Another one from the Washington Post.
Category Archives: Education
Fridays at schools around the nation is “munchies” day. PTA volunteers sell popcorn, pepperoni sticks, and other snacks at recess time.
Some years ago at my previous school I noticed that Fridays were also the day we would have swarms of gulls and crows on the playground. I put two and two together. Popcorn is a very drop-able snack. Gulls and crows are both opportunistic omnivores. Same thing happens at my current school.
During recess they circle the playground looking for the opportunity to quickly grab and go. But when the playground clears, the banquet really begins. Other than the occasional squabble over a plump piece of popcorn, the living is easy.
Bird brains? I don’t think we give them enough credit.
A teacher at “Education Nation” suggested that union rules regarding the teaching day limited her ability to meet the needs of her students and she just wanted to “do my job.” She wondered why she wasn’t allowed to bring students in on Saturday to do extra tutoring with those who needed it.
My simple question to her is: Where do you put limits on your time? Most teachers I know, myself included, put in time beyond the contract. Today I worked one hour forty-five minutes beyond my contractual obligation. On this past Sunday I spent three plus hours in my classroom grading papers and planning. I also scored papers at home on Saturday and Sunday. I brought home more papers to score tonight.
When I was a young teacher, I put in many more hours than I do now. Of course, I was living away from family and friends, and had no social life to speak of then. Now I’m older and have a wife and son. My energy level is not what it was. Tell me, what is a reasonable expectation of my time as a professional? Do I reach my limit when I drop dead?
Many people have succeeded in life by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, as the saying goes. These people are to be admired for their determination and grit. We often use the same phrase as a suggestion to those who are struggling. “You just need to get up off your duff and pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” some have been heard to say. The problem is that not everyone has bootstraps, or boots for that matter.
Seventy years ago this June 11 my Dad, Harold Clifton Brown, graduated first in his class from West Point. Born the first son of an electrical engineer and a Norwegian immigrant who had briefly written for silent films, things looked pretty bright for his future from the start. He soon had two brothers to play with and his parents were doing pretty well providing for the boys. His dad, Harold senior, worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light. He was called “Brownie” by Grandma Brown, and she took care of the boys and the home. When Dad was about six, Brownie died of a sudden illness, leaving Grandma to provide and care for three young boys. It was 1924.
Through the worst of the Great Depression Grandma Brown worked hard and raised the boys. Dad did pretty well in school, except in the area of conduct.
Dad continued to work hard once at West Point and in the end was incredibly successful. He served in World War II with the Corps of Engineers, earned a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Science at the University of Chicago after the war, and eventually retired as a Colonel. He went on to work fifteen years as an analyst for Boeing.
So dad had a bit of a rough start, but his life by most standards was successful. He certainly pulled himself up by his bootstraps, wouldn’t you say?
In no way do I consider myself the success Dad was. I went to college, reluctantly. My record as an undergrad was undistinguished. I flailed around at a variety of jobs for six years afterwards. Something finally clicked and I got my teaching credentials with a 3.74 GPA. Since then I’ve been gainfully employed as an elementary school teacher. But I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. Couldn’t find them. So how did I get where I am? I’m white, male, grew up in an upper middle-class community, and I’m the son of a very successful father and saintly mother. Had but one of those puzzle pieces been missing I might be missing too (See Depression).
So when I hear or read about people using examples of others overcoming long odds to “make something out of themselves” to justify criticism of those who fail at same, I get agitated. Sometimes I even get hot under the collar. On rare occasions it gets my back and my dander up. Way, way up. If someone opines that you should stay out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat, well, better make yourself scarce, because that’s one too many cliches.
Sometimes people need help to simply lead a normal life. We all are products of our families, communities, nations, and genetics. Fortune determines the variety and quantity of each. Genetics can impact ambition, health, and talent. Our families impact our self-image, values, and attitudes. Community and nation provide opportunity, resources, and security. If fortune is kind we find it easier to make our way in the world. If fortune shorts us in one or more areas we struggle a bit more. If too much is missing, ambition can find little room to grow.
So, when I see the alcololic homeless man vomiting by the side of the road I try not to judge him. I don’t call him “loser.” I see the me that might have been had my circumstances been slightly different.
When I was a new teacher I spent an average of ten hours a day at school. That does not include weekends, when I often put in an additional half-day. I would arrive in the morning before most staff, other than the chief custodian. I would stay late and have a fast-food dinner on the way home. Not the best for my health, but I didn’t really think about it. I was thirty-one, in good health, full of energy, and single. I was also three thousand miles from home, so I had no social life. Many of my colleagues were married so I didn’t hang out with them. The single ones were not so new to teaching as I, and we really didn’t have much else in common.
After that first year, I moved home and eventually went to work for my current employer. As the years went by, I continued to put in long hours at school. I also remained single. The average length of work-day gradually decreased, but not rapidly. When I turned forty, still a single man, I thought, “I’m still not married, but no biggie. I’m a good guy, educated, have a steady job, own a house, and I like kids. Ummmm, why am I not meeting eligible women?”
To make a long story short, I’m now married. We have a healthy, energetic five year old son. Really, really energetic. We have a house with a yard, both of which need upkeep. We both have families, friends, and interests which need attention. I still arrive at work earlier than required, leave later than required, and I work on weekends, but the hours are fewer. I don’t expect to ever be recognized as a star educator. I’m no Jaime Escalante. I don’t want to be. What I want is to be recognized for what I do well. Then I want to be told, with manners and respect for my education, experience, and humanity, what I need to do better. I want to be given a chance to fix those weaknesses in a way that makes sense to me. I don’t want to feel manipulated by legislation, bureaucrats, or politicians, and most of all, I don’t want to be the target of threats, insults, or intimidation by educational leaders or parents. That’s not an unreasonable expectation, is it?
The Washington State Legislature is busy working on new ed “reform.” Fifteen years ago or so, when I was still relatively new to education, that was the first time they laid “reform” on me. At that point they gave us the EALRs and the WASL. I was happy because I saw this as a more “authentic” measure of student progress, unlike the “bubble tests” popular at the time. Kids with learning disabilities struggled with those tests, trying to track where to mark their answers on the answer sheets. That was just plain cruel.
Now, after years I can describe only as miserable while trying to meet those standards, I am eager to see WASL’s behind slinking down the hallway in utter failure. Veteran teachers I worked with at the dawn of WASL predicted it would eventually be gone and forgotten. They were right, but it took longer than they expected. I am anxious to see what takes its place.
Of course, my confidence has taken a major hit in recent years as I struggled to get my students up to snuff in the key subject areas, especially after the push of the Education and Secondary Education Act, otherwise known as “No Child Left Behind.” I shall stick with the official title, abbreviated as ESEA. All I can say is, if the head cheerleader for ESEA is a model for what we hope for its goals, good luck. Test scores, especially a single, high stakes test given once a year are not the best way to measure the growth of children. The results of such tests are no way to measure the effectiveness of a teacher, either.
A few years back, I was singled out because my class did well on the Reading part of the WASL. I was quizzed as to my teaching methods, and it seemed I was thought of as some sort of fount of wisdom. The same year, my students’ Math scores tanked. My response was, “If I take credit for those reading scores, I have to take credit for the math scores. No thank you. There are too many other variables at work here.”
So, now I’m in the position of wondering, “When will this latest legislation fade into the black hole of “reform.”