Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Honey, Please Put Your Phone Away

A young teacher I mentored for a short while landed in another school. She's kind of important to me, as I first found her utterly unable to control her classes, gave her some very specific advice, and watched her follow it precisely and instantly. It's not often I get to give someone a concept, watch it put into action quickly and decisively, and see it work well immediately. In fact, this young teacher got so good at it, she got nicknames like "The Nazi." Not ideal, I'll grant you, but she did get her classes under control.

However, the whole nazi thing did not particularly suit her. Actually, I think she may have overdone some of my advice. That particular image does not much appeal to me either.

In her new school, she's been successful with an approach I would never consider. She uses terms of endearment. "Sweetheart, please take your hat off." "Honey, I'd really appreciate it if you'd stop throwing cheeseburgers at people." And so on. Kids tell her, "No one's ever called me honey before." That's kind of sad. But true, apparently.

I've seen other women do this. I'm fairly certain if I were to do it I'd end up in whatever they use for a rubber room these days. One day, a girl who reminded me an awful lot of my teenage daughter asked me a question, and I replied, "No, sweetie, it isn't," or something to that effect, exactly what I'd have said to my daughter. And as the words exited my mouth I was thinking, "That's it. I'm going to the rubber room or something."

Fortunately for me, the girl took it exactly as I meant it, and we had no problem whatsoever. But men just can't talk like that. Not to girls, not to boys, not to anyone in the school building. Particularly egregious would be addressing administrators like that, I suppose, but on the other hand I can't recall a time I've been tempted to do so.

Yet I have seen this work for other women, including one of my very favorite colleagues. Sexist is what it is, perhaps. Or maybe men can't achieve the right tone. Or maybe we're too backward and primitive to carry off any real feeling. Then again, we could always blame Mayor Bloomberg and be done with it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

We're All in This Together

As you may remember, back in my middle-school-teaching days, I had a Teacher Data Report. I blogged about it, shrugged it off, and didn't give it much more thought.

Until Friday, of course.

Many of my friends still teach middle school, God love them, and so I spent a lot of time over the weekend consoling friends whose data reports didn't shake out so well. They, of course, were decidedly less pumped than usual to go back to work today.

I now teach high school, so most of my colleagues didn't have the pleasure of having their names attached to a more-or-less-completely-meaningless number over the weekend. The vibe in my school this morning was decidedly low-key. No one was upset or nervous or humiliated the way that many of my friends--fine, dedicated teachers, the kinds who have done things like give free guitar lessons, inaugurate yearly school plays, and build reading areas in their classrooms themed to the book du jour--were this morning.

I mentioned the release of the scores to a colleague with whom I'm close, and mentioned the frustration and humiliation my friends felt. "Oh?" she asked. "What's that about, anyway?"

She never taught the lower grades. She had no idea.

Now I'm sure that NYC Educator and many of our regular readers do not need to be reminded that we are all in this together. After all, the day is surely coming when all teachers will get to experience the thrill of having their names published along with test scores and "value-added measures" of dubious accuracy and value. But maybe, just maybe, some of my colleagues, both in my school and across the city, need to realize the gravity of this situation. Maybe high school chapter leaders need to open their next meetings with a moment of silence for Rigoberto Ruelas.

We are, indeed, all in this together, and we can't forget it.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Annual Shaming of the Teachers

AFT and NYSUT Presidents are on Twitter declaring that evaluation data from upcoming NY state and city evaluations is not subject to FOIL. In one respect, they are correct, and that's why your S or U ratings have not made it to the pages of fine publications like our highly respected NY Post, not to mention the Times--with "all the news that's fit to print" displaying data that its own pages state are highly flawed. Diane Ravitch tweets:

NY Times on teacher ratings: "Margin of error" is "35 percentiles in math and 53 in English, the city said." Garbage in, garbage out.

And Yoav Gonen from the Post suggests it's even worse:

Maximum margin of error for a teacher's percentile ranking on is 75 in math and 87 in ELA

In either case, as Ravitch pointed out, your odds are worse than a coin toss. That is some pretty alarming data about the VAM junk science that has landed teachers on pages with labels like "City's Worst Teachers." A problem with VAM is not only that it is junk science, but that no form of it has ever been established not to be. Arguments that a new system will contain less junk than this one are impossible to verify, and preposterous in any case since there is no planned pilot period. Even more ridiculous, as revealed by Leo Casey on Edwize, they anticipate system will improve, though they have no basis whatsoever for that assumption, and wish to raise 20 percentage points of junk to 25. (This assumes locally negotiated 20, or consequent 15% will not consist of more junk, an assumption I'm not yet willing to make.)

Casey claims only extremely low scores will jeopardize teacher jobs, but Michael Winerip shows it's entirely possible for good teachers to get very low scores:

According to the formula, Ms. Isaacson ranks in the 7th percentile among her teaching peers — meaning 93 per cent are better...What you would think this means is that Ms. Isaacson’s students averaged 3.57 on the test the year before; they were predicted to average 3.69 this year; they actually averaged 3.63, giving her a value added of 0.06 below zero. 

 A new system may indeed be better. Or it may be worse. Or it may be better sometimes and worse other times. These are the drawbacks of using junk rather than science to make conclusions, and the fact is, under the proposed system, teacher jobs can and will depend on that.

Let me return to  FOIL. This is the ability of people or entities to request information, just as the papers did so they could release the crap data reports that have humiliated so many working teachers for no good reason. While your S or U could not be FOILed, numerical data can. VAM formulas and proposed 1-100 grades assigned to teachers are numerical data, and as such, subject to FOIL. This clearly suggests the public shaming of teachers based on junk science will be an annual event.

When you are told it will not be, remember we were also told the grades that were released would not be. While I don't think the agreement was ever a good idea, I'm not faulting UFT leadership for the release of grades. There was, in fact, an explicit agreement they would not be. But Michael Bloomberg's morally bankrupt Department of Education recognizes no rules, and after having worked to break the agreement, simply lied about it.

Here's what our unions cannot promise--that the DOE will keep its promises, even written ones. This is particularly true because the DOE cannot make promises on behalf of the Daily News, the NY Post, or even the faux liberal New York Times. In fact the DOE can ask these papers to FOIL info help them out of inconvenient promises, as we've seen this week. If these and other media outlets see fit to FOIL numerical teacher data, as included in new reports, there will be nothing we can do about it. And our First Annual Shaming is a precedent, highly likely to be repeated.

It's time to back the New York Principals and stop this in the legislature. It's time to stop appeasing anti-teacher zealots. It's time to look this thing right in the face and see it for what it is--a disaster waiting to happen.

Update: In Rupert Murdoch's rag, the witch hunts have begun.

Friday, February 24, 2012

NY's Evaluation Plan--A Disaster Waiting to Happen

"Bullets are only one small part of the gun," says Mike Klonsky, on whether VAM, or value-added, should be part of any evaluation system. This notwithstanding, there are various ways of looking at New York's new evaluation system, and UFT High School VP Leo Casey may not see eye to eye with Klonsky.

I'd like nothing more than to agree with Casey. This would mean that all my colleagues and I were not in danger of arbitrary and capricious dismissal based on the junk science that is VAM. In fact, I very much admired Casey's recent piece, In Bad Faith, which nailed the DOE on its abject hypocrisy in the negotiation process.

However, I tend to agree with Diane Ravitch and Principal Carol Burris that the new system is an unworkable mess. First, we're talking about VAM, which is unmitigated nonsense. Whether that constitutes 20% or 40% of teacher rating, it's still another Bill Gates-inspired voyage into the wild blue yonder that's subject to wild margins of error. Today, though the UFT assured us it would not happen, teachers all over the city will have their names and highly dubious scores published in local newspapers. This is what comes of trusting Michael Bloomberg's morally bankrupt Department of Education--and don't be surprised if it happens to every working teacher under this new scenario. In fact, there's now a precedent for it.

Furthermore, the second so-called objective measure of 20%, the part that will be negotiated locally, needs to be approved by three-year teacher and charter founder John King, who's shown no evidence he supports or understands anything other than what Gates and his corporate cronies support or understand.

An important point here is the line in the state agreement, explicitly stating, "Teachers rated ineffective on student performance based on objective assessments must be rated ineffective overall." Diane Ravitch writes:

Unless I can't read plain English, this says that the 40 percent devoted to test scores overrides the other 60 percent. In other words, 40 percent is equal to 100 percent. 

I'm as impressed by plain English as Ravitch is, and that's clear to me. Casey explicitly addresses it in the comments:

...if a teacher scores very low on both the state measure of learning and the local measure of learning — 0, 1 or 2 out of a possible 20 in both components — they will not be able to make the cut score out of the ineffective rating, no matter their score on the measures of teacher performance. Given that there are two different measures, and at least one of them can be an authentic assessment of learning rather than a standardized exam, it is hard to make a convincing argument that a teacher who scores so poorly on both measures is effective in the classroom...

Given that VAM is total crap, and we have no idea whatsoever what the remaining 20% will actually consist of, I'd argue that it's impossible to make a convincing argument a teachers scoring poorly on both measures is not effective in the classroom. In fact, we've agreed to this wacky escapade without any successful pilot program, without any idea what the tests will be, without any idea what the VAM formula will be, without any idea what the remaining 20% will be, and largely without the remotest notion of what we're getting ourselves into. We do know, however, that good teachers can get bad ratings under systems that actually exist, and that teachers were fired in DC's VAM experiment under questionable circumstances.

We also know that there is some history here--if the tabloids approve of anything we do, it's a bad deal. The last time the tabloids admired us, for a solid 5 minutes, was in 2005. We approved a contract that precluded grievance of letters in file, killed seniority transfers, and created a seemingly permanent underclass of teachers known as the Absent Teacher Reserve, or ATR. To my recollection, neither Casey nor any UFT official anticipated that Joel Klein would hire new teachers even as current ATRs lingered in limbo.

And last year, there was an agreement to preclude layoffs that entailed sending ATR teachers from school to school, week to week. At that time, multiple UFT contacts assured me there was no way the DOE had the wherewithal to actually schedule such rotations. The DOE is inept, they said, they could never do it. We now know the UFT was wrong then.

Casey is correct that there is much to be negotiated. He's right that no agreement is perfect, that there are gray areas and many things yet to be determined. It's admirable that he's out there on Edwize personally answering every single comment, few if any of which have been remotely favorable.

But I must tell you, as it's abundantly evident to me--the UFT is wrong now too. In a particularly humiliating turn of events, the New York Principals have shown themselves to be much smarter than we are. They oppose this measure, and you should too. If you do, take a moment to sign their petition.

Can we ever live down having principals analyze this thing better than we did? One thing I know for sure--it would be a lot easier without this preposterous system hanging over our heads--like the Sword of Damocles.

Update: Yoav Gonen, NY Post Education reporter, tweets on how amazingly unreliable VAM-based TDR reports released today are: Maximum margin of error for a teacher's percentile ranking on is 75 in math and 87 in ELA

Thursday, February 23, 2012

If You Want to Find Out What the Public Really Thinks About Teachers, Find a Nice Long Line

Sometimes it's easy to forget that we live in, or near, one of the truly great and amazing world cities. Recesses are, for me, a time to get out and explore some of the awesomeness that New York City has to offer. The downside, however, is that this often means standing in very long lines.

Apparently a book has been written suggesting that French children are spectacularly well-mannered, well-behaved and forbearing. All I can say is that perhaps the Francophone mother and child in this particular queue behind me were actually Quebecois or something, because this delightful pair seemed not to believe in the notion of personal space. I lost count of how many times they knocked into me after the twentieth (I am not kidding) without so much as an excusez-moi.

The (American!) woman in front of me in this line noticed and started to speak with me sympathetically. As finally approached the front of the line, she said, "Gosh, we're almost there. You don't seem to be bothered by the wait at all. You're so patient, you must be a teacher!"

She was kidding, but I laughed and said, "Actually, yes, I am a teacher."

"Oh, good for you! What do you teach?"

I told her, and we engaged in a nice conversation about schools. Her grandchildren are in a suburban district where flat test scores have made their principal, as she put it, "a little crazy." "Good teachers are so important," she commented. "You don't want to drive the good ones out of a school by making their jobs miserable."

So it's important, when you have the chance, to get out into this great city and stand in a very long line. There are people on our side out there. Even if you have to get knocked around a few times by European tourists who will probably have the nerve, when they go home, to complain about how rude Americans are.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Flip a Coin

AFT President Randi Weingarten has an interesting article up at the AFT website. Ms. Weingarten suggests we drop our "fixation" on testing. She points out that this is not what students need, and that there are other forms of learning that will better benefit them. She even cites the President, who used his "bully pulpit" to say much the same thing at the SOTU speech.

I couldn't agree more, actually. Learning is more about doing than testing, and no one remembers, "Oh, that Miss Wormwood. Boy, could she give a multiple choice test. I lived to blacken those circles..."

Yet Barack Obama has enabled a sea of testing, first by appointing basketball expert Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, and next by allowing his baseless programs like Race to the Top to promote testing even more. In fact he boasted about how, with a relatively small amount of federal money, he got cash-starved states to jump up and down and show just how "reformy" they really were.

And Ms. Weingarten, despite her principled opposition, supports the reelection of this President, just as she supported mayoral control and its renewal, despite its clear inability to help New York's teachers or students.

So it's hard, for me, to understand how Obama and Weingarten are opposing such programs by supporting them. It's positively Orwellian. I'd love to get behind both of them and help them achieve their professed goal of halting our testing obsession. But as long as they keep giving lip service to good ideas while energetically promoting bad ones, that's going to be very tough indeed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Stuff Teachers on Vacation Say

Hello all! If you're a New York City teacher, you're on vacation this week as a result of that strange creature known as "midwinter recess." Hope you are enjoying your break so far. As you can see by the timestamp on this post, I am enjoying mine!

Inspired by this YouTube video, and also by my strong desire not to think about how 40% (or 100%, really, when you get right down to it) of my worth as an educator will be determined by some anonymous test-taker who does not know or care about me, my students, or their individual challenges and gifts, I decided, for today, to compose a short "Stuff [because this is a family blog, after all] Teachers On Vacation Say." You may feel free to borrow it as a shooting script for your own clever YouTube video if you like. I don't do videos.


[rubbing eyes upon waking] Oh, my, it''s...LIGHT outside!

[in the restroom] Wow, I can go to the bathroom WHENEVER I WANT!

[while reading the paper] Awww, heck yeah! Sale on business casual separates at TJ Maxx!

I'm going to read this book that I will never, ever teach in a class, just because I think it looks good!

[whenever leaving the house while on vacation--elementary school teachers] Auuughhh! CHILDREN!!!

[whenever leaving the house while on vacation--high school teachers] Auuughhh! TEENAGERS!!!


What I, Miss Eyre, actually said at the beginning of my break last Friday, to a colleague:

"Do you know if the building is going to be open next week?"

Monday, February 20, 2012

Effective Teachers Make Kids Produce

Stuyvesant teacher and blogger Gary Rubinstein had a great op-ed yesterday in the Daily News. He says that any teacher who does not receive a favorable score on "objective measures," or VAM tests must be rated ineffective in NY state. Therefore, though VAM is stated to be 40% of evaluation, it actually counts for 100, unlike any other state that's jumped on the baseless BS bandwagon.

He also says, like Michael Winerip did in more detail, that a good teacher could easily receive a bad rating. I'm now getting email from people who seem to assume I personally wrote and negotiated this law, which is pretty odd. I've explicitly opposed it for years. I can only fault the emails from the union for failing to point out that I did not. I will say, though, that the UFT's Q and A did not manage to A any of my Qs.  Rubenstein and Winerip have thus far done a much better job.

I don't think there's much credence in calling yourself a good teacher, as you're likely the least credible and most prejudiced source in the world. I will say, though, that no one has called me a bad teacher in a long time. Of course that could change if my students, none of whom are fluent in English, perform poorly on tests that have not yet been designed. However, if history is any judge, I expect they'll be designed for native speakers. Who knows what the great and powerful Regents will pay test companies to design for my colleagues who teach special education?

While I still love my job and look forward to going in every day, I've got almost 27 years in. So probably I cannot be dumped for no reason until I hit 30, and I'm grateful for that. Nonetheless, the spectre of the sword of Damocles hanging over my head, and that of every working teacher is particularly unsettling. It will not help any of us perform better, and it will not help any student learn better. There will be incredible pressure to do well on these stupid tests, and it's incredible that the President of the United States, who inspired and enabled this nonsense through Race to the Top, would have the audacity to say we need to stop teaching to the test.

Actually, NY teachers had better start teaching to the test if they wish to keep their jobs. And while I don't want to retire, that's the sort of thing that might make me do it anyway. And while I have sent my kid to public school, were she entering school this year I'd think carefully about that as well.

I don't want my kid subject to test prep 24/7. And neither does Obama, Bloomberg, or Klein. That's why they send their kids to private schools, where they avoid all the nonsense they support for other people's kids.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Beyond the Pale

Thought for the Day

I'd like to see Bill Gates drink a glass of water while Arne Duncan is speaking.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Two Hundred Percent Crap

From what I read, the state agreement is pretty much what was negotiated in 2010--20% state tests, 20% local or other tests, and 60% other evaluation. This will surely be a bonanza for testing companies ready to design whatever the hell it takes to extract more money from districts. And that, my friends, is business sticking its craw into education--Rupert Murdoch's wet dream. Though he'll surely want others, and with faux-Democrats like Andrew Cuomo and Barack Obama eager to please, this is not the end.

So, 20% crap, or 40% crap (and a cursory reading of Cuomo's press release has me leaning toward 40), it's all crap. And we're running headlong into a system for which tests do not exist, a formula for value-added has not been developed, and whatever it may be it will surely not work anyway, all because Bill Gates says it's a good idea. I see it all now--"watch it, you son of a bitch, don't ask me to tutor your damn kids. You could take points away from me. And don't try dumping that troubled kid in my class anymore. I have troubles of my own. If only I could persuade those losers to drop out."

And the UFT, the UFT has finally negotiated a system that utilizes an independent arbitrator. After all, it's absolutely unacceptable for the chancellor to decide, what with his having rejected 99.6% of appeals. And this is someone's job on the line. So what do we have? An agreement that 13% of appeals will be heard by an independent arbitrator. If you're not part of the 13%, you must rely on the tender mercies of whatever Bloomberg puppet happens to be chancellor. How do you make it to the lucky 13? Who decides? What sort of response does UFT expect to get from the 87% who are surely screwed?

I'm very glad I don't have to pick and choose. In my view, anyone facing loss of position ought to have due process, a fair hearing, and an unbiased arbitrator to decide. Under this agreement, 13% get it, while 87% are SOL. This does not appear to be a huge victory, particularly when you consider 20% VAM is 100% crap. Extrapolating, I can only determine that 40% VAM is 200% crap.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Honk If You Like to Honk

This morning, on my way to work, I passed a school that has been slated for...well, clearly it's been slated for something. Not closure, I don't think. Maybe turnaround. Anyway, a lot of people are unhappy about it, as you can imagine. They had a pretty sizable demonstration going on the busy street alongside the school.

"HONK IF YOU WON'T LET BLOOMBERG DESTROY ANOTHER SCHOOL," read one poster. Well, I like honking and I don't like destroying schools. I honked merrily and waved at the demonstrators, who gave me a hearty cheer. And good morning to you all too!

The point, of course, isn't to get Mayor Bloomberg's attention. I mean, this is in the hinterlands of the outer boroughs. It's pretty hard to hear honking from the comfort of your Batmobile from the Upper East Side, and even if he could hear, let's not pretend he'd care much. The point is to let the demonstrators know that they're not alone, to give them some pep and fight for the struggle that remains ahead.

I don't know those people or their school. I have a longish commute; I don't work in my neighborhood. But I wish them all the best. It's been a tough week for city teachers, what with the TDR publication going through and the closure votes coming down on the side of closures. I don't begrudge them a couple of honks. I hope they have something more substantial planned, but as a first step, it's better than doing nothing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bad Teacher Day

All week last week we kept hearing about spirit week. There was a Harry Potter Day, some other stuff, and a Bad Teacher Day. They announced them every day. I wondered what the hell Bad Teacher Day was, but I don't wear costumes to work, so I ignored it. Then some of my colleagues started asking me about it.

"What the hell is Bad Teacher Day? Isn't that a terrible idea?"

It occurred to me that it was indeed a bad idea, so we started asking various administrators, who were as mystified as we were. Finally we decided to go right to the top, almost, and asked the APO. She looked at us as though we were nuts, and said, "It's not Bad Teacher Day. It's Banned T-Shirt Day."

So we were relieved, somewhat. We told some of the administrators, and then they started getting upset. "Why are we encouraging banned t-shirts? Who knows what sort of things kids will be wearing?"

They were pretty agitated, and we spoke to the to the APO again.

"No," she said. "It isn't banned t-shirts, B-A-N-N-E-D. It's BAND t-shirts, B-A-N-D. You know, you could wear your Led Zeppelin t-shirt."

I don't have a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, so it did not fundamentally affect my life style. But it's amazing how poorly we managed to communicate. I mean, there we were, on verge of a revolution and stuff, and only because a bunch of kids wanted to wear Justin Bieber.

I'll bet wars have been started over less.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

If I Had a Dollar...

...for every time I had to tell a kid to take his/her (usually his) hood or hat off, I'd be retired already. I've already had to do it today, in fact.

Our school does not allow hoods or hats to be worn inside. We have a pretty relaxed dress code otherwise; this seems to be the battle that we've decided to fight. I don't particularly mind this rule; I see where the deans are coming from, for example, when they say it's a safety and security concern. While my school is pretty safe, we do have metal detectors, and I have to admit that they're there for a reason. So I get that.

On the other hand, it gets pretty frustrating, and I can say that, while many kids just forget or absentmindedly pull their hoods up, there are some chronic offenders. Our AP has quite the baseball cap collection waiting to be picked up by parents in his office--parents, as you can imagine, who do not necessarily make it their number one priority to pick up little Joey's Yankees hat from school when little Joey is, say, 17.

So when I read this article, detailing how a Chicago charter school fines students for the most mundane of behavior offenses, I have to admit I was briefly intrigued. Maybe hitting them in the wallet for refusing to remove their $50 custom-embroidered hat is just the thing they need? I'm kidding, mostly, but let's not any of us pretend we haven't fantasized about putting this kind of system in place. Obviously many of the most challenged students behaviorally are the same students who can least afford--financially or emotionally--to live under such a system. Although, let's not forget, this is a charter school--they and their families opted in of their own free wills.

All I know is that the only way I'd agree to work under such a system is if I got to keep the money personally. Retirement at 37, here I come.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Are Our Kids Guinea Pigs? Or Lemmings?

When you decide to arbitrarily take control from educators, and re-assign it to self-professed experts, you run into problems. Take, for example, these shining stars in Philadelphia. They observed a classroom,  saw a reading corner, labeled it "clutter," and had it removed. Sure, that's blatant idiocy. Yet who's to say those who most influence faux-Democrat Barack Obama are not equally deluded?

Now that there's a mania for evaluation processes, no one bothers to look at what they imply. It appears many of them simply assign principals to perpetual observations.

...what amounts to 20 times the number of observations previously required for veteran teachers – including those she knows are excellent – sometimes to the detriment of her other duties. 

Doesn't sound like such a swell job to me. Wasting the time of principals is hardly going to make our schools improve. Worse, the actual systems are untested and unproven. While we know already that value-added has wild margins of error, and results in dismissals of those who might indeed be very good teachers, we have no idea how, if at all, these systems will benefit anyone other than the corporatists who want to fire teachers.

The article discusses a video:

"At the very end, it shows a little kid on this airplane looking out and smiling," he says.

"But this system has not been tested, has not been tried. I'm not willing to put my kid on board this plane." 

Yet corporatist pawn Arne Duncan has no issue whatsoever with it. He has no problem experimenting with your kids or mine. Barack Obama, enabler-in-chief, sends his kids to schools with small classes and few high-stakes tests. Apparently that's not suitable for us regular folk.

The people who control public education these days don't think it suits their own kids. If they cared so deeply about public education they'd put their money, their children, where their mouths were. It appears the only thing they care about is the support of their corporate overlords. That's a clear conflict of interest, a clear lack of integrity, and a clear danger to what remains of our fragile democracy.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Pic of the Day

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Words to Live By

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Mr. Educator's Classroom

Yesterday, a kid came in who didn't bother coming in Wednesday.

"What happened on Wednesday?" I asked.

"Forget Wednesday," he said.

"But you weren't here."

"FORGET WEDNESDAY!" he cried, with a big smile.

There seemed little choice. He's almost never absent, and it didn't look like I was going to get any further. I was actually pretty happy he was expressing himself so clearly. Not all my beginners can do that.

In any case, at that moment the Chinese teacher walked in. She looked worried.

"Who's in my fourth period class?" she asked, quite seriously, ruining any possibility of my discovering why my forgetting Wednesday was so important.

Two Spanish-speaking kids raised their hands. I gave them extra credit for their senses of humor.

The Chinese teacher recited some Very Important Instructions in Chinese, which neither I nor the kids who claimed to be in her class understood at all.

But the Chinese kids nodded their heads knowingly, happy that none of the rest of us had the remotest notion what was going on. That's poetic justice, in a way, because all too often they're the ones with no idea what's going on. It's tough being an ESL teacher, because one of the first survival techniques newcomers acquire is the one that entails smiling and looking like they understand things they do not understand at all.

That's why, while many tests are simply nuts, I'd never advocate doing away with them entirely. It makes sense for me to find out once and for all what kids know and do not know. It makes sense for me to do everything in my power to make sure they know as much as possible.

But honestly, it makes no sense at all to blame me for those kids who came to this country kicking and screaming when they abjectly refuse to learn English. I can try and make it fun, I can show them I love it, and I can place them in a non-threatening environment with kids who are good role models. But I can't simply open their throats, force-feed them English, and make sure it comes out when the VAM tests come.

Assuming otherwise is nothing short of insane.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

How Many Kids Did You Abuse Today?

Because if you ask the folks at Slate, you'd swear we public school teachers had a quota.

This might be the most irresponsible headline writing I've seen in quite a long time. In response to the terribly disturbing and horrible (as if I needed to clarify that I do indeed find it disturbing and horrible) news out of Los Angeles these past few days, Slate ran a story with the headline "How Many Kids Are Sexually Abused by Their Teachers?" With the subhed: "Probably millions."

I was shocked when I read that headline. That can't possibly be true, I thought. Dear God, where did they get those numbers? Oh my gosh, those poor children.

Well, as it turns out, they didn't. Get numbers, I mean. They reference a number of different surveys, none of which are backed up by any solid facts and some of which are methodically unsound. The subhed should have read, "We really aren't sure, but 'millions' probably looks scary to a lot of readers, so let's go with that." Including me, I admit, a villainous public school teacher myself.

Maybe I'm young and innocent, still, but I find it hard to believe that millions of children have been abused by teachers. Not that even one child abused by a teacher isn't terrible, but I'm not sure what scaremongering about sexual-predator-teachers is going to accomplish. For many children (sadly, many of them being the children we here in NYC teach), school is the safest place they have. What good does it do anyone to suggest to normal folks that their local school is crawling with sexual predators, that their child has a 1-in-10 chance of being sexually harassed by a teacher?

Well, I guess it does the corporate teacher bashers some good. There's always that.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


What does a Democrat have to do before he loses my support?

Andrew Cuomo lost it when he said he was going to take on the unions. Who needs a Democrat for that? Isn't that what Republicans are for?

President Barack Obama declined to name Linda Darling-Hammond US Education Secretary. Instead, he selected Arne Duncan, who ran a failed "reform" program in Chicago. Why? Because his buds at DFER liked Arne better. Is that enough? No?

How about when he applauds a whole staff of teachers being fired in Rhode Island? Does it make a difference that a good deal of the kids they taught didn't even know English yet? Did they deserve that based on test scores of these kids? Should that make him think twice before applauding more, or indeed any Americans out of work? Should that make a teacher think twice before supporting him?

Then there's his failure to push for, let alone pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would enable working people to unionize more easily via card check. His promise to push that was one thing that made me vote for him in 08. There was also his promise to end the Bush tax cuts, which he never did.

There is the argument that a Republican could be worse, and that may be true. Nonetheless, I'd rather see a Republican doing what Republicans do than a faux-Democrat doing the same thing. Obama promised to find a pair of comfortable shoes and march with labor when it was in trouble. Frankly, I feel more like he donned a hobnailed boot and kicked us where the sun doesn't shine.

That's why it's so, so disappointing that the AFT could endorse him. If we don't stand against the nonsense he's enabled, we stand for very little indeed. Obama fooled me once, but I will not vote for him again. I don't care what a swell guy the AFT Prez finds him. I will likely support the Green candidate for President.

And yes, maybe I'm naive, maybe I don't understand the intricacies of politics, maybe I expect too much, but it breaks my heart that our national union would fail to stand up against a corporatist President who cares more about Bill Gates and Eli Broad than the people who teach our children, the people who are our children, and the people who will grow up to teach their children.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Rule of Three

I had a committee meeting yesterday after school, and one of the teachers who teaches the same grade and subject with me is also on the committee. While waiting for the meeting to start, I lamented a lesson I was trying to plan for a day later this week. I described what I wanted to do, and she said, "Why don't I come by your room after this and we'll flesh it out together?" Obviously, we're following the same curriculum and calendar and standards, so we plan a lot of our lessons together anyway, but I was glad that this particular one with which I was struggling would get a much-needed fresh set of eyes on it.

She did just that. I had the lesson plan partially started on my laptop. With a marker and scrap paper (really!), we literally sketched out the guided practice section of the lesson together, and we got where we wanted to go. It took over an hour, but it's going to be a great lesson. To me, you could put all of the numbers in the world aside--having generous-spirited colleagues who will work with you to make a lesson that teachers across a grade can understand and kids can engage with is what really makes a terrific school.

Now for the Rule of Three. I have another colleague who served in the Army for a number of years before coming to education, and he told me once that in Army officer training, he was told about a Rule of Three when it comes to planning v. execution: You should never spend more than one-third of the time planning something that it will take to execute that same something. So, for a fifty-minute lesson, you should spend, what, 18.33 minutes planning? HAR HAR. And if you teach a double block, which should theoretically then take you about 33 minutes to plan, I find that planning one of those typically takes closer to two hours.

Some curriculum experts will tell you that this is precisely the problem: because we don't have a consistent curriculum with which teachers develop depth and expertise, we spend far too much time planning lessons and not enough time analyzing student work and adjusting instruction accordingly. I wonder, at times like this, if education doesn't need its own Rule of Three. We could have a curriculum with which expert teachers develop banks of rich, rigorous lessons, which individual teachers and schools could tailor without having to reinvent the wheel every year. Many individual teachers already do this, but this is only good for the kids if what they had to begin with was relatively good, and that's hardly a given.

Anyway, thanks to my gracious colleagues, who are always teaching me something interesting and new, or at least sitting with me until after five o'clock with a red marker and the back of an old grammar worksheet to get a lesson just right.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Consider This

In Topeka, you can make 5,000 bucks extra in merit pay if you get those scores up. So, the writer wonders, why would you help anyone who was not your student? After all, every minute you spend helping those other kids is a minute lost from propping up the test scores you need to survive.

That scenario could be even worse if demagogues Bloomberg and Cuomo get their way. Cuomo wants 40% of your rating to be based on test scores, and I've read that it would be impossible to get a favorable rating without favorable test scores. Bear in mind, of course, that these geniuses want to base these ratings on tests that, as yet, don't even exist. Forget about their validity. There are already ridiculous margins of error, and they'd likely get even worse on hastily prepared tests.

Now further imagine Bloomberg's 20K bonus were in place, and that principals actually had enough money to pay it. A colleague of mine, a math teacher, was busy and asked me to help a kid with her college entrance essay. I spent a whole period helping this girl rewrite an essay, explaining to her how and why she could do things better. Why would I do such a thing for any kid if I were competing with her teacher for not only a bonus, but my very job? I've read NY's system is based on a bell curve, and supposedly a bunch of teachers on the bottom would be discharged every year.

What a hellish job they want to create. Teachers do all sorts of things other than test prep. We spot problems, often huge ones, and take time out to help kids. We intervene for them with administration. We contact their parents and try to help out. We do so many things, anything that's called for, and those are the sort of things we're remembered for. I have fond memories of teachers who inspired me, not teachers who helped me figure out which circles to blacken on tests, and I suspect that's true for most of us.

If the "reformer" vision is carried out, inspiration will no longer be the province of a teacher. Teachers will fight for bonuses and jobs, and if they don't, they will have neither. Wall Streeters used that model to bankrupt the nation, and they can't wait to use it to destroy public education and our profession along with it.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Friday, February 03, 2012

An Ordinary Day

Yesterday I was talking with a colleague while walking to the trailer. I talked a little too long, heard the bell ring, and ran like hell inside, only to find several of my students pointing to all their various gadgets that told the time. They, in fact, acted exactly like me, demanding to know where I was, and why I was late.

"Boy, this place is hard to find," I attempted, but they were having none of it.

"We saw you talking to that other teacher," said a 17-year-old girl, with all the severity of a 72-year-old schoolmarm.  I held my head in shame, but the class proved just as obnoxious as I've ever been, and wouldn't let me off the hook. I was saved by the Pledge Of Allegiance, recited dutifully by not only my young critic, but several others, as below. We'll start toward the end, when they recited, verbatim:

"...with liberty, and justice for all. Please be seated."

I told myself for the hundredth time that one day I need to explain to them what the heck this means. Then I realized, growing up a native English speaker, I memorized it in kindergarten and had no idea what it meant either.

In the middle of the class, one of my students made a really irritating squeaking noise with his foot against the floor. I knew exactly who did it, gave him the look, and rather than be intimidated as I'd hoped, he smiled and said, "Hey, mister. It's a beautiful day today. Just look outside."

And I got a thank you card from a very new arrival, for exactly what I have no idea. But little things mean a lot. Even as the press bashes us, politicians from Barack Obama all the way down to our tinhorn tone-deaf mayor baselessly attack us, advancing unproven hurtful nonsense, the kids still appreciate us, in their way. And not one of these self-appointed experts will ever remotely understand that really, we do this for them. That really, we do not fold out newspapers and sit on our asses all day. Maybe that's what they envision as a nice job.

Because their motivations are completely different from ours and despite their much-ballyhooed crocodile tears, they don't care even a little bit about the students we serve every day of our lives.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Why Not Just Walk Out?

What follows here is clearly, I hope, hyperbolic fiction.

My classes were being pretty rowdy the other day. Some students, frustrated by the reading and the task, began to talk, then shout and curse. I guess I could have pulled a few of them aside, helped them through it, and set them back on track. Or I could have asked the deans to remove the most disruptive students and resumed my lesson with the rest of the class. Or I could have adjusted my lesson plan and slowed down and helped the kids through the reading.

But why should I, when I could just end class and walk out after five minutes of struggle? After all, that's what our Chancellor does. And since he's the Chancellor, he must be the expert.

I don't know what happened after I left. I bet a lot of those kids are angry and disappointed that their needs weren't met and that they still don't understand the lesson. But that's not my problem, I suppose.

I wonder what will happen when I return to that class. Probably some of the most frustrated students--you know, the ones who most need the attention and support--simply won't come back. Others might continue the same behavior. And even the students who do get it will feel insecure around me, this teacher who walked out on them rather than struggle through the problem with them.

I wonder what would happen if every teacher behaved that way. All the time.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Everything Old Is New Again

Good morning New York. As your mayor, I'm entrusted with the welfare of our city, the best darn city in America. As you know, I'm not a Democrat or a Republican. What I am is an Opportunist, saying whatever the hell it takes to buy elections. That's why I support recycling.

For example, I'm now suggesting a merit pay program that will give 20 thousand extra bucks to teachers who will shut the hell up and get with the damn program. If we had more teachers like that we wouldn't have such pandemonium at the PEP. You see, under mayoral control, I get 8 of the 13 votes. My reps patiently sit there and pretend to listen to the public, then vote like they're told, or I fire their asses. That's the way democracy works over here.

Now a lot of people are giving me flack just because we tried a program for three years that had no tangible results. All these Gloomy Guses say, oh, it didn't work here, it didn't work there, and it didn't work anywhere. In my opinion, the only one that counts, we need to expand on this program. The reason programs have failed in the past is because we've negotiated them with those damn unions, and what the hell do they know?

In the interests of recycling, I'm also bringing back Prohibition. I don't really think you people should be drinking. It tends to make you sloppy, to give you ideas, and that's dangerous. Now my smoking ban has been a huge success, and I think we need to follow it up with something that will get even more attention. Sure, they say this will hurt some businesses, but it's likely to spur others. I can see this, that's what makes me a visionary, and that's why there are no laws that can keep me from being mayor as long as I damn please, or until I'm a viable candidate for President, whichever comes first.

I'm also restarting production on an updated Edsel. Now some of you reading this may think this is a bad idea, but the problem is not enough Edsels were produced. New York is looking a little monotonous, and the idea of scores of cars that appear to be sucking lemons is just what we need to add zest to our environment. Perhaps we can make Edsel SUVs, and I can have a pair of them drive me to my preferred subway stop, from which I daily pretend to rely on public transport.

Now my most controversial idea is reintroducing New Coke, but the fact is I like it better than old Coke, and therefore you should too. How can you possibly know what you like when I have all this money and you barely have any? Even if you get a 20 thousand dollar bonus you won't make as much in a year as I do in eight minutes. So, hey, how about shutting your damn pie hole and letting me do what I want, when I want, however I want?

Thank you New York, and as always, I hope you enjoyed my little talk. If not, why don't you just take a long walk on a short pier?