’t we build walls? Why aren’t the subways running? Why does Mayor Bloomberg talk so much? Why does his Spanish sound so funny?

I did not feel prepared to help counsel these wonderful boys and girls back into the safety of their school routine, but I was ready to try. We began the day with a discussion of the tragic nature of the storm, focusing on which emotions were appropriate to project as we shared stories about something that was so painful for so many people. Giving my students a safe place to share their thoughts and experiences was the first step toward healing our tattered emotions.

We followed that discussion with a social studies lesson on the path of the storm and the many different communities that were affected, and a science lesson on how hurricanes are formed. After discussing ways we could help people we know who are still trying to recover, especially some of the teachers in our own school who had lost their homes, we wrote letters and engaged in a schoolwide drive to collect resources. The boys and girls in my class really rose to the occasion — I have never been more proud of my students.

After lunch, we went back to our regular schedule to establish a sense of normalcy and learn the daily math lesson. With our emotions and community on the road to recovery, we turned our attention toward healing the tattered pacing calendar, one of the many casualties of the tragic storm.

Mr. Thompson is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school teacher in Brooklyn. If you’re interested in writing a New Teacher Diary entry for Edwize, send an email to edwize@uft.org.

A Different Type of Job

In 1999 and 2000, Adidas ran a series of series of running apparel advertisements using the motto “Runners. Yeah, we’re different.” One such ad featured a naked runner, covered in mud, changing his soaked clothing outside of his car as two onlookers gaped at him from a distance. Another Adidas spot displayed a family in the car with a huge, multi-child running stroller attached to the roof. The message, of course, is that runners are much different than “average” people.

Likewise, the UFT could easily put together its own ad campaign: “Teachers. Yeah, we’re different.” Some snapshots from my first week as a fourth-year social studies teacher in the Bronx could provide some material for these commercials. To wit:

— On the first day of school, I surveyed my eighth-grade students on a variety of topics by asking for a show of hands. When I asked, “How many of you think teachers are smart?,” about three-quarters of the students raised their hands. When I followed that up by asking, “How many of you think teachers are poor?,” about nine-tenths of the hands shot up.  My intention was to show students that being educated could lead you to a prosperous life. When I saw my students’ perceptions of teachers, I could only laugh.
Teachers. Yeah, we’re different. More »

Creating a World That’s Safe for Even the Silliest Questions

“Mr. Thompson,” began Nelly, “How come you’ve got such a pointy nose?” He had an inquisitive look of pure wonder on his face.

Later that day, Tonya asked whether I’d become “a little bit more chubbier” over the summer break. There was no judgment in her tone.

So began my fourth year as a New York City elementary school teacher. In both cases I answered matter-of-factly: People have noses of all different shapes, and mine happens to be a little pointier. And, yes, I put on five or ten pounds over the break — very observant of you to notice. I wasn’t offended in either case. My students’ blunt queries brought a smile to my face, endearing them to me all the more.

I was forced to switch grades this year because of an administrative error four years ago that left my school without a class in my setting. I’m also teaching a brand new math curriculum without manipulatives and student reference books because of an ordering mix-up. Less than two weeks into the year, my reading and writing curricula were scrapped by the new literacy coach in exchange for “lessons on monitoring comprehension” without any more guidance than that. And my new guided reading program and literacy centers have been cancelled for an increased focus on independent reading to help my students prepare for the end of year tests. More »

“Everything Is Going To Be Fine”

The first day of school is adorably confusing for freshmen high school students. One earnest young man had already come to my class twice before stumbling in five minutes late to his actual, scheduled English block, and two young ladies tumbled breathlessly into my room at the end of the day, explaining that they aren’t sure what had happened, but that they had somehow missed English. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” I tell them over and over, “everything is going to be fine.”

When it comes to the sophomores, the first day of school is a day for fronting. Last year, we wrote, read, made meaning, cried, hollered and sweated together, and we forged a beautiful community. This year, they swagger into school, walking bigger, talking bigger. I still catch them, though, sneaking into the seats at the back of my room, seeking comfort and familiarity in the little space we shared so much in last year. They’ll build new classroom communities this year, with different teachers and different classmates, but I hope they’ll still seek me out for a hug between classes or an early morning check-in. Do they know that I need it as much as they do?

Don’t tell the kids, but the first day of school is a day of fronting for me too, of putting up a façade that covers all manner of concerns. How quickly can I learn the names of my 120 new students, and can I do it without any of them feeling the hurt I used to feel when a teacher just didn’t seem to find me memorable? Will these students be kind to each other? Will I be able to push each to their capacity, or more importantly, convince them to push themselves to their capacity? Will I have the energy to constantly modify for each class as they need? I am certain of how I will begin the first week, what I will bring to our class, but beyond that, as the classroom shifts from my space to ours, the uncertainties loom large.  Still, with a smile on my face: “It’s fine, it’s fine; everything is going to be fine.” More »

My Search for My Inner Teacher

Bathroom passYou don’t understand, Miss. I’m peeeeeiiiing,” Samantha says on the third day of school. Her request reminds me of Nora, a student from last year. Both Samantha and Nora chose to loudly request to go to the bathroom as they entered the classroom just the day after I explained to my high school students the process for silently asking to go only after the first 10 minutes of class had passed.

When Nora tried that move last year, I remember being caught without a proper response. I was torn. I did not know who I was as a teacher yet. I wanted to appear nice, but also unyielding.

I wanted Nora to know that I cared about her but also that I was the boss of my math classroom. I wanted to show the whole class that I was reasonable, but I also wanted to show them that the expectations I had put in place for them were real. The semblance of confidence in myself as a teacher that I had mustered together for those first few days of school withered in the face of this seemingly minor challenge.

After about 17 too many seconds of thought, I meekly asked her if she really needed to go right that second. She nodded with conviction, grabbed the bathroom pass from my hands and skipped out the door with a triumphant smile on her face, taking my dignity and authority as a teacher with her. More »

The Benefits of Extra Effort

[Mr. Foteah is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post first appeared.]

Nearly 10 months ago, I embarked on my fourth year of teaching. I started in September in my elementary school special education classroom feeling, for the first time, that I had something to prove. To that end, I found myself working longer, harder, and smarter than I have at any point in my career. I reaped the benefits in many areas. I learned a lot. These are some of my most valuable takeaways heading into the summer.

One size can’t/won’t/needn’t ever fit all. There was a decided shift in my philosophy this year that I’m not sure I anticipated. On some level, I had previously believed, “If it works for one, it should work for all.” This evolved to, “If it works for one, what about everyone else?”

I made a much more concerted effort to differentiate process, product and most importantly, expectations. Because of this, students were, much more frequently than in my previous classes, able to work at their own paces, on their own levels, without fear of embarrassment and with the satisfaction of being able to do well. More »

It Won’t Be Long Now

[Mr. Foteah is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post first appeared.]

It won’t be long now before the records are complete, the rooms cleaned, next year’s rosters distributed.

It won’t be long now before the last week of school, the last “Good morning!”, the last lunch, the last high-five, the last homework assignment.

It won’t be long now before the chairs are placed on the desks for the final time, the lights shut, the door closed, the goodbyes said, the tears shed.

And then, you know it won’t be long before we’re enjoying our summer break – maybe on the beach, maybe on the couch, maybe in a class – and the gnawing question, “What’s that kid up to right about now?” creeps into our heads.

It won’t be long before we shake loose the memories of anguish, unfairness, and difficulty our students dealt with and instead recall and revel in the memories of their greatest triumphs. No matter the individual’s adversity, surely we can reflect that every student grew in some way.

It won’t be long before we start saying, “I’m not ready to go back!” It won’t be long before there’s just one week left in the summer, one last late wake-up, one last barbecue, one last day available for anything we want.

No, it won’t be long before we’re back at it, new charges before us, eager for our ears, wanting for our words, hoping for our help. It won’t be long, indeed, before a new class comes to us, ready to learn, ready to prove, ready to show, ready to work.

And it won’t be long before we’re ready to go back and do a better job, because we commit to that every year and because we know we can always serve our students more effectively.

No, it won’t be long now.

Test Prep Season

Scantron[Mr. Foteah is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where a version of this post first appeared.]

As my third graders prepare to take the state tests, I imagine they’re thinking something like this:

I used to love school. I used to skip there every morning after breakfast. I used to run as fast as I could to get to my classroom (except when an adult was in the hall – then I walked as fast as I could).

I used to wait outside the classroom reading a book or finishing homework. When the teacher opened the door, he used to have a big smile on his face, brighter than the sun. He used to say, “Come in and let’s learn together today!” I used to smile back and say, “Good morning!” knowing I was going to have a wonderful day with my wonderful teacher in my wonderful class at my wonderful school.

I don’t love school anymore. I don’t think I even like it anymore, to tell you the truth. I don’t skip there anymore (but sometimes I think of skipping it altogether). I don’t run to my room (but sometimes I want to run away). More »

A Different Kind of Turnaround

New Teacher Diaries contributor Mr. Foteah writes that a positive change in his attitude toward a difficult student quickly resulted in a positive change in the student’s attitude in the classroom.

I thought about the majority of my interactions with this student and realized just how negative they were. So, I’ve gone in completely the other direction with this guy and have turned on the happy, bubbly positiveness.

Every day when he walks in, I tell him how thrilled I am to see him, saying things like, “I am SO happy to see you!” I always make sure to give him a high-five or fist-bump when he comes in. (Originally, I thought I might choke on the words. Now, I am genuinely excited for him and his Angry Birds hat to walk in each morning). In exchange he might give me a salute or a, “Yeah!” He comes in now and gets right down to business. Instead of being among the last to unpack, he is among the first.

In one week, he has gone from frequently being angry to frequently being happy. He is more invested in his work and more receptive to what I say. He seems to be focusing more, and I’ve noticed him looking to me in times of distress, finally understanding that I care and want to help him.

To Catch a Plagiarist


Pirillo & Fitz

[Editor’s note: Señorita in the City is the pseudonym of a fifth-year teacher in a high school in Manhattan. She blogs at senoritainthecity.com where a version of this post first appeared.]

Recently I found myself identifying with these words spoken by Liam Neeson’s character in the movie “Taken”: “What I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills that I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”

Now, my teaching career is not yet “very long,” but I have honed some particular skills during my years in the classroom. Spotting plagiarism is one of them. More »

Blessings in Disguise

[Editor’s note: Miss Endurance is the pseudonym of a fourth-year teacher in an elementary school on Staten Island.]

It’s never a good sign when your principal calls during summer vacation.

In the summer of 2010 my world was turned upside down with seven words: “I have to move you to kindergarten.” Here I was, with just two years of teaching under my belt (teaching fourth and fifth grade), being forced to move to the “dungeon” (which is how the upper-grade teachers lovingly referred to the kindergarten floor). I panicked — I didn’t know the first thing about teaching four- and five-year-olds! But I really had no idea that a year later I’d be looking back on my kindergarten experience with fondness and a sense of accomplishment.

I felt ill-equipped for the job. I never considered myself a very patient person, and the idea of having to deal with things like “Johnny took my pencil!” and “I want my mommy!” made me break out into hives. I’m artistically challenged, and I dreaded kindergarten art projects. My biggest fear was selling my students short — it wasn’t their fault they had a newbie teacher.

On the first day of school the little ones looked about as scared as I was. I had done my best to prepare myself — I learned circle songs and absorbed as much as I could from the veteran teachers on the grade. Nevertheless, feelings of inadequacy haunted me every day.

Then, slowly but surely, I started to get into the swing of things. More »

Brainstorming and Re-imagining

[Editor’s note: Ms. Flecha is the pseudonym of a fifth-year elementary school ESL teacher in Queens. She blogs at My Life Untranslated, where a version of this post first appeared.]

Few things are better than a fresh start. To come at something with new eyes, new lessons learned, and a chance to do things differently than before — it’s reinvigorating. And teachers get one every September: a chance to re-imagine everything from how you teach to how you decorate your classroom. The opportunities can be endless, if you look at the things you hope to do differently with an open mind. Not many professions offer that. More »

‘Twas the Eve of the School Year

[Editor’s note: Mr. Foteah is a teacher in an elementary school in Queens now in his fourth year. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post originally appeared.]

Twas the eve of the school year, and all through the town,
No teacher was sleeping, (sitting up or laying down).
They’d prepared their classrooms, so nicely, with care
Anticipating that the students soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of learning danced in their heads.
They thought ‘fore they slumbered, “How will it be?
Will my teacher be nice? Will my teacher like me?”

Next morning came ‘round, and there rose such a clatter
Kids sprung from their beds: school was here, all that matters.
Away to the bus they ran like a flash,
The walkers didn’t walk, but rather, they dashed.

The sun burning sharp on the glimmering playground
Made children squint looking for friends to be found.
When, what to their wondering eyes should appear,
But a group of old classmates, and their teacher this year. More »