Monday, January 10, 2011

Just Not Worth It

Over the past two weeks, I've put a lot of time into creating my next unit plan. It includes an activity guide (42 pages), an assessment packet (12 pages), and a project packet (7 pages).

I did everything the way I was supposed to.

I planned the assessment first (a DBQ).  Then I wrote the essay myself.  Then I wrote the objectives.  And finally I selected the readings, the instructional strategies, and created the formative assessments.

It's a good unit.  I really like it.  It's cohesive  (all of the homework, objectives, assessments, and lessons are aligned).  It requires the kids to do a lot of rigorous reading and thinking ("Wealth" by Andrew Carnegie, selections from The Communist Manifesto, Wealth of Nations, and Two Treatises of Government), and has some really good essential questions (my favorite is: What is the connection between urbanization, immigration, new technology, and the distribution of wealth?).

The only problem: it took me a grand total of thirty hours to complete, and my administration is not exactly ecstatic about it.  Sure, they like it, but it's what they expect.  To them, I'm competent - no more, no less.

Why does this bother me?  Because this is not the only part of the job into which I pour outrageous amounts of energy for lukewarm results.

I'm at school from 8am to 6pm most days.  I am never away from kids for more than two or three hours on any day.  In that time, I'm teaching, tutoring, chaperoning, running kids down in the hallway, or leading grade-level or school leadership meetings.  Grading, planning, the invisible tasks associated with classroom management that occur outside of the school day, and organizing are all parts of the job that are done in my 'free time.'

I'm not special.  Teachers always complain about being overworked, but a teacher's inadequacy and workload is especially exacerbated in such a high-needs environment.  When my kids don't do their homework, I have three choices.  I can either give them zeros, stop assigning homework, or force them to do homework in class and then hold my regular class outside of school hours (in this sense, we're lucky at my school; the administration has done a pretty good job of forcing kids to stay after school until they're done with their work).  So, I force my kids to do the homework in silence during class time and then keep them during lunch or after school to make up the time they've taken away from my instruction, which is really just more time they're taking from me.

It's within this reality that I attended a meeting with my principal today about the new rules in NYC for teacher tenure.  Apparently, all the work that goes into rating a teacher 'satisfactory' (and thus leading them to tenure after three years of employment) is now on the backs of the teachers.  Teachers must not only do all of the planning, grading, and instructing, but also document student learning gains, efforts toward improving school community, and attempts to reach out to parents.  (Gee....where have I dealt with this before.....IMPACT. Can I please get a secretary?  I guess, since I'm overpaid, I could just buy one out of my own salary.)

The documentation business, on its own, is not all that new either.  Pay us 15% less than other professions that require equal levels of education, expect us to do mind-numbing amounts of work, require that we document everything we do, put us in precarious legal situations on a daily basis (any one of which could easily cost a teacher her job and possibly even get her sent to jail), ask us to work with young people whose job you would think it was to frustrate you, and then complain about how our unions advocate in our interest. Ahhh yes....all is well in the world.

But three things have recently come up that have really frustrated me, and, for the first time in my life, have me seriously reconsidering my intention to teach as a lifelong career....

1) We just got a new superintendent - some lady who was known as "The Closer" down in Brooklyn.  As a educrat, and not a Mexican wrestler, she apparently made a name for herself closing failing schools in that borough. As a school with a 100% ELL and 100% free and reduced population in the Bronx, she's probably on to us.

2) One of the rules around gaining tenure requires that you pass at least 85% of your students and show student success based, in part, on Regents scores.  Otherwise The Closer gets to do her job.

3) Principals are being pressured to grant tenure to teachers after three years or fire them.  Extended probation is still an option, but it's not one the DOE wants to use.  Either show your amazing or get fired.  I guess that's fine, since we all know how easy teaching is, especially after three years.

It would be impossible to put into words the absurdity of the whole situation, but I hope it's apparent to most people.  85% of the teachers on my staff are less experienced than I am.  Most of my kids are somewhere between three and seven grade levels behind where they should be.  My principal emphasized the importance of passing kids based on merit and not as a means of earning tenure, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that that's exactly what's going to happen, especially when you're working with students who are incredibly challenging to educate and you have virtually no experience doing it.

NYC's DOE claims that for every seven teachers who apply to teach in NYC, only one is hired.  I'm beginning to wonder what the hell is wrong with all those people.  And then I remember, I was one of them.  But that was before the DOE came to our school and told us they'd be giving us fewer classrooms next year even though we're an expanding school (expecting to add a new grade) because they've decided our campus has room for one more school.

I like my administrators.  They mean well.  But the system is too ignorant, and it's far too powerful.  No matter how well-meaning any administrator may be, they're still largely tools beholden to DOE policy.

It's my impression that hardworking, experienced people who are really in this for the kids are a dying breed, and I'm not much for Sisyphean tasks.  But when public teachers are made to be little more than bureaucrats, maybe that's what teaching in a public school means these days.  I'm just not sure it's worth it.

7 comments:

  1. And in sweeps a TFA student fresh from 5 weeks of teaching over the summer, to save your students from your incompetence. Unfortunately, now there will always be someone just outside your door to step into your shoes, if only for 2 years. See Rhee's new (old) rhetoric, http://washingtonexaminer.com/local/education/2011/01/rhee-criticizes-teacher-tenure-unions-nonprofit-agenda . I wonder does she really believe all this stuff that comes out of her mouth, or is she like one of those wind up toys that has lost its key, and once it starts going it just can't stop. There seems no hope!!!

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  2. You have my sympathies. At one time I encouraged my students to become teachers; now I tell people who say they want to be a teacher to think of something else. It's not worth it. And that is a tragedy.

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  3. Congratulations on the thought you put into your unit planning. It sounds simulating--and that is the key here. I understand your frustrations. I teach at a school which requires uniforms. This year, they announced a all out blitz to secure 100% compliance. The overwhelming majority of students arrive each day in the designated attire. The administration is ecstatic. When I asked if we could be similarly concerned about how they arrive--prepared--I was told that was my job alone. When I asked if hall checks could not be limited solely to attire and also include books and notebooks, pencils and pens, I received harsh stares. A student's failure to do homework is my fault. I smile and make a note to add this to my growing list of oversight obligations.

    The only way to get through all of this and still maintain enthusiasm is to focus on the good that is occurring in your classroom. Teachers, like everyone, want and deserve to be recognized for the hard work we do. My advice is to "look to the light," the spark you get when students--any student--changes the way they think, the things they consider, based on the things you have shown them. DOE and administrators will never appreciate what you accomplish. But students will and do--even the ones who enter with last night's homework untouched.

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  4. I taught for over 40 years - from 1964 to 2007 and enjoyed almost every minute of it. I was the type of teacher who enjoyed going to Teachers Supplies each Saturday so I'd have new ideas and new materials for the next week. I'm sorry to say that when my own sons were little, I handed over their care to my husband, so I could grade papers and plan for the next day, week, year. Fortunately the boys turned out great but I missed out and now I'm sorry.

    One reason I enjoyed my job so much was due to the fact that I had almost total autonomy during all those years. In fact, once I said the following to myself: "This job is like being self-employed, only without the overhead." Basically I was trusted to do the job and felt respected by administrators, parents, students, peers and colleagues. There were many days when I muttered a short prayer of thanks for having the privilege of teaching children. My students always made good progress as measured by informal assessments, but not always on standardized tests.

    Now, as I read about how teachers are being treated, I feel completely different. No longer do I encourage anyone to consider K-12 teaching as a career. If a friend tells me that her son or daughter is considering teaching, I say, "Don't forget to tell him to avoid K-12." The answer is often "Oh, he knows that."

    In California, there is a decrease of 48% in the number of people who are preparing to be teachers, despite the fact that many baby boomers will retire and many more students are expected to enroll. So the state is expecting a big teacher shortfall within the next ten years. That should turn things around.

    That said, RE, I would encourage you to consider another career while you still have the ability to do it. It's obvious from this blog that you are a highly intelligent young man so there would be many options for you. As I've said before, I can see you in graduate school majoring in English or journalism. How about law school? Are you good in math? If so there is a great need again for mathematicians and computer people.

    If you do decide to remain in teaching, do yourself a big favor and go where the kids are at grade level; or consider teaching adults. I know from experience that this type of job is a lot easier than teaching in an urban school.

    If you get to feeling down, just remember that you are a very talented person doing an incredibly difficult job. Don't beat yourself up.

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  5. Your post reminded me a lot of some of my past teaching positions (before I left teaching to become a lawyer!). I empathize with your predicament and applaud your efforts and tenacity in working with your students in NYC. But I hope you will forgive me if I put in my two cents about the following: I think you may be setting too high a bar for your own efforts and those of your students. Remember, you don't have to be "superman" to be a good teacher and make a positive difference for these kids. It sounds like you're running yourself ragged (which is what I did before leaving the profession for good).

    When I taught (especially when I taught low income students), I often found more success concentrating on the big picture and putting less time into creating the "perfect" lesson plan every day. I don't believe I required homework (at least not nightly homework) for these struggling students -- I found that they usually didn't do it and it simply became a point of contention each day. Instead, I made the most of the class time to get the lessons taught.

    Just some ideas from a formerly frustrated educator to one still in the trenches...

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  6. GOOD. LORD. I feel for you, but I'm really here to say that I admire your drive in creating good, cohesive units for your students. Just thinking about it makes me exhausted.

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  7. I taught for 35 years in public schools. What I see happening in the school district I left (small midwestern city) is not encouraging. There were more than a few times when I thought it was time to leave...time to go back to the music business (from whence I came), but for some reason I never did.

    It's possible to develop a career in education now, but I think the closer you are to the neediest children the harder it is. Can you leave and go to a place where teachers still get to teach (admittedly a difficult search)? The only safe place to teach, from what I can tell, are schools that have low numbers of students in poverty. This is not the fault of the students of course. It's just the way things are in education in the US. When you have high numbers of students in poverty you have a harder time "meeting the standards" and that means that you'll have less control over your own teaching. Poor nutrition, poor health care, lack of access to books…all add up to lower achievement for children in poverty. The politicians like to blame the students and their teachers for this lower achievement instead of facing the fact that it's a failure of society.

    The oligarchs are going to continue to beat up teachers of the poor and the non-English speaking as long as they can keep getting votes that way.

    If you stay where you are they'll try to strip you of your professionalism, squash your initiative and crush your creativity.

    I used to say, we need good people to go into teaching. We need people who are bright, dedicated and driven. We need people who are creative and who can relate to children. We need strong individuals who can be role models and positive influences. We need adults who are emotionally mature, who persevere and who are compassionate. Our schools need teachers who go the extra mile for their students...who stay after school to finish their work...take it home with them...talk to students with sincere empathy...and who realize that being an educator means more than assigning homework, giving grades and teaching to the test.

    But the problem with that is that we need teachers who can do all those things and still have their own life and their own sanity. And that, I'm afraid, is where the difficulty lies.

    IF you can do that, then stay, knowing it will be an uphill battle. Focus on your students. Do what's best for them and don't let the Mayor and his lackeys get you down. Plan the best, most creative lesson plans you can, but take things one day at a time. If you do, you just might be able to outlast this current trend in education and you'll be there when the pendulum swings back.

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