Why Teach?-Part II

Today, I had the pleasure of attending a summer stock production of Guys ‘n’ Dolls. Several of my former students were in the cast. Upon arrival, I ran into the parents of one of those cast members, and we chatted briefly. When I went to purchase my ticket, the girl behind the counter informed me that another person had an extra and left it at the window to be given to the first single patron. When I sat down, I thanked the lady next to me who was responsible for the random act of kindness. She proceeded to visit with me about her experiences teaching in the community, and sponsoring several endeavors to promote fine arts. During intermission, I spotted a beloved colleague. After some frantic gesturing and exaggerated mouthing of words, we agreed to meet in up in the lobby after the show…where I ran into many more students and parents with whom I had worked in the past.

The other day, I began this series, “Why Teach?”, by describing the profession as a rollercoaster ride—teaching is never boring.

 

The narrative of my day at the theater is to illustrate another answer to the question, “why teach?”

Teaching fosters lifelong relationships.

 

I’m a “people-person”.   So entering a profession centered around people was pretty much a no-brainer for me. I’ve written before that I like music, and love people, which is the guiding force for much of my philosophy of teaching. We’ve all heard plenty of clichés that go something like, “teachers touch the future”, and so on. I certainly expected to inspire kids upon entering the classroom, but I could not have predicted how much I would be inspired. By students. By parents. By colleagues.

My first three years of teaching were like most people’s: simultaneously challenging and rewarding. There are several students and colleagues with whom I am still in touch, but two very special friendships emerged from my time at that school—one with a teacher and one with a student. The teacher was a master educator, and someone whose opinion is still important to me. We have shared personal hardships and triumphs with each other, and even though we don’t talk much, when we do bump into each other, we very easily fall into conversation. We still bounce ideas off each other and seek guidance for our projects. The relationship with the student transformed gradually over the years from one of mentoring, to one of mutual respect and friendship. She works with me from time to time on various programs I’m directing, and I seek her opinion just about as much as she seeks mine.

Next year, my first students to see through a music education degree will be student-teaching. I have had the pleasure of mentoring several students into music at the collegiate level, some as majors, and other just to provide a creative and emotional outlet during their college years. Students have invited me to their weddings, sent me college graduation announcements, mailed me pictures when their babies are born. Their parents have friended me on Facebook, filled me in on their lives when I see them at community events, even thanked me years later for my involvement in their child’s high school years. I’ve taught at three different schools now, and formed life-changing if not life-long bonds with many of my colleagues. Thanks to social media, I am now forming those same bonds with educators who aren’t even in my district, let alone my building.

Teaching fosters lifelong relationships.

 

Here’s how others are responding to the question, “why teach?”:

I Changed Hundreds of Lives–CLICK HERE to Find out How! @ Okeducationtruths

Why Teach? @ Idealistically Realistic

Middle School Lyfe @ For the Love

Me too, I Change Lives, too. @ Educating Me

Why You Shouldn’t Be a Teacher…and Why You Must! @ View from the Edge

Why I Teach! @ Teaching from Here

Why Do I Teach? @ Mrs. Cloud’s Class

Why I Teach @ Room 20 Awesome

Why Teach? @ Teaching Connections

Why, Oh Why Do You Think Becoming a Teacher Is a Good Idea?!? @ Marauding Mentor

Why Teach? (Response to #Oklaed Blogger Challenge) @ BlueCerealEducation

Why I Teach Pt II @ Room 20 Awesome

Why I Teach? For the Differences Made (Laura’s Story) @ Mrs. Water’s English

Why I Teach… @ Jenn Will Teach

#WhyTeach @ The Blog

Why Teach?–Part I

There’s a lot of talk about the teacher shortage. Apparently, it’s not a problem exclusive to Oklahoma. I hear administrator friends lament, particularly this time of year, of the folders completely empty of candidates for various positions. The conversation about why this is happening typically goes back to any form of the same two points: money and respect. With the focus on battling vouchers, expansion of private charters, high-stakes testing, inequitable evaluation systems (for teachers and schools), merit pay and so many other reforms that seek to tear down public education, you can see how anybody might be deterred from entering our glorious profession. I don’t blame them. The rhetoric implies that it’s a tough time to work in public education.

Well, I’m not going to deny that those issues exist, and that the frustration that ensues isn’t present.

However, I want to spend a little time focusing on some other truths about our profession. Even given everything mentioned above, and any other frustrations that occur, there’s nothing else I’d want to be doing with my career.

So…why teach?

I’ll start with this:

It’s never boring.

I remember working one summer as a “technical writing intern” for a certain company in OKC. The handful of people I interacted with on a day-to-day basis were pleasant enough. The money was great…at least for a nineteen-year-old kid. But after six weeks I quit. Six excruciating weeks. I was so bored. Partly because there wasn’t enough to do and I would spend several hours a day staring at the walls of my little cubicle. But also partly because there wasn’t enough to do that was different.

I’m not knocking people who prefer those kinds of jobs. There are individuals who prefer that kind of routine. Maybe they like knowing exactly what’s expected. Maybe they find comfort and fulfillment in completing the same tasks, keeping the same hours, and interacting with the same people. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m so glad those people exist.

But I need a little variety. For me, teaching is never boring. There are new students every year, and sometimes in between. New activities everyday. New ideas to implement. New curriculum to try. New problems to face. New goals to set. New relationships to form. I am, for the most part, the architect of my day. There may be general educational goals set out for me in the form of standards or a school vision, but it’s up to me to determine the tools and experiences for accomplishing those ends. If I’m bored with a particular lesson or skill, I guarantee you there’s another way to teach it that will make it new and fresh again. Tired of the monotony and predictability of your daily schedule? No worries. There’s an assembly, a field trip, or a fire drill just around the corner to keep you on your toes.

Teaching is a total trip, guys. It’s a highs-and-lows, fast-and-slow, turn-you-around, upside-down, make-you-scream, make-you-laugh, topsy-turvy, loopty-loo rollercoaster. The thrill-seekers in all of us can definitely find their happy place in this profession. So get on board, folks. Throw your hands in the air and enjoy the ride!

Can I Change Your Mind?

I’ve written several times since I started this blog that I’ve become increasingly interested in “the big picture” as it concerns education. Policy, testing, reform, legislation, poverty, student needs, teacher evaluations, assessments, administration, pedagogy, etc. As a result, I’ve been doing a little reading, checking in with various bloggers—both local and national—and picking up a few books as the are recommended or reviewed. Two of the books I have been reading are by Diane Ravitch, and I also stop by her blog from time to time. I like what she has to say, and I admire and respect her. She has so much experience and can back up her views both with research, and with her own observations.

Needless to say, when I learned Diane Ravitch was the keynote speaker at last week’s CCOSA conference in Norman, I was a little bit jealous of a few of my colleagues. I’m not an administrator, so would not be attending the annual meeting and would therefore miss out on the opportunity to hear Ms. Ravitch speak.

Now, I’m a “rule follower”. So you probably wouldn’t find me asking a friend to sneak me into the conference so I could hear Ms. Ravitch’s address. That’s just something I wouldn’t normally do.  But let’s just say I put a glass to the wall and listened through the door…here’s what speaks to me most about Diane Ravitch’s message:

It’s okay to change your mind.

 

She doesn’t try to hide the fact that she once found herself on the same side with reformers touting school choice, merit pay, and standardized testing. She’s very open about the fact that she once agreed, at least in some part, with people who believe in the very reforms against which she stands now. The ideas she once thought valid and that might prove fruitful have not panned out in practice. So she changed her mind, and now works to discredit the false rhetoric that public schools are failing and we need corporate reform to rescue us.

I can relate to this idea because I, too, once subscribed to many ideas about education that I no longer believe. I’m ashamed to admit how proud and cocky I was in thinking I understood issues when I really had very little knowledge or experience. I used to champion consolidation, and speak very openly about my opinion we were wasting money on administrative positions. Now, having met many administrators, I understand the necessity for their positions due to the mountain of paperwork brought on by so many unfunded mandates. I didn’t give any weight to factors outside of school influencing student performance. I couldn’t understand why low socio-economic status should affect a child’s experience in school. I didn’t see any problem with vouchers. Only crappy teachers should be afraid of merit pay.

I think some of these opinions were the result of having led such a sheltered life. I grew up in a two-parent, loving household that valued education and community. We weren’t “rich” but we were very comfortable. The question of college for me was never “if” but rather “when”. I thought everybody was capable of achieving what I had if they chose to, and I had no sympathy for kids who couldn’t make good choices.

I won’t say I’m wiser now. I certainly know less than I thought I did ten years ago. But I will admit that my opinions have changed drastically and I realize I still have a lot to learn. About teaching, about people, and about life.

But I’m grateful for good friends, mentors, and champions who are showing me the way.

Perception and Pay

We’ve all heard it before. The justification for teacher pay based on the myth that “teachers only work nine months out of the year”. My contract is for 180 days. I receive 10 paid sick days, and 3 paid personal days each year so really, I only need to work 167 days each year to receive full compensation. I’m not even required to work an 8 hour work day! My contract day is 7.5 hours. That comes out to 37.5 hours a week. Most people work 40-60 hours on average every week. When you look at it that way, what we make seems fair, doesn’t it?

Except that isn’t the reality. Teachers don’t work just 7.5 hours each day. They don’t use their sick and personal leave because it’s a pain in the #$! to be gone. And all the teachers I know work well beyond those 180 days for which we are contracted.

Next school year, I estimate I will work somewhere in the ballpark of a cumulative 400 additional hours beyond my contract 7.5 hours/day. Seriously. For one, we’re producing a musical, which will amount for at least 1/3 of that time. The good news for me is that I receive a modest compensation for all the nights and weekends I spend at contests, concerts, auditions, and shows with students. For many of my colleagues, like the English teacher carrying out stacks of essays every night for grading, this is not the case. Doesn’t that English teacher have a planning/conference hour for grading, you say? Yes. He does. It’s also the time he has to contact parents, return phone calls and emails, meet with administrators or department chairs, write lesson plans, fill out district paperwork (bus requests, purchase orders, maintenance requests, etc.), attend IEP meetings, make deposits, tidy the classroom, and many other obligations I’m sure I’m forgetting at the moment. Some teachers have 45-55 minutes for these tasks. Some have as little as 30 minutes. Most days, we’re lucky to squeeze in a bathroom break amidst it all.

How many of us are committed to professional development this summer? I already have plans to attend at least two multi-day workshops. If I were still teaching AP Music Theory, I’d be attending the AP Summer Institute—a five day obligation—in Tulsa. Several of my friends are spending two or more weeks in class acquiring their Kodaly or Orff certification. These are financially uncompensated professional development days. In fact, many of us are paying fees and per diem for these workshops out of our own pockets. I haven’t even mentioned yet the hours upon hours that many teachers will spend either at school or at home preparing for the upcoming academic year by researching curriculum and preparing lesson plans.

Do we have to do these things? Technically, no. We don’t.

We know these experiences will make us better teachers and administrators. Continuing education affords us the opportunity to enhance our practices so that we can reach more students effectively. In short, we do it because it’s what’s best for kids.

Friends, we don’t just have a pay issue. We have a perception issue.

We have a problem in that the stigma surrounding teaching is that it’s an “8 to 4 and out the door” kind of job. We teachers know this is untrue. Those who live with a teacher, dealing with the stacks of essays to be graded, or math exams to be scored, also know it to be untrue. But there are plenty of people in our society who subscribe to the belief that teachers are compensated appropriately because they don’t even work an eight-hour-day for nine months out of the year. These aren’t bad people. They just don’t fully grasp the amount of time even adequate (let alone exceptional) teaching demands. I mean, let’s be reasonable, who can blame them? In what other comparably compensated profession would anybody work beyond their contract day without another incentive—like promotion.

We need to make the contract reflect what the job actually is. If we were to add instructional days, and extend the contract into the summer to include professional development for teachers, we could better make the case that teachers are poorly paid. Until we are willing to do that, I think the powers-that-be will continue to justify the current teacher salaries based on the myths surrounding the time we put into it. We need to make it clear that teaching is a year-round obligation, and that we work the same or more hours as professionals in other fields.

Are there teachers who manage not to clock a single minute during the summer? Sure. Are there teachers who follow the buses out of the parking lot? Sure. Are there teachers who read magazines during their conference period? Sure. In just about every profession, you’re going to find some slackers who are just phoning it in. All the more reason for properly reflecting the time obligations in our contracts. Some of those slacker teachers (don’t get mad…we all know they exist) will leave.

We teachers didn’t enter the profession for the money. But let’s face it. A lot of teachers are leaving because of the money. Money doesn’t buy happiness. But it does buy groceries, and pay the mortgage, and put shoes on our kids feet, and send them to college. We’ve heard the old saying, “you get what you pay for”. What kind of educators are we currently paying for? It’s a question worth answering, don’t you think?

High (Stakes) Society

The other day, I wrote about how high stakes testing is affecting my classroom. I challenged other teachers, especially teachers of “non-tested” subjects, to consider how testing is changing the culture of their schools and their student population. As educators, and especially for advocates, the term “high stakes testing” is thrown around a lot. It occurs to me, however, that some people may be uninformed when it comes to the frequency and purpose of testing in schools today.

Go back with me a few years. Imagine you are sixteen again. In fact, let’s say you just turned 16. Do you remember what momentous milestone to which you looked forward on or just after your 16th birthday? I’m sure you do. Because in our great state (and every other, to my knowledge) 16 is the age at which you can acquire a license to drive a vehicle.

But you have to pass the driver’s exam, first. This test requires you to demonstrate, with the examiner present, proficiency in operating a motor vehicle. This takes practice, which is why at 15 ½ years of age you can acquire a “learner’s permit”, allowing you to be behind the wheel with a licensed adult driver in the car. After months of supervised experience on the road (and in parking lots), you can decide when you are ready to take the test.

Some of my friends took and passed the test on their 16th birthday. I turned 16 in late July (many, many moons ago). I wasn’t ready on my birthday to take the driver’s test because I had just started driver’s education from a private instructor in June. It was September before I received my license. A friend of mine didn’t receive hers until her late 20’s. As a high school teacher, I noticed some of my students did not pursue their licenses until their junior or senior year at 17-18 years old.

And what happens if you fail the driver’s exam?

Well, you don’t get your license. At least not for two more weeks when you can attempt the test again.

So, to sum up…you can take however much time you wish to prepare for the test, and if you fail it, you can try again…until you pass.

Can you imagine how you would feel if you were given only one chance to pass the driver’s test, AND, you were required to take it on your 16th birthday? Even if you were sick. Even if you were experiencing a difficult time at home. Even if your family’s hectic lifestyle made it difficult to squeeze in any practice hours behind the wheel. Even if your family’s socio-economic status made it impossible to acquire the instruction you needed. One shot. One day. That’s it. Happy birthday to you.

Well, folks, our eight-year-olds don’t have to imagine at all. They know exactly how this feels, thanks to the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), which requires all 3rd graders to pass a reading exam at the end of third grade, or else risk being held back. One shot. One day. That’s it. Every third-grader. The early birthdays, the late birthdays. The ones that haven’t even turned 8 years old yet. The ones who were sick with the flu the week before. The ones who moved in the middle of the year. The ones whose parents divorced recently. The ones who didn’t eat over the weekend. The ones that have trouble sitting still. The ones who “get it”, but on their own time. The squirrely ones. The ornery ones. The shy ones. The ones who feel forgotten.

We demand that they all perform at the same level on the same day, or risk being separated from their classmates the following year.

I’d like to know if anybody can name a similar situation in adulthood. Are we tested? Sure.   Are the stakes this high? Not usually. In what circumstances have you found yourself as an adult, where you are required to take a test that you can only take once, and on such a strict timeline? Notice I said required. Many of us choose to put ourselves in high stakes situations to further our careers, or in pursuit of some other positive outcome. What’s the consequence if you bomb that one-time interview? You pursue other jobs. If you fail the bar exam? You get to keep trying.

If I could screenshot all the social media posts I have seen in recent months of friends’ kids freaking out about 3rd grade, there wouldn’t be enough space on my blog to list them all. What a shame. When I was in 3rd grade, I was excited to be allowed on the “big kid” side of the playground. I learned the “cotton-eyed joe” for the annual 3rd-grade “Shindig”. I read The Boxcar Children and every Ramona book in the library. I took one standardized test, for which there was no test prep, no practice test, and no testing pep assemblies leading up to it. The only “stakes”, high or otherwise, attached to it was that the district used it to determine which kids would attend “SEARCH”, the G/T program, for half a day each week.

My, how times have changed.

I challenge you, once again, to examine the impact of testing on our school culture. Is this what you want for our kids? Or can we all agree that 8-year-olds are too young to have stakes this high forced upon them? Because…

“You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong…”