Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Education Reform -- Non-Research/Statistics Based; Just My Opinion

I have been trying to keep abreast of all the education reform debates since last fall when I had the chance to attend a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show related to the film Waiting for Superman. What piqued Oprah’s people's interest was my comment that went something like this: I'm tired of teachers who do nothing except sit on their tenured butts and collect a paycheck. And I stand by that statement today. What self-respecting, truly good educator wouldn't? But I do sometimes feel like a pariah for saying that. Some would see that statement as unsupportive of my colleagues, that I don't stand in solidarity with my fellow teachers. All I can say is that I do indeed support whole-heartedly all the teachers out there who work as hard as I do, but I will not feign support for the lazy teachers out there, the ones who clearly can't stand their job or the kids they work with every day; the ones who complain all the time; the ones who teach the same things the same way year after year; the ones who have kids do everything open book because there are so many fewer bad grades that way, resulting in fewer parent complaints; the ones who never volunteer to do anything extra, whether it earns a stipend or not; the ones who put on a dog-and-pony show the day they are observed by the principal. Those teachers do harm, in my opinion, and I will not defend them simply because they work in a classroom every day. And I am finding that makes me pretty unpopular. Well, that and my other views on education. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm misguided. There is a lot of great stuff going on in education in this country, but there's plenty of lousy stuff, too. I have my own ideas about what needs to be done to make education in this country meaningful but I fear it will never happen because it requires too much cooperation and collaboration from too many people who don't look like they will ever see eye to eye. Regardless, here's what I have to say if you care to read it.

Who is involved in meaningful education reform? I believe it is teachers, teachers' unions, school administrators, students, and parents. Each group has a mission, if they choose to accept it.

Teachers need to work. Really work. That is inherent in the job of teaching if it is done correctly. This means logging more hours than there are in the contracted day -- grading papers, developing lessons and assessments, communicating with parents, documenting the learning that takes place in our classrooms, and millions of other little tasks that are associated with teaching. My husband once said that good teaching is like porn -- you know it when you see it. While that statement might be a bit crass, there is an element of truth to it. Face it, fellow teachers; we all know who the good teachers are in our school and who the bad teachers are, too. We can explain why the good teachers are good and why the bad teachers are bad, and most of the time, the good teachers are the ones doing all the tasks that take up that extra time and the bad ones aren't. Good teachers aren't lazy. They will do what is right for kids even if they don't get paid for it. I know I will open a can of worms with that comment, and please don't think I am saying that teachers don't deserve to be paid well -- we do (the good ones). But the good ones have never been in this business for the money, so they end up going the extra mile because ultimately, it furthers our mission -- education!

Teachers' unions need to recognize that not all teachers are created equal. They need to make it reasonable for a school district to get rid of a bad teacher. How a bad teacher is defined is a whole other blog post, but if it can be shown that a teacher isn't doing his or her job, isn't improving on his or her own or through mentoring or mediation, then the teacher needs to go. Yes, this does happen sometimes, but sadly, there are a lot of collective bargaining agreements out there that are ridiculously cumbersome. It should be a reasonable process to dismiss an ineffective educator, not one that has plenty of loopholes in it. I have heard some people say, "Well, administrators shouldn't agree to those contracts -- it takes two sides to negotiate a contract." True. But I would say that the unions shouldn't try to push through a contract that has enough cracks in it that lousy teachers are protected. Contracts that are written to cover the rear ends of the bad teachers are demoralizing to the good teachers and diminish the professionalization of this career. I am always heartened to read about unions who are working to revamp contracts that are going to be of benefit to the good teachers, help the poor teachers who want the help, and remove the poor teachers who just don't care. The teachers' unions need to keep moving in this direction.

School administrators need to be brave. Bravery is what it takes to tell a tenured teacher he or she isn't doing the job right. I think too many principals are unwilling to fight that fight because it will surely stir up a hornets' nest in more ways than one. It might bring down the wrath of the union. It might bring down the wrath of teachers in the building or district. Regardless, it's gonna get ugly! I say, do it anyway! Lousy teachers and the unions like fearful school administrators. They like principals and superintendents who would rather look the other way or only see what they want to see. Praised be the administrator who isn't afraid to call a spade a spade. They know it will be an uphill battle and they will probably be pretty unpopular (think Michelle Rhee) but they ultimately are willing to do what is best for the kids in that classroom. Having ineffective, unmotivated, lazy teachers in a classroom isn’t good for kids. One thing I say often is that nothing will make a kid hate school more than a teacher who hates school. Please, principals and superintendents, help kids love schools by being brave and calling out the teachers who are causing harm!

Students need to realize the value of education. Too many kids in this country take their education for granted. They often whine about being in school. Some of that whining probably comes from being stuck in a classroom with a boring, unmotivated teacher, but a lot of it comes from not appreciating education. I seem to recall Oprah Winfrey getting flak about opening her girls’ school in Africa as opposed to this country and her response being something akin to what I just said – those girls in Africa will be grateful for their education; most kids in America will not. Part of my philosophy of teaching is to make learning meaningful for my students right now, not just in the future. I teach junior high kids, and they are so entrenched in the present that careers, college, and even high school seem so far away that telling them, “You’ll need to know this for when you get a job. You’ll have to do this when you’re in college. This is going to help you when you get to high school,” is beyond their scope. I believe that by helping them see how what they are learning now is useful now will help them appreciate their education. Once they see an immediate use for it, they will be open to wanting the same for the future as well. Students also need to take responsibility for their own learning. On the first day of school, I tell my students that they have a legal right to an education and that if I am not providing it, they should demand it from me. Kids should not be content to have busy work, extra study halls, and lots of free time in class. They should demand what is rightfully theirs. Conversely, they should reciprocate for the teachers who DO provide them with a good education by paying attention in class, doing their work, being respectful, and looking for the worth in everything they are learning.

Parents need to value education as well. Not just pay lip service to education – truly value it. So many parents talk about how important their child’s education is but in the same breath gripe about the teachers and the school. Too many times parents are upset when their children bring home anything less than an A or complain when schoolwork infringes upon the baseball game scheduled for that evening. I would like to see parents who want their children engaged in learning during the day, parents who want their children challenged. Too often parents are content with their children receiving busywork because the report card grade ends up being good. Being challenged, being pushed intellectually doesn’t always result in an immediate A. Sometimes it’s a B or a C. Or lower. But what is important is that the child continues to push and be challenged because learning is going to happen and then those grades will come up. Too much importance is put on grades by parents. Look instead at the curriculum and the lessons that are being taught. Would you prefer your 8th grader to get an A on 6th grade work or a B on 9th grade work? Another thing, parents need to realize that school comes before extra-curriculars. Yes, outside activities are important – they are what help our children become well-rounded citizens and learn things like teamwork, sportsmanship, and taking criticism gracefully. But academics must take precedence. Realize that if your child has work to do for school while at home, it is not some conspiracy on the school’s part to make your child miserable or infringe upon your family time. It is going to help advance your child’s learning, so make it a priority in the home.

All these individuals need to make changes if we want meaningful education reform to happen. It needs to happen swiftly and as simultaneously as possible. Squabbling over who is right and who is wrong isn’t doing a single thing to help the kids in our schools right now. All these people stepping up isn’t going to solve every problem, either. There is still lots of work to be done. But if teachers do their jobs well AND if teachers’ unions set standards of excellence for their membership AND administrators are willing to fight to keep the good as well as remove the bad AND students take their education seriously AND parents get involved and support their kids and the schools, changes WILL occur and they will be positive.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Surviving Your Daughter’s Break Up

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

Any parent with a teenaged daughter dreads the thought of her dating boys. What is even more difficult to deal with than some boy dating your daughter, though, is some boy dumping her. As parents, our first instinct when our child is hurt is to be hyper-defensive and hunt down the no-good louse who caused our baby such pain. Eventually, we become rational again and we are left to figure out how to help our child deal with the aftermath. Here are some things you can do to help your daughter cope with a break-up; these are things I’ve learned through my own experience with a teenaged daughter, and often things I’ve learned the hard way!

Provide space. Sometimes, we can see the break up coming down the pike. It is important to step away from the situation and let your daughter handle it on her own as much as possible. Fight the urge to subtly encourage the break up (if you don’t particularly like the boy) or to help salvage it (if you happen to like the boy). Interfering in either instance can backfire – try to hasten the break up and your daughter may stick with him out of stubbornness; try to stop the break up and she may stay with the boy no matter how unhappy she feels in the relationship.

Be a sympathetic listener. This is the perfect situation to practice our active listening skills. Try to hear exactly what your daughter is saying about the boy by reading between the lines. Is she wanting to initiate the break up? Is she secretly relieved that the relationship is ending? Is she still head over heels and not prepared for the break up? Regardless of the scenario, it is going to be emotionally wrenching. Be as supportive as you can of your daughter’s feelings but be careful not to belittle them, which brings me to my next tip.

Be prepared for irrationality. No matter how much space you provide or how sympathetic a listener you are, chances are your daughter will tell you that you just don’t understand or care. If you provide space, it means you don’t care. If you try to get involved, you should just stay out of it because you don’t understand. This irrationality is just a manifestation of your daughter’s pain and really has nothing to do with you. Try not to get angry when you’re told you don’t understand; your daughter really doesn’t want to hear about the horrible break ups you endured because, in her mind, there’s simply no way they were anything like the one she’s going through. She’s really not trying to be rude or disrespectful, so ride out the irrationality – it will go away soon enough!

Guide her through proper break up behavior. Remember, the relationships our teens go through are supposed to help them grow along the way to adulthood and hopefully help them form mature relationships as adults. They are bound to make mistakes in the relationships they have as teens. In the most non-preachy way possible, remind your daughter to stand up for herself and not measure her self-worth by the fact that she has a boyfriend. Remind her to be assertive, but not mean or hurtful, or even worse, clingy and needy. Remind her to be selective about whom she talks to about the break up and how she talks about it. Teens today use social networking for so much of their communication; be firm that your daughter not be over-dramatic or detailed about the break up on Facebook. Also suggest she not get into too many gory details with her girlfriends, whom she will very likely turn to for sympathy and understanding. This is normal and appropriate, but girls tend to like to rally around their friends. If your daughter can keep the details to a minimum, her friends will be less likely to feel the need to get involved by saying something directly or indirectly to the ex-boyfriend.

Make time for your daughter. After the break up, there is bound to be a temporary hole in your daughter’s social life. Try to help fill it by spending time together. I have found that doing out-of-the-ordinary things helps a lot. Yes, lunch and a shopping trip is fun, but we do those things on a relatively regular basis. Instead, offer to do something like go for a bike ride, take a trip to the zoo, or go on a picnic. Eventually, that hole in her social life will shrink and be filled with friends or even another boyfriend, so take advantage of the time you have together to show your daughter she is definitely worthy of love.

To read what some experts have to say about helping teens through a break up, check out these resources:

What Parents Can Do When Their Teen Has a Break Up
Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Help Your Teen Get Over a Break Up
Getting Over a Break Up

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Play It Safe: Parents’ Role in Technology

This post was originally written for Summit Series for Families.

Recently, The Huffungton Post published articles (one here and another here) where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talks about his position regarding children as young as thirteen using Facebook: he says yes. One article indicates that according to research done by Consumer Reports, there are already 7.5 million Facebook users under the age of thirteen. This could be debated ad nauseum, whether children so young should have a Facebook account, but the debate won’t hide the reality – young children are online using Facebook as well as gaming sites, video sites, and other social networking sites right along with adults and often without their parents knowing. So pushing aside the debate, instead, focus on what we as parents can do if our kids are going to use the Internet – and they are. Our children are digital natives. Here are some suggestions I give to parents when I do Internet safety presentations in my school district.

Online Gaming If your kids are playing any games online, consider sitting down next to them to see what the games are about. Learn about the parental controls each game site has and employ them as needed. If your child wants to play games online, often creating an account is required, so help your child do this to make sure he isn’t giving out too much personal information.

Game Systems If your child plays games on systems like Xbox and Xbox 360, the live feature allows interactive game play, chatting, and photo sharing. These systems also have parental controls available, and often these controls are in place even when your child logs in at a friend’s house.

YouTube Kids love to watch videos online, and YouTube is about the easiest site to find videos on. YouTube can be run in Safety Mode, which will help filter out videos with inappropriate content. (Read more about safety features on YouTube here.)

Cell Phones Enable parental controls on cell phones. To find out what’s available and what charges might be for those services, it will be necessary to contact the cellular service provider. It is also important to periodically check the outgoing and incoming calls to the phone as well as peruse the texts on the phone. Some may say this is a violation of privacy, but in this age of cyberbullying, I think it is imperative for parents to check up on how the technology they are paying for is being used. It is also advisable to set a time for cell phone use to end for the day and have the phone plugged in for the night somewhere other than the child’s bedroom. At my house, my high school daughter plugs her phone into the outlet in my bedroom at 10:30 every night. She gets it back no earlier than 6:00 A.M.

Social Networking
If your child wants an account on Facebook or some other social network and you approve, the responsibility has just begun. Parents should also create an account with the same social network and “friend” their kids. My rule for my daughter was she had to be friends with me and her father or she would lose the Facebook account. Periodically go through your child’s friends list and ask who the people are. If a “friend” isn’t someone your child can say he or she knows personally and has actually had face-to-face contact with, the person should be taken off the friends list. Look at your child’s posts and if there are any that aren’t okay with you, ask for them to be taken down. If they don’t get taken down in time, then take them down yourself. This brings me to my next tip: have the username and password for your child’s account. I log in to my daughter’s account periodically to make sure she hasn’t been sneaky and changed it on me (she hasn’t, fortunately). One caveat: if I have to log in and take down something, I also take a moment to change the password so she can’t log on without my permission. Again, I don’t view this as a violation of privacy; I see it as a way to prevent problems that arise from online drama.

In general, parents need to educate themselves about the technology their kids are using and then get involved. One colleague of mine has a daughter who has been begging for a Facebook account. My friend is going to relent but she is also getting one for herself, which she dreads. She says she doesn’t want to do things on Facebook. I told her she doesn’t have to – all she needs to do is check in on what her daughter is doing; she doesn’t have to do anything else if she doesn’t want to. But she, like the rest of us parents, has to be involved. Our kids are only going to get more involved with technology as they get older so let’s make sure they get a good foundation!