Sunday, October 12, 2014

Every once in a while, I get lucky.

Some days as an educator, I leave my home intending to change the world.  Some days, however, I just hope that I don't screw up enough that I become the lead character in some super-villain's back story.  Most days, I do my best and hope.

A few weeks ago, something happened that I have just now processed enough to be able to write about.   We all have those students who just fade into the background.  They aren't superstars, setting the world on fire.  They aren't the little toots that make us ask Santa for a new flask at Christmas. They are quiet.  They sit and observe.  They don't make waves.

Sunny September afternoon and I'm sitting at my desk, collecting my notes for class while my students come filing into the room.  The little blonde busy-body that I always call "The Narc" comes in, and I figure that someone was touching her pencil again.  She whispers, "There's a boy crying..."

That got my attention.  I left my papers and rushed into the classroom, thinking that someone was hurt.  And there was one of my students, sitting motionless at his table, just as he always does, but with tears running down his face.

Middle school kids don't do that.  When they cry, they weep.  They wail.  They sob uncontrollably.  I was looking for an Oscar-worthy performance, not the stoic little man with clenched teeth and haunted eyes.

"Go into my office.  Sit at my desk.  I'll be there in a few.  You are not in trouble," I whispered to him with my hand on his shoulder.  After I started the class in their activity, I followed him.

"What's wrong, baby?  Are you okay?"

"I got a lot of stuff going in my life right now."  With this monotone pronouncement, the chubby little man looked up at me and met my eyes and held them.  This is another thing middle school kids don't usually do.

"Would you like to go spend the hour in the counselor's office?"

He nodded, and gathered his belongs and left.

In spite of my uneasy feeling about this kid, I went back to my teaching, and the day moved forward.

I didn't check on him.

The next day, he was not in school.  Nor the next, nor the next, nor the next.

I didn't check on him.

After a week of absence, I called the attendance clerk and asked if she had heard from him.  He was in the hospital, and was not coming back for a while.

I hadn't checked on him.

As soon as I got a break in my schedule, I found the counselor.  He had made it to her office, and after listening to him for a while, she called his mother and helped the mother make the decision to get him the help he needed.  This 12 year old little boy was planning on putting a gun in his mouth and blowing his own head off.

I hadn't checked on him.

The first thing I thought about was, "Why hadn't I called the office to make sure he made it okay?  What if he had gone into a bathroom and hurt himself and I hadn't checked on him?"

I should have known better.  I, of all people, should have known to check on him.  I knew what might have happened.  I know because one year ago this month, my beautiful, brilliant, 16 year old daughter tried to take her own life.  I should have checked on him.

I am grateful that he is okay, and he is getting the help that he needs.  I am so glad that I sent him to the counselor, and that she reacted quickly and decisively.  I am so glad that I got lucky.   

  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2010 CDC WISQARS)
  • Suicide is the THIRD leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2010 CDC WISQARS)
  • More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
  • Each day in our nation there are an average of over 5,400 attempts by young people grades 7-12. (http://jasonfoundation.com/prp/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Million?? Did you say MILLION???

Now that school is over, and grad school classes are smoothed out, and I have a few minutes to sit down and do things like work on my blog and read the newspaper....I wish now that I hadn't.  Tulsa World---front page---above the fold---

BARRESI INJECTS CASH INTO CAMPAIGN

Not a surprise....politicians do that all the time when it comes down to crunch time....but wait!

"Oklahoma Ethics Commission reports show Barresi has loaned her campaign a total of $1.26 million..."  Tulsa World, June 18

Million????  To say that I had an emotional response would be underplaying the amount of coffee that I spit onto the paper.  Who has a million dollars?  I don't know anybody that has a million dollars, but then again I'm a teacher, and don't run with that crowd.  Apparently, Barresi is that crowd, and that makes me uncomfortable. 

After taxes, mandatory teacher retirement deductions, insurance costs for only me, etc., my take home pay is a smidge over $2,300.00 a month.  That is with 2 undergrad degrees, a Master's, a National Board Certification, and college hours toward my doctorate.  This is what I earn to pay my bills and take care of my daughter.  I can't afford to buy my daughter a car or send her to college without student loans.  I have to check my bank balance before I can go grocery shopping.  Every single teacher I know who doesn't have a spouse with a high paying job is in the same boat.

Okay, math lesson for today.  If I wanted to save up $1.26 million dollars, I would have to take every penny of every paycheck that I make for the next 547 months (or 45 years) to make that happen.  I couldn't even live long enough to make that much money.

Do I sound bitter and maybe even slightly jealous?  Bet your butt I am.  I work as hard as I can at what I do, and put in long hours trying to be the best teacher my students will ever have, but no matter how hard I work, I will never be that successful.  Never.  I feel as though I have gotten nothing but disrespect and insults from the State Department of Education ever since Barresi took office.  Today, however, I received something different from my leadership.  Today I received a math lesson.  I just don't think those numbers add up.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Remember when special meant something good?

This morning, I came as close to being truly angry as I ever get.  While I am very passionate, occasionally irritable, sometimes excitable, and frequently squirrelier than a Bullwinkle film festival, I very rarely ever get angry.  It's just not in my nature.  But today.....ooooo....dang.

So, I'm doing morning duty in the gym (or as I tell the kids....I gotta go do a doody in the gym!)  My job is to make sure they don't eat or drink in the gym, stay in their seats, and don't kill each other.

I'm watching this 7th grader in a green jacket shove two or three kids about half way up the bleachers.  I can't have this...so I march over, and invite the little hooligan to come down and have a seat on the front row until the bell rings.  Pretty benign, just trying to contain the madness.  He says "No." and turns and walks away from me.

Oh heck no.  That kid did not just diss me like that in front of 100 kids.  So I followed him and gave him one more opportunity to comply.  This time he yelled "NO!", and sat down and glared at me. 

After telling him to go the office, and then asking his name, both time met with "NO!", I got his name from another student, and after the bell rang, stomped off to find the Assistant Principal.

By now, I am livid.  This does not fit in with my world view in the least.  I am the teacher.  I am the authority figure.  That is what makes our microcosm society of public education work.  One of my greatest fears is that one day the students will figure out that they outnumber us 50 to 1, and that we really have no real power over them whatsoever.  When that happens, it's going to be the ants vs. the grasshoppers all over again.

So here I come, barreling down upon the poor Assistant Principal, who is monitoring the hallway, blissfully unaware of the 200 pounds of irate teacher bearing down upon him.  As I storm up, I cock my head at him and say "Do you know (insert kid's name here)?  Big, deep, soulful sigh from the AP.  Yes, he knows him.  I explain to him what whet down, and expect a reply something along the lines of "How dare he!!  Let's hang him by his thumbs in the dungeon!!"  Instead, I get "He's special ed.  I'll tell the head of the department."

Well, there went the wind out of my sails.  Special ed.  I know exactly what is going to happen.  Nothing is going to happen.  And tomorrow he'll be back in the gym, doing the same thing, and 100 pairs of eyes will be waiting for my reaction.  When they see me standing there watching, completely powerless, every bit of authentic authority that I have is flushed like a dead goldfish.

Please understand.  I am a huge advocate of special education.  I have long championed the idea that every kid should receive the modications that they need to get the most of of their education.  But at what point should we hold our special needs children accountable for bad behavior?  Today, I taught this kid (unwillingly) that he can do whatever he wants, and there will be no consequences because he has an IEP.  This will most likely be reinforced through his public education career.  How cruel will the real world be for this kid?  I promise if he gets a job and treats his supervisor the way he treated me this morning, there will be no modifications for him.  His rump will be sacked, and he will be standing there wondering, "What just happened?  That's not the way this goes...."

Now that I've had some time to cool off, I'm not mad anymore.  I'm sad.  Will this kid be able to hold a job?  What happens if he runs a red light and decides not to pull over for the police because he is in a hurry and doesn't want to?  By not giving this young person a consequence for breaking the rules in 7th grade, we are laying a certain foundation for this boy.  We should be trying to prepare him for his future.  That's our #1 job, isn't it?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Justice for G

A few weeks ago, I lost a student.  Literally.  I'll call him G.  I don't know where he went.  I know that he checked out of school, but I don't know where he is now. 

I'll tell you what I do know about G.  He was a scruffy 7th grader who always had hair in his eyes.  He had a generally unkept air about him, but that's not unusual for 7th grade boys.  There was something about this kid that I really liked.  There was something in his brown eyes that was slightly sad, but hopeful.  He loved my engineering class, which always gives kids brownie points in my book.  He tried really hard, and always had a smile for my jokes (which are not nearly as bad as you might hear from my students.)

Flashback to several weeks ago, and G told me that he and his folks were moving.  I told him that I would miss him, and asked why they would move so late in the school year.  He freely admitted that they were behind on their bills and had to move.  And suddenly, things started making sense.  The unwashed clothes.  No haircut.  The sad looks.

Can you imagine telling your 13 year old that they have to leave their friends and everything they know because you are being evicted from your apartment for not paying the rent?  What if he didn't have enough to eat...he was such a skinny little kid.  What if they don't have a place to stay now, and are living in a car or under a bridge somewhere?  This is not a faceless statistic.  This is MY KID.  How in the hell can something like this happen in a country where the freaking Kardashians spend $200 on a bottle of shampoo?  It's not fair and it's not right and it fills me with a righteous fury that both invigorates and nauseates me at the same time. 

A simple message for our elected officials, who think it's perfectly okay for this to happen, as long as we can keep giving tax cuts to oil companies--I hope you never, ever have to have someone that you care about walk out of your life into a dark, impoverished unknown.  By all means, vote against raising minimum wage and cut back social services and leave public education staked out in the sun while you are at it.  God forbid that every single person that earns minimum wage rolls enough pennies to afford gas to drive to the polls this November.  But if there is justice in the world, and Karma smiles upon G and his family, you may be back in the private sector in 2015.  Sure hope your business doesn't rely upon anyone but lobbyists and rich people.  Be a darn shame if someone set up a website or something listing your voting record as a part of a review of your business practices.   

Friday, April 25, 2014

Tattered, Torn and Tired

This morning as I walked down the hallway of my school, I started noticed how shabby the halls were starting to look.  Signs on the wall peeling away, and posters with rips and scuffs along the walls where hundreds of bodies move past every day.  Middle school students are very tactile.  They have to touch everything.  And sometimes, when they touch, they tear and pick and destroy.  It happens.
 
As we plod through the testing season, I think this becomes a metaphor for our entire school.  I see veteran teachers that we depend on for leadership announce retirement, and new teachers that bring sparks of vitality at the first of the year, burn out and drop from our ranks.  Those of us that are left are scrambling to call our government representative and beg for our funding and plead for them to stop passing legislation that will dismantle public education.  Like our beloved school house, we are tired, tattered and torn.
 
I have only been teaching 11 years.  Maybe some of you can answer this:  How did we get to this point?  At what point in history did teachers stop becoming respected and revered and start being seen as leeches on our economy and failures of our children?  I can't understand....
 
I am a product of an excellent public school system.  I am a proud graduate of Durant High School, Class of 1983.  (This is the part where you look at my profile picture and say that I don't look my age.)  My teachers were respected, and the students who were nasty to the teachers were shunned by the entire student body. Not anymore.  Sometimes I feel like I have a big target on my chest, and I dread parent calls, because usually there are excuses, accusations, and no positive action to speak of. 
 
As the school year winds down to a close, you can feel the tension of the students starting to build.  The days are longer, the weather is warmer, and summer is beckoning like an old, long-lost friend.  I really don't blame the students for being distracted and squirrelly.  Unfortunately, a lot rides on these tests.  I'm waiting for the day when teachers get fired for non-performance on the tests.  I saw that a lot when I taught in Texas from 2003-2004.  That's a lot of pressure....and some teachers are starting to snap.  
 
Almost all of us started this profession because we love kids and we love what we teach.  Like any relationship, you have to feed and nurture that love for it to continue.  A teacher who loves what they do can change the world.  A teacher who is tired and burned out, stressed and under pressure, is an ineffective teacher.  We are in danger of becoming what they say we are...and that scares me more than any test score. 
 
 
 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Screwing up and Personal Responsibility

I think every education blog in the state is up in arms about the testing issues yesterday.  That was a mess, no doubt about that.  My 7th graders came into my class yesterday after testing, completely frustrated, shut-down, wound up and totally unprepared to do anything except act out in class.  I had thefts, profanity, disrespect, physical aggression....stuff I never, ever see here outside the teachers' lounge.  (just kidding)

I have a bigger problem.  Apparently, at some point in the semester, I lost my mind.  If you see it, please tell it to come home.  It's relatively open, not too big, and tends toward the sparkly yet nerdy.  I miss it.

Perhaps I have overscheduled myself.  I am taking 6 grad school hours, teaching full time, trying to learn lines for a play, beating the bushes trying to find an assistant principal job for next year, taking care of a 17 year old with depression issues and a boyfriend who overthinks every little thing. 

Last night, I was putting the final touches on my group's final presentation for Organizational Theory, and I thought I would log into my discussion group for School Finance.  Did you ever see something that shocked you so bad that your vision did the Alfred Hitchcock focus thing where the sides of your vision move out while the center moves in?  Yeah, that happened.  Apparently, last week, I was supposed to lead a discussion, and completely spaced on it.  The entire class was expecting a discussion prompt, which never came.  This discussion was 10% of my overall grade.

Embarrassed beyond reason, I sent a note to my professor, prostrating myself, telling her I accepted the grade, and begging forgiveness.  This kind of thing is completely unacceptable at the grad school level.  To make matters worse, I am currently under consideration for the doctoral program at this school.  If this professor is on the committee, I'm toast.

Now let's compare:  Janet Barresi screwed up too.  She recommended a testing vendor who had a history of failing us and the students of Oklahoma.  She defended this vendor, and we paid them the equivalent of 170 teacher salaries, only to have them tank once again.  This is after we pulled students during the school day to load test their systems before testing began.  Let me restate:  we STOPPED STUDENT LEARNING to trouble shoot for an outside vendor, who still failed to achieve the desired results. 

Barresi's response was to suggest that we might not want to use that vendor anymore.  Really?  REALLY?  That's what she came up with?  No poop, Penelope. 

When I screw up, I apologize.  I feel mortified.  I try to ensure that the offense never, ever, ever happens again.

I doubt we are going to get the same from our leadership.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Spring has Sprung

Ah.....Springtime.  When a young man's fancy turns to love.  And it turns right outside my door.

I teach engineering, and the school has provided me with an entire building for my young engineers, with computers and woodworking tools and lots of storage closets.  (Pay no attention to that walled up door.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.)  Unfortunately, the walkway between my building and the main school seems to be make-out central.  I don't spend a lot of time in my office during the school day, but on my planning period, I can look out my office window and see the young people chewing on each other's faces like two seals fighting over a grape.  As soon as I can get to the Target, I'm going to buy a super soaker water gun and see if a little cool water with dampen their ardor.

It is springtime, and the weather is getting warmer.  Consequently, this means clothes are getting more revealing.  This has an entirely different connotation on a 13 year old than it has on a 21 year old.  I'm beginning to see little girls wearing stuff that I see on the television being paraded around the club scene.  The clothes that the parents send their kids to school wearing are being changed in the bathroom.  The shorts are rolled up, the shirts are pulled down at the neck and the spring mating dance of the middle school is in full force.

This is a touchy subject for a teacher.  I really don't feel comfortable imposing my own morals on someone else.  On the other hand, if I can't teach because every boy in class is watching a young woman bounce across class to get a tissue, that is an issue that must be dealt with.

I don't know what to do.  It's testing season, so we can't send them home.  Parents have to work, so if you call them to come bring their child more appropriate clothes, you are met with resistance at best, and hostility at worst.  Some parents are still convinced that their baby is 8 years old.  Folks, the cute little clothes on an 8 year old have a whole different meaning than they do on a 14 year old.

"But they are a good girl.  They are just expressing themselves."  Yes.  Of course they are.  I never ever ever under any circumstances mean to impugn the morals of any of my students.  I love my students.  This is one of the reasons I am so concerned.

If you dress your child like a sexual target, then that is what they are going to be.  Period.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

All The World is a Stage.

This morning, I'm spending some of my Saturday at Clyde Boyd Middle School in Sand Springs, attending play practice with a dozen middle schoolers and a very talented and passionate drama coach named Jen Burke.  I love watching Ms. Burke direct these students, striding around, waving her arms, cheering on her junior thespians.  

As I watch this controlled chaos, kids are missing, coming in late, missing their lines, forgetting their cues, and generally being, well, middle schoolers.  Ms. Burke never loses patience.  She never yells, unless it's to show a kid how to project their voice or to give encouragement.  It looks to me like an octopus trying to nail jello to a wall with a tennis racket.  But in the midst if this weirdness, Ms. Burke stands grinning and being perfectly in control.  

I have done community theatre with Jen Burke for years.  I know her to be a tough but talented director who demands dedication and maximum effort from her adult volunteer cast members.  But watching her work with these kids is one of the main reasons I keep volunteering to do this show.  As a teacher, I know how hard it is to control this many teenagers, much less make them comfortable enough to perform in front of an audience while memorizing their lines.  

This woman is a teacher.  She is not doing test prep or Common Core.  She is building a community of young people who will go into their futures with confidence and leadership.   Too bad that isn't on the test.  

And I hope she will forgive me for writing this blog entry instead of learning my lines.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Stop the Gripe Train. I Wanna Get Off.



Yeah.  Testing sucks.  We get that.  Everyone gets it.

How about we take a day and focus on stuff that's positive in education?  We take so much grief from so many people about so much junk....OCC, A-F, TLE, NCLB.  It's like an alphabet soup from hell.

So I was thinking....We have Throwback Thursday on Facebook.  Brendon Urie from Panic! at the Disco has Positive Hardcore Thursday.  I see t-shirts that proclaim "On Wednesday, We Wear Black."  Don't know why.  Don't care why.

Why can't we have one day where we all Tweet and Facebook and Linked In and Blog (and whatever other kind of interweb weirdness you use) all of our celebrations.  Instead of wallowing in the stew of negativity and mutual disillusionment, why don't we uplift each other with shiny and sparkly.  Monday, let's come in and sing and dance and blow sunshine up everyone's skirts!! 
 
Remember "Rock This Town"?  Let's sing "Rock This Test"
 



 
 
I'm gonna pop this test....got my #2 pencils in my pocket...Uh uh I'm struttin, looking for an A+, This is freaking awesome!!
 
Monday, just brace yourselves.  I'm going to tweet everything awesome things my kids do, every positive thing I hear in the teacher's lounge, and every little victory.  I'm thinking #positiveteaching should be a good hashtag.
 
Join me if you wish...or just stand back and enjoy my thrashing about.  Either way....the bad stuff will still be there on Tuesday for us to wail about.  Unfortunately.
 
 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Testing....Testing....Is this thing on?

Thus endeth my first standardized test of the year.  It wasn't that bad....for me.  All I did was pass out test papers and stare at my 8th grade students for two and a half hours.  But oh wow....those poor kids.  The ones that finished the test early were forced to sit in absolute silence, without getting out of their seats, until the rest of the class finished.  In some cases, this was over an hour.  This included kids with  ADHD, who were physically uncomfortable and really struggling under these conditions.  Those students worked their rear ends off for us.

I teach engineering.  Even though I cover science, technology, engineering and math, these tests really are not an accurate assessment of what I teach.  Here is what I teach..

 
 
When we build bridges, we load test them, and then we use mathematics to calculate what their efficiency is.  We build robots and program them to do different tasks.  These tasks require math and science skills that are only hinted at on the test.  There are performance-based assessments that I perform with my students on a day to day basis.  My administrators check my on-line grade book to make sure that I am hitting my objectives, and that I am evaluating and assessing my students according to school policy.  I work really hard with each and every student to make sure they are absorbing skills and knowledge in the best possible way--practical application.
 
It may sound unprofessional, but I actually get my little feelings hurt when I hear that testing the snot out of my students is the only way we can make sure that teachers are doing their jobs.  You can't isolate teacher accountability that way...it is a measurement of teacher and parent and student and society accountability.  Teacher accountability is measured every time and administrator stops me in the hall and asks what I am doing today.  It is measured every time my assistant principals reminds me to get my grades in on time.  It is measured every time a parent calls to talk to me about their child. 
 
Of course, there are some teachers out there, as much as I hate to say it, are coasting.  Maybe they are burned out.  Maybe they are rethinking their career choice.  Maybe they are just not meant to be a teacher.  Do you for one minute think that their supervisors do not know this?  Of course they do.  But a teacher who attends 150 hours of professional development a year and tutors after school and writes their own curriculum and serves on committees, and busts their hump every single day of the year has the same job security and salary as a teacher who shows up, passes out worksheets, and hits the door at the bell every day.  How do you motivate someone under those conditions, if that motivation doesn't come from within?  And guess what???  That worksheet teacher is most likely doing drill and kill for the test, which is great for "bulimic learning", where the student barfs up info on the bubble sheet, and promptly forgets it two weeks later. 
 
Still think standardized testing is good for teacher evaluation?
 
 

 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Panic! At The Schoolhouse

As I schlep my teenage daughter to see her favorite punk/pop/emo/whatever the heck they are band, I keep hearing the word "panic" over and over and over.  Now, I'm not oblivious...I know this is in the name of the headliner.  It says so on the tshirts.  I just keep thinking about the panic that I left at work today.

This week marks the beginning of testing season.  I have apologized to each and every one of my students on behalf of the public education system for the three weeks of interruption to their education.  During these next few weeks, all the fun is sucked right out of our schools.  Discovery is replaced by regurgitation of facts and formulae.  Higher thinking is shelved in favor of drill and kill math "intervention" in which students are pulled aside for hours a day to practice their testing skills.  Stress us up.  Attendance is down.  Morale in the teacher's lounge is toxic.

We are college educated professionals.  Surely we can come up with a better way to assess our students and evaluate the effectiveness of our teachers than this.  II just really can't believe in my heart that our state department wants this for us.  How could they?  Don't they realize what's happening?

Teachers are demoralized.  Parents are angry.  Students are frustrated.  

And this is an election year. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Deep breath......

Okay...here we go.  With all the awesome education-based blogs out there, I really am not sure that I should be adding to the noise.  But one thing has become quite clear to me as of late.  Public education is under attack in this country, and if you are not part of the noisy rabble fighting against this, you are as guilty as those sabotaging our schools.  And so, here I go, putting my two cents into the game and trying to do my little part to keep free public education intact.

I am a product of public education.  I was that kid that you never noticed.  Not an academic superstar, but not a problem for anyone.  I kept my head down and my mouth shut.  I wore hand-me-downs, ate free lunches, and knew very early on that if I wanted to go to college, I was on my own.  No one in my family was college educated...we were farmers and blue collar folk who came to the dinner table with grease under their fingernails.  The only salvation for me was the fact that I had access to the same classes and teachers as the kids from the good families. 

I did go on to finish college.  Three times.  And still going.  I have a love for learning and teaching and the schooling process that is a direct result of my time in public schools.  For people from my background, public school is a life raft in a sea of low-paying jobs, teen pregnancy, and hopeless futures.  I look at my students and I see myself every day.  For a kid from an impoverished background, life is not a series of dances and cheer practice and athletic events.  It is a daily grind where they hope their stomach doesn't rumble in class because someone might suspect they didn't have dinner last night.  All these kids have is hope that someday they might be able to do better for themselves.

If we don't fight for equal public education, we are taking away all those somedays.