Monday, December 20, 2010


I have been teaching in a public school for the past twenty years. I am a member of the union and I have tenure. I am also pretty high up on the seniority list. I am incredibly fortunate to be teaching in an excellent school district that has a pretty stable balance sheet; supportive, involved parents; and hard-working students who consistently score well on standardized tests. I am hardly unaware of my blessings. I don't really have too many issues being part of the union. I think that there are many times having union protection is a good thing for teachers. There is increasing financial pressure on school districts to get more bang for their taxpayer buck; unionized teachers can sleep a little easier at night knowing that they won't be unjustly let go so a district can save money. Some teachers know this and are grateful for it and are consummate professionals and will continue to be the very best teachers they can possible be. Some teachers, on the other hand, know they can't be easily let go and decide to rest on their laurels and can easily get away with doing very little work. These are the sub-standard teachers referenced by all the education reformers of late.

The teachers' unions have reacted passionately to the film Waiting for Superman, and rightly so. However, I also wish the unions would acknowledge some of the truths exposed in this film. One local president wrote, "The movie depicts our public schools in shambles and loaded with incompetent teachers." He is correct -- the movie does indeed do that. But to say that the depiction is false, that there are not public schools in shambles and that there are not incompetent teachers is akin to hiding one's head in the sand. No one associated with Waiting for Superman has said that ALL public schools are in shambles or ALL teachers are incompetent. The film does, however, expose the dirty little secret that when those bad schools and bad teachers do exist, the union membership should rally 'round their own and protect them. Personally, I am proud to leap up and defend my esteemed colleagues, but I am tired of having to stand in solidarity with some teachers who, quite frankly, suck. The president referenced above also wrote, " would make evaluations of teachers a comprehensive, complicated, and time-consuming process. Moreover, it would generally be based on student test scores." This sounds to me like there is an objection by the unions to thorough evaluations of teachers. Rather than the evaluations being "comprehensive", is it be preferable that they be quick and dirty? Teacher evaluations SHOULD be comprehensive and thorough and take into consideration many aspects of education. And while I disagree that students' test scores should be the end-all and be-all piece of data that determines a teacher's effectiveness, I see nothing wrong with multiple forms of data from tests being used to help determine a teacher's overall effectiveness in conjunction with other things, including multiple observations in the classroom by the principal, parent input, student input, and colleagues' input. But I'm betting the unions don't want any of that, either. It is much easier to leave teacher evaluations based on one classroom visit every other year. Surely one can see just how wonderful an educator is based on that amount of data (read: sarcasm).

I can't believe I am the only tenured teacher who is part of a union who feels this way. The bottom line is bad teachers make ALL teachers look bad, and I, for one, don't want to be lumped in with that lot of people who call themselves educators. I work very hard to keep my teaching relevant, and like any good teacher, I also recognize that I will always have much to learn and I'm not afraid of that (that's what life-long learning is all about). I would like to see the unions continue their wonderful support of deserving teachers but also acknowledge that the rotten apples are ruining the whole bunch of us. To me, recognizing that some educators need to be out of the classroom will show real strength from the unions; it is the ignoring of this fact that makes the unions weak.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Don't Pass the Buck

As a teacher, it would be so easy to sit back and throw my hands in the air whenever I encounter a roadblock to educating my students. I will admit that I have never taught in a school that has a high number of low-income students or in a district that has been significantly strapped for cash. But I can say this: I have taught students who are very unmotivated to learn. I have taught students who are performing significantly below grade level. I have taught students who have had to work through undiagnosed or neglected learning disabilities. I have taught students whose don't care one bit about their child's education. I have taught students who have a crappy home life and can't do projects or homework at home. I have worked in a classroom with one window and no air conditioning where the room temperature was close to 90 degrees. I have worked with administrators who have not supported me. I have been forced to teach without things I need -- enough novels or paper to make copies or a television or an overhead projector. While I may not work in a "bad" school or a "poor" school, I have had my share of road blocks and stumbling blocks put in the way of my ability to teach my students. However, every time I encounter a barrier, I refuse to give up. Good teachers don't give up under adverse conditions. Good teachers don't say, "I don't have kids who care. I don't have parents who care. I don't have administrators who support me. I don't have the supplies I need. I don't have the conditions I need. My district doesn't have the money. I can't teach these kids." This, to me, is passing the buck. At the end of the school day, there is only one factor I have control over, and that is myself. I can choose to say, "Well, this student clearly has a learning disability but no IEP so I don't know how anyone expects me to teach her," or I can say, "Well, this student clearly has a learning disability and no IEP so I guess I'll have to figure out what I can do to help her the best way I can." I can choose to say, "The parents don't make their kids get off their video games and do homework, and if the parents don't care then I don't care and there's nothing I can do," or I can say, "The parents don't make their kids get off their video games and do homework, so since they don't care, I will be the one who cares and has expectations for these kids." I refuse to pass the buck and say I can't be a good teacher because there are too many adversities. Teachers are accountable to themselves first. If teachers hold themselves accountable to themselves, then they will be able to side-step the obstacles and no one will be able to say they are bad teachers. This is what being a professional is all about.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I had the opportunity to see the documentary Waiting for Superman last week before it was officially released and I can see why it is generating a lot of controversy. Here is my take on the movie, for what it's worth.

I think that this film is causing a stir within the education community because, frankly, it exposes the dirty little secrets in education that no one wants exposed. Here's the cold, hard truth: there are bad schools and bad teachers out there. Plenty of them. And yes, I willingly and gladly admit that there are also lots of great schools and great teachers. That being said, there are far too many rotten ones. I have been teaching for a little over 20 years and I count myself among the good teachers (not the great teachers). I keep up with best practices. I am actively involved in my own personal professional development. I differentiate my instruction as much as possible for my students. I try to integrate technology into my instruction and my students' learning experiences. I take time to get to know my students personally. I communicate regularly with the parents of my students. And I enjoy doing all of these things. Yes, it's work, but it has its rewards -- happy, involved students and parents, AND the kids LEARN! So now that I've justified why I can can consider myself one of the good guys, I'm going to say something that's not too popular: I'm tired of having to stand in solidarity with the bad teachers and defend them just because we're all teachers. I am tired of seeing the lazy teachers do the bare minimum and get away with it AND get the same benefits as I do in the form of salary. I'm not going to blame anyone for this (like unions or administrators) except for the teachers themselves. However, I'm pretty sure that the lousy, lazy teachers don't recognize themselves, so how can they fix themselves? Good question. Regardless, it is time that the bad teachers were outted and that's what this movie does. Some say it teacher bashes; I think it bashes the teachers who deserve to be bashed.

Another criticism of the movie is its pro-charter school stance. I admit, it does show charter schools in a positive light, especially in comparison to the public schools that are profiled. However, Guggenheim doesn't ignore the fact that there are bad charter schools; nor does he ignore the fact that there are good public schools. Instead, I think he does a good job of pointing out that the good, popular charter schools are so desirable because they can do things that traditional public schools cannot. They can require parental involvement. They can increase the school day and the school year. They can boot a student who doesn't comply with discipline policies. I never once got the impression that Guggenheim wanted to do away with traditional public schools and have only charter schools available. Instead, he offers up some of the strategies and policies that have had success in charter schools for possible adoption by traditional public schools -- IF teachers and their contracts will allow those changes to occur. It's a tough sell since it often demands more of already heavily-worked teachers. But the funny thing is that the best teachers will take on the extra work if they know that students and parents are also on board, and it is all worth it in the end to see the kids succeed. I've been looking at KIPP schools in Houston for a few years now, and I'd love the chance to work at a KIPP school. I was glad to see KIPP get a nod in Waiting for Superman.

This movie doesn't directly address the roles of parents and administrators in children's academic success, but I'm guessing Guggenheim wasn't interested in making a 4 - 6 hour documentary! They are two sets of educational stakeholders that can play a huge part in how kids fare at school and their contributions can't be forgotten. All parents need to be as involved with their children's education as the parents in Waiting for Superman. Kids first learn to value their education when their parents value it for them. Administrators need to be willing to stand strong against the storm that may be whipped up by calling a bad teacher out and starting the remediation process as set forth in the collective bargaining agreement and getting rid of that teacher if that's what needs to be done.

The most important thing this movie can do is open dialogue between all educational stakeholders. It does no good to spend any time pointing fingers at unions/tenure/parents/teachers/students/charter schools/politicians/etc. Instead, everyone needs to acknowledge where weaknesses and deficits are in educating our children, discover what works and where the strengths are, and then continue to do what works and fix or end what doesn't work. Mediocrity on any level is bad for everyone who cares about educating children.

Monday, May 31, 2010

No Apologies

It's that time of year again -- the time when people razz me about getting to lay around and do nothing all summer and get paid for it. I hear it from people I know who are kidding, and I hear it in the media from total strangers who have never worked in the field of education but think they know everything about it because they've been to school themselves. Well, I am here to tell you I refuse to apologize for having a summer vacation that I have earned and really isn't much of a vacation at all.

I say I have earned this vacation because I worked hard for the past 180 days with the kids in my classroom. I have taught and re-taught. I have created lesson plans, assignments, and assessments of various types. I have contacted parents. I have disciplined students. I have coached kids in track. I have graded papers and tests and quizzes. I have listened to and evaluated speeches and presentations. I have attended team, department, staff, building-level technology, district-level technology, leadership, school improvement, and anti-bullying committee meetings. I created and presented Internet safety presentations for students and parents. I prepared my students for standardized tests. Just to name a few things. How I wish I could say I accomplished all those things in my seven hours in the classroom each day, but much more often than not, like most teachers, those activities went way beyond my classroom time. I did a lot of hard work this school year; I deserve my summer vacation.

Which leads me to explain that it's really not much of a vacation. I am taking one planned trip this summer. The rest of the summer will be spent focusing on three things: helping a colleague prepare to take over teaching computers next year (as well as her sub when my colleague goes on maternity leave); writing curriculum for the high school prep/transition class I am taking over next school year; and starting my course work for my ESL endorsement. So no one should be fooled into thinking I will spend the next three months sitting around and forgetting all about school. Summer is when I look forward to doing school work unencumbered by school. I can work at my own pace and uninterrupted. I can work at home or the library or on my patio. I will spend my summer working -- just not in a classroom with students. I'm not abnormal; this is what most teachers do.

So feel free to tease me about enjoying my summer vacation. I will. Because I enjoy what I do and I'm working on it all summer. And I deserve every reward I get from teaching -- monetary or not.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Technology has created a way for children to harass and bully each other in damaging and inescapable ways. In order to effectively deal with the problem of cyberbullying, I believe that ALL of the following people need to work collectively. If one group is not on board, then cyberbullying will continue to be pervasive in the culture of teenagers.

· TEACHERS: Teachers need to learn what cyberbullying is and address it as needed if the topic is brought up in class. Teachers need to listen to students who come to them to report instances of cyberbullying. Teachers need to know what rules and laws are in place regarding cyberbullying as well as what kinds of resources are available to help students who are victims of cyberbullying. Teachers need to be willing to document cases of reported or observed cyberbullying and never, ever assume such behavior is typical of children and teenagers and students just need to learn to deal with it.

· SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS: School administrators, like principals, assistant principals, and deans, face the same responsibilities that teachers do when confronted with cases of cyberbullying. In addition, school administrators need to establish clear and enforceable consequences for cyberbullying. They also need to be willing to contact law enforcement when needed to send a strong and clear message that cyberbullying is simply not tolerated.

· VICTIMS: Victims of cyberbullying should never be expected to just deal with the problem on their own. Rather, they should be taken seriously and see that their harassment is being taken seriously and it is being dealt with. They should receive counseling as necessary in order to learn strategies for dealing with cyberbullies.

· BYSTANDERS: Those students who see cyberbullying taking place need to be assertive in assisting victims by standing up for them and reporting cyberbullying when it is observed. Too often bystanders are unwilling to stand up for those they see being victimized because they are afraid of incurring the same disdain inflicted upon them by cyberbullies. Bystanders need to understand what cyberbullying is and be educated about what they can do to help squelch cyberbullying.

· PARENTS: Parents need to be involved in what their own children do online and with their cell phones. This should include having an account on a social networking site like Facebook or MySpace, and "friending" their own children. It is also advisable to check histories on cell phones and computers. In addition, parents should have access to and passwords for email addresses, instant messaging accounts, and social networking sites. When parents see something their child has done that is inappropriate, it should be demanded of the child to remove the offending material and/or the parents should take it down themselves. Being passive about what children do online can lead to disastrous consequences. Just ask the parents of Ryan Halligan, Megan Meier, and Phoebe Prince. It is irresponsible to let our children run unattended on the Internet.

If all of these stakeholders take on a role in combating cyberbullying, then we will have the benefit of seeing it diminish and hopefully establish a culture of tolerance and respect among children and teens. It is when the majority of one group does not come on board with addressing cyberbullying that everyone else's efforts fall flat. Cyberbullying can become socially unacceptable if everyone is willing to take a stand and take part of the responsibility for combating this social ill that is plaguing our children and teens.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I Love School!

Today I was accused, with a sneer, of all things, of loving school. I am still trying to figure out why that is a bad thing, why it is viewed negatively by some. Of course I love school! Not only do I love school for myself (because I love learning new things), but I also love school in terms of teaching. I love my job. I get great enjoyment and satisfaction out of spending my day with junior high kids. They are enthusiastic and energetic -- what's not to love? I would hope that all teachers love school. If not, why be a teacher? I have always said that nothing will make a kid hate school more than a teacher who hates school. I believe that teachers who hate school are actually causing harm to kids -- it poisons children's minds and attitudes toward learning. So excuse me for not just showing up to work every day, doing the same old things the same way I have for years, sitting around on my tenured rear end, boring my students, whining, complaining, and collecting a paycheck. I happen to love school!