Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Teacher’s Open Letter to NJ Governor Chris Christie

Dear Mr. Christie,

Before you were elected in 2009, you wrote an “Open Letter to the Teachers of New Jersey”, in which you promised you would be a “strong ally for teachers in the classroom.”

You concluded your letter by saying, “We may disagree on some issues, but I know we agree on what’s most important – delivering the best education we can for our kids.”

My, how your tune changed.

On Tuesday, June 25th, you accepted a “Citizen of the Year” award from the privately-funded Children’s Scholarship Fund of Philadelphia—and told parents that they “have to challenge a status quo that wants to maintain a system that serves their interests, often, ahead of the children’s interests.”

I’m sorry, to which “system” were you referring with this comment? Teachers? (The NJEA, which is made up of teachers?) The teachers who you said seek to deliver the best education they can to the children of New Jersey?

To me, this subtle, underhanded, yet very powerful attack on teachers and their union is the single most despicable, divisive, and damaging way in which you use your influence as governor. History has taught us that stereotypes are dangerous, that labeling is dangerous, and that lumping all people with a commonality (in this case, those who devote their lives to teaching our children) into one group is extraordinarily dangerous. Would you blindly claim that all lawyers are corrupt? That all politicians lie? I would hope not, because it is impossible to make such a claim and be correct.

I’d like to believe that you yourself understand the danger in attacking a group of people—especially one made up of people who dedicate their life’s work to the children of the state you govern; but the poison you spew is received by people who are inherently resentful of teachers and willing to attack them, and public education as an entity, without any grounds for their beliefs. In short, in an effort to promote your agenda, you are actively, purposefully, and aggressively promoting an unfounded stereotype that is damaging to children, to teachers, to communities, and to public education in general. Surely you understand the implication of your words—and to me, that is what makes your blanket statements even more shocking, abject, and detestable.

I am a proud teacher and a proud union member, and I can whole-heartedly and very honestly say that I have never seen evidence that my colleagues want to “maintain a system that serves their interests, often, ahead of the children’s interests.” Never. Not once. I work with caring, dedicated, and intelligent people, and I know our students’ lives are better because they are instructed by such individuals.

So I ask you: where is the evidence of your claim? To whom, specifically, and to what, specifically, are you referring when you claim that teachers put their own interests ahead of the interests of their children?

Even if you truly are committed to “delivering the best education we can for our kids,” your attacks on teachers and on public education are consistent and deliberate. I can assure you that what you are doing—particularly in promoting your “reform” agenda that seeks to turn our children into test-taking robots and advocating for the expansion of unproven charter schools and the use of taxpayer money for private institutions—will have a more divisive and damaging effect on children’s educations than you can possibly imagine or be expected to understand.

After all, you are not an educator. And short of your own privileged public school experience in one of the wealthiest districts in the state, you simply do not understand the dedication, love, passion, and work ethic that drive teachers to do their jobs—and do them exceptionally well. Further, you do not understand that to address the problems of public education, one must address the problems in society that can make it virtually impossible for some children to be successful in ANY school—even with the very best teachers.

Ignorant people who have no understanding of or respect for our educational system will always attack teachers, and that is sad. It is immeasurably sadder when someone with the power, education, and influence that you have takes advantage of such knowledge and falls to such a level of ignorance.

In 2009, you promised to be a “strong ally for teachers in the classroom” and to improve education for the students in New Jersey. Your subsequent words, though, are counterproductive to the goals you yourself set and damaging the climate educators work each day to create.

You still have time to support teachers in their tireless efforts to make our children better people—and in turn, make New Jersey an even better state.

If not, the climate you have created will continue to destroy the institution you claim you are trying to improve.

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A tale of two students and the reform agenda that knows nothing of them

Joe, a sophomore in high school, has lived in his family’s home since he was two years old.  He attended a local preschool when he was a toddler, and he knew his letters, numbers, and shapes by the time he was three.  He began his formal schooling with a love of books, mostly because his parents read to him every night.  He has been enrolled in the same school system since kindergarten.

Joe’s mother works in the human resources department of a local business, and his father is an accountant.  Both of his parents went to college, and both monitor Joe’s grades by logging into the parent access page of Joe’s school’s grading system.  Though Joe is only in tenth grade, his parents have taken him to visit the campus of several local colleges and universities; the family attends sporting events on campus and then strolls around the area to in an effort to help Joe get an understanding of what he’s working toward.

At the end of the school day, Joe goes directly to athletic practice (he plays sports for two of the three seasons) or, occasionally, to a student council or other extracurricular club meeting. By the time he returns home, around 5:00pm,  the rest of the family is there.  They eat dinner together, and then Joe and his siblings go to their respective rooms to complete their homework and study for tests or quizzes they’ll have next day.  Joe’s parents know which classes Joe should have homework in, and though they leave the responsibility of studying and completing work to him, they ask about his progress periodically. Joe participates consistently in class, completes his homework carefully, and takes pride in his work.

John, who is many of the same classes as Joe,  moved into a rented apartment with his mother in October and transferred to his local school at that time. Before then, he was living with his maternal uncle in a rented apartment in a neighboring state.  This is the third school district John has attended since beginning high school, and he is reluctant to make permanent connections to teachers and other students in his school because he suspects he will move yet again in the near future.

John did not attend preschool, and as a result, he entered kindergarten already behind most of his peers in terms of knowledge, skills, and socialization. John’s mother has a high-school diploma, and John doesn’t know his father.  Nobody on his mother’s side of the family attended college, and nobody in John’s life spoke regularly to him about the importance of education.

John wakes himself up each the morning and walks to school.  He is chronically late, and as per his high school’s policy, he is issued detentions, and eventually, suspensions, for excessive lateness.  Because he has missed so much total time (even though it’s only 10 minutes here or 12 minutes there) in his first-period class, he is behind on content and classwork, and he’s missed numerous quizzes, tests, and warm-up activities.  The rest of the day, though John is generally pleasant and cordial to his teachers, he puts his head down and sleeps in most of his classes.  He occasionally does classwork that seems to interest him, but he does not do work outside the walls of the school building.  He takes tests and quizzes that are administered, usually completing the objective portion, but he does not respond to short-answer or essay questions. He struggles to pass each class, not because of a lack of ability, but because he simply does not try consistently.

John’s mother, who has been inconsistently employed for much of her adult life,  is currently working a second-shift job, so she does not arrive home until 11:30pm.  When he gets home from school, John plays video games, prepares food for himself, and has friends–many of whom do drugs and take advantage of John’s mother’s absence–over to his apartment.  He does not go to sleep until after midnight, and he comes to school the following day unprepared to learn–sometimes because of a lack of sleep, and sometimes because he is or recently has been under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

John does not bring books home from school.  He does not do homework.  He does not study. He does not read.  He does not think about school after he leaves it. He does not eat healthful meals. And John, who has grown up in an environment where no attention is devoted to the pursuit of academic success, does not see a problem with his lifestyle.  He knows no different.

 

John and Joe are in the same history class.  The teacher, who is one of the most enthusiastic and veteran educators in the building, tailors his instruction to meet the needs of the different learners in his classroom. He is a cheerleader for all of his students, and has encouraged John to try his best and has encouraged Joe to keep up his hard work.  He calls home to let parents know when their children are doing well, and he calls home when he has concerns about any of his students.  Though he has tried numerous times to make contact with John’s mother, his calls have not been returned.  He has alerted counselors and administrators that he is concerned about John’s home life, but despite school officials’ efforts, the teacher has not seen any improvement in John’s academic achievement. The teacher does his very best for all his students each day, but for some students, even his very best isn’t enough. And that realization, to the teacher, is supremely disheartening.

In short, John’s and Joe’s socioeconomic situations, coupled with the degree to which their families provide loving, stable home environments in which academics are valued, have separated the two students since birth.

There are 1,440 minutes in a day; John and Joe see their history teacher for 50 of those 1,440 minutes.  Though their history teacher is one of the best educators in the school district, it is virtually impossible for him to erase the effects of his students’ socioeconomic and familial situation in the very limited amount of time, proportionally speaking, that he spends with them.

Unfortunately, the United States is filled with Johns.  There is much evidence that the achievement gap begins before students even enter kindergarten, and there is just as much evidence suggesting that poverty is an obstacle which, in academic terms (and in many other and more obvious terms), is very difficult to overcome.

Critics of public schools are quick to claim that the system is failing its students, but those same critics fail to acknowledge the role society’s ills play in a student’s academic life.  Further, critics who complain that the United States is falling behind other countries in its efforts to educate students generally do not take poverty rates–along with the philosophy of American public education, which dictates that we have a responsibility to educate each and every child (as opposed to other countries, whose best and brightest go to school and whose less-than-stellar students drop out)–into consideration.

It is certainly no secret that qualified, caring, knowledgeable, and hard-working teachers can influence student learning in many different ways.  However, it is unreasonable to expect teachers, who in some cases see students for just minutes each day, to erase lifetimes’ worth of hardships that can virtually prevent students from succeeding in school. It is unreasonable to ignore factors like substance abuse, which chemically alters a growing child’s brain–and, as a result, alters his capacity and willingness to learn.  It is unreasonable to ignore factors like domestic abuse, of which more students most educators realize are either victims or witnesses. It is unreasonable to ignore poverty and the glaringly negative effects it has on children’s lives. And it is unreasonable to ignore every other factor that negatively affects a child’s ability to succeed in school.

It is even more unjust to implement a teacher evaluation system which pins teachers’ livelihoods on whether students like John and Joe pass meaningless high-stakes tests.

After all, if a hard-working teacher’s career depends on such an asinine, unproven, and arbitrary evaluation system, who will be fortunate enough to teach the Joes–and who will have the misfortune of teaching the Johns? What a shame that reformers will ultimately force caring teachers to think in such a way.

The differences between John and Joe are striking, yet these two students represent only a fraction of the diverse experiences students in any given class bring with them to school each day.

But in America, we educate every student–regardless of socioeconomic background; ethnicity; race; gender; physical, emotional, or mental limitations; or any other factor which contributes to who that student is as a person. It is our job, as educators, to do so to the best of our ability.

Shame on those who seek to “reform” public education by blaming teachers for problems that are well beyond their control.

If we fix society and improve life for the Johns, and improve life for every other student who needs help, the problems with schools will improve quickly–and immeasurably.

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I’m a proud public school teacher. Here’s a glimpse at what I do.

I am a teacher.

  • I spend Saturdays reading, researching, and creating materials to use in my classroom.
  • I spend Sundays entering my lesson plans for the week in our online planning and grading system.
  • I wake up at 5:15am each weekday, and the very first thought that enters my mind is “what am I teaching in each of my courses today–and what do I need to do in order to be ready for each class?”
  • I write and revise curriculum.
  • I meet formally (and frequently) with my colleagues to discuss content-specific issues connected to instruction.
  • I study the ever-changing standards to which I must align my instruction.
  • I purchase extra binders, assignment books, pens, and notebooks to keep in my classroom for students who are unable to go out and purchase their own.
  • I serve on district committees that seek to improve instruction for the children we serve.
  • I arrive at school early to make copies of and organize materials I’ll distribute to students throughout the day.
  • I distribute informational slips from the main office, principal’s office, or guidance office to students each day.
  • I check my voicemail before another teacher and her class come into my room during my planning period.
  • I spend my plan period returning calls and emails to parents, guardians, administrators, counselors, Child Study Team members, and others who have an interest in my students’ progress.
  • I must teach to address all the different ability levels and learning styles in my classroom.
  • I visit guidance counselors between periods to express concerns about students who I notice are struggling.
  • I spend nights and weekends writing college, job, character, or scholarship recommendations for students who are currently in my classes or those whom I have taught in the past.
  • I spend nights and weekends uploading those recommendations to an internet-based “college and career readiness platform” that sends these recommendations electronically to colleges and universities.
  • I create meaningful assessments which are designed to show me the extent to which students have mastered the content we’ve covered in class.
  • I hold individual writing conferences with students during my plan periods and before/after school to help those students improve their writing.
  • I spend time before/after school and during my free periods helping students revise their college application essays.
  • I nominate students (in writing) for acceptance into various programs; for scholarships; for recognition in the local newspaper; for recognition at our district’s awards night.
  • I engage in professional development opportunities, both in-district and out-of-district.
  • I read about all aspects of education “reform” and do my best to speak out against reforms that are damaging to students.
  • I keep accurate records of student absences, latenesses, early dismissals, restroom trips, visits to the nurse, class cuts, and class participation.
  • I attend my students’ sporting events and other extracurricular activities.
  • I grade papers. (Incessantly.)
  • I maintain (and update daily) sites and pages on social media to connect with my students and their families.
  • I maintain (and update weekly) a website, which has mass text and email blast capabilities, which lists class schedules, assignments, and other important information.
  • I visit our tech crew when my school-issued computer crashes, when my SmartBoard doesn’t work, when my projector needs a new bulb, when my printer is offline, when our online grading program is inaccessible, when my laptop’s wireless signal is lost, or when the my students encounter trouble with the computers they’re working on.
  • I keep a supply of flash drives in my classroom for students who can’t afford their own.
  • I monitor students in the cafeteria, in the hallways, and outside the building.
  • I break up fist fights, many of which occur between students who are physically larger than I am.
  • I donate gift cards–anonymously–to students who have financial troubles at home.
  • I constantly “reinvent the wheel” in terms of my teaching techniques, assessments, and materials; after all, students change, and so should my instruction.
  • I counsel students who cry because of problems with friends, family, boyfriends/girlfriends, peers, or other teachers.
  • I spend time before and after school allowing students to complete make-up work.
  • I read the newspaper, scholarly articles, and blogs daily and apply what I’ve read to my lessons and my students’ lives.
  • I spend summers taking professional development courses and reading and preparing for the courses I’ll teach (these change frequently) the following year.
  • I pay for many of the materials I use in my classroom.
  • I stress the importance of learning for the sake of learning–not learning to pass a test or get a grade.
  • I ask my students to be good citizens and to understand the common emotions and experiences that connect all human beings.
  • I seek to combat student apathy by determining students’ interests and crafting lessons that incorporate these interests.
  • I refer students who I feel might be engaging in dangerous behavior to our substance abuse counselor.
  • I refer students who I feel might be experiencing abuse at home to our administrators and counselors.
  • I refer overt or suspected instances of bullying to the appropriate authorities and discreetly follow up with or keep an eye on students who I feel are being victimized.
  • I seek to understand the home lives of the approximately 120 students I teach each year and to tailor my instruction based on this information.
  • I complete forms to help special education teachers write Individualized Education Plans for students with learning disabilities.
  • I record information about students who have 504 plans and submit this information to the building principal.
  • I attend IEP and 504 meetings before school, after school, and during my free periods.
  • I cover classes for teachers who must miss class to be in meetings for individual students.
  • I buy cookies, flowers, candles, pizza kits, and other things I don’t really need to help students with fundraisers.
  • I maintain a close, mutually-respectful relationship with members of our Parent-Teacher Association.
  • I educate students whose parents are wonderfully supportive or our public school district and its educators.
  • I educate students whose parents obviously bash teachers at home; often those parents wonder why their children have trouble learning in school. (Hint: it might be because of the lack of regard for academics and the lack of respect for educators that these parents spew on a regular basis.)
  • I witness the effects poverty has on students, some of whom come to school with worn or dirty clothing and without enough food.
  • I have served a coach and an extracurricular advisor.
  • I’ organize fundraisers, dances, and trips–and collect and organize money associated with each activity.
  • I attend fundraisers, organized by members of our school community, for students and families in need.
  • I donate coats, shoes, old clothing, new toys, and money to our community through charitable events our students and staff sponsor.
  • I use social media to connect to fellow educators all over the country in order to share ideas and engage in a professional community.
  • I administer standardized tests that are required by the state.
  • I spend instructional time preparing students, many of whom have test anxiety, to take such standardized tests by acquainting them with the format, content, and expectations involved with these tests.
  • I watch, with great concern, as testing companies like Pearson make hundreds of millions of dollars by selling their testing services to districts, many of which are in financial crises.
  • I watch, with great concern, as unregulated charter schools, which are funded by taxpayer money, are advertised as panaceas to the current problems with public education.
  • I watch, with great concern, as non-educators shape education policies that reduce the art of learning to a set of skills that is measured by high-stakes multiple-choice tests.
  • I volunteer my time to support the efforts of my local union.
  • I contribute hundreds of dollars each month to my pension.
  • I contribute hundreds of dollars each month to my health benefits.
  • I collect 22 (sometimes 21, depending on the calendar) paychecks each year–and do not get paid in the months of July or August.
  • I listen, with disgust, as teachers are vilified and maligned.
  • I understand that though many seek to dismantle public education, it is my job to ensure it remains a fundamental part of our society.

This is a rough and incomplete list that I complied in one sitting. Please add your own experiences in the space below to help me create a more complete record of a teacher’s responsibilities.

People call teachers many things, but to me, “lazy” is the stereotype that is most offensive.

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An Open Letter to WA State Representative Liz Pike

Dear Ms. Pike,

Your “open letter to public educators” is an extended contradiction and a wild display of ignorance.

So let me get this straight. You claim that you “encourage folks to choose a job they love,” yet you say you “chose to work a career in private sector business so that [you] could be one of those tax payers who funds [teachers’] salaries and benefits as a state employee in a local school district.”  Really?  That’s why you “chose” your career–to fund teachers’ salaries and benefits? How generous of you!  How would your boss feel about this statement (which, by the way, doesn’t even make sense), though?  And even if you hadn’t chosen to work in the private sector, wouldn’t you still be a taxpayer?  I’m just confused.

Then you say that if you could do it all over again, you’d choose to become a teacher “so that [you] too could enjoy summertime off with [your] children, spring break vacations, christmas break vacations, paid holidays, a generous pension and health insurance benefits.”  Really?  You’d become an educator not so you could inspire children and do your part to change our society for the better, but so you could have summers and holidays off? (By the way, the “C” in Christmas should be capitalized.) Anyway, I’m glad, for the sake of our children, that you chose the private sector. This statement alone shows your deep-seated resentment of teachers, the shallowness of your priorities, and the complete lack of understanding you have about what it takes to be a teacher.  You must be really unhappy with your career choice if you’d  go back in time and abandon it in favor of a job you clearly know nothing about and have no respect for.

You thank teachers for their service to schools, and then you deride the very public school system in which they work, saying it “continues to plummet when compared to worldwide education standards.” You bash the professional unions to which teachers belong, insisting that those unions “only care about the adults in the system.” You’re kidding, right? Please remember that unions are made up of teachers.  To suggest that teachers only care about themselves is an offensive generalization—a stereotype, even—that is just as offensive as calling all politicians corrupt.  (Does that offend you?)  Please, save the false praise you throw into this letter; it is disingenuous and insulting.

You suggest that teachers who are “dissatisfied” with their pay and benefits look elsewhere for employment so that “someone who is inspired to greatness can take their place in the classroom.”  Are you suggesting that a teacher who seeks fair pay for his work is somehow uninspired in his job?  How are the two connected?  Further, are you suggesting that private sector workers don’t seek pay increases, better benefits, or other things that are in their and their families’ best interest?

You hope that teachers will inspire their students to “reach their full intellectual potential and learn the value of true leadership in our community.”  If “true leadership in our community” is what you feel you demonstrate in your role as an elected official, perhaps you should begin by respecting public education, which is a cornerstone of our democratic society and the heart of our communities, instead of vilifying those who work so hard to improve it.

I very much agree that “our children deserve an exceptional and inspired teacher in every classroom.” But how can you expect exceptional and inspired teachers to enter the profession when people like you publicly—and viciously—criticize it?

I’m a proud teacher and a proud union member.  I’m passionate about the children and the subject matter I teach, and my colleagues, who are also proud teachers and union members, are equally passionate.  I’m disgusted by the ignorance your post exudes and the complete disregard you have for the institution of public education and the devoted teachers who do their jobs each day even when they’re faced with issues (like poverty, inequality, reformers who know nothing about education, and corporations that have a financial interest in our schools and their students) that threaten students’ ability to succeed.

Please stop painting teachers as being greedy and uninspired.  Instead, please help fix the problems facing public education in an effort to support those who work their hardest each and every day to improve it.

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Montessori charters or bras wired for cheating. Anyone?

I just read an article about efforts by China’s education ministry to prevent cheating on its college university entrance exam, which over 9 million students take to try to win one of just over 7 million spots in the country’s colleges.  Education officials, who seem to recognize that the pressure students feel to do well on such an important test invites cheating, imposed a ban on clothing with metal parts–including bras–to try to get a handle on “wireless cheating devices.”  For realsies.

While most students in the United States aren’t paraded through metal detectors before they sit for exams, many do feel the same sort of pressure to perform well on high-stakes tests that drives their Chinese counterparts to cheat with the help of a strategically-wired undergarment.

It’s no secret that even the highest-achieving students cheat. Take, for example, the “large-scale cheating” incident that was discovered at Harvard in 2012; it’s evidence that even Ivy-Leaguers, who some assume are models of academic integrity, resort to dishonest and immoral behavior when they feel enough pressure.  Likewise, administrators and teacher in Atlanta and Washington DC, under enormous pressure from reformers to raise test scores and with their jobs on the line, engaged in unethical behavior that called their morality into question.

Knowing that high-stakes testing–along with pressure from parents, administrators, reformers, or anyone else who has a vested interest in the results–opens the door for cheating, why are we forcing our students to test more and more each year?  Is it so we can catch public-school cheaters and hang them on the figurative gallows as evidence that public schools don’t work?

The biggest problem is that reformers like Michelle Rhee claim that if something isn’t measurable, it’s not worth learning. This belief is at the heart of her philosophy, which dictates that students should all be able to learn the same set of skills, and whether or not they actually learn these skills is a direct reflection on their teachers.  What’s worse is that people who have no understanding of public education agree with her.

But in this kind of testing culture, where the push seems to be to destroy public schools in favor of for-profit charters, a community in Connecticut is considering a Montessori charter school.  (What?!)  Yes, you heard that right: Montessori advocates, who do not believe in testing students AT ALL (ever), believe that their method “can trump poverty,” a key indicator in student achievement.

Isn’t this, like, a super-scary dilemma for a reformer? (If you are a reformer and you are reading this, do you feel sick?) What’s a reformer to do?  Ruin public schools (YESSSS!) in favor of a charter school (YESSSSSSS!) that doesn’t measure students by any type of test at all (NOOOOOOOOOO! WTF!)? What a conundrum!

YES, this is an isolated example of a community’s push to use taxpayer dollars for a very specialized (Montessori) school; but could it be an indicator that the idea of no testing AT ALL will become increasingly appealing as a result of the current high-stakes-testing climate?  Or maybe people just like that nobody cares what kind of bra one wears at a Montessori school.

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