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A Sense of Perspective

Apple_desk  At the retirement party I sat with a group of teachers who were survivors after the budget cuts.   One teacher said that over 30 teachers had lost their jobs in her district.   “So what happens to the classes that these people taught?” I asked.

“Well,” she replied, “my class load has gone up from 350 to 410.”  She is an elementary music teacher who travels among several buildings. 

“How in the world do you get to know 410 kids?”  I asked.   “Or even 350?”

“Some of them I knew last year, “ she said.  “You actually don’t get to know them very well.  I’ll be lucky if I can get all their names.”

“Also, some special ed classes have been combined,” another teacher said.

As a group they were committed to their students and their schools.  And as a group they were concerned about what they felt was a national trend towards teacher bashing.  And they were all aware of a local district that fired all its teachers.  “They all have to reapply for their jobs, “ one said.  “Can you imagine?”

“It makes me feel bad,” another said.  “I mean, we work hard at my school. I love the kids. I’m there early and I stay late.  I advise the junior class and I help with the yearbook.  And yet they blame us for everything.”

“Yeah, but what about the parents?” one added.

These teachers generally don’t read national education journals or blogs.  They know who Arne Duncan is, but they don’t actually think he has anything to do with what they do on a daily basis.   They belong to the union, but it doesn’t have a large presence in their schools.  Their focus is kids and whether they’ll have enough books, computers, violins, soccer balls, or desks next fall for all of them. 

The whole conversation reminded me that when we talk about school reform, we need to keep a sense of perspective.  Teachers in hundreds of schools across the country are doing the job they were hired to do – and then some.

Career Questions

Sorting and selecting  Q:  Next year my school is implementing “teaming.”  What this means is that teachers at each grade level K-6 will have common planning time, which is great.  Also, we will share students so that one teacher will have the highest level for reading and language arts, but the lowest level for math, for example.  At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

On my team, my partner teacher thinks that it would be better if she just kept the high achieving kids for reading and language arts and math since she would get to know them better.  Of course, I would then have the low achievers for both subjects.  She is willing to mix students for social studies and science.

Truthfully, I like working with lower ability kids and I actually think I work better with them than she does, but I’m wondering if I should agree to this arrangement.  If I change my mind later on, it could be a problem.  Also, she thinks that I should also have all the learning disabled kids in my classroom so they can all receive extra help at the same time.

A:  Here you have a great illustration of the problems of ability grouping in the elementary school.  I do have a few thoughts.  If your school has a push-in program for all the kids receiving extra services, it often works well to have clusters of kids in one classroom.  That way the special education teacher can integrate her work with yours and the students can remain part of the general classroom (although some students may need pull-out as well).  Of course, kids who are learning disabled may very well be in the high ability group as well. 

I would not agree to your colleague’s suggestion that she work with the high achievers in both reading and math.  (It’s hard to see how this arrangement is “teaming.”) Given that these subjects take up the bulk of the teaching day, what will develop is a 2-tiered system of instruction at each grade level, the brighter students in one tier and all the others in the lower tier for most of the day.  There are many ways to deliver instruction (for example, whole group instruction with pre-teaching for challenged students and enrichment for gifted students).  And students may be grouped to read the same book, but they do not have to be in the same group for writing and grammar.

All children deserve quality instruction, and it is not in their best interests to be sorted and selected like blueberries so early in life. And by the way, you may be better than she is working with lower achieving students, but maybe she'd be better with practice.  And who's to say you wouldn't be better working with high achieving kids as well?



The Legacy of NCLB

Nclb-logo  What will be the legacy of No Child Left Behind?   Children who have been taught to memorize but not to think.

In a thought-provoking article (excerpted from his book, Reversing Readicide) in Educational Leadership, Kelly Gallagher, who teaches in Anaheim, California, notes that his current freshmen entered second grade when NCLB became law.  “These students have already spent years in schools where teachers and administrators have confused covering massive amounts of material with teaching students how to think and read critically,” he writes.  As a result, skills like creative problem solving and teamwork have taken a backseat to test preparation and memorizing “facts.”

Compounding the problem is that students have become less inclined to read independently.  According to a 2007 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers and reading scores continue to worsen, especially among boys.

We continue to develop curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” not only in reading and English, but also in science and math.  Curriculum is “covered” rather than taught.  To reverse the trend, Gallagher suggests that we give students more authentic reading experiences (what adult reads worksheets?).  We should stop “overteaching” books (an entire semester devoted to The Scarlet Letter).  And we should stop “underteaching” books too (a 10-book summer reading list with no introduction or background).

Put Reversing Readicide on your summer reading list after you clear your head with a couple of beach reads.

Make Mine a Double Dip

IceCreamCone  I was in Ohio last week to celebrate my sister’s retirement as a pubic school special education teacher.  Her superintendent is retiring also, but not to golf, read, and do volunteer work.  He has taken another job as Director of Pupil Personnel for another district where he will draw a salary along with his retirement income.

While I was helping my sister clean out her classroom, she introduced me to her high school principal and his assistant.  Both are retired administrators receiving both their pension and their salary from their current job.  It turns out that in Ohio, teachers and administrators can retire after 30 years in the state system and then go back to work either at the same job or in another school district.  The opportunity to retire at 52 with ten or more working years ahead is a real encouragement to “double dip.”

The Columbus Dispatch reports that more than 150 of Ohio’s 614 school superintendents collect both pensions and paychecks.  While this is a great deal for individual school personnel, it’s not so great for the state teachers’ retirement fund, currently facing $40 billion in unfunded liabilities.  The system may need a taxpayer bailout.  It’s also not so great for aspiring administrators or teachers.

School districts insist that rehiring their retired superintendents retains experience at the helm.  Until last year, districts also saved on health insurance, paid by the retirement system.  The system has since abandoned that idea, finding it too costly.

The Dispatch notes that superintendents represent only a fraction of the state’s double dippers, but they are among the most visible. 

The double dip benefit isn’t available in my state, and at first I looked askance at my colleagues in Ohio.  But I have to admit, if I were working there, it would be hard to ignore the benefit.  College fees, vacations, nicer home or car – you name it. Why doesn’t it feel right?




To Walk or Not to Walk

Her parents had sent out the invitations to the graduation party.  Relatives were coming from out of town.  The cap and gown had arrived.  Yearbooks were signed and the prom was a hazy memory. 

Everything was in place until she failed English.  Now she won’t graduate until she retakes the course this summer.

He needed a math course to complete all the graduation requirements.  Illness kept him from completing the course and he too will not qualify for graduation until he finishes his Incomplete.  He won’t walk in June either.

Graduate  Another student, a child of a military family, transferred to the school as a senior when his father was reassigned.  The boy had already passed all the state tests in his last school and was on schedule to graduate this year.  Unfortunately, he failed the required graduation test in his new state.  So not only does he not get to graduate with his class in his old school, he doesn’t get to graduate at all until he retakes and passes the test this summer.

So what do you do with kids who should have graduated in June but won’t really finish all their requirements until August?  Do you let them walk with their class?  Or do you hang tough and only let kids walk across the stage who have “earned” their diploma?

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? And each case is different.  The child of the military family didn’t choose to move.  On the other hand, the kid who failed English simply chose not to do the work and her parents had been notified early enough to right the course.  The student who was ill simply couldn’t complete the course.  Do you make exceptions based on effort or circumstance?

Some schools allow kids to walk anyway, to cross the stage at graduation and receive an empty folder. (In fact, in some large schools, all kids receive an empty folder to avoid mix-ups; the diplomas are later mailed.)  Other schools refuse to let kids walk who haven’t completed all the required courses, insisting that allowing these students to walk “compromises the integrity” of the process.

But here’s the thing – in most schools, there’s no big graduation ceremony in August.  And no kid is coming back a year later to walk with a younger class.  So most of these kids and their parents will be denied the traditional celebration.

I used to refuse to let kids walk, citing the “integrity” of the program.  I think I’m doing a Ravitch. Let ‘em walk.  Otherwise the penalty exceeds the crime.  But only if they’re missing just one course or test.




Career Questions

Q:  My principal has asked me to attend several workshops this summer.  While the topics are interesting and would be helpful, I hate to give up my summer days.  Part of the reason I became a teacher was so that I could have summers off with my own kids.  And frankly, I need the summer to clear my head and refuel.  Am I being unreasonable to want to protect my summer?

A:  No, you’re not being unreasonable.  But let’s think about some of the reasons your principal may want you to attend the workshops.  Maybe she’s thinking that you could be a leader next year in implementing new teaching strategies the workshops offer.  Or maybe she’s thinking that you need a refresher course or two to improve your own classroom performance. 

While I understand your wanting to protect your vacation time with your children, we all need to continually  Beach-Umbrella  develop our professional skills.  Frankly, given the budget cuts that schools are facing, many teachers will be denied the opportunity for professional development this summer, so you may be among the lucky ones to be offered the chance to learn something new.

My suggestion is that you compromise.  Talk to your principal about spending a couple of days in workshops to stimulate some new ideas and to fulfill your professional obligations.  You may get some insight into why she wants you to go.  And later as you’re lolling under the beach umbrella, the new ideas may take your mind off the oil sloshing up on the sand.

A Miniature Lesson

Toy-Soldier-Posters  The last week of school can be a lot of fun for little kids since real instruction is ostensibly over.  There are field days, lunches, awards days, “graduation,” and even school spirit days like crazy hair day or hat day.

In East Providence, Rhode Island last week, second graders were allowed to wear hats to school, and David Morales decided to decorate his camouflage hat with miniature toy soldiers.  Unfortunately the miniature toy soldiers were holding miniature toy weapons, violating the school’s miniature – whoops – violating the school’s zero tolerance policy for weapons, miniature or otherwise.  The principal suggested that David find some miniature soldiers who did not carry weapons.

To their credit, unlike many of today’s parents, David and his mom did not immediately take the district to court, but simply decided that David would wear the hat without the miniature soldiers, noting that he only had one soldier carrying miniature binoculars instead of a miniature weapon. 

The retired commander of the Rhode Island National Guard had a meeting with the school administration to request that the policy be changed.  In regard to the school’s request that David use unarmed miniature soldiers, the commander declared, “The American soldier is armed.  That’s why they’re called the armed forces.”

Not content to leave it at that, the commander later gave the boy a military medallion on a radio talk show for his “patriotism.”  He also gave the boy a certificate allowing him to call himself a brigadier general, perhaps unaware that when playing with miniature toy soldiers a kid can call himself anything he wants. Leaping onto the miniature bandwagon was the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU, which wrote a letter to the district superintendent charging that the child’s right to free speech had been violated.  The superintendent subsequently revised the school policy.

There must be a miniature lesson here, and maybe it’s this:  Next year, David, just wear a plain baseball cap.  Because all of the good judgment shown by some of the adults in this incident could be held in a miniature teacup.






Let Them Fidget

In my walkabouts in the elementary school, I always notice that some of the kindergartners through second graders have a hard time sitting still.  The tendency to squirm is usually unfortunate for a child because it often seems that some primary teachers place a big premium on sitting still.  I agree that’s it’s important for kids to learn how to keep their hands and feet to themselves, but not sitting still, especially for little boys, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not paying attention.  In fact, I’ve known some kids who could pay better attention if they had a ball to squeeze or paper and pencil to doodle on.

Kids playing  Anyway, the AP reports that some teachers have replaced the standard school desk with work stations that can be adjusted for height so that kids can stand if they want to.  In Idaho, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, some schools are allowing the fidgets to sit or stand or even walk about during lessons.  Teacher Jim Oloff says, “It’s not normal for students, or even necessarily for adults, to sit still for long periods of time.”

Allowing kids to work while standing isn’t a bad idea.  But the desks are expensive ($250 - $500).  I’d make a couple of other, cheaper suggestions.  Let all kids get up and move every so often.  Do jumping jacks between subjects.  Go outside for a 10-minutes recess.  And finally, remember that as long as they keep their hands and feet to themselves, it’s OK if they’re not sitting primly with their feet on the floor.



The Athletic Banquet

As the school year winds down, at some point there will be an athletic awards banquet or ceremony.  It will be well attended and very long.

Despite numerous attempts to curtail coaches’ speeches, it’s hard for coaches not to give in to the temptation of reviewing every goal, every win, every heart-breaking loss.  Parents and student athletes who attend these functions don’t mind when the coaches are talking about their own kids’ teams.  They begin to chatter and fuss when the coach is reviewing some other team’s season.  Occasionally the coach will show a video snippet of a play-off win on a big screen TV set up for the occasion. 

I worked hard to ensure that boys and girls got equal time during the athletic awards ceremony, but I wasn’t always successful.  And it wasn’t always the boys who got more time; it depended on which teams had better seasons.

In the end everyone went home happy with his or her certificate, trophy, or school letter.  Athletic letter  Letter jackets in my area are a thing of the past, but many schools still award the tightly stitched capitals or school logos representing the district.  I’m not sure what kids actually do with them anymore, and they’re not cheap.  But they still want them.

I’m a strong believer in school athletics, as I’ve noted many times on this blog.  In tough budget times someone always wants to curtail the athletic program.  It’s probably less than 3% of the total budget and it’s worth every penny.  It’s even worth sitting through the athletic banquet.






Career Questions

Q:  During faculty meetings or workshops, I like to knit.  I’ve been knitting for years, and I’m perfectly able to concentrate on what is being said while I’m knitting.  I am paying attention to the meeting, but it seems a shame not to be doing something useful at the same time.

After last week’s faculty meeting, my principal told me he doesn’t want me to knit during meetings.  I pointed out that other people grade papers while he’s talking, and I felt he was singling me out.  Any advice?

A:  You may be able to knit and listen at the same time, Madame Defarge, but it may appear to your principal that you’re not giving him your full attention.  And for many people, perception is reality. Madame Defarge  

Look at it this way:  Would you allow your students to make clay figures or draw racing cars or paint their toenails while you’re talking?  None of these activities requires their full attention either, but it still appears that they’re not listening respectfully.

Does the President want to look out at a sea of knitters during his State of the Union Address?  Is Meryl Streep knitting while she waits for her name to be called during the Academy Awards?  Is Ellen DeGeneres knitting while she judges who will be the next American Idol?

Well, you get my point.  But while you shouldn’t be knitting, people shouldn’t be grading papers either.  Your principal should apply the attention rule across the board.




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.