Tag Archives: education

Teaching is Like a Box of Chocolates

Yep. You guessed it. You never know what you’re gonna get.

This year I appear to have gotten a box full of caramel peanut clusters. Yeah, there are one or two of the ones that are filled with the liquid fruit-flavored stuff, but I can deal with that. They’ll cleanse my palate to help me appreciate the others even more.

And there are close to three dozen of them altogether.

Don’t get me wrong. I work really hard to make sure all of my chocolates feel like they are the expensive variety, even if they are full of artificial flavors and colors. I will strive to help them meet the standards that the state chocolatiers have set for them.

It should be a delicious year.

New Parent Evaluation System Advances to Governor’s Desk

The following is but a fantasy born of the author’s frustration with the shortsighted Washington State Legislature. It is not intended to incite hysteria among irresponsible parents residing in the state of Washington.

In an effort to make the new teacher evaluation system meaningful, Washington State legislators today approved a new parent evaluation system. To ensure that teachers are teaching students who are ready to learn, parents must agree to participate or their children’s test scores will be ineligible for use in teacher evaluations. In addition, the children of any parent whose evaluation ranks at the lowest level, unsatisfactory, for two years in a row will not have their test scores applied to teacher evaluations. Those children will then be removed from the home and placed in a boarding school until such time as the parents complete remedial parenting classes, hold a job for six consecutive months, quit smoking, receive counseling for anger management issues, and any other interventions as ordered by the courts.

Parents will be evaluated based on two twenty-four hour observations each year conducted by a qualified social worker. Evaluation criteria will include the following areas: Home Environment; Health and Safety; Enrichment Opportunities; Discipline; Nurturing; Modeling of Appropriate Behavior/Interest in Learning.

The social worker will give a minimum twenty-four hours notice of the planned observation. The social worker will be permitted to observe all family routines during a full twenty-four hour period. A second social worker will relieve the observer so that he or she may get a decent night’s sleep because nobody performs their best work when they are tired.  In addition the social worker will be permitted to interview any member of the family regarding activities not observed during the visit.

Unlike the new teacher evaluation system, parents will have the right to request a second evaluation by a neutral observer after initially being rated unsatisfactory.

The governor is expected to sign the law into effect tomorrow.

The Answer Sheet – The problem(s) with the Common Core standards

The Answer Sheet – The problem(s) with the Common Core standards.

This almost two year-old piece in the Washington Post raises some of the concerns I have with ed reform. I’m particularly concerned about the narrowing of curriculum and failure to recognize developmental factors which affect student performance.

It’s true: You can’t go home again

From the time I was age nine my family made our home on Mercer Island, Washington. When we moved there in the sixties it was a lot like many small towns in America, except the average income put most residents in the upper-middle class.

As long as I can remember, Mercer Island had a certain reputation in nearby communities. We were the rich people. It followed me through school and even into adulthood. I’ll never forget being told by an opponent in a pick-up basketball game in college that my home town was “bush league” because “nothin’ but a bunch of rich people live there.”

As prejudiced treatment goes, it could have been worse.

Today I spent some time returning to my upper-middle class roots. I was meeting my friend Lee for breakfast in Seattle, and I had some extra time. So I hopped off I-90 and drove around for awhile. Driving through downtown Mercer Island I was reminded how much it doesn’t look like the place where I grew up.

Two story buildings were almost unheard of in the retail core through the 1980s. Now there are whole blocks of five story condo/apartment/retail development along the freeway frontage, extending a block or two to the south.

I drove through the old neighborhood, and the old homestead and the houses immediately adjacent to it are essentially unchanged. But the childhood homes of two of my oldest friends, including my breakfast companion,  have been demolished and replaced with large luxury homes. I knew this was the case, but it is still disorienting.

Front of my childhood home in the 1970s.

Sometime in the late 1980s I read an article about the Mercer Island real estate market. The realtor being interviewed was very critical of the homes there, calling them mostly old vacation homes and “daylight ramblers.” She discussed how the market demanded better properties for such a prime location.

I grew up in one of those daylight ramblers. Her words stung.

For the unfamiliar, a daylight rambler is a one-story with a basement built into a hillside. The downhill side of the basement appears like the bottom story of a two story house with windows, doors, etc.

Upstairs was a large living room with vaulted ceiling, large fireplace, and expansive picture windows with a sweeping view of Lake Washington, Seattle, the Olympic Mountains, and the I-90 bridge. From the street you wouldn’t expect so much from a very humble looking home. I was lucky to live there.

With my parents long gone, I have no connection to the house. Ultimately, I expect it will go the way of many of the older houses on the island, which is a shame. No, it isn’t a “great” house, but it is a home with a history for my family, the Toda family before us, and those who have lived there since.

What is it that drives people to build ever larger and more luxurious homes? I can understand it when the space is truly necessary. I don’t understand it so much when it is simply driven by money.

Sunset, August 6, 1978. Venus is visible on the left edge of the photo.

It’s a strange feeling when you realize you can’t afford to live in your home town. I live about 45 minutes to the south now. I’m sure the life-long residents here have seen many changes to their community that are equally disturbing to them.

The two decades I’ve been here have been long enough to see changes. Farmland is being paved over. Development in the name of growth is changing the character of the community. Schools are being impacted. Local politics have become increasingly divisive as money becomes more influential.

I don’t believe that population growth, economic growth, and income class shifts must go hand in hand. It is possible to have a stable economy with a continually improving community, minus the growth that so obliterates the past. What makes such a place rare if not non-existent is a desire for more wealth. There will always be people looking to make a lot of money and calling what they do progress, regardless of the negative impacts of what they do.


Washington State PTA’s misguided policy statement

I was extremely disappointed to learn that the Washington State PTA had chosen to take an official position in support of charter schools.

I have some issues with charter schools that I believe give them an unfair advantage. First, charters are opt-in schools. I know the term they prefer is “choice schools,” but I think that’s too warm and fuzzy.

What happens to feeder schools when an opt-in school or program opens ? They lose the students whose parents opted for the new school or program. Those are the parents who care enough or pay attention to what’s going on with their children’s lives to try to make a difference. They are drawn out of the affected schools, which are left with a higher percentage of uninvolved families. Those schools see test performance drop, and the charter looks good in comparison.

Second, because many charters employ non-union teachers, there are no limits on their hours. This works for charters as they tend to employ younger teachers with high energy levels and few family commitments. Administrators can pile on the expectations with no consequences, that is until an employee reaches his or her physical and/or mental limit. What happens next depends on the heart of the administrator.

There isn’t much room in these charters for an older, experienced educator who wants to get eight hours of sleep at night and spend quality time with family. Well, not his own family anyway.

This article in the L.A. Times quotes a number of teachers on the time commitment.

Thankfully I know that voters have repeatedly rejected charters in the past. I’m not too worried that they will be accepted by the voters in our state in the future. As a teacher though, I may elect to forgo membership in my building’s PTA in the future.


Popcorn birds

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.

Gulls begin to circle at recess

Bird brains? I don’t think we give them enough credit.

What are the limits on a teacher’s time?

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.

Third column from the left is Conduct, preceded by attendance numbers. According to the scale it was his worst area.
Yep, Dad was a bad boy with potential. This was recognized by U.S.Senator Fred Brown (No relation. And no relation to the former Seattle SuperSonic.) of New Hampshire who appointed Dad to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

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.

Funniest caption ever.

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.

Teaching is Not a Life Commitment

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?

Tired of Education by Legislation

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.”