Sunday, March 27, 2011

In Regards to Education...

I wish I'd written the following post.  These ideas swim around in my head all the time, but I've never been able to articulate them in a way I felt was truly powerful and 100% correct.  My emotions take over.  However, this was shared with me on Facebook and I felt it warranted additional publication here.  Rest assured, every word she has written is true.  Completely true.

In Regards to Education
by Jenifer Averitt on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 4:07pm

I've been asked many times about my opinion on the bills regarding education that have recently been proposed.  Each time I find it difficult to explain, for many reasons.  So I'm going to give it a try now.  I'm thinking that a list may be my best shot at covering everything that I want to say.....

Let's start with some common misconceptions.

1.  Summers off - Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ear.  I want to make sure that everyone hears this.  Teachers do not get paid for the summer.  In Montgomery County we are on a 200-day contract.  This means that I am roughly a 10-month employee.  However, we are given the option when hired to be paid on either a 10-month or a 12-month schedule.  If we choose 12-month, our pay is divided out over the year rather than the term of our contract.  So I'm only paid for the number of days I work.

For those of you screaming "THERE ARE 365 DAYS IN A YEAR!!!", let me give you a comparison.  Let's say you work 5 days a week.  Since there are 52 weeks in the year, 5 x 52 = 260 days a year.  If you work 3 days a week, 3 x 52 = 156 days.  4 days?  4 x 52 = 208.   These totals don't include any holidays off or vacation days, etc.....the 200-day teacher total is actual days worked.  No holidays are included in that number.

Now I realize that some of those 3 and 4 day work weeks are sometimes based on 10-12 hour days.  But sometimes I work 10-12 hour days, too.  And overtime?  Time and a half?  Holiday pay?  Yeah, I don't get that.  Ever.   Bonus?  What's a bonus?

2.  Teacher Pay - I am not complaining about my paycheck.  I did not go into teaching for the money.  I have excellent health insurance and due to some restructuring of the pay scale and my earning a Masters Degree, my paycheck is fine.  I also consider it a benefit to be home with my children when they are off from school, be it in the summertime or on a snow day.

However.....

3.  Money - I spend a lot of my own money on classroom supplies.  A lot.  TONS.  Whether it's for materials for a science experiment or just the basics for a kid who doesn't have it, I have to supplement my classroom with my money.  EVEN THOUGH I PAY TAXES THAT FUND THE SCHOOLS, I STILL HAVE TO GIVE MORE.  Crazy, I know.

4.  Our work day - My scheduled work day is from 7:45 - 3:15.  In that 7.5 hours I get one 30-minute duty free lunch break (during which I have to drop off and pick up my class from the cafeteria) and one 45-minute planning block.  I usually have a meeting during my planning at least once a week.  Often twice.  So that appears to be a workday of about 6 hours and 15 minutes.  However, students begin coming into my classroom at 7:50.  So I try to get to school around 7:35 to give myself a few extra minutes to prepare.  And sometimes, buses are late.  We can't just leave school if the students are still there.   And I cannot tell you the last time I left at 3:15........I usually leave school around 4:30.  I have been there as late as 7:30pm.  (Science Fair Projects take a WHILE to grade!)  Usually when I leave there are still many cars in the parking lot.....in fact, drive by any school near you after their posted hours and see if you see barren, empty parking lots.  And that's not including the things I bring home to work on.  Or faculty meetings, grade level meetings, support team meetings, etc.  There are many required elements that take place outside of my 7:45-3:15 paid work day.  So we aren't off every afternoon riding our unicorns and skipping down the lane while everyone else is slaving away.

5.  Tenure -  I think this may be the most misunderstood part of being a teacher.  I even heard the governor say on the news that tenure gave teachers a job "forever".  This is not true.  Tenure provides us with due process, meaning we can't be fired without cause.  This means that if a principal doesn't like me I have some protection against my career being ruined until I can transfer.  This means that if a child accuses me of hitting him that an investigation will be conducted before I am fired.  You know how you hear on the news that a police officer shot someone in the line of duty and they have to work a desk job or are put on leave with pay while it's being investigated?  Same thing.

Which leads us to....

6.  Bad Teachers - Are there bad teachers?  Absolutely.  I've been taught by several.  I've witnessed many in action.  I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of the principal to take care of the teachers in their building.  This is why I have no problem with being evaluated every year for the rest of my career.  I have no problem with the administration in my building being in my classroom several times each day.  In fact, I welcome it.  That way if there is a complaint made against me, something along the lines of, "Mrs. Averitt just sits at her desk all day long and doesn't teach a thing!"  The administration, having been in my room many times and witnessed first hand that this is not the case, can defend me appropriately.  And the reverse is true - if every time they come into my room I am sitting on my behind, then that is a complaint that is warranted and should be dealt with.  Tenured teachers can be fired for incompetence, but not by a principal that only comes to their room 3 times a year.  So if a teacher has been bad and ineffective for 20 years, then you need to look to the principal for blame.

And lastly....

7.  Class Sizes, New Schools, etc. - The state of Tennessee has laws that mandate how many students (on average) can be in a classroom.  Therefore, when the number of students in one area becomes too great, the need to build another school exists.  There is no way around this obstacle.  Each school only has so many classrooms.  So for everyone complaining about new schools being built and having to fund them, consider moving to another school district and taking your children with you.  That, or maybe the next bill passed will do away with the law that mandates class sizes.  Then you can send your baby off to school with 43 of his closest classmates.  Let me know how his TCAP scores are then.

And the other stuff.....

1.  Standardized Testing - I realize that there needs to be a measure to see what I child has learned in a year.  I get that.  I am a person who LOVES data.  I love charts and spreadsheets and 3 hole punches and 3 ring binders to put them in.  I get it.  I really do.

Here's the problem with it......there is no way that this ONE test, given over FOUR days of a 180 day school year can in any way, shape, or form be the only true and accurate measure of a child's growth.  it simply cannot be.

Now, many people probably agree with me on that point.  They'll argue that their child is simply not a good tester, that she cannot possibly be pigeon-holed by this one test, that it is unfair to want to place a child on a track due to this test, or to hold some punitive measure against a child based on their performance during this one week of the school year!!  It's preposterous!!

But the other side to that argument is that the classroom teacher is being measured by the EXACT SAME TEST that everyone  screams can't possibly measure a child.  IT'S THE SAME TEST.  You can't have it both ways!  You can't say that a child's performance on a standardized test can't be held against them but it can certainly be held against the teacher......how is that OK?  If it's not a good measure of the child then it's not a good measure of the teacher.

The only person held accountable by standardized testing is the teacher.  That's it.  No one else.  The children aren't held accountable FOR THE TEST THAT THEY TOOK, the parents aren't held accountable for the children they send to school each day.  It falls 100% on the teacher's shoulders.  Do you think for one MINUTE that the students don't know this?  That they don't use this to their advantage?  Do you know that I've physically watched a child skip right through the reading portion of the test, go straight to the answers and begin bubbling them in?  That I've seen students not even open their test booklet?  That the answer form is often called a "dot-to-dot" page that they make patterns on?  They realize that there is no accountability, so why on Earth would they care?

And furthermore, do you know that testing guidelines prohibit me from saying anything to the child that blatantly shrugs off the test?  The test that can ultimately decide MY fate?  My future?  And I can't say a THING?

In Montgomery County we're going to begin addressing that problem by making the previous year's scores a portion of the students' second semester grades.  And there are people that are having a fit over it.....the same people who want the teacher lynched over this test are furious that it will actually count for the students.  The STUDENTS who actually take THE TEST......but then again we are becoming a society that doesn't want to take responsibility for its actions.

Personally, I think that parents should have some accountability in this testing.  Maybe you get a tax break if your child does well and a penalty if they don't.  What's that?  You don't like your livelihood and your financial stability tied to a test your child takes?  Yeah, me either.  WELCOME TO MY WORLD.

My biggest concern is this - if you tie a teacher's job to a test, then a teacher would be crazy to want to work in a high risk school.  Everyone is going to want to work in the schools where the privileged kids go, where the test scores are always As and the grass is always green.  But for those of us who feel called to work in the inner city schools, the ones that serve students who live in government housing, the ones that are hungry and broken and crying out for some guidance, the ones that will not, no matter what Oprah Winfrey says, will not be able to achieve quite as high as their counterparts, we are always walking a tightrope.  Do I stay and try to make a difference?  Or do I go and get to keep feeding my family?  Which is really a great choice to have to make.

Which brings me to.....

2.  Students - I think that people would be floored if they knew some of the things I've seen in my 13 years as a teacher.  I've seen kids come to school with residue of duct tape on their face and hands where their parents have taped them to chairs as punishment.  I've had students who've worn the same exact clothes to school for weeks at a time.  Students who smell so putrid and horrific that it leaves you nauseated.  I've seen children bruised and battered.  I've seen children bruise and batter others.  I've been called every name in the book.  I've been hit and kicked.  Hard.  I've had to chase a child down and nearly tackle them before they ran into the street.  I've had kids so hyper that they literally and physically bounce off of the walls and the tables and the chairs, children that are so out of control that they take away learning from every other student in the classroom, but their parents don't want to medicate them because of the stigma.  (Because there's no stigma at all in being the crazy kid)  I've had children who are so angry that they rage and scream and throw things and are a danger to themselves and others, only to have parents say "well they never do that at home.  This must be your fault."  I've had students who've lost parents, students whose parents have lost them, students who've been carted away by protective services, never to be heard from again.  I've been stolen from, spit at, and lied to.

But I keep coming back.

I keep coming back for more for many reasons........because I've been hugged more times than I can count.  I've been called "mama" by children who are not my own.  I've gotten enough love notes to fill a book the size of War and Peace.  I've held tiny hands when they were afraid and larger hands when they were too cool to admit their fear.  I've guided, I've nurtured, I've cared.  I've brought children to tears when they've done wrong, not because they are afraid of the punishment, but because they're afraid they've disappointed me.  I've applied countless band-aids and held trash cans for someone to throw up into.  I've taken temperatures and physically carried children to the nurse when they've hurt themselves.  I've made soft places behind my desk for Kindergarten babies who just need to rest a minute and 5th grade babies who don't want anyone to see them cry.  I've laughed until I've cried.  I've seen the "I've got it!!" look in a child's eyes when they finally tackle that math problem that's been killing them.  I've experienced the joy that comes from a student who tells you they love you, and they mean it.  I've witnessed learning in its finest form, and it is a beautiful, rewarding, satisfying thing.

And still, I've yet to find a box for any of that on the standardized test form.  Even though that's what I spend a great deal of my day doing.  School isn't just about what is in the textbook.  It's also where you go to learn about life.  When you start Kindergarten you've barely just escaped toddler-hood.  When you graduate from high school you're practically (legally, anyway) an adult.  You'll spend most of your waking hours from 5 - 18 in a school building.  Shouldn't we as a society want those years to be the best they can be?

Teachers' working conditions ARE children's learning conditions.  We're in it together, the teachers and the students.......you can't separate us.  So when you beat the teacher down?  You're beating the kids down as well.

So what do I think about all of these suddenly out-of-the-blue education reform bills?  I think that if you want to affect student achievement that going after the people who are directly responsible for that achievement is not the way to do it.  I think that whittling the work we do day in and day out down to 4 days and then deciding whether or not I get to keep my job based on those 4 days is a standard that no one could live up to.  I think that instead of beating teachers down, they should be lifting us up.  And I think that anyone who believes they know what's going on in education based solely on the fact that they went to school back in the day and drive past one every now and then should call me the next time they have a medical emergency and I'll dash over and fix it - I watch Greys Anatomy all the time and have been to the hospital several times.  I was even BORN in one.  Clearly I know what I'm talking about.

I understand the need to "tighten our belts" during these trying times, but education is not the place for belt tightening.  If you ask me to tighten my belt then you're asking for less for your child.  Even if you don't have children, don't you want to pass off the baton to the next generation and not live in fear that they are going to beat you to death with it?  We're in the trenches, every day, trying to make sure that they are ready for the task!!  Stop burying us alive!!!

If you live in Tennessee I'm asking you to please take a few minutes of your day and contact your representatives and tell them that you support teachers' rights.  If you don't live in Tennessee, I'm asking you to do the same in your state.  Please.

 (Is it just me or did all the states have a get together and decide to hit us all below the belt?)

Thanks for listening.....er....reading,
Jenifer Averitt

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