Thank for your passion, commitment, and service to students in 2015.
Once you’re officially on winter break, I encourage you to disable your e-mail, file away student work, and push lesson planning off until the New Year. You’ve earned the right to procrastinate.
As a former high school teacher, I often caught myself grading exit tickets and rewriting curricula during the holidays. When the holidays were over, I already felt exhausted. This limited my ability to reflect and recharge.
Don’t let this happen to you. You’ve earned the right to pause, enjoy life, and rest. Celebrate this holiday season fully engaged with your friends and family.
In a recent NYT article, Eduardo Porter outlines the Economic Policy Institute’s report whose findings conclude that once U.S. students’ PISA scores are adjusted for social status, we’re actually doing significantly better than we thought we were.
“Then the researchers divided students into groups depending on the number of books in their homes, a measure of the academic resources at families’ disposal. This adjustment significantly reduced the American deficit, especially among students on the bottom rungs of the resource ladder.
American students from families with the least educational resources, as it turned out, scored better on the PISA math test than similar children in France and about the same as Britons, Germans and Irish.”
These “adjusted” results shouldn’t be too surprising for educators entrenched in these realities. We know if we adjust anything for socioeconomic status, we see gains. The issue isn’t, “we’re doing better once we adjust for poverty.” The real issue to me is: we have a lot of poverty for a developed country, and we continue to unfairly burden schools with the responsibility of eradicating it. As if poverty starts and ends with schools.
My experience in education has been grounded in teaching over-age, under-credited youth in alternative high schools in NYC. Translation: I’ve only taught adolescents coming from the “the bottom rung of society,” as Mr. Porter puts it. Sure, I believe many of my former students are in a better place compared to their peers in similar situations globally (in developed nations, of course). My former students have access to certain privileges, rights, and safety nets. Yet beyond simply “showing up” to school, there aren’t any supports available to “propel” students out of poverty, as is assumed what school is “supposed” to do. We often fail to acknowledge an underlying assumption in this dialogue: if students come to school, they will succeed.
There are certain character traits that need to be developed in children in order for them to succeed in school. Resilience, grit, optimism, learning for pleasure, among others. These may seem obvious, but my teaching experience proved it’s these very skills my students lacked, and their absence ultimately led to them dropping out, getting arrested, or worse, getting killed. For some reason, there’s a narrative out there that claims students who live in poverty will automatically seek to excel in school once they’re given the opportunity to learn. Anybody who has ever taught in an underprivileged school for more than two years (that’s important) will tell you otherwise.
Unfortunately, when we talk about schools “equalizing opportunity,” we ignore the bigger issues, starting from the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Most of my at-risk students never quite made it past the second level. And let me tell you bloggers, economists, ed-pundits, and pontificators something: it’s really difficult teaching a child anything when s/he doesn’t know (a) where they’re spending the night (b) who (if anyone) will be home for them and/or (c) if they’ll be any food on the table once they get there. I don’t care how “inclusive” your school setting is, or how great your classroom culture is, if a kid is hungry, tired, sleep deprived, and/or abused, it’s going to be a very complicated situation.
This elephant in the room creates an uncomfortable divide. To the credit of teachers, I bet most of them are likely able to empathize with these students. However, they’re experiencing a professional conflict. Do they hold this child accountable to “high expectations” or do they let the kid slide due to the extenuating circumstances?
“Hey Stephanie, I can see you falling asleep at your desk. I know you have a housing situation going on (*whispered*)… but I need you to focus okay? Graphing quadratic functions is going to be on this week’s assessment and the state exam.” Awful.
In my last three years as an educator, I taught at a charter school for at-risk students in the South Bronx. Sexual education was never offered at this school, which is shocking because these are the students who should be engaged in these conversations. To clarify, “health” class was offered and is mandated for all students in NYC, but alternative schools (where resources are often prioritized to core content areas) rarely ever invest in these courses, nor are educators encouraged to engage in the “real” dialogues so necessary for this student population.
Here are three essential questions I have heard former students ask each other, but have never heard them discussed in class:
“Is it right to have a child this young if I can’t even take care of myself?”
“My friend has two kids, and she loves taking care of them, is it that easy?”
“My dad never stuck around, do you think I could do better?”
It’s no surprise I have so many former students with children, and it’s also no surprise they themselves were born to parents who were also in their teens. Why are our most neediest students not receiving real sexual education? Or, why are they able to take sex-ed online where they can simply click through lessons and worksheets and achieve a passing score after only a few hours on a computer? I can’t imagine a school that lets kids take Common Core Algebra 1 online, but mandates sex-ed in-person. Sure, it’s not in our place to tell people what to do, but we can at least educate them with facts and hope they make the right decision (which is obviously: you shouldn’t have a kid at fifteen: your family is on food stamps, you have two younger siblings, and the zip code you were raised indicates you’re going to struggle as is).
Schools that cater to at-risk, poverty-stricken kids don’t have time to teach the stuff that’s high impact and hits close-to-home. Topics such as sexual education, black disenfranchisement, gang involvement, and personal wealth management are often left out of the curriculum at schools with a low socioeconomic target population because they have to double-down on increasing their student achievement data (i.e. test scores). In NYC, if your school population is on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, you are still assessed in the same way other schools are, which creates conflict and incentives to cheat by administrators, teachers, and students. If you don’t think any of this is true, schedule a visit to any of these transfer schools. Then, talk to those teachers off school grounds after dismissal and prepare yourself for brutal honesty.
My conclusion is not that test scores would go up and poverty would be eradicated if schools taught poor children sex-ed and wealth management. Rather, essential skills, knowledge, and personal growth are being sacrificed because schools are being asked to simultaneously boost test scores and eradicate poverty. And because of that, poverty-stricken children all over this country are growing up to hate learning.
In the NYT, Mr. Porter asks, “Is it reasonable to ask public schools to fix societal problems that start holding disadvantaged children back before they are conceived?” Sir, our country started asking public schools to fix these problems a long time ago via “no-excuses” charter schools. In NYC, these charter schools are often too short-staffed to offer electives beyond the core curriculum, stifling students’ creativity. Teacher retention rates in these settings are ridiculously low, and their school disciplinary policies are far too rigid. Finally, if at the end of the day your child poses too much of a “problem” at these no-excuses institutions, he/she is likely already on a list and will soon be booted off to a regular public school (perpetuating the problem). Overall test scores up, resource-sucking problem kids down.
It doesn’t look like our country is ready to ease this pressure off schools, so if we’re going to task schools with building social welfare, we should focus on holistic strategies that bring back schools as our “local, community democratic centers.” We should consider investing in ways to incentivize parents and guardians into the school building, not just to come for parent-teacher conferences. Parents should see their child’s school building as their place of learning too, where they can enroll in skills-based training programs, volunteering programs, mentorship programs, etc. We shouldn’t just extend the school day for kids who need remediation, parents should be incentivized to come and learn too (keyword: incentivize, not mandate). Twenty years ago, it was cheaper to buy produce from places we’d never heard of. Today it’s still cheaper, yet more and more of us are opting to pay more to purchase local. Investing in the fortification and expansion of our local public schools as democratic, community centers of learning might be expensive, but could be healthier for us in the long-run.
“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907
As told by the late historian Henry Adams, educators impact the lives of their pupils in a profound way. Many students go on to pursue careers relating to exciting course material brought to life by a gifted professor during their academic journeys. Others are so moved by their teachers’ demonstrations of knowledge, care, and ability to inspire young minds that they become educators themselves.
As the millennial generation enters the workforce, its members increasingly seek vocational paths like teaching that allow them to take an active role in the development of their communities. Many of these post-grads fresh to the profession are doubling-down on giving back. They are taking on some of the most challenging jobs available at charters, turnarounds and otherwise-struggling public institutions in underfunded districts.
Often, new teachers land these positions through programs like Teach For America (TFA), Teaching Fellows (TF), Americorps, and other education oriented non-profits. To reach this enthusiastic crowd, Teach For America has marketed its program to prospective members as an “illustrious two-year postgraduate service mission rather than a safe middle-class career choice.” Similarly, Teaching Fellows promotes the service aspect of their offerings, summarizing their practice as “training a generation of great teachers… for the students who need them most.”
Both have enjoyed success pitching this message: Teach For America and Teaching Fellows claim 37,000 and 33,000 alumni, respectively. Americorps has used similar themes to attract over 900,000 participants since 1994; however, Americorps’ service opportunities are broad in scope, and only an (undisclosed) portion of their members enter into education.
It is commendable that these groups match eager-to-help graduates with the schools and students who need the most aid. That said, matching is but the beginning, and the programs do possess flaws. All too often, conditions are so bad that teachers don’t last. Despite their passion for the practice and appreciation of the students, they quit. Some abandon their posts mid-semester, while others depart once their program commitments expire.
After four years at a charter school, Sarah Fine quit too. In her essay Schools Need Teachers Like Me, I Just Can’t Stay for The Washington Post, Fine notes, “Nationally, half of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, and in urban schools, especially the much-lauded ‘no-excuses’ charter schools, turnover is often much higher.”
That is not to say that Teach For America, Teaching Fellows and Americorps are wholly responsible for our lamentably high teacher-turnover rates. Undoubtedly, these programs wield significant power; they are responsible for the placement of tens of thousands of teachers in jobs. That granted, there are millions of teachers across the nation, and TFA, TF and Americorps staff only a small percentage of them. Moreover, structural problems concerning resource allocation in our education system gave rise to the problems these not-for-profits seek to mitigate. Regardless, TFA and TF are useful to us in that they have clearly stated agendas, defined training protocol, and vocal alumni; the wealth of information provided by these sources lends well to discourse.
Thanks to the proliferation of blogging platforms, we need not imagine the day-to-day realities of a teacher at one of these high-turnover schools. A quick search-engine query for “why I quit teaching at a charter school” yields hundreds of anecdotes, op-eds, and testimonials. Many former educators describe exactly what circumstances led them to walk away from a profession they loved. We took the time to read these teachers’ thoughts, and identified some recurring themes.
The most common problems cited by departed teachers were insufficient training, micromanagement in the classroom, burdensome workloads, inadequate compensation, a lack of recognition for their efforts, and the promotion of a “hero culture” by principals and training programs that says more, harder work can overcome structural incongruencies.
Regarding the former-most complaint — insufficient training for new teachers — consider that Teach For America participants engage in training that goes on no longer than five weeks. Further, NPR writes that TFA has “helped open the doors to alternative-certification programs for teachers…[so that] today 1 in 5 new teachers is certified by a path other than a bachelor’s degree or master’s in education.” After their abbreviated training sessions, new hires are barraged with evaluation methodologies they must integrate into curriculum while actually teaching students and developing lesson plans.
One former teacher offers that there seemed no end to the influx, stating, “I had to read a book on how to properly teach. I had to collaborate with coworkers on how to properly implement one educational theory after another. I watched videos and read articles about effective teachers… I was told to give more exams, score more exit tickets, give more assessments… They encouraged me a lot, saying… that I would be much better next year… but I felt like I wasn’t a teacher anymore.”
Sarah Fine further details what micromanagement in charter schools looks like, writing, “One afternoon [in the Spring of 2010], when my often-apathetic 10th graders were walking eagerly around the room as part of a writing assignment, an administrator came in and ordered me to get the class ‘seated and silent.’” She continues, decrying that she and her colleagues would spend “weeks revising a curriculum proposal… only to find out that the administration had made a unilateral decision without looking at it.”
The same out-of-practice professor also complains of “the ever increasing role of bureaucracy… in our system of education” and “the overuse of assessments” to the point that “we have created students who see reading as a test and not a pathway to learning.” Many other teachers speak against the overuse of testing, and the pressures on teachers in “no-excuses” schools to make their students perform. An anonymous educator writes in The Guardian that “the passing on of every ounce of exam burden my way took its toll,” and contributed to her departure from the classroom.
In telling teachers that greater effort is the path to improving student scores (i.e., promoting the “hero culture”), schools and training programs “[lean] heavily on the rhetoric of bootstrapping, [which makes] new teachers tend to feel individually culpable when things go wrong in the classroom,” says Lean Donnella of NPR.
Former charter teacher Sarah Matsui writes that her trainers at TFA tried to convince new teachers “that a ‘can-do attitude’ is all it takes to overcome systemic gaps in our schools.” However, she notes, “Scaling up even the best of intentions or holding the highest expectations for individual students will not change the differential funding of our separate school districts.”
Matsui provides an example of starkly different per-pupil expenditures for the city of Philadelphia’s (79% black and latino students, $9,299 per student annual spending), relative to neighboring Lower Merion, just outside the city limits (91% white students, $17,261 per student annual spending). Preaching that hard work is all that is needed to overcome this massive disparity in resource “reinforces the myth of meritocracy,” according to Matsui.
Irrespective of their beliefs on meritocracy, teachers are expected to work harder, stay later, and make excellent of what little they’re given. Abbas Manjee writes of his early experiences at a charter school that, “Like any first-year teacher, my life revolved around my profession: plan, create, assess, grade, adjust, repeat.” He shares that over time, expectations spiraled out of control and eventually, “it wasn’t enough to just teach well anymore.”
Manjee described teachers’ expanded roles, noting, “We make phone calls home. If someone doesn’t pick up, we call again. We connect with social workers during lunch to investigate student concerns,” and continues listing other behaviors not typically associated with teaching. Unfortunately, the added time and stress inherent to educators’ expanded responsibilities does not come with a comparable rise in wages. Sarah Fine says of her pay that, “over the course of four years, my school’s administration steadily expanded the workload and workday while barely adjusting salaries.”
Regardless of their successes, efforts, or acumen, many teachers find themselves unsung in avenues aside from income. To this point, Deanna Lyles shares, “I quit because I wanted to be treated as a professional.” Another comments that, “I just got sick of being in a profession that I felt held no real status in this country.” Sarah Fine observes that, “When people ask me about teaching… what they really seem to mean is that it’s unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long.” In his essay Why I Quit Teaching, Abbas Manjee says plainly that the “complete and utter disrespect for my profession has finally gotten to me.”
Clearly, a multitude of factors contribute to the early departure of new teachers from the profession. Some problems — like inadequate training and teacher departure immediately upon completion of program terms — can be remedied by the not-for-profits specializing in training in placement. Other issues, like teachers under-compensation and heavy work loads, require broader, structural solutions that necessitate significant power to implement. To that end, no single tech firm or teacher placement program can fix them, no matter how noble their goals or innovative their methods.
Clearly, teacher turnover is a dynamic issue that deserves our attention. Catherine Ionata notes in the NY Times that “Research has shown that teacher-student relationships are absolutely crucial to student success,” and that “These relationships cannot be built in a year or two.” At the risk of childrens’ educational outcomes present and future, we must work harder and engage more fully in our efforts to lower the teacher turnover rate across our nation.
When I was in kindergarten, I absolutely loved when my teacher provided me with a clear, descriptive rubric aligned to Common Core Learning Standards with every assignment. If you think I’m joking, it’s because I am. CCLS didn’t exist when I was in Kindergarten. I remember playing with Legos, building toy railroad circuits, drawing and pretending to be Superman, and of course, crying for my mother. And I’m pretty sure my Kindergarten teacher wasn’t using a rubric to assess the rigor of my sobbing.
Recently, an article from the Atlantic has been making its rounds with educators on social media. In short, the article juxtaposes America’s strict, academic “reform” approach with Finland’s “let kids play and figure it out” approach to kindergarten. It’s an insightful case study of two well-intentioned, yet very different schools of thought in public education.
Any time a concerned American suggests we take lessons on education policy from Scandinavian countries, they’re often blitzed with negativity. “It’s a small, homogenous country.” “They’ve never had to deal with our kind of immigration.” “That’s nice, but they’re all white.” Some of these criticisms may be valid, but they’re not solutions-oriented. They’re just statements that make excuses for our own lack of excellence in schools.
Obviously, we’re not Finland. But, we can still learn and adopt some of its best practices for our own needs. Or are we just too damn proud? In this standard Finland vs. America argument on education, we tend to ignore Finland’s neighbor, Norway. Finland is nearly as populous as Norway (and nearly the same square mileage). Both countries have a comparable labor force and both countries have similar immigration levels. However, Norway tends to score closer to the U.S. on the PISA, which is significantly lower than Finland. Norway’s teachers don’t need a masters degree, and yet there’s a national teacher shortage prompting ad campaigns to attract young professionals to teaching — sound familiar? Back in the early 2000s, Norway instituted a national system of standardized testing (called the NKVS). Again, sound familiar?
I don’t know about you (yes, you), but things haven’t really changed for me: I like to play. As a child, I loved to play. If I learned from playing, then that’s just awesomesauce. As a teacher, some of my most memorable “teacher moments” occurred when I purposefully built for play in my classroom. Yet, it was significantly hard to create the conditions necessary for play teaching high school mathematics. There was a constant nag in my head reminding me my students just had to pass the New York State Algebra 1 Regents exam. Otherwise, we’d both be judged as failures.
Working in education technology today, I’m even more passionate about play in school, but that’s also because I’m further removed from the classroom and the daily struggle to balance rigor, engagement, and fun. The thing is, we have to draw a line somewhere. I can’t imagine how much more anxiety I would have if play did not exist when I was in kindergarten. I can’t imagine how much more grade-driven I would be if my teachers used CCLS-aligned rubrics while I ran around making fart sounds and holding spaceships I made from Legos. Play time at home wasn’t exactly reliable because I grew up in a broken home, so I had to make the most out of any fun I could get.
There is no evidence to support that children cannot learn from play or learn and play simultaneously. A former student of mine used to tell me about how he already knew so much about the Crusades because of Assassin’s Creed. Sure, it’s a video game, so there are inaccuracies. In the classroom, those are called “teachable moments” (take note, those of you who have never taught). These “teachable moments” are opportunities to foster authentic discussion. It’s possible to have both. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What I’m really trying to say is children need and benefit from play. We know this. If we’re going to insert literacy skills into kindergarten, it should be a data-driven decision, as in it’s backed by strong evidence. However, the data seems to support Finland’s approach. Why are we so stubborn with this? Let’s stop underestimating children. Bring back the crayons, the Lincoln Logs, and the Play-Doh please.
By: Abbas Manjee
VP, Teaching and Learning @ Kiddom
Former HS Math Teacher
In honor of World Teachers Day, I’m sharing a piece I wrote on Yo Mista! a few years ago about one of the most passionate and inspirational teachers I’ve ever had. I’ve made some minor edits, as I originally wrote this when I was still teaching high school. Here it is:
I recently Googled “John Strauss” and was surprised none of the search results said, “the best teacher I’ve ever had in high school.” In fact, there was barely any information or mention of the John Strauss I wanted to read about, a true rock star of a teacher and a living legend at the high school I graduated from.
Mr. Strauss was my senior year English teacher. He was not a young, highly motivated, self-proclaimed hotshot. Nor was he part of some national movement claiming its teachers were more effective than others. When I had Mr. Strauss, he was already a veteran teacher, humble and modest. He had a sense of humor and was deeply committed, but most importantly, he had passion. In fact, there’s a picture of him in my senior year high school yearbook with a caption that reads, “Mr. Strauss is a perfect example that a passion for teaching can bring enjoyment to classes.” When I read that at the tender age of eighteen, I probably didn’t understand what that statement really meant. I finally got it when I read it again at twenty-seven with a few years of teaching experience of my own. This guy was the real McCoy.
In school, I typically did not enjoy English class, nor did I enjoy reading books in general (fun fact: I do now). Yet, Mr. Strauss’s English class was something I looked forward to every single day. My first memory of Mr. Strauss is of him reenacting a scene from the Greek tragedy Hecuba. Mr. Strauss was hunched over and in despair, reciting lines from the play and channeling Hecuba’s sense of loss. I was stunned at how “into it” he was. This happened somewhere around the beginning of the school year and it completely won me over.
Strauss would go on to reenact various scenes from literature in front of the class throughout the year. He helped us all individually connect to the text. We didn’t waste time test-prepping for the AP exam in May, yet many of his students scored well year after year. We would instead spend a lot of time as a class discussing texts we were assigned to read. Even if I didn’t do the reading, I couldn’t help but learn something from the discussions he facilitated. After that, we would reflect on our readings via writing, and he would challenge us to improve our style and thought process. I remember I was trying to squeeze an essay that was six paragraphs into five and he said, “You know six paragraphs are okay, right? Stick with what feels natural.” That blew my mind. This wasn’t going to be a cookie-cutter, formulaic class. So instead I decided I should just do what the man said: actually learn to write well and coherently.
I don’t ever recall Mr. Strauss printing worksheets with Illinois state standards highlighted at the top. I never even knew what standards were covered in senior year English. I never received a document that summarized which standards I struggled with or mastered. We never took a single multiple-choice test in his class, ever. Shit, I didn’t even know what my grade was half the time.
We, the students, received our feedback from the source. Strauss often conferenced with us one-on-one during our writing assignments. We didn’t memorize dictionary definitions of new words. Instead, we developed our vocabulary through our literary discussions. It was kind of hard not to know the meaning of a new word given how much it got thrown around during discussion. If I hadn’t read the homework the night before, the classroom discussions sparked so much interest in me that I ended up finishing books well ahead of deadlines. I was usually a pretty good bullshitter during classroom discussions, but in Mr. Strauss’s class, I didn’t want to be. This, coming from the kid who went to Spark Notes for just about everything.
Like any veteran, Mr. Strauss had some classroom tricks to keep our attention during discussions. If a student had his/her hand up in the air, he would look him/her right in the eye, but call on someone else. It was confusing, but hilarious. This small, but clever trick kept us on our toes. Of course, we could’ve reacted to his surprise cold-calling the wrong way, i.e. Strauss did it to call on someone not paying attention, etc. The problem was, we were all participating and paying attention, so it wasn’t really a problem. There was nothing to do but play his game.
Someone could argue we didn’t have issues because it was an AP class, but from what I actually saw for myself, Mr. Strauss was successful and well-respected in every class he taught. He was liked by his colleagues, his students and even by students who never took his class. In fact, my younger brother never had the opportunity to take his class, but Strauss went out of his way to check up on him every so often since I had expressed concern about being so far away from him.
So with all this national spotlight on teacher evaluations and the new-education reform movement, I can’t help but worry about him and other teachers like him. I bet if this very same man walked into a new school environment today, he would not be deemed effective by his superiors, regardless of what his students thought of him. He probably wouldn’t be the model teacher organizations like Teach for America would present to first-year teachers. He might not be the teacher a charter school principal would give kudos to in a weekly e-mail. Sadly, a teacher like him is probably someone who has retired or is on the verge of retiring, pushed out by those who don’t understand, yet control the industry.
Well, I won’t forget him. And when I eventually do go back to teaching, I’m going to continue channeling as much of Mr. Strauss as I can in my classroom. It’s crucial to focus on students’ all-around development and creativity, not get stuck on national, state, or school standards (regardless of how good/bad they are). In reality, it’s all fluff in relation to how important connecting with someone (or something) can be. If you disagree, get at least a third year of teaching under your belt and then let’s talk.