Punching my alarm clock again, for the last snooze around 6:55 a.m., I am dream-thinking. In that weird place between wake and sleep, I slowly recall that I am a high school history teacher. Every day I willingly return to the one place that I once wanted so desperately to flee from that I graduated two semesters early.
For several hours, I will teach street-smart kids how to prove people wrong by knowing where Cambodia is and how to express the gravity of what happened there. We get to talk about things that matter for a few brief moments between the whining and procrastination after I must transition into an obligatory assessment of their skills and knowledge. Teenagers have their voices heard, no matter how profanity-riddled, in my classroom, if nowhere else. I have become an anachronism of every awesome teacher that I’ve ever had. Students with learning disabilities or English Language Learners offer their opinions on controversial topics. Some kid started watching the news for the first time last week and then actually volunteered his hand to ask if North Korea was going to bomb us. I mix in a YouTube video or two along with traditional news sources to widen their avenues of perspective.
Nevertheless, the administration is on my back with a new jargon-peppered list of improbable things they need to immediately see upon entering my class for an observation. All students will be engaged and excited about learning the privileged stories of people who’ve changed the world, but have never been to Brooklyn. At least today, Jane Doe from the DR asked me how anyone knows which religion is really real if there are so, so many all over the world. That seed of doubt in the presumed infallibility of organized religion must count for something somewhere.
On a weekly basis last year, I was very conflicted and angry about my new job. Or I was amused. Or I was already over it, on LinkedIn editing my profile. I had my hands in my hair, begging someone to tell me what a monarchy was for the thirtieth time since September. I high-fived a kid who just finished an in-class essay early after skipping nearly two weeks of my class. I often handed out candy to condition thoughtful responses and this did not work as well as I was led to believe it would. The bell would ring, I’d be ambushed by the next group of students. I would sit at the back of my empty room at the end of the day, crying again after another derailed lesson full of verbal abuse. Harsh words that I was expected to deflect or ignore because there is no such thing as detention anymore. I was shaped from the clay of a new breed of instructors, expected to be an emotionally consistent robot and child behavioral psychologist. I made frequent calls to family, friends, mentors, lovers; anyone who would calm me down and give me some practical advice. They told me to quit or to toughen up. They said, why don’t you go apply at a white school, a private school, a “good” school. They said this without sarcasm or shame and I replied, no, that’s not it. It is just that I don’t feel good like they tell you martyrs are supposed to feel right before dying for what they believe in.
This year going in, I’m a bit more hopeful. I’m a temporary teacher (statistically, this is most likely true) trying to prove my relative effectiveness to the people who pay me. Some think that a daily Skype session could replace me. To society, I am the pathetic failure of “those who can’t do, teach”, or I’m bravely starring in the endless sequel to Dangerous Minds, or I’m the lazy overpaid troublemaker who won’t shut up about The Liberal Agenda. I’m reading another article about some idiot educator who has just abused their power on a profoundly inappropriate level. I’m looking for the articles about my teacher friend who taught an 18-year-old freshman how to finally write a five-paragraph analytical essay. Or my friend who dresses up in wigs and co-stars in the short videos created by her students with emotional behavioral disorders in the film club. Or any positive press about all my colleagues who don’t secretly think that their students are too stupid or too damaged to really give a damn about. I’m sure as hell not going to do this forever, and that’s okay right now.
That’s how this thing works, our education system. Some other fresh blood will soon seep into the broken machine of public schooling. It will be their turn to try to interpret and apply the latest band aid solution to our gaping wound of unequal outcomes. She will ask me for advice and I will tell her something that works on Monday but fails by Wednesday. By Friday, we will both be at separate bars drinking our way through a window of respite from our endless lists of things to do. Or we’ll be at separate gyms trying to work mental stress out through the vehicles of our tired bodies. Pick your poison.
They all expect us to solve every socio-economic problem in this country through teaching the youth of tomorrow how to pass state exams. Our efforts are not the salve they seek. Teachers are not politicians, policy makers, economic advisers, and therapists, though some retired teachers do enter those fields hoping to bring in a privileged perspective. We are overwhelmed, earnest people clinging to the ideals that got us through our first year teaching. And here comes the fall again, licking at the last few rays of summer.
Frankie Ursula is the pseudonym of a second-year high school history and economics teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to write an entry for the New Teacher Diaries, email email@example.com.
I am criminally overworked. “Preps” seem to be a thing of the past, as we now have department meetings or grade team meetings during the day. “Lunch” is no longer an eating period as the microwave in the teacher’s lounge seems to have been misplaced. In fact, the entire teacher’s lounge has been misplaced, and yes, that can happen. I’ve been staying late to decorate my room and make a sorry attempt at planning and grading, but it’s usually just a time to try and get some energy back.
I’ve had meetings with the principal and AP where I had to choose how often I will be observed. They seemed to be trying to figure out the new system, and are more confused than the brand-new teachers. We were passively threatened to have our sub lessons submitted with copies of the work for all students done, though the person that makes copies for us is overwhelmed with an insane amount of copies to make.
I’ve had meetings with my department. Meetings with my grade team. Meetings about what we should be talking about in meetings. No, seriously, we actually discuss how to properly have a meeting, what an agenda should look like, all of the stuff to make a school look like it’s a well run corporation. The humanity on that side of things is gone. Perhaps forever.
My new students are calm and respectful…for now. They say that every year you teach, it gets easier as your confidence grows. I do feel that way, that I have finally come into my own as a teacher. Too bad there are all of these new changes, so everything I have mastered over the past few years will be viewed as obsolete. I can hear the chaos in the hallway as I teach my drop-dead-silent classes, and I act as if I don’t hear a thing. The kids take their cue from me and stay focused. Again, I don’t expect this honeymoon period to last. Because…
I teach students I had last year. One group of them is doing great. Focused, working hard, respectful. The other group is not really disrespectful, but they’re wild. Oh, they are wild and they make me laugh, which is fun and we get along, but it’s not the best for teaching.
There’s a lot going on in the classroom, and I have planning, co-planning, and grading to do. But it just feels like there’s so much beyond what you’d expect from a teacher now. It’s hard to even keep track of all the emails and the vague threats if we don’t fill out forms and send emails to the right people and go to the right meeting, have the right things up on our walls, and, I suppose, even teach how they want us to teach. Though teaching itself seems to be the least discussed part about “teaching.” And yet…that’s what I’m choosing to focus on.
Mr. Gillbury is the pseudonym of a 4th-year English teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to submit a column for the New Teacher Diaries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A teacher’s life can be measured by a long chain of plans. We plan our days, our lessons, even our free time. Teachers spend their lives helping young people plan theirs. I find myself making plans only for them to be altered.
I walked into my District 75 school in Brooklyn on September 3 planning to build my classroom. I planned on entering the building, seeing my roster, seeing my colleagues, and finally designing the room eight students and I will call home for 7 hours a day. I had to re-assemble the furniture, do the bulletin boards, put up posters, and organize my files and the students’ IEP binders.
As I entered the freshly painted red doors, the principal handed me a folder containing an agenda. I visualized the monkey wrench being hurled at my plans, shattering them. The agenda had the usual welcome back presentation and meetings with assistant principals. But after lunch, I expected to see classroom setup on the schedule. All of my careful planning and lists on my Notes app couldn’t prepare me for this… an afternoon filled with a 3-hour meeting.
I had forgotten about the MoSL meeting. I had been selected for the school’s Measures of Student Learning committee, along with four other teachers, to discuss the local measure of Advance [the new teacher evaluation system]. How could I have forgotten about this meeting? I had taken a course given by Charlotte Danielson on Knowledge Delivery Systems in preparation for this team.
After the shock dissipated, my mind wandered to my classroom planning to-do lists. I immediately began thinking about the late nights I would have to work in order to make up for the time I’d be spending in the MoSL committee meeting.
I was anxious throughout the morning sessions and even during lunch. I envisioned the rest of the school having brightly colored bulletin boards and perfect classrooms that were ready for students to explore, while my bulletin boards showed only exposed corkboard. However, my work on the MoSL committee was more important.
Ten minutes before the MoSL meeting, I met my staff. I had one para educator I worked with the previous year and the other two were new to the 8:1:1 setting. I quickly welcomed my paras to the classroom. We briefly chatted about our summers, or rather the two weeks between Chapter 683 and the first day of school. Then, I raced to my meeting.
At 2:50, I made my way back to what I was expecting to be a dreary, bare classroom. I looked through the door’s windowpanes and was shocked to see one para standing on a chair hanging yellow bulletin board paper, a second para laminating the desk plates I bought for the students, and a third para stapling the borders around the perimeter of the bulletin boards. The desks were in the neat rows I had planned, the classroom library was organized, and the computers were reconnected.
I planned every minute of my day, but I didn’t factor in collaboration. I’m always the person others count on. It was refreshing to feel like I could count on them. They exceeded my expectations and set a tone of cooperation for the year. All of my plans didn’t prepare me for teamwork.
Brook Lyn is the pseudonym of a special education teacher in Brooklyn. If you’d like to submit an entry for the New Teacher Diaries, email email@example.com.
With this year’s introduction of Common Core-aligned tests, flawed as they were, the city schools enter a new era. The transition will be a game changer that will bring angry reactions by teachers and students, and wider class and racial performance gaps. Student achievement measurement may become discredited for awhile, as an exasperated public throws up its hands in confusion.
Those could be the best things to happen to standardized testing in 10 years.
Achievement plummeted on this first try at new tests. City students scored 20 points lower in ELA and 30 points lower in math, with less than 30 percent of Grade 3-8 students meeting proficiency standards. But the tests set an extremely high bar — probably too high — in what amounted to a premature effort to test students against the new Common Core. Curriculum didn’t start to be available until late in the year and the Dept. of Education didn’t have the leadership required to manage such a dramatic transition.
But there is no going back. The New Common Core tests, which will continue phasing in over the next few years, may get better, especially if current state test-maker Pearson PLC moves out the way. But they will remain harder: they will ask students to do more explaining, analyzing and creating.
And here’s the thing: these are the very skills educators want to teach and have had to forego in favor of test prep. Right now, teachers are out of practice, and so are their students. But these are the skills they want to teach. So they will demand more autonomy, an end to the culture of test prep, more time and resources. As long as the state and city don’t slap ridiculous consequences onto the new scores, students and teachers alike will become less bored and hopefully more engaged.
Harder tests are going to result in widening gaps between better- and less-prepared students. Typically that means racial and wealth gaps, as well as gaps between English proficient and ELL students and between general and special education kids.
These were the gaps that No Child Left Behind set out to eliminate back in 2002. To the extent this succeeded, and it didn’t much, the cost was relentless test prep and/or dumbing down of tests.Now, as the gaps widen on the Common Core tests, parents will be outraged and politicians will distance themselves from the schools. So they should. Bringing poorly prepared students up to standards is the work of brilliant and passionate teaching, which has been forced underground in the NCLB era. Its reemergence can come only if good educators are free to work. They cannot be commandeered by mayors running numbers. A next generation teacher force can only be brought into being by experienced educators who are not ruthlessly tracked by narrow performance monitors.
Accountability and Legacy
The education mayor, the education president. These monikers turned out to be albatrosses around the necks of Michael Bloomberg, George Bush and many others. Their legacy is a culture of measurement, not of learning. Testing has become laden with consequences that the tests themselves were never meant to support, including judgments about schools, teachers, and even “where we are heading as a society.”
One of the best things these new tests could do is force accountability to grow up. The city has overwhelmed us with data that, on close examination, is really the same data points parsed a hundred different ways. What’s more, the numbers appear to lie, or at least, they zing up and down without apparent reason.
Common Core tests could do two things about accountability. The first is to force us to adopt a more rounded assessment of students and schools. The second is to put standardized tests back their rightful, and less overblown, place.
So less than a third of students meet standards. Well, what else do we know? How do students perform on social studies projects, lab work, art and music, sports, leadership activities, group tasks, or community service? What 21st century skills do they have; what ones need to be developed? What are the best models for teaching those skills? What can students tell us about what they do and don’t understand and what helps them learn? And how do we measure those?
There needs to be some opening up — more quantitative data that uses non-numerical measures. We have agreed that more than half of teacher evaluations will be based on observations of classroom performance. Why can’t we assess our students that way?
It would be a relief if tests become more the province of educators. Politicians don’t find scales, cut scores, p values and item analysis inherently sexy. But good measurement requires expert interpretation. If the heat gets turned down under testing, and we all agree it’s complicated, then public attention may return to subjects, to projects, to school activities and to learning.
Of course, there’s another scenario, in which the new tests are simply misused as the old ones were, to pass judgment based on partial evidence, to bash and shame and to claim undeserved legacies. But after a decade of this, teachers and parents, not to mention students, are pretty fed up. Their voices lend hope for a turnaround.
A new report by the leading organization for international education data finds that public school teachers in the United States earn only about two-thirds of what similarly-educated U.S. workers earn, while teachers in most of the rest of the developed world earn 80 to 89 percent of their peer professionals.
In addition, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a member organization of 34 countries across Europe, South America, and the Far East, found that U.S. teacher salaries increased only about 3 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with a 17 to 20 percent increase for teachers in other developed countries.
Public elementary school teachers in the U.S. worked an average of 1,097 hours in 2011, almost 40 percent more than the 790 hours for the average teacher in the OECD countries. U.S. high school teachers worked 1,051 hours, some 60 percent more than the 664 hours for upper secondary level teachers in other OECD countries.
Other education indicators in the OECD report, Education At A Glance 2013, found troubling news at both the beginning and late stages of U.S. education.
Just half of 3-year-olds and 78 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in some kind of early childhood education in the United States, compared with OECD averages of 68 percent of 3-year-olds and 85 percent of 4-year-olds. At the upper end of education, what the report reveals is that college attainment amongst all U.S. adults ages 25 to 64 puts us fifth in the world, but zeroing in on just 24 to 34 year olds — young adults — pushes the U.S. rank to 12th.
Finally, the proportion of young adults who were “NEET” (“not employed or in education or training”) increased between 2008 and 2011, to 15.9 percent of youth ages 15 to 29, a shade higher than the OECD average, which includes economically devastated countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy.
In other words, the U.S. education system, while mighty, is slipping or standing still, while Korea, Japan, the Russian Federation and Ireland surge ahead in the percentages of its populations that are college educated; Spain, Mexico, France and Belgium enroll far more young children in pre-primary education; and Australia, Israel, Poland and even Portugal have raised teacher pay significantly while U.S. teachers have seen almost nothing for a decade.
Mr. Collins is generous, knowledgeable and beautifully articulate. He says a poem should travel on the page the way we read an eye chart. Like the big E, the poem should start clearly to give a reader a solid footing, and then as things get smaller and smaller, the reader should have to squint and figure things out. “Good poems begin in Kansas, and end in Oz,” Collins told us. Give a reader a concrete place to begin: a walk in the neighborhood, a classroom, an image, and then that reader will follow you into the sky, into the dark, anywhere.
I am dazzled by Collins and by my peers and come away full of strategies, lists, resources and email addresses.
On the subway home, I begin to re-write my poetry unit.
New York City teachers discuss how they have used Share My Lesson as a resource for lesson plans and ideas. “Just the idea of having a place, a database where you can go and get really good lesson plans – that is like gold for a teacher,” says UFT President Michael Mulgrew in the video. Share My Lesson, created by the AFT in partnership with the UFT, had its New York City launch on April 19 and 20.
Was it a spur to critical thinking or was it an insult to nationhood punishable by termination? Or both? Was it a sacrilegious act or a thoughtless slip of discretion or immature judgment? Or neither?
Is this educator a menace to public sensibilities or an inept and unsavvy practitioner of defensive education who bravely or pig-headedly refuses to play it safe at the expense of intellect-building?
Was it, maybe, stealth propaganda or just a bad joke?
According to the Daily Caller, quoting WIS (a local NBC affiliate), a teacher in South Carolina was yanked from the classroom and consigned to extended administration leave and possible eventual firing for allegedly throwing an American flag on the floor and stomping on it. It is not claimed that he did it as part of a meltdown or fit of temper. What he apparently wanted to do was graphically demonstrate to his students the concept and potential dangers of symbolism and misplaced passion. It was about proving a point.
He had reportedly introduced the lesson by drawing several symbols. including a cross,which, as a segue, he uncritically identified as a symbol of Christianity.
Michael Copeland, parent of one of the teacher’s students, told WIS that the teacher took down the American flag and explained “This is a symbol, but it’s only a piece of cloth. It doesn’t mean anything,” and then proceeded to step on it in order to show, according to Copeland, that “there would be no consequences.”
Inarguably it may just cost the teacher’s job and just as inarguably there are far bigger implications for us all. More »
A hard plastic pencil case hits the floor with a resounding thwonk. As pencils and pens clatter across the linoleum, children duck to retrieve them. The abrupt noise momentarily silences the chatter of six-year olds, adding a percussive flourish to the classroom soundtrack that heralds the start of a new school year.
“As if this batch of freshly minted first-graders weren’t noisy enough,” I think, and silently curse the school supply store that prices hard pencil cases so irresistibly to the parents of schoolchildren.
I have twenty-seven new faces in my self-contained, English as a Second Language classroom this year. Even though I am entering my sixth year of teaching self-contained ESL in elementary school, very little seems rote. My students speak five different home languages, and each child exhibits a unique and complex personality. Every time I am faced with a new class, it feels, well, new, because I have to learn all about these living, breathing entities, sitting sloppily in front of me.
I spend the first few days of school wishing I had my old kids again: Karen the desk roving perfectionist, the shy and grateful Julio, and even the class braggart, William, who learned over ten long months, how not to step all over the feelings of his classmates.
Last year’s students, however, have blossomed over the summer into taller and wiser second-graders. Some have even tested out of ESL, and now sit in mainstream classrooms.
That is how we ESL teachers measure success. More »
ShareMyLesson.com, a new teaching resource site developed by the AFT and TES Connect, the digital arm of the UK’s long-running Times Educational Supplement, was officially launched at the AFT convention this summer. As teachers and students head back to school here in NYC, it’s a good time to check out what the site has to offer.
From the AFT:
Developed by teachers, for teachers, Share My Lesson already includes more than 250,000 resources, and that collection is expected to grow rapidly as more educators add to it. The user-generated content will be supplemented by tens of thousands of contributions from hundreds of content partners, including Sesame Street, Oxfam, GreenTV and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Educators can register and start using the site immediately, for free, utilizing its offerings or contributing materials of their own.
Tell me how you determine the value I add to my class.
Tell me about the algorithms you applied when you took data from 16 students over a course of nearly five years of teaching and somehow used it to judge me as “below average” and “average”.
Tell me how you can examine my skills and talents and attribute worth to them without knowing me, my class, or my curriculum requirements.
Tell me how and I will tell you:
How all of my students come from different countries, different levels of prior education and literacy, and how there is no “research-based” elementary curriculum created to support schools or teachers to specifically meet their needs.
How the year for which you have data was the year my fifth graders first learned about gangs, the internet, and their sexual identities.
How the year for which you have data was the year that two of my students were so wracked by fear of deportation, depression and sleep deprivation from nightmares, that they could barely sit still and often fought with other students. How they became best of friends by year’s end. How one of them still visits me every September.
[Editor's note: The author is a social studies teacher at Washington Irving HS, Manhattan. He delivered the following speech at the Jan. 31 public hearing on Irving's proposed closure.]
I began teaching at Washington Irving in the fall of 2002, not knowing a thing about what I was in for. I had moved to New York from Chicago a few months before, and before that I had been in San Francisco. As well, I had never been inside a public school. After two days, I felt sure I would fail the students and myself. After two years I thought I could last a couple more years maybe. Now I look back and see how this experience of teaching at Irving has sustained me and given me purpose. As well, it answered this question: what is New York City?
My whole life I had been in awe of New York, amazed by it, and when I moved here I thought, I’ll finally understand what New York means. I went to Midtown, hated it. Went to Coney Island, loved it, but it felt like 1898 mixed with desperation. Went to Ellis Island, the ocean was beautiful, the halls were inspirational. But where was this New York I needed to find? The bridges amazed me, Brooklyn neighborhoods reminded me of the other cities I had lived in, or had those reminded me, in retrospect, of Brooklyn?
Finally, I realized New York wasn’t in any of those places the way I hungered for it. But New York, the New York I needed, was right in front of me, in my classroom. These kids come from all over, the Heights, East New York, Q-Boro, Parkchester and the Lower East Side. I even taught kids from Staten Island — they grew up where Wu-Tang grew up: Shaolin, my friends.
My students are the New York I searched for. More »
David Z. Hambrick of Michigan State University concludes his piece with an appeal to common sense:
As a society, we have decided that it’s fine to pay a heart surgeon more than an electrician. We didn’t need to run a regression analysis to decide this — it’s important to keep the lights on, but only if there’s someone to keep them on for — and we don’t need to run a regression analysis to decide that we don’t pay teachers enough. A little arithmetic will do. In Michigan, where I live, the average starting salary for a teacher is about $35,000 for nine months. That works out to about $20 an hour. A bartender can make double that. Which job do you think is more important?
I’d like to begin by thanking my teachers in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades, Mrs. Pulaski, Mr. Burke and Miss Elmer. They taught us percentages and showed us how to “round down,” which I am doing now. The U.S. population is 312,624,000, and we have 3,198,000 public school teachers, which computes to 1%.
But this is not the 1% composed of Wall Street fat cats, professional athletes, entertainers and other rich people. I guarantee there’s no overlap between the two groups. The average teacher today earns about $55,000. At least 75 CEOs earn that much in one day, every day, 365 days a year. According to the AFL-CIO’s “Executive PayWatch,” the CEO who ranked No. 75, David Cote of Honeywell, was paid $20,154,012, for a daily rate of $55,216.47.