I Support Public Education

It’s been a wild few weeks! Since my last post, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my career as a teacher. This resulted in a series of seven essays that I submitted as a candidate for my district’s teacher of the year. I’ve also spent a lot of time defending my profession as I tweeted my senators and various others to express my opposition to the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. While both tasks were frustrating, one was far more rewarding.

I’ve seen this floating around on Facebook recently, so I thought I’d share my path through the public school system.

I am the product of public education. 

Longfellow Elementary School (Coffeyville, KS)

Roosevelt Junior High School (Coffeyville, KS)

Field Kindley High School (Coffeyville, KS)

Coffeyville Community College, AA (Coffeyville, KS)

Pittsburg State University, BSEd. in English (Pittsburg, KS)

I am a public educator and have been since 1999.

Field Kindley High School (Coffeyville, KS)

Hebron High School (Carrollton, TX)

Every teacher and professor I’ve met along the way has played a crucial role in my life. I wrote about many of them in the essays I mentioned before. Maybe I’ll turn those into blog posts!

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This Is Only a Test

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. The holidays, life, work, yada yada yada… I’m writing this one because I need to write and because I don’t want to complete Fitz’s challenge. And so I shall use this platform to share some thoughts on assessment.

The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests stage performances in school buildings all across Texas up to four times a year. Administrators prepare testing rooms, teachers lace up tennis shoes for “active monitoring,” and students sit in a chair for up to 5 hours with nothing but some sharpened pencils and test materials. We all play our parts in the STAAR testing theatre. Lately, the drama has taken a turn, though, and people are starting to wonder if the STAAR test is really a true assessment of what kids are learning, if maybe there are serious flaws in the way the writing portions of the test are scored (oh, there are).

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I googled “STAAR test problems.”

And in a plot twist, a poet discovered that one of her poems had been used on the test and that she couldn’t answer the questions that were asked! English teachers have been saying this for years: an author’s intent can’t be truly known, and asking questions about it is unfair. Maybe now that an expert has spoken (though I’d argue that we English teachers are experts in our own right, but I digress), those who make the rules about testing will listen and make some changes. And maybe they are actually listening because (yet another plot twist!) just this week, TEA released new blueprints for the English I and English II tests, removing the short response items that recently drew so much criticism.

Because of the fiasco that is STAAR (and school financing, since the state contributes only 18% of the revenue in my district. You want us to follow your rules? Give us more money!), it’s time for districts to stand up to the state and demand more local control. My district has begun the discussion of becoming a “district of innovation.” While there are many variables and unknowns right now, other districts have already made the jump, so I’ll be watching closely to see how things shake out. The most important thing of all, though, is to do what’s best for the kids.

What remains after testing is a human being who cannot be accurately judged by what he or she has left on the answer document. We have to remind our kids that they are more than a test score. I’ve said before that one of my goals in teaching is to help my students become better versions of themselves. There’s no number or grade that you can assign to that.

Reset for Success

When we began the new 9 weeks, my students and I had a little “reset” discussion. We started by talking about things that we can reset, like a video game when we’re about to be eaten by a dragon or a phone when it freezes up. A reset is a fresh start when things aren’t going the way we’d like. arton6134-cb53a

The conversation continued to things we can reset in class, like our reading goals and our blogs. We also thought about how to reset our writer’s notebooks. Students really like sharing their beliefs about quotes and responding to various articles of the week (while they might not readily admit it). However, many students said they struggled with the required outside-of-class entries–entries that are open-ended and don’t have a set topic. They thought it would be easier if they had a prompt to write from, so I offered to dig up some resources.

The first link I found is a list of 100 open-ended questions about love, life, and loss. There are opportunities for narrative (Continue the following: “Today started out like any other day, but then…”), expository (What are your fears?), and persuasion (What do you think are the three main problems in the world right now?  Do you see the solution to them?  If it was up to you, how would you change the world?).

Brainy Quote is another excellent resource, so I shared a link to quotes about time. The sidebar provides other topics, and students can also use the search bar to look for quotes that interest them.

Sometimes ideas spring from visual stimulation, so I found some really great image sites: The Literacy Shed and National Geographic. Illustrations and visuals on the Literacy Shed site are accompanied by writing prompts that students can choose to consider. The photographs on the National Geographic site offer other perspectives of the world that students aren’t often exposed to. I plan to incorporate more images in my classes!

Hopefully these links will spark some creativity in my students and encourage them to seek out their own sources of inspiration!

Choices

I read somewhere once that a classroom teacher makes more decisions daily than an air traffic controller does. (Funny–I was just looking back through old blog entries, and I started another post with the same factoid!) While the decisions in a classroom won’t necessarily cause or prevent an immediate, fatal catastrophe, they do have an impact on human lives. Every decision a teacher makes–from assignments to discipline to simple words–has a consequence, so it’s important to be deliberate in those choices. I’ve found two that exact the most influence in my classroom: choose your battles and choose kindness.

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The almighty restroom pass. To a teacher, it represents avoidance and mayhem. To a student, escape and peace. Once the power of the pass is removed, however, its appeal is quickly diminished. In the time before BYOT (bring your own technology), using cell phones in class was strongly discouraged, and students would use the restroom pass as a way to circumvent the rule so they could catch up on missed messages in the privacy of the restroom, out of the way of penalty. Teachers got wise to this trick and began limiting the number of passes that a student could use each semester, adding yet another tedious task to their already tipping pile. Since BYOT has become something of the norm, most students can check Twitter from the comfort of their desks. (I am aware that many teachers still prohibit students from using their technology during lecture, but I’m also a realist who knows that kids ARE on their phones when we think they aren’t. I digress, of course.) For me, this one minor allowance ended one of the most common classroom conflicts. Now students are free to take the pass to use the restroom almost anytime during my class (if I’m covering something important or it’s the first or last 15 minutes of class, I’ll usually ask the kid to wait). I think it’s actually cut down on the amount of time students spend outside of my room, and it’s one less battle to fight. That’s a choice I don’t regret!

Attitude choice also makes a big difference. Ever realize how much energy it takes to be angry about something? When I get mad, I clam up at first, but eventually I’ll go off to whomever will listen about whatever it is that ticked me off. Before I know it, my blood pressure is rising, I really don’t feel any better about the situation, and I’ve infected someone else with my negativity. On the other hand, being kind takes a lot less effort. As a matter of fact, we should be kinder than necessary, according to J.M. Barrie.

Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

I try to remind myself of this quote when I encounter difficult people. I know I have bad days sometimes, so why isn’t it okay for others to? And it could be that my one gesture of kindness–however small it may be–is the thing that a person needed to help make it through the day, so why not smile at that kid in the hallway? I can’t know everything that others are facing, so I try to give them a break. A little kindness and compassion can go a long way.

The next time a student asks to use the restroom, consider handing them a pass with a smile.

To Be the Best

If you think teaching is a competition of you versus your coworkers, you’re doing it wrong.

One thing I’ve learned in my 18 years of experience is that meaningful collaboration with colleagues is an important aspect of my success. When I started out, I was basically my own department: I taught introduction to journalism and photography and served as the adviser for the yearbook and newspaper staffs. The lack of a teaching partner or two was so isolating. I had a few mentor teachers I could talk to about work in general, but I needed people who could relate to the amount of stress I felt. I was so overwhelmed (I also coached tennis and oversaw the Key Club). After just 2 years, I was burned out, and I was really second-guessing my career choice.

When I moved to Dallas, I thought I wanted to do anything but teach. The problem was that I didn’t know where to start. Teaching was the thing I went to school for. It’s what I thought I would do for the rest of my work life. Why did I pay all of that money for a degree I didn’t want to use anymore? And so I found another teaching job. This one came with a multi-person department, and that previous feeling of isolation fell away. Fellow teachers happily marched through the classroom door, carrying stacks of curriculum guides and lessons and ideas (this parade of paper still happens today, only virtually in the form of shared digital files). The culture of sharing instantly put me at ease, and I knew the days of teaching in solitude were far behind me. I still had my struggles, but I had a support system this time that propped me up and kept me going.

Teaching is about that collegiality, that relationship built on respect of the hard work that we all do. The challenges we face may look a little different from room to room, but that doesn’t make one problem more or less difficult than another. I’m pretty independent and have my own ideas about how to run a classroom, but that doesn’t mean my way is better than anyone else’s. I still value the collaborative aspect of teaching because it’s what helps me grow (and I hope my coworkers find it helpful, too). It’s one thing to want to be a great teacher. It’s a whole other thing to compare your greatness to that of others.

If students leave my classroom at the end of the day as better versions of themselves, then I know I’ve won, and that’s the only contest that matters to me.

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Winner, winner, chicken dinner!