Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Will to Teach and Playing Strengths...

I did not write today's blog. We'll call it a guest blog. This is by my dear friend Watson, who also has a blog.  I think he eloquently expresses why teachers are so disgruntled these days - and it isn't about $$$ or working conditions.  He really hits the proverbial nail on the head here.  Enjoy!



The Will to Teach and Playing Strengths

I know. I get it, okay. The economy. Oh, my Lord in Heaven, “In this economy…” and, “China took all our jobs,” and “No! The banks took our jobs!” and also, “No way, man! The corporations, man. The corporations took our jobs!” I understand. The economy apparently sucks and somebody or something is taking all of our jobs. I hear you, and I support you…in spirit. However, it isn’t easy for me because I just see a more significant problem. Jobs? Economy? Healthcare? Try this one: “Estimates put the costs of teacher attrition at $7.3 billion a year…Already %46 of new teachers leave the profession within five years...” (Kain). If you are shocked by this then, congratulations, you have a soul and functioning brain. It should shock you, and what should shock you even more are the common reasons that “experts” attribute to this. In summary, many of the reasons given for high-rate teacher attrition include low pay, poor working conditions, “unfair” standardized testing, workload, lack of planning time, and others. If you still are not concerned consider this:

A recent study examining the need for newly hired teachers in the United States reported that over 150,000 teachers are employed to meet the demands of growing school districts, retiring teachers, and replacing those individuals who have left the profession…Additional researchers have reported that public school enrollment rose 21% between 1985 and 2002. The highest growth percent occurred in the elementary grade levels, showing an increase from 27 million to 33.8 million. Projections for the 2012 public school enrollment are forecasted to be slightly higher than that of 2002 with a 2% increase occurring every year (NCES). With these increasing numbers, it is imperative that researchers address the attrition rate of teachers who are leaving the profession, particularly within the first year of teaching. (Gonzalez and Brown)

Current estimates suggest that close to 30% of teachers leave the profession entirely within the first three to five years. In other words, about one in three quit before they make it to vested retirement benefits.

I. Expertise

Though I plan to return to teaching, I am one of those 30%. I am a statistic in that I reinforced a statistical trend; regrettably, it is one that troubles me and yet I understand it completely. However, what I do not understand are the often-cited “reasons” for teachers leaving the profession. It seems that salary is atop most lists with poor working-conditions as a close second, but I believe these to be smoke-screens to the real issue: lack of respect.

To be clear, I do not mean a lack of respect from the students. Respect from students is earned by the teacher respecting the students and demanding respect to be returned. We see this portrayed in the film, Coach Carter, where he tells his players on the first day, “You will have my respect until you abuse it.” Though it may be more difficult to earn the respect of youth in a lower-economic status school or the respect of “troubled” youth, it is not impossible. Most effective teachers do not have any problems earning the respect of their students.

The lack of respect I am referring to stems mainly from the system, administrators, and parents. Perhaps an analogy might help; by the way, I am going to use many analogies, so you may as well get on board with that. Think, for a moment, about going to see your doctor. You know he went to medical school and you know he’s been practicing medicine for many years. Interestingly, they refer to it as “practicing” medicine and not “doing” medicine or “performing” medicine. He’s older, he has classy glasses, and he has a salt and pepper beard. Most of us would probably listen to this man if he told us to exercise or lower our cholesterol; granted, we may not follow through with it, but we would nod our head in agreement as he told us what to do and what medicine to take. Basically, we would trust his expertise.

Now, consider that this is not the man who walks into the examining room; rather, it’s a young, blond nurse or a physician’s assistant. Already you are thinking that it is a woman even though I did not say that. I said “it’s” a young and blond, but you assume already by contrast that it is a woman. Before I even paint the scenario, you have probably already conjured up an idea in your mind—particularly if you are a man—of a young, sexy woman coming in to “take your temperature, you big stud, you.” This individual is already up against your preconceived bias even before she has said a word. What if this young woman tells you to stop taking a prescription that you have been taking or suggests a new one? Some people may question her, fight with her, and assume she does not know what she is talking about even though she has been to school, been through training, and has experience. Basically, we might not trust her. She’s just too young and too blond and too female, right?

The same scenario occurs in teaching all of the time and even happens to more experienced teachers; particularly, women even though they make up the bulk of the profession. We are constantly questioned even though we have been to school and student-taught. It is worse for new teachers because people assume they do not know what they are doing, and I will grant you that I did not know that much when I started. I made a great deal of mistakes, but I knew my material and I was trained and it did not take long for me to learn because of the background I had received. I am assuming that new medical professionals are armed with one advantage: newer methodology. It is the same with teaching and education; plainly, new stuff comes out and the newer you are the more you typically know about it. Granted, this is not a substitute for experience, but it is still a tool.

Many parents and administrators do not trust new teachers and this lack of trust stems, my opinion, from a lack of respect. Even though a new teacher has a degree, has experience student-teaching, and has passed all required exams to be a licensed professional, it is still hard to convince parents to believe that you are a professional. That is the crux of the issue with me; teachers, on the public school level, are not viewed as professionals and experts in their fields of study.

I am not going to try and claim that I knew everything about high school English when I first started teaching it, but I knew more than enough to teach it to high school students. I knew enough to tell what a student was struggling with and where his or her weaknesses were. Regardless, I was often met with skepticism when trying to communicate this to a parent, and I had to be so politically correct as to not offend anyone that the real issue never was solved, and the student suffered for it. I hung that politically correct nonsense up after my first year and basically told parents exactly how it was from then on because that better served the student.

The reality is that most parents make excuses for their children and rightfully so; they care about their kids and they know them better than teachers do—to a degree. However, parents need to trust teachers when they tell them what is going on in the classroom; unfortunately, often-times parents will become defensive and believe their child over a teacher. There are probably rare cases where a teacher may “have it out” for a student, but this is mostly nonsense bolstered by Hollywood movies. I used to tell my students when they would be angry at me for calling their parents, “Do you think I want to spend my free-time calling your parents telling them you don’t behave or that your grades suck? Is that how you would want to spend your Friday night?” Use your brain. No one wants to spend time, in which he or she is not getting paid, calling parents to “get students in trouble.” It’s ridiculous. If the student behaves and takes care of business, parents do not need to be called and when they come by on parent/teacher nights, I can tell you what a privilege it is to teach your child.

Many parents, not all, want to make excuses for their child and try and make his life work for him, which adds pressure on a new, young teacher; especially, when that parent also wants the teacher to “fix” his or her child. This is not embellished: I have literally had a parent tell me on the phone before that she could not “do nothin’” with her son, and that she was just waiting on him to turn eighteen so he would be out of the house. And that, my friends and neighbors, is why teachers teach. It broke my heart to hear that. I’m not going to tell you he was a good kid; frankly, he was royal pain in the ass. But he was my pain in the ass, and I cared about him because if I didn’t, who would? His mom sure didn’t. That’s what you don’t know about teachers. People say teachers care. No we don’t. There are plenty of kids out there who have loving and supporting homes and they don’t need their teachers to care about them even if the teachers do. It’s the unwanted, the broken, the messed-up. That’s what a real teacher wants. We care about them not because they deserve it—most of the time, they don’t—but because we sincerely feel like if we don’t try then no one will. Some kids, we just flat-out can’t help, and we hope that someone else along the way does, but even it if is just one life we change, that’s why we do it. Don’t tell me about salary or bad conditions; most teachers could give a shit about that so long as they are being respected and trusted.

II. Playing Your Strengths

So what then? What do we do? I am not sure I know all of the answers, but I can provide one, which is playing a teacher’s strengths. I’ve played and coached tennis for many years, and anyone who really knows the game will tell you that you have got to play your strengths. A good tennis player forces his strengths upon his opponent, thereby forcing his opponent to try and beat his strengths which he will most likely not do.

As it is with sports, it is with teaching. For example, I would say my greatest technique as a teacher is something that was called “Guided Practice.” It is probably called something else now because the education system is always renaming things. In a nutshell, guided practice would be showing a concept to the entire class and then having them practice the concept while the teacher surveys the room and offers instant feedback. It is mostly effective in mathematics, but it is also effective with English when it comes to writing and grammar (and possibly reading in certain circumstances). This is what I excelled at the most and because I was so good at it, my students had the greatest success when I utilized it. My students consistently had high scores on benchmark exams and end of course tests because of my guided practice techniques.

Conversely, I was horrific at implementing group work. The school I worked for was very into group work and cooperative learning—two techniques I despised as a student and as a teacher. However, one cannot deny the research suggesting that these techniques are typically effective. The problem I had, though, is I was garbage at facilitating group work. I tried various techniques and organizations. I tried choosing groups the way books suggested, and I followed other teachers’ models. I tried everything I could think of to get group work to be efficient in my class, and I just was not a good facilitator or it. It is my weakness.

Returning to tennis, if your serve is the strongest part of your game, you do not abandon working on it to fix your backhand volley issues. You would not start rushing the net every single match, trying to beat people with your backhand volley because you would lose. You continue to work on your serve to make it even better and make time for your backhand volley. Again, it deals with trust. We have to trust ourselves as teachers and be honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

Additionally, the system and the administration need to recognize that teachers have strengths and weaknesses, and we should encourage teachers to “play their strengths.” Unfortunately, this is not usually what occurs. Generally, teachers are being forced to adopt practices that they just are not good at and so the practices, though they make work for some, don’t work for others and the students suffer for it.

The man who I taught next door to pretty much taught the same way every single day. He did not really plan and he did not do activities. He is a great story-teller and he teaches history like a story because that is where he is strongest. His students, both regular and AP, consistently score among the highest in the district, and yet he is criticized constantly for his methods. On the other side of my door was another great teacher. Her method is more methodical and organized and she has a particular system in which she incorporates students—her system works for pretty much every student who walks in her class and gets on board. Her students also scored consistently among the highest in the district, yet she was often criticized by parents who felt her class was “too hard.”

Before we can change anything, we have got to start trusting and respecting our teachers for what they are good at and what they know. A true teacher has a gift that few possess, which is the ability to appreciate minute, incremental improvements over time. We see students improve where no one else, not even their parents, notice. It is something innate in us that fuels our patience and explains why we do it when people say, “You teach? I could never do that.” No, you couldn’t, so trust me with your child and let me do my job the best way I know how.

III. Keep It Simple

In the end, teachers have to keep things more simple. The main areas are to know your content, have high expectations of your students, and follow through. I know, go ahead and throw learning disabilities at me and No Child Left Behind and “daddy issues.” I get it. I’m with you on that, but it doesn’t change the fact that when the bell rings and that door closes, it’s just a teacher and a class of students who all need to learn. Teachers, don’t bitch about tests being unfair—so what? Yeah, they are unfair, get over it. Yeah, I know. Psh, kids these days! I hear you. I understand, but you are in there with them. Barack Obama is not in the classroom watching you and telling you what to do.

I am a pessimist to some and optimist to others; frankly, those words don’t mean shit to me. I know this, though, politicians are not going to fix education. Teachers and parents are. We have to have the courage to keep it simple, teach with our strengths, and do what we feel in our hearts is best for our kids.

It will not be easy and many parents, students, and even other teachers might question you or tell you that you’re wrong. The movie, Moneyball, should be seen by every teacher in America. Billy Beane, the Major League Baseball general manager for the Oakland Athletics, was tired of losing to the well-funded Yankee and Redsox teams. He decided to embrace a completely new and controversial system of ranking and drafting players that had never been done before on the scale in which he implemented it. All of his scouts, the media, his manager, and practically everyone in baseball told him he was wrong and he was an idiot. But he believed in what he was doing so much that he stood the course and in the end proved everyone wrong. When the smoke settled, the Boston Redsox wanted him to come manage their ballclub, offering him the largest general manager salary in baseball history at the time, which he declined.

He may have had his doubts, but he exuded supreme confidence and he stayed the course. I never felt more confident in my life than when I was standing in a classroom in front of teenagers. I don’t know why exactly, but I knew what to do. I did not always do things the best way and I was not always right—I made mistakes. But I believed in myself in that situation more than any other I’ve ever been. Like Billy Beane, I had my doubts outside of the classroom, but while I was in it, I knew I was right and it did not matter what anyone else thought.

Teachers, we have to start believing in ourselves again. We have to respect ourselves and stand up for our students. They don’t need to be coddled. They don’t need to be babied. They need to be held accountable. They need someone to care. They need to be taught and disciplined. Most of all, they need someone to look up to. I don’t care if your personal life is a mess and you’re an alcoholic—you need to shine in front of those kids and show them that they can be better.

I’ll leave you with what I told my students many times, which is something one of my greatest teachers told me. “Good is the enemy of Great.” If you are satisfied with being good at something, you will never be great it. Many people live their lives every day satisfied with mediocrity; they just maintain. They just “get by.” That doesn’t have to be you. You can be great. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be fun all of the time. But I promise you, that in the end, it will be the best decision you ever made.

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