Fighting on, We Falter Never

Today, we came, we saw, we rallied.

I used to be content to attend to the matters in my classroom and leave the advocacy to the heavy hitters. Lately, I have felt more and more compelled to speak out on behalf of public education. After all, I am a product of it. I owe a lot to the exceptional teachers who guided me through nearly two decades of elementary, secondary, and college education. I am also beginning to feel that change is only going to come if more of us demand it.

A few days ago, I asked if we could stand proud together as we rallied for education at the capitol. Tonight, it is clear to me we’re going to need to do a lot more than stand to win this war. Because that’s what we’re fighting, here. Not a battle. A war. It usually takes years of unrest, oppression, or injustice for a war to break out. This one’s been brewing for a while with year after year of budget cuts, unfunded mandates, and unfair assessment of schools and teachers. And to win a war, you need an army. Friends, we have one that’s more than 40,000 strong.

We heard some amazing speakers today. No offense, to the grown-ups but I think the kids stole the show.  If anybody needs proof that public education works, they need look no further than the two amazing students, Deborah Samkutty and Kiante Miles, who inspired a crowd of thousands today with their powerful messages. However, Joy Hoffmeister said something that resonated with me. “It starts with a conversation.” It started with one of those today, perhaps before today, for many of you. But it’s going to take a lot of follow-up to get this train moving in the right direction.

Are you willing to continue the rally even now that it’s over? Will you continue to contact your legislators on a regular basis and hold them accountable with your vote? Will you stand with our State Superintendent and support #OkHigh5? Will you unite to put pressure on our legislators to solve the most detrimental issues to Oklahoma public education, namely the budget, the teacher shortage, and testing? Will you share the stories of success in your classroom, and promote the mission of public education in our great state? Will you rally parents, friends, and community members to our cause by continuing the conversation?

Every day in my high school choir, we warmed up by singing our alma mater. The words keep coming back to me as inspiration for these rally posts. First with [Mighty Lions,] stand proud together. Now, I am reminded of another line from that oh-so-familiar tune. Fighting on, we falter never…

 

Tomorrow, we go back into the classroom. When the last bell has rung, when the last kid has left the hallways, when the last bus has pulled away…will you remember to keep the rally going? Will you fight on, and falter never?

Our kids are counting on it.

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Finding the Words

I recently found myself in the midst of a Facebook conversation with several individuals on various sides of education issues. Yes, I know better than to fall into this trap. For the most part, I avoid this kind of conflict on social media, mainly because I’m very bad at walking away from a fight and I always have to have the last word.

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I also feel somewhat unqualified to speak on education matters when there are already so many people—more articulate and experienced than I am—advocating on our behalf. Recently, however, I have found it more difficult to keep my mouth shut (or my fingers off the keyboard) when I come across comments from people who have bought into the false rhetoric that public schools are failing.

Here are a few of the statements I find it hard to walk away from, and my responses:

 

“Some remark about what teachers make being fair because they only work nine months out of the year.”

There are so many things wrong with this statement, I’m not even sure where to start. First of all, starting teacher pay in Oklahoma is much, much less than the national average of around 56K (2012-2013). According to this document from the state department of education, with 25 years experience and a doctorate, you are guaranteed only 46K. So at the highest step on the salary scale, we’re still 10K below the national average. Somebody please show me another field in which that salary is commensurate with that level of education and years of service.

Secondly, this statement proves that some people don’t have an adequate understanding of what the job of teaching entails. My contract states I am to work 7.5 hours a day for 180 days year. If that were truly the amount that I worked, you might be able to argue that my salary is fair. But this is where our contract belies the amount of work teaching demands. If teachers worked only the time our contracts stipulate, let me tell you some of the things we should be prepared to live without: athletics, fine arts, clubs and other activities; before/after-school tutoring; grading/assessment in a timely manner; Advanced Placement courses (AP summer workshops are a week long, and those audits for the college board are no walk in the park); professional development for your teachers…and the list goes on. Point: as I write this, my sister (who teaches high school geometry) is sitting next to me grading exams…on a Sunday afternoon.

I won’t talk about the correlation between teacher pay and the teacher shortage because Dr. Cobb over at okeducationtruths has already done so in this post from a few months ago. Or you can just take my word for it that until we start give teachers the respect they deserve and a salary that measures up to surrounding states, we’ll continue to have problems staffing our schools.

“Some remark about why you’d waste time or money on a master’s or doctorate degree.”

That’s the spirit! No need to seek more knowledge or pedagogy in your area. We’re perfectly fine not giving any incentive for teachers to expand their practices or seek additional credentials. Does this mean you no longer desire media specialists, counselors, administrators, curriculum coordinators, reading specialists, social workers, or speech pathologists? These are just a handful of positions in public schools that require a master’s degree.

“Some remark about merit pay, and teachers being held accountable according to test scores.”

 

            Well, like many things, that’s a good idea in theory. The problem is, it just doesn’t add up in practice. If all students were created equal, with similar learning abilities, and from the same socioeconomic background, then success might be determined by the same set of standards across the board. But that just isn’t the reality when it comes to the differences across communities in our public schools. Research has shown time and time again that poverty is a factor in educational success. How do we convince a kid that learning about photosynthesis is the most important thing he’ll do all day when he’s worried about whether or not he’ll get to eat over the weekend? How does that girl in high school keep up with her homework when she’s caring for her younger siblings at night while mom works a second job? Do those kids’ teachers really deserve to make less because the odds are already stacked against their students? I’m going to be really unpopular for saying this, but to me, merit pay for teachers seems more about rewarding people for getting jobs in high-income districts and less about rewarding good teaching practices.   The district I work in now has a poverty rate almost twice that of the last district in which I worked. I am working harder now than I ever have before. I’m researching new techniques, reading articles and books, consulting with other educators in my field, asking for feedback from my administrators, and yet, I am not seeing the same results in my current classroom. I firmly believe test scores and student performance are not always adequate platforms for evaluating teachers.

I’m a tenured loudmouth, but relatively new to advocacy. I remind myself to step back, take a deep breath, and try to understand opposite viewpoints before spouting off a knee-jerk reaction that does more to offend than to convince somebody to come around to my way of thinking. I’m not always successful, as you can see from my responses above. Blue cereal education makes some very good points about the value of trying to understand those who disagree with us.  

My question to you, fellow teachers, is how do you address these topics, and others, when they come up in conversations? How do you respond to social media posts, blogs, or articles that make sweeping generalizations about our profession? How do we correct misrepresentations of our profession without alienating the people we need to convince in order for change to happen?

I’m willing to learn if someone will teach me.

Stand Proud Together

I am fortunate to have experienced over and over in my life what it means to stand proud together. First, at home growing up in a family of seven. Later, in school with my classmates and gifted teachers.  Recently, with my fellow educators.

My district announced on Tuesday that classes will be cancelled Monday so teachers and administrators can attend the rally at the capitol. I’ve never been to a rally before. I’ve read about them. I’ve heard about them. I’ve seen the news coverage on television. But I’ve never attended one myself. I wish I could give you a good reason for not paying much attention to education issues until the past few years, but I can’t. I don’t have a good reason. I’m embarrassed to admit I taught rather selfishly in my first few years in the teaching profession and had difficulty seeing beyond the walls of my own classroom. Now, I have the #oklaed community and its bloggers to thank for showing me that we can’t afford to stay out of the conversation anymore. Others certainly won’t hold back when lobbying their agendas in education. If you need proof of that, just check out this post on Rob Miller’s blog from last month.  I believe we must counter outsider efforts with what we KNOW from experience in the classroom to be in the best interest of our students.

I’ll be at the Capitol on Monday. I’m not sure how I’m getting there or where I’m parking, but I’ll be there. If anybody asks me, I believe the teacher shortage is a huge problem, and the educational budget is approaching crisis status (if it isn’t already there). I’m there because I find it hard to swallow the amount of testing and test preparation my students will undergo in the next six weeks. I’m there because I’m growing tired of educators being left out of the conversation about what’s best for education. I’m there because I’m worried what public education will be in coming years for the children in our state, particularly these three:

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More importantly, I intend to continue “being there” long after Monday by following up with my legislators about important education issues, and finding out from candidates in future elections where they stand before I cast my vote.

Education in our great state has certainly taken its fair share of blows in recent years. Even in these difficult times, there are still so many outstanding people willing to dedicate their lives to our children. Despite poor compensation. Despite unfair scrutiny. Despite inequitable evaluations. Despite unfunded mandates. Despite political agendas. I consider myself very fortunate to be in the company of those who advocate tirelessly on behalf of our children, and I’m looking forward to meeting more of them on Monday. I’m grateful for the many people who have shown me what it means to stand proud together long before and long after I learned to sing it in my alma mater.

See you Monday, friends.

(P.S. Hail to thee, Moore High!)

Challenge Accepted: Queen for a Day

In Sunday’s #oklaed chat, Dr. James asked us all how we would advance public education in Oklahoma if we were King/Queen for a day. This turned into a challenge issued to #oklaed bloggers by Dr. Cobb of OK Education Truths. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an “#oklaed blogger” at this point, but since I’m new to this, I’ll take all the ideas for posts I can get. So here goes.

  1. Money. I know everybody’s saying it, but it certainly seems to be at the root of a lot our problems. I’ll open up the royal treasure room (which I imagine being a giant room full of gold that I can dive into like Uncle Scrooge in Ducktales) and spend away, folks. Money for teachers. Money for kids. Money for all those unfunded mandates. Money for technology. Money for social services for our students. Money for facilities. Money for teacher training, and continuous learning. Money for NBC. I’d ask all the people who know more than I do about these matters (so all the people, basically) how much it would cost to fix these things. Then I’d double it.
  2. I’d like to work with higher education to prepare teachers for the classroom, and provide the help they need in their first years. Tomorrow’s great teachers are leaving the profession before they even get started. It’s a tough time to be a teacher, and I hear a lot of new teachers expressing frustrations that can only be helped by experience and mentoring. I wish we could better prepare them for what the job actually IS, and not what we want it to be in an ideal world. Some very talented people are giving up before they discover their full potential.
    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying our universities aren’t working hard to prepare our young people for the classroom. I had excellent professors in relatively small university classes; some professors taught several courses in succession and I definitely benefited from the continuity in leadership. Still…my student teaching was only twelve weeks long, and (because my certification is PK-12) split between secondary and elementary. I had only six weeks at each site. My elementary classes were on a three-day Art/PE/Music rotation. That means I saw all of my students only six times—only six class periods to learn over 350 kids’ names. And when it was all over, I was handed a diploma (once I remembered to clep college algebra…whoops) and a teaching certificate. And then…SOMEBODY ACTUALLY GAVE ME A JOB!
    The education field should not be a place where we just parachute drop a bunch of fresh graduates (or alternative or emergency certifications) into the classroom and say, “Good luck!” The mentoring needs to continue into those first few challenging years when we’re losing so many promising teachers because we threw them into the deep end without floaties. Since I’m Queen, I’ll open up my treasure room and pay for districts to have a position for somebody to coordinate PD, mentoring, and the general championing of first, second, and third year teachers. (Does such a position exist somewhere? If it does, how do I get it? As Tina Fey would say, “I want to go to there”) The point is…we need to invest in the teachers who will take our place eventually.

There you have it, in less than 600 words. AND…I resisted the urge to make the entire a post a bunch of references to Queen songs. You’re welcome.

Like/Love

I’m in my eighth year of teaching secondary vocal music. Recently in a meeting with an administrator, I was expressing some frustration with my classes, and I was worried about my effectiveness with that particular group of students. He said something along the lines of, “I know it’s hard when you can’t make them love music like you do.” At the time, I smiled and nodded and we moved on to the next item on the agenda. But later, I started thinking about what he said, and I made a surprising discovery.

I don’t love music.

That’s not a typo. I mean it.

I don’t love music.

I like music.

I like listening to music. I like making music. I like teaching music. I like that I’m good at music. I like the doors it opened for me in the way of college scholarships. I like the confidence it gave me. I like the skills it instilled in me that carried over into other disciplines—like collaboration, work ethic, creativity, and critical thinking.

I like music. But I don’t love it.

I love people.

Had it been the opposite—had I loved music and merely liked people—I might have pursued performance. I was taught the skill of performing. I’m perfectly comfortable singing in front of groups small and large. What makes me uncomfortable are the accolades that follow. I’m happy to prepare a solo for church, but I find myself slipping out of the service early so as to avoid the compliments from people. True performers are capable of and like to accept praise. The good ones learn how to do so humbly. I just find it very awkward.

I imagine this idea is true of all or at least most passionate educators. Literature teachers—like reading, love people. Math teachers—like problem-solving, love people. Social Studies—like history, love people. Science Teachers—like understanding, love people. Media Specialists—like books, love people. Principals—like leadership, love people. Coaches—like sports, love people.

But at the end of the day, it’s the connection to the people with whom I share the music that is the biggest reward of all.

Like music, love people. That’s why I’m an educator.

What New Teachers Really Need

There’s a lot of talk these days about the teacher shortage. In our great state, we set a record for emergency certifications as our districts began the school year with over 800 teaching positions empty. I’m from a large, suburban school district that educates around 23,000 students. A colleague there told me they had to dissolve the physics course at one of the high schools two weeks into the school year because they could not find anybody to teach it. This serves to illustrate that this crisis is being felt all over the state and is not just confined to urban and rural districts. It has left many of us asking how we can recruit and retain good teachers in our state.

Should we offer student loan forgiveness for new teachers committing years to the profession? That’s an idea. Should we quit making it so damn hard for out-of-state teachers to get their credentials and years of service recognized? Yep. Should we raise teacher pay? I think we all know the answer to that one.

None of us entered the profession expecting to make millions; but making enough to support a modest lifestyle is not an unreasonable demand. Raising teacher pay will probably go a long way to help alleviate the teacher shortage. We can advance that cause by voting for legislators who will support that endeavor, and by choosing from among ourselves the best advocates to articulate the need for it.

But…

I think the exodus of new teachers is less about being underpaid and more about being overwhelmed.

It’s a tough time to be a teacher. We’re fighting the false rhetoric that public schools are failing. We’re expected to educate more students with fewer teachers and less money. We have students showing up on the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, and we’re expected to close the gap with their peers all while shackled to the increasingly unfair mandates of high-stakes testing. And yet…there are still people choosing to become teachers. We need to do everything in our power to encourage and champion the teachers who are choosing right now to enter the education field. These are the brave souls willing to join the battle when the fight isn’t fair and we’re on the losing end more often than not. If we want to keep them, we’ll have to help them know their faith was not poorly placed.

I grew up in the United Methodist Church, and my husband is a United Methodist Minister (yes, I’m a pastor’s wife who drinks, swears, and occasionally smokes a cigar—so what?). When new members join, there is a brief ceremony in which the pastor asks if they will uphold the church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. The pastor then asks the congregation to remember their own vows of membership, and to commit to the love and care of these new members. (The words are really beautiful, and I had them here originally. I’m a little rusty with citation and copyright, so I removed them. But you can check them out in the United Methodist Hymnal on page 48.) The point is, the church places responsibility on new members and existing ones when welcoming people into the church. While an individual vows to uphold the church, the church vows to uphold the individual.

What would the profession of teaching look like if we took a similar vow? What if we accepted the responsibility of nurturing new teachers in addition to upholding our professional duties? Are we doing “all in our power” to invest in new teachers so they feel encouraged to stay in the profession?

Are you willing to take that new teacher to lunch or coffee, or invite her to sit at your table during her first faculty meeting? Being the new teacher isn’t much different from being the new student—we all just want to make friends. Speaking of friends, friend new teachers on Facebook. Follow their twitter account. Invite them to join in Facebook groups or twitter chats you participate in that are related to their field.

Can you drop by that new teacher’s room on occasion and compliment her bulletin boards/behavior charts/reading nook/homework calendar/or anything else? A compliment from a veteran teacher means the world to a new one, even one as seemingly frivolous as how the desks are arranged. If he coaches a school team or directs the band or choir, can you show up to a game or a concert? An added bonus: you’ll probably also bring joy to a few of your students who just love to see their teachers at their activities.

Do you have some perusal materials you picked up at a conference? Two copies of that workbook? The fail-proof substitute lesson plan? New teachers have so little when they first start out. Share the wealth. That includes important information like who has the key to the supply closet and that every Thursday they serve homemade cinnamon rolls in the breakfast line. (Note: sharing the wealth does NOT mean passing off all your unwanted, outdated material to a new teacher just to clear space in your shelves—share only the best stuff!)

Are you willing to volunteer some time and maybe even money to helping your new colleague in his endeavors? Will you buy a few raffle tickets from the new baseball coach? Or show up to the pancake breakfast the new cheer sponsor organized? If money is tight, can you donate some of your time? When the new drama teacher is drowning in obligations during musical season, can you help paint sets, or pull out your old sewing machine to make a few [dozen] hot-box-girl outfits? (1000 bonus points to any readers who know that reference!) These are things we should do for our colleagues whether new or old, but they’re especially important for the ones who haven’t had a chance to make those connections with the faculty or the community yet.

Can you commit to staying positive? New teachers have enough obstacles to overcome. They’re navigating new territory that can be scary and even lonely. What they DON’T need is a veteran teacher complaining about students/parents/administrators/that we have to buy our own coffee, or any pessimistic views about the future of our education system. They need to hear your success stories. They need to know the first few (or five) years are tough, and that’s okay. They need you to confirm their hope that things get better.

I’m not saying I have done all or even any of these things. It might even sound condescending to some of you that a teacher with only eight years experience is preaching about what new teachers need. But I feel as though these needs are still very fresh to me as I am just passing out of the “new teacher” phase and into the adolescence of my career.

I am particularly guilty of being the “glass-is-half-full” teacher. That’s a story for another post. The point is, I see now what, or rather who, was responsible for helping me and sometimes carrying me through those first precarious years in the profession. Had it not been for the mentoring from master educators (including my own mother), I’m not sure where I’d be today. Certainly not teaching.

Many of you are already doing these things. Many of you are already invested in mentoring the next generation of great teachers. You’re probably wondering why any veteran teachers would need to be reminded to do these things because it comes so naturally to you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Please rest assured it made a difference to me, or to somebody like me in their first fragile years as an educator.

I can honestly say my perspective on teaching has changed. I see my passion shifting from just mentoring students to mentoring teachers as well. I am ready now to re-commit myself not only to my obligations as a teacher, but to the promise of encouraging and upholding my brothers and sisters teaching alongside me. Are you willing to do the same?

Because what new teachers really need…is YOU!

The First One

Hello, friends! I am in my eighth year of teaching secondary vocal music, and this is my inaugural plunge into the world of edu-blogging. I have thought several times about blogging, but I always balked because I wasn’t sure I had anything new or valuable to add to the conversation. I know less now than I thought I did ten years ago as a brand-new teacher, so why not leave the blogging to the experts with more experience in my field? Still, some of my thoughts and experiences continued to nag me to be shared. I asked myself what my purpose would be in adding my voice to the education conversation.

  1. Encourage new teachers to enter the profession. There’s a lot of negativity out there surrounding our profession, especially in this hyper-critical society where social networks can erupt into digital battlegrounds over every issue imaginable, including education. But I truly believe that for every news piece exposing bad teachers or failing schools, there are dozens of success stories in public education existing quietly under the radar. Teaching is a calling. There is very little glory in it. Everybody knows there’s no money in it. But if you are truly called to the profession, there is a lot of fulfillment in it.
  2. Encourage gifted teachers to stay in the profession. It is estimated that the percentage of teachers leaving the profession within their first five years is as high as 50% (http://all4ed.org/press/teacher-attrition-costs-united-states-up-to-2-2-billion-annually-says-new-alliance-report/). Most are leaving because of low pay, poor working conditions, or lack of respect for the profession. I’ll admit, I almost quit after my first year. Were it not for the encouragement of family and particularly veteran teachers, I might have quit teaching altogether. This further illustrates the importance of mentoring when it comes to sustaining the flow of confident teachers into the profession. We need to be telling our young teachers that while it doesn’t get easier, it certainly gets better, and that we are here to help them navigate those first challenging years.
  3. Encourage an atmosphere of collaboration. Experienced teachers know that our best ideas are usually not our own. More often than not, our most successful activities, lesson plans, projects, etc. are taken from other teachers in part or in whole. Sure, sometimes we put our own “spin” on the idea, or adjust for differences in student ability or grade level, but a lot of what we do has been done in some shape or form before. Much of what we accomplish is born through a process of collaboration, examination, adjustment and rebirth. Contrary to the corporate world, this kind of occupational pirating is acceptable and even encouraged in the teaching profession. I consider it one of the highest compliments for a fellow educator to utilize one of my techniques (which I probably stole…err…borrowed from another educator, anyway). We all (well, most of us) play nice in this sandbox.

I realize that sometimes these things evolve into something else, but at least there’s a jumping-off point. I’m willing to see where this goes. Care to come along with me?