Category Archives: Inspiration

Some Thoughts on Standardizing Teacher Effectiveness

Last year, I gave up approximately 35 days of classroom instructional time to give tests.  These tests included ACT-style, common assessments given by grade level teams (i.e. all the sophomore English teachers gave the same ACT-style test to their students) every five weeks (these tests usually took 2 days for students to finish), practice ACT tests given by the district, the EXPLORE/PLAN (a standardized test required by the state), the actual ACT (a standardized test required by the state), in addition to all the regular content-based exams (i.e. chapter quizzes for a novel, end of unit exams, etc.).  In a school year that is only 9.5 months long, that’s a TON of days to suck up just to give tests. The whole point of these tests is to help prepare kids for other tests.  But where does the time come to actually learn?

At my old school, when my former principal told my English Dept. chair that he had to integrate more test prep and more non-fiction, he replied, “But if we spend all this time preparing them for a test, when will they ever have the chance to just appreciate something beautiful?”  Remember that?  Remember that feeling when you would read or learned something in a class that just resonated with you and made you sit up a little straighter and pay attention a little more?  I know the text that did it for many of my students over the years.  I see the difference in them.  All of a sudden, something got their attention.

In my first year of teaching, I had a rough, rough 7th period class.  This class had become a dumping ground for bad students.  All the middle of the road students were in inclusion classes (these are classes that by law have a certain ratio of SpEd students and regular students so that SpEd students can be taught in the least restrictive environment) and the smart kids were in honors classes.  This meant that all the rough kids, the kids who didn’t care, and a handful of poor souls who actually did want to learn all ended up in my 7th period class.  I HATED those kids.  I dreaded going there every day.  I spent a lot of days yelling or standing around waiting for them to get the hint that I was ready to teach.  It was soooo frustrating.  One girl in particular, we’ll call her Ruby, hated me.  Every time I asked her to put her phone away or stop talking, I was met with such hostility and anger.  Finally, I just kind of left her alone.  I tried to focus more on the 10 kids who were there and doing work and really wanted to learn.  One day, I was teaching Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography.  This was around the same time as Tiger Woods’s big cheating scandal and I remembered my old professor telling me that Ben Franklin was quite the flirt and ladies man.  I decided that in order to get these kids to care about Ben Franklin, I had to up the ante.  I started telling them that Ben was like the Tiger Woods of his time.  That he was not only an incredibly intelligent inventor and writer who played a role in the founding of this country, but he was also a big time celebrity.  He dined with powerful political figures and held court with kings.  About halfway through my spiel, I looked up to see Ruby watching me closely.  She was rapt with attention and was hanging on my every word.  About ten minutes into class, I started to teach just for her.  I could see she was excited by the story and what I was reading to them.  Her excitement fueled my own teaching and the whole class started to get really interested in, of all things, Benjamin Franklin.  She was appreciating something beautiful.

After that, Ruby seriously improved in my class.  She took it more seriously, working hard to really improve her grades.  At a later report card pickup, she even told her mother I was her favorite teacher.  That’s the power of teaching.  It’s not something that can be replicated in every classroom because my approach, my teaching style, and my humor cannot be replicated; I cannot be replicated.

In everyone’s quest to “reform” public schools (aka privatize public schools), they claim the most powerful indicator of students outcomes is teacher effectiveness.  They think this can be measured by standardized tests.  That moment with Ruby?  That cannot be measured by a test.  Sure, you could point to her “growth” over the year, but what I did was probably more permanent than her ability to walk out of her sophomore year a better reader or writer.  Those things are important and they are somewhat measurable by a standardized test, but what is not is the passion I gave her to stop fooling around and start investing in her education.  She walked out a better person because of me and that will never be measurable by a standardized exam.  Unfortunately, this seems to be something everyone forgets.  I’m not just effective because of my ability to get kids to be better readers and writers and thinkers.  My efficacy lies in my ability to inspire.  And that can never be measured.

PS.  That 7th period class that I hated so much?  It ended up being my favorite by the end of the year and I won over almost all of those students.  Standardize that.

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I Teach Criminals*

This week, a student walked into my class.  He immediately started copying down the assignment I’d written on the board.  He was focused, respectful, and covered in tattoos.  He looked tough and older than the other students.  After I spoke to the class as a whole, I went up to him to catch him up on what we were doing.  After my spiel, I asked him if he had any questions.  He replied, “Do you mind if I turn this in tomorrow instead of Friday when it’s due?  I have to meet with my P.O. Friday.”

For those of you not in the know, P.O. stands for parole officer.  Yup, that’s right.  I’ve got a criminal in class.  Don’t worry.  He’s not the first.  He won’t be the last.  When I was student teaching, I was verbally assaulted by a kid with a record.  At my first school, I was punched in the chest trying to break up a fight.  Last year I taught a student who was recently arrested for shooting and killing another young man.  By now, nothing surprises me.

The thing is, as curious as I am about why this kid was in prison, I also don’t care.  Why?  Because when that kid walks in my door, he gets a second chance.  Because I always think, what if this is the year that kid changes his life?  What if I’m the one who helps make that happen.  My old friend Nick Carraway was right, “Reserving judgement is a matter of infinite hope.”  And I, like most of my colleagues, are constant idealists.  Constant optimists who believe in the power of education.

So instead of asking him why he was in prison, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.  His answer?  A music teacher.  Now, we talk about playing guitar.  See?  A fresh start.

*Somebody has to.

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Why I Teach

There are many days when I really, really hate my job.  These days usually involve a meeting where five million unmanageable new tasks are asked of me.  That happens every week.  These days never involve my classes.  Okay, well, maybe that’s a bit untrue.  We all certainly have bad days with classes, but for the most part, every minute I spend in the classroom is pretty amazing.  It’s fun and energizing when they’re really getting it.  It’s also a crap ton of work.  Before entering teaching, I worked in advertising.  That was fun, too, but I was only helping people make a ton of money (and I wasn’t on that list as of yet).  Here, I’m helping kids learn and think and grow into awesome adults.  Or at least that’s the goal.

But if you only knew what teaching was like.  I thought I did.  I thought I was clear on what my life was going to be like: work with kids, inspire them to learn, get off earlier in the afternoons (though the waking up at the crack of dawn part is no bueno), have summers off and some extra time around Christmas.

Here’s what my life is actually like: wake up when it’s often dark out, fumble to get ready, go into work dead tired because I rarely get enough sleep during the school year, and from the moment I walk into the building, feel overwhelmed.  I’m overwhelmed by everything.  The insane demands put on me by my district, the constant needs of the children, and the feeling of my personal life and time just flying by.  Getting off in the early afternoon is nice, but I rarely get to take advantage of it.  I get home around the same time as my husband who leaves later than I do every morning for his corporate 9-5.  Some nights, I get home later than him.  Summers off?  That’s a myth.  I’ve worked every summer I’ve been a teacher.  I’ve either taught summer school, attended training, did a school club, or planned and helped my department.  Sure, summer is easy-going, but frankly, it was that way when I worked in advertising, too.  And winter breaks?  The few days before Christmas are always spent overpaying for Christmas presents because I had zero time to shop and the days after Christmas are spent planning for the upcoming weeks and grading work I collected before break.  Last year, I forced myself to take the first week off completely, then I worked non-stop the second week and still didn’t get everything done.

That’s teaching: It doesn’t end until it ends in June and even then, it continues.  The work of an educator never stops.  Sure, sometimes I get some down time and there are definitely weeks in the summer where I’m not doing much, but for the most part, I’m working harder now than I ever have.  And it’s exhausting.  And it affects my health.  And my stress level is through the roof.  So…why do I do it?

I teach because I had good teachers who inspired me to be a lifelong learner.  I teach because at the end of the day there’s no other job I’d rather do.  I teach because I love inspiring kids to be a lifelong learner.  It’s hard and there are days when I feel like I just can’t, but I do.  But let me tell you that every day, something great happens that makes me remember why it’s worth it.

Still, teaching today is not what my retired teaching friends tell me it was pre-NCLB.  Teaching pre-NCLB seemed to be more about learning.  Teaching now is not.  Teaching now is about testing.  The two are so married that it’s hard sometimes to distinguish between them.  The messages are so mixed.  And I worry.  I worry there will come a point where I can’t do this job anymore.  And I know it will break my heart to leave.  I do.  Because as much as I might complain or worry or cry, even, I love what I do.  It’s a blessing and a curse, but that’s how love is sometimes.  In the mean time, I just keep doing what I do and try to get better with each passing year.  I learn the tricks, try new things, and watch kids grow and leave.  And sometimes, on a seemingly gloomy afternoon, an old familiar face of a former student will pop into my classroom’s door and say, “Hi, Ms. P!” and boom!  The gloom is gone, the funk is over, and I remember why I do this.  I teach because slowly, but surely, one at a time, I am trying to make the world a better place.  Somebody has to.

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