Thursday, April 26, 2012

Schools and Financial Conflict

Learn the facts of school finances - where does the money really go?

Schools and their financial situations are the topic of a great deal of controversy lately. Many schools are facing hard decisions about what can be cut back while still preserving and upholding high standards of educational excellence. Schools are often stuck between what's best for the students and what is necessary to keep the district from failing entirely. Hiring teachers is no longer about finding who is going to be the best person for the job, it is about who the district can afford to hire. More and more after school programs - many of which were originally implemented to keep at-risk kids busy and out of trouble - are becoming "pay to play," making them too costly for those same kids to participate. Every school district has been affected by the recent economic issues, and none of the changes have been easy.

Struggling school districts and the communities they serve often come into conflict, especially when it comes to finances. Whether it is cut-backs to programs or new levies, it is often difficult for schools and community members to understand the decisions leading to changes. This can be due to many different issues within the particular situation, but I believe that the two factors that have the most influence in every case are ignorance and misinformation - a nasty combination in any arena, but particularly one in which the future of our kids hangs in the balance.


I first want to address the term ignorance. This word had gotten a bad rap over the years, as it has often been used with the connotation of intentionally failing to learn the facts. I don't believe that this is the case for most people. Many of us simply don't know what we don't know - or as it was once put, we are unaware of our "unknown unknowns." How can anyone be expected to be an expert, or even well-informed, on a topic with many variables for which information is often intentionally obscured?

The finances of educational institutions are a primary example of this sort of semi-hidden information. Yes, it's all a matter of public record, but how many of us know how to or are willing to go to the effort of gaining access to those records? As a very surface-level example, many school districts do not post their salary schedule and will not discuss it unless someone directly asks at their HR office - and even then many districts will attempt to redirect questions on the topic. Teachers applying for positions are often not told about their potential salary until after they have done a call-back interview. It's a common understanding that teachers are supposed to teach because of their love for students, not for the money - yet can you imagine any other business (and please don't hold any illusions on this score, schools are a business) that wouldn't tell their applicants up-front what their salary will be?


Because it takes effort and can be difficult to find the true paths that money takes within a district, many people - both within the schools and in the larger community - rely on information that is being distributed by those who have already taken sides in a given issue. While this is not necessarily a poor decision, it does often lead to the second culprit of community-school conflict: misinformation.

Some misinformation which is given out is simply a mistake, and some is deliberate.  This is true anytime there is a campaign, whether it is for a small school levy or the presidential candidacy - it is the nature of human beings to take sides and to do what we can to convince others to take our side as well. I believe that while a few people intentionally lie or mislead others, most will simply tout certain "facts" that they've heard while leaving others out, making their version sound like the only reasonable option.

As an example, look at attitudes surrounding school levies. On the surface, it is often a very "teachers vs community" issue. Teachers want the levy to pass at all costs, community members don't want to see their taxes go up. Underlying this very basic idea are many others - some of which are known to one side or the other, and some of which may not be known to much of anyone outside the upper levels of administration within the district.

Community members are heard to say things like, "The money is only going to pay the bonuses for greedy administrators, my kids will never see the benefits, so why should I be paying more?" Teachers look at the community members who vote against levies and say, "How much do you spend on coffee each day? Or on car washes for your luxury vehicle? And yet you can't spend an extra $100 per year to support the future of America?" Both sides' opinions can be seen as valid, depending on the viewpoint - and what's more important is that it is likely that neither side truly knows where that new money is going to go.

Fixing It

So how do we fix this? Go to board of education meetings. Drop by the school board office, and ask detailed questions. Before major changes can be made within your district, the reasons for those changes have to be made a matter of public record. Find out where those records are, and make yourself aware of the facts. Then, share them with others.

Many people will be shocked to find out where money is going. This can be a negative experience - such as one district I worked in where outraged parents found out that the sports stadium was going to be rebuilt while music and art programs were scheduled to be cut. It can also be VERY positive. At least two districts I know of have passed petitions asking teachers and administrators to take pay freezes and give up bonuses and stipends so that students can keep their non-core courses and so that some educators can keep their jobs.

It can be difficult and dangerous to learn the truth - difficult because records are not always easy to access, and dangerous because we may have to face truths that deeply change our world view. However, I believe it is always best to seek and know the truth. Knowing the facts puts the power to instigate change in your hands. What you choose to do with that knowledge and power is up to you.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Coffee = Love

No, really. When it comes to school environments, coffee = love. Or at least, coffee = appreciation.

Let me paint a picture for you: It's 7am. You are a teacher. It doesn't really matter what grade level or subject you teach. Last night was rough - four hours of lesson planning and/or grading before bed. Then this morning brought snow, and with it traffic, frustration, and a complete lack of time to eat breakfast if you had any hope of getting to school for the ever-important 7:15 staff meeting. You've just arrived at school, and are desperately in need of sustenance if you are going to make it through the morning. You walk into the staff lounge to check your mail and - oh glorious day! The smell of coffee greets you. You walk over to the cupboard, grab your mug, fill it up with the lovely black brew, and instantly feel a little better. Maybe even a little more capable of facing the million things you know you'll need to do today.

So I'm going to make this very, very simple: A positive staff attitude is invaluable. Coffee machines are cheap.

I hope you're with me when I say that every staff lounge in every school in every district in America can afford one. A good one can be bought for $25 new, and often $10 at second-hand shops. Your school, no matter how tight the budget, can afford a coffee machine.

What about providing the coffee, creamer, and sugar? Have each coffee-drinking staff member pitch in $10 at the beginning of the year, and budget the supplies from that. Alternately, keep an empty coffee can with a slit in the top for people to put in a quarter whenever they take coffee. True, some people will take without giving, but some people will give more than required. It generally evens out. As a third option, have people sign up to bring in supplies - each coffee drinker should only need to provide something once or twice a year, and that's still cheaper than buying it for their own use all the time. Trust me - having seen many staff lounges and talked to many teachers, this seemingly simple and innocent process of caffeinating the overworked and short-on-sleep teachers will make a world of difference in how they face the challenges of each and every day.

And this concept goes far beyond coffee. The first school district I ever worked in had Friday morning breakfasts. At the beginning of the year, a list was posted with the dates for each Friday of the school year, with two blank lines next to each date. Each teacher would sign up for one Friday (or occasionally two). The sign-up list was for providing a basic breakfast to the staff. Generally one of the two teachers for a given date would pick up various juices and a fruit tray while the other would grab bagels, cream cheese, and donuts. Again - no matter how poorly a staff is paid, every teacher should be able to afford bagels and donuts once a year in exchange for breakfasts every Friday.

The best part was that benefits of Friday Breakfasts went well beyond a happier and better nourished staff. They provided a forum where teachers could meet and talk about their students with each other. Young teachers could get advice from older teachers, and older teachers could get new ideas for projects from the younger teachers with more recent course work. Teachers from different grades or different subject areas could collaborate on long-term projects, or themes, or performances.

Best of all, teachers could get to know each other as real people with families and hobbies and interests. The breakfasts often lead to sign up sheets for 5k running groups, knitting clubs, and movie nights, all of which helped the staff to become more to each other than faces in a hallway. The staff at that school was one of the most cohesive and supportive that I have ever had the privilege to work with. I'm sure that this was due to a combination of many factors, but I'm equally certain that Friday Breakfasts were a very important component - and they are both easy and inexpensive to implement. I challenge anyone reading this to try this at their school, or to suggest it to a teacher they know.

So there you have it. Caffeinate and feed your teachers, without spending much, and reap from it happier teachers, better attitudes amongst staff and between grade levels and departments, and greater cohesion and collaboration within your school. How easy is that?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Positive Signs #1: Unmonitored Belongings

Would you leave this sitting around at school?

School begins for the day. You walk into a classroom carrying a messenger bag. In your bag, you have the usual items you need for a day at work - your laptop, your smartphone, maybe your iPad or Kindle. All in all, you may have around $2,000 worth of equipment in there, not including your wallet, your lunch, and the novel you're reading. Maybe it even contains the tests your students took last week, or their final projects for the semester. Now here's the question: would you feel safe leaving your bag in the classroom? How about the hallway? The staffroom?

You may find this hard to believe, depending on your background, but there really are schools out there where students and staff drop off their bags in class or the teachers lounge and then walk away. They do this without a second thought and without a care in the world - because they know from experience that they can trust that their belongings will be there when they return. They feel as safe leaving their things unmonitored as they would in their own home. As a sub and therefore outside observer, I take this as an extremely positive sign about the overall state of a district.

Why People Steal: Broken Window Theory

The sad truth is that people steal for many reasons, ranging from necessity for survival to revenge. The most common reason for theft in schools is simply because the potential thief believes that they can get away with it, because they won't have to face consequences. This attitude often derives from their observation that other "crimes" within the school, such as littering or tardiness, go unpunished. This is a facet of what is known as the "Broken Window Theory."

The Broken Window theory states that when minor crimes go unanswered, it is an invitation for escalation, and more major crimes appear. It was first put forth by Dr. George Kelling and his colleague James Wilson inthe early 80's, and has since been used as a base for many changes in criminal policy. The most notable case of this was the precipitous drop in crime in New York City after Mayor Rudy Guiliani adopted a "zero tolerance" policy based on this theory. It has more recently become known due to its inclusion in both Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

The original example, used in the article in the Atlantic Monthly in which Kelling and Wilson first explained their theory, was of a neighborhood that was in basically good shape. One night, a few windows are broken in an abandoned building, and because law enforcement is always stretched too thin and the bulding isn't in use, nothing is done. A few days later, more windows are broken. Then squatters begin living in the building. Then other buildings nearby are vandalized in similar ways. Soon the "ok" neighborhood has a distinctly bad reputation. The lack of response to the initial crime acted as a trigger, saying it was acceptable for crimes to be commited in this neighborhood.

The idea behind the Broken Windows Theory is that crime, like many other facets of civilized life, is based on social norms. As human beings, we tend to look to other people and our environment in order to determine the correct behaviour in any given situation. When we cannot rely on other people to show us the norms, we look to the environment. The Wikipedia article on the Broken Window Theory states this succinctly:

An ordered and clean environment sends the signal that this is a place which is monitored, people here conform to the common norms of non-criminal behavior. A disordered environment which is littered, vandalized and not maintained sends the opposite signal: this is a place where people do as they please and where they get away with that, without being detected. As people tend to act the way they think others act, they are more likely to act "disorderly" in the disordered environment.
Putting Theory Into Practice 

So how does this pertain to schools, and what can be done to ensure that we are creating an environment that shows the norms we would like our students and staff to uphold? We begin by monitoring and enforcing the most minor of rules. The easiest to take care of is littering. Very few people are willing to be the first to litter in a clean environment, but many people feel no guilt about tossing trash on the ground when there is already refuse there.

The solution is to keep the school extremely tidy, and to catch would-be litterers in the act. This doesn't mean "cracking down" on students who litter and give unreasonable punishments. It does mean that when a staff member sees a student miss the trash can (often the first item of "litter" that appears), they should call the student on it, and ask them to pick it up. This performs two functions. First, it eliminates the item of trash. Second, calling it to attention may slightly embarass whoever was doing the littering - making it less likely that they will do it again.

Many times, when the adults model this behavior, you will soon hear students telling each other to clean up. This can be far more effective in the end, since socialization with peers is often far more important for kids and teens than pleasing adults. The super clean environment gives the message that people who inhabit this environment care and pay attention, and this norm extends to larger crimes like theft. The message is "If we don't even let a gum wrapper go unnoticed, we certainly won't fail to notice a theft."

Putting this idea into practice isn't difficult, but it does take diligence. It requires that every adult be aware of the plan to maintain a pristine school environment, and be willing to do their part in monitoring students' behavior. There are even ways to reward this behavior and create a positive mental feedback loop. In many schools, there are different halls for different grades. How about a contest to see who can keep things the cleanest? The prizes for winning the contest can be anything. If your school (or PTO) has the funds for it, offer a pizza party to the winning grade (or homeroom/class). If not, offer a "movie day" where the students from the winning team get to go to the auditorium and watch a movie for the last few hours of a Friday afternoon.

What do clean floors have to do with the feeling that you can leave your belongings around? More than you might have thought. Cleaner floors can be the key to maintaining high standards in your school, and they are far easier to arrange than trying to watch every kid every second to make sure they aren't walking away with your stuff. So why does it matter so much that you can leave your bag lying around unmonitored? Because this is a small facet of the larger issue of feeling safe, one of the overriding needs for all people. Knowing that you don't have to watch your bag - or your back - all the time leads to a greater sense of well-being and a greater desire to be in a particular environment. Which is exactly what we would like to see in the attitudes of our students, our staff, and ourselves.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Waiting For Superman. Really?

Written by Laura Weldon,

School in the old days may not have been ideal, but good teachers made all the difference. My father taught elementary school back when teachers had real options in the classroom. At least in his district, as long as his students generally covered the subject areas he was free to innovate. So he did. His fifth graders performed experiments, took care of classroom snakes and rats, started school-based businesses, and perhaps most importantly, read and wrote about what they found interesting. Those days weren’t perfect by any means for students let alone teachers. But they’ve gotten worse. My father skedaddled out of the teaching business before standardized tests really hit education. But he saw the zombifying effect on schools, teachers and kids brought by high stakes testing.

Even in the best districts, attaining those all-important numbers eliminates opportunities for innovation and time to work with students’ interests. Those left behind see their schools under test-heavy seige ---charged with getting results or getting eliminated.  This drive also shapes the kind of material students see, relentlessly preparing them to reach higher for the Almighty Score while giving scant attention to more complex yet essential skills for higher learning like critical thinking, creativity, initiative, and persistence.

Test Scores are not the Last Judgment

We might think policy-makers know what they’re doing. Surely they haven’t been restructuring education based on bare numbers unless they had substantial proven results. Greater competiveness on the world market or at least greater individual success?


Here are the actual results in this excerpt from Free Range Learning:

It’s widely assumed that national test score rankings are vitally important indicators of a country’s future. To improve those rankings, national core standards are imposed with more frequent assessments to determine student achievement (meaning more testing).
Do test scores actually make a difference to a nation’s future?
Results from international mathematics and science tests from a fifty-year period were compared to future economic competitiveness by those countries in a study by Christopher H. Tienken. Across all indicators he could find minimal evidence that students’ high test scores produce value for their countries. He concluded that higher student test scores were unrelated to any factors consistently predictive of a developed country’s growth and competitiveness.

In another such analysis, Keith Baker, a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Education, examined achievement studies across the world to see if they reflected the success of participating nations. Using numerous comparisons, including national wealth, degree of democracy, economic growth and even happiness, Baker found no association between test scores and the success of advanced countries. Merely average test scores were correlated with successful nations while top test scores were not. Baker explains, “In short, the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance . . .”   He goes on to speculate whether testing [or forms of education emphasizing testing] itself may be damaging to a nation’s future

What about individual success?
In remarks to a Cato Institute Policy Forum, Alfie Kohn said, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Why then do we push standardized tests if it has been shown that the results are counterproductive? Well, we’ve been told that this is the price children must pay in order to achieve success. This is profound evidence of societal shallow thinking, because the evidence doesn’t stack up.

Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?”

The conclusion?


The criteria for academic success isn’t a direct line to lifetime success. Studies show that grades and test scores do not necessarily correlate to later accomplishments in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or the sciences. Grades and tests only do a good job at predicting how well youth will do in subsequent academic grades and tests. They are not good predictors of success in real-life problem solving or career advancement.

For-Profit Charters are not the Promised Land

Now the much-touted documentary Waiting For Superman indicts today’s schools. The film advances solutions that include whipping the teacher’s union into submission while tossing money at the problem. Waiting for Superman follows five families as they try to spare their kids the fate of bad public schools by enrolling them in promising charter and magnet schools.  These are surely among the best charter and magnet schools in the country. But with our tendency to simplify any message, this film will surely be used to advance public perception of all charter schools. And that’s a very short-sighted approach.

Yes, there are some good ones, even some great ones out there. But let’s consider for a moment that many charter schools are run by for-profit companies. Making public education into an opportunity for entrepreneurs is not the solution. Owners have to make money somewhere. As a result they pay teachers very little, emphasize public relations, and provide little more than a rote McSchool education. Meanwhile they rake in stacks of taxpayer cash. Some charter schools provide nothing more than all-day computer based curricula for students to use at home (co-opting the term “homeschooling”) or in poorly run facilities. Unlike public schools, many charter schools can handpick their students, resulting in better overall test and behavioral outcomes. Even when children gain entrance by random pick, there’s an undeniably positive effect on students and their families who feel they’ve gained a leg up.

I’m not against entrepreneurs. I’d simply prefer to see them turn their attention to wind turbines and solar cells. My concerns are based on what’s happening in my home state. Here in Ohio, White Hat Management, owned by David Brennan, is the largest charter school operator in the state and the third-largest in the U.S.  They may have the most dedicated teachers and support staff possible but management is out for the money. Currently 10 White Hat run schools are suing the company hoping to get out of contracts.


An attorney for the charter schools comments, “White Hat Management is a for-profit company. Its interest in making a profit often conflicts with the schools’ goal to educate and show student progress. There are no real rules in place to make White Hat fully account for the nonprofit dollars they receive to manage Ohio charters.”

A Columbus Dispatch article noted Brennan was making nearly $1 million for each charter school his company operated.

It’s not as if charters are better. According to a Stanford University study, charter schools here in Ohio underperform compared to public schools.
That’s true across the nation as well.

Comparing data from 70 percent of all charter students in the country, those attending one of 2,403 charter schools, it was found that these schools were no better and often worse than their public school counterparts. Comparing math achievement, charter students had gains in 17 percent of the cases. But charter schools had no impact in 46 percent and a negative impact in 37 percent.

We knew this back when President Bush enthusiastically promoted poorly ranked charter schools. Now we know, at least in the case of some for-profit ventures, the concerned voices of parents and community members aren’t likely to be heard beyond “press one for public relations.” They may, as in Ohio, have to sue to free themselves from money-changers right there in the temple of learning.

No Need to Wait, We’re the Super Heroes

The big changes in our society have come about as the result of ordinary people demanding accountability while making changes themselves. Everything from civil rights and environmental protections to natural childbirth—- our ideals, our struggle.

Waiting for Superman urges us to insist on similar changes in our schools. But change isn’t about throwing more money at the problem. It certainly isn’t about letting corporations get a stronger foothold in schools where BP writes science materials and advertising is ubiquitous.

The change highlighted in the film is spurred by concerned parents and amazing teachers like Jeffery Canada. I’m a big admirer of Canada’s work I read both his books Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America and Reaching Up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America when they came out. The other teachers showcased in the film are equally creative, brilliant and caring.

Do we see the irony here? This film showcases innovative teachers and child-centered programs, holding them up as the last hope to “save” kids from bad public schools. Exactly the sort of conditions that benefitted my father’s public school classroom before high stakes testing and business models got in the way.

There’s no “silver bullet.” We’re talking kids here, kids who start out with curiosity and eagerness. Sure, we can funnel a few lottery winners into trendy themed schools like O2L or we can recognize that all children are born to learn in the way that best suits them, as they do in Democratic Schools.

While tests measure what kids have yet to achieve, kids themselves more naturally seek to  engage in the wonderfully exciting work of mastery, guided by parents, teachers, grandparents, clergy, friends, and the world around us. The strictures of school tend to limit learning, as I explain at length in my book which is one reason a few million of us homeschool, creating every day the kind of responsive and individualized education that best suits our children.

But that’s not workable for everyone. So let’s figure out what changes will really benefit our children and our communities.

1. Let’s find out about the holistic, uneven and delightfully unique ways that children learn.

2. Let’s look beyond trends, reading publications written by parents and teachers such as Education Revolution Magazine, Rethinking Schools, and Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice.

3. Let’s pay attention to the thoughtful, experience-informed work of today’s unsung educational luminaries including Ron Miller, Jerry Mintz, Chris Mercogliano.

4. And perhaps most importantly, lets pay attention to what those who love to learn have to say. Our kids tell us how they learn best each day not only through their enthusiasm but also through their stubbornness, anger, despair and numbness. They need to participate in meaningful work, to apply real skills, to pursue their own interests, to advance at their own speed in their own way, to model themselves after people they admire and to face challenges that inspire them. Every day. That’s how humanity advances.

The future is too important to do otherwise.

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer, editor, and non-violence educator. She lives with her family on Bit of Earth Farm where she blogs with relentless optimism

Friday, July 15, 2011

Support at the Bottom of the Barrel

The issue of Teacher Retention has been growing for many years, and has ballooned into a serious problem in the last decade. The basic question is, how do we convince highly educated, highly intelligent, highly trained people to stay in school systems and educate our children? 

Right now, the sad truth is that within public education, many teachers don't last five years before giving up teaching for a different career. There are many reasons for this. Some are obvious to the outside observer. Teacher pay is notoriously low, stress levels are high, and there is an ever-broadening spectrum of standardized tests for which teachers must attempt to prepare their students. 

There are other issues which are less obvious to those outside of the teaching profession, such as young teachers who are unfamiliar with disciplinary procedures or writing lesson plans to match department or district standards. These teachers often feel "left out to dry" in a system where asking questions may be perceived as incompetence. There are ways to help these teachers, but districts need to have clear goals and standards, and systems for monitoring to make sure that those goals are being met.

Support from Experienced Mentors

One excellent way to increase teacher retention is have someone to help shoulder the enormous stress that most teachers feel in their first and most stressful year. The first year of teaching is widely accepted to be the most grueling of teacher's career, because it is the first time when teachers are truly on their own for lesson plans and discipline, and often must create lessons and procedures from scratch. There is no worse feeling than being massively overwhelmed and having nowhere to turn. So doesn't it make sense that those teachers who have survived that crucible (and become more capable because of it) should support those who are currently undergoing it? 

Some states or individual districts have attempted to do this by setting up mentorships, whereby their first-year teachers have regular meetings with their mentors to receive support and feedback. These programs are great in theory, but have wide ranging results based on a number of factors. First, how are the mentors chosen? Are they assigned, or do they volunteer? Are the mentors paid? Are the meetings frequent or rare? Can the first-year teachers seek and find support outside of scheduled meetings? How is feedback arranged?

Each of these questions can have a range of answers depending on the district, the building, or even the department in which the mentoring relationship exists. Depending on the answers, we begin to see how the mentoring relationship can be very positive and helpful in reducing stress, or very negative and actually lead to an increase in stress for the new teacher. They can certainly make a big difference in the dedication of the mentor to the new teacher. 

Mentorship Gone Wrong

Imagine that it is mid-August and an experienced teacher has taken the summer to relax and is now preparing to head back to school. She has very little work to do to prepare, because after all these years she knows how her lessons and procedures will work. Suddenly she receives a call from her principal - they've just hired a new teacher with no experience with only a week to go before classes begin, and guess who's been assigned as the mentor? 

How would you feel in this situation? I know I would feel somewhat resentful, and that resentment would then be the starting point for my relationship with this new person. Add to this situation the fact that some mentors are not offered any bonus or overtime pay for these additional duties. Many people in this position would choose to do as little as possible to fulfill their duties. And "as little as possible" is often very little. Some districts require as few as two meetings a year, one per semester, and only one brief in-class observation. Some districts don't even require the mentor to give any feedback at all after the observation! In many cases, there are no requirements for support of the new teachers outside of the official meetings. This could hardly be called year-long mentoring. 

Mentoring Done Right

Now for the positive example: again, it is mid-August, and an experienced teacher is preparing to go back to class. She was a part of interviews in June to fill an open position, and was part of the decision process for hiring. She volunteered to mentor the new teacher, and has been given a modest bonus for the expected additional duties. She was able to be in contact with the new teacher throughout the summer, answering questions and giving suggestions. 

The new teacher and mentor are familiar with each other, and have already set up a weekly time to meet so that they can collaborate on lesson plans and work on any issues that have come up. The mentor has also had time to introduce the new teacher to the rest of the department and the administrators (via phone, email, or in person), and to take him to the school and show him around. She has made it clear to the new teacher that he can ask any questions or bring up any problems whenever he needs to. 

With this system, the new teacher can come into school on day one and already feel comfortable and familiar with his surroundings, knowing he has support if needed. The district has explicit requirements for weekly meetings and observations, and has provided adequate support for the mentor so that she can take the time she needs to complete these requirements. The district has also provided feedback forms so that the mentor can fill them out and then go over all areas of classroom management with the new teacher.

What Makes the Difference

Planning ahead is what truly makes the difference between these two scenarios. Even if the district is simply unable to supply a mentorship stipend, just inviting department members to sit in on interviews and then asking for volunteers to be mentors is a major step in the right direction. Making mentoring a choice, rather than an assignment, goes a very long way toward fostering a more positive attitude in mentors. And the ability to form a relationship between mentor and first-year teacher before the start of the school year is also huge benefit. Many of the problems faced by new teachers in the first weeks of school can be avoided entirely if there is time before school begins to ask questions.

The availability of a mentoring stipend is, of course, a nice bonus. However, there are other ways that teachers can be enticed to volunteer. Some schools can make room in their master schedule to allow mentoring teachers to have an extra free period for planning or paperwork. Others can offer additional personal days. At some schools, a designated mentor parking spot can be a great bonus, or relief from book-room inventory duty. There are any number of ways to offer incentives that don't cost anything, if the school is too hard pressed to come up with a monetary stipend system.

Addressing the Issue

The two above examples don't delve into what actually goes on during the year, but simply show the differences in preparation before the year starts. In both cases, the new teacher is going to face a certain amount of stress. In the first example, this stress falls squarely on the shoulders of someone with no support and no way to get any. It is evident from day one that their mentor wants as little to do with them as possible, and they may even feel like asking questions or bringing up issues is seen as a sign that they cannot fulfill their job requirements. In the second example, the stress can be shared and addressed with the mentor, whenever the new teacher needs the help. He is fully supported, and never has to feel ashamed or afraid to ask for help. 

Which one of these two first-year teachers will go on to be a second-year teacher? Or a tenth-year teacher? It's very simple to guess - and yet many districts continue to use policies and methods for choosing mentors that leave their new teachers unsupported, overstressed, and afraid to look incompetent by asking for help. Would you return to a job that made you feel this way? Would you ask someone you care about to go back to that environment? 

This is a serious issue for teacher retention, and should be addressed in all districts, but sadly is often passed over in the drive to find more funds. This is an issue that cannot be resolved by throwing money at it. It requires times and dedication to mend, and some thought about how we treat others and would want to be treated ourselves. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

The "Where You At?" Disease

Casual behavior in formal situations has become an epidemic in our time. As an editor and educator, I run into this phenomenon everywhere, from the classroom to the boardroom and from term papers to letters of introduction. Listening to peoples' manner of speech in formal situations and reading their professional writing has become an exercise in not cringing. It has become apparent that for a large portion of the population, especially those under the age of thirty, differentiating between what is appropriate among friends and what is appropriate in a formal situation is an impossibility. That there might be reasons for different modes of behavior doesn't seem to even factor into the equation.
Which person would you rather hire, A or B?
Interviewer: Hello, I'm Mr. Z.
Person A: Hello, Mr. Z. It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Person A.
Interviewer: Could you tell me a little about why you applied with us?
Person A.: Certainly. I have extensive experience in your field. I participated in (related projects) in college, and interned with (well known company). I've heard a lot of great things about your company, and am excited to hear about an opening.
Interviewer: Hello, I'm Mr. Z.
Person B: Yo, Mr. Z., I'm Person B. What's up?
Interviewer: Ahem. Well. Could you tell me about why you applied with us?
Person B.: Yup, no problem. I'm awesome at (several skills), and I'm a totally nice person and stuff. I really need a job, and I heard you had one, so I thought, "why not?".
Recognizing the Symptoms
What do I mean by modes of behavior? Think of it as one person playing different roles on the stage of life. Take for example a fictional person called Jane. Jane is a recent college graduate in her early 20's. She is unmarried, still frequently goes out with her friends, and is currently looking for a job. She has a definite need to fulfill different roles in her daily life. 
For example, Jane would never think of drinking in the same way when meeting her boyfriend's parents for dinner as she does when she goes out to the clubs with her friends. In a similar way, she would not dress the same way when babysitting for her niece and nephew as she does when interviewing for a job. So why would she consider it appropriate to speak in the same way in a quick call to her best friend and a call to an HR office to enquire about openings? Why would she write a letter of introduction in the same way that she leaves love-notes for her boyfriend? Yet I see (and hear, and read) this crossing of roles more and more frequently. I can't say precisely why that is, but I do have some insight into three main causes.
A poorly written letter of inquiry:
Dear Human Resources Director,
Hi. How are you? I'm great. My name is Jim James. I am looking for a job, and I was wondering if you have one. Do you have any jobs open right now?  
I just graduated from college with a business degree, so I'm pretty good with computers and people and stuff, and I understand marketing and sales things. I can also learn stuff really fast if I need to. 
I think I'd be great working for you, so I hope you'll give me a call. 
Jim James
A properly written letter of inquiry:
Director of Human Resources, Company XYZ:
My name is John Johnson, and I am writing to inquire about an opening within your company. I came across a posting for a sales manager position on (job posting site), and I believe that I would be a good candidate to fill this opening. 
I have a degree from ABC University in marketing. In addition, I have experience as an intern working for 123 Company for the past two summers. I have excellent computer skills, including training in (commonly used software programs). I believe that these skills and experience would allow me to adapt easily to any position requirements.
Thank you for your time and consideration. I hope to hear from you soon.
John Johnson
Cause #1: Advertising and Media
Everyone in America is bombarded with advertisements all the time, even those who don't watch TV or listen to the radio. Many ad campaigns become so prolific that everyone eventually hears about them. And, sadly, these campaigns often use improper grammar as a gimic. This is problematic because the use of poor grammar for a professional advertisement reinforces that this is an acceptable practice. It encourages that particular misuse of words, phrases or entire parts of speech, to the point where people can no longer identify it as misuse. 
My favorite (or most detested) example of this is the ubiquitous "Where you at?" ads for cell phones from Boost Mobile a few years ago. This question, while it does indeed convey the intended meaning of "Where are you?" (or even more properly, "Where are you located?"), it is utterly disgraceful from a grammar standpoint. It lacks a verb, one of only two requirements for a valid English sentence. 
Why does it matter? Can't we say what we want to our friends? Yes, absolutely. However, when these ads are shown repeatedly to children or adolescents who can't distinguish between casual usage and formal usage, the poor grammar becomes embedded in their speech patterns and reappears in situations where it is unacceptable. The true issue arises with recognition of what is and is not "good" grammar. Many high school students, when asked to identify valid and invalid sentences, fail the task. The first time that I ranted about the Boost "Where you at?" ad to a classroom of high school seniors, many looked blank, and several asked why the grammar in the ad is wrong. The fact that they can't identify the problem is scary, because it is a symptom of the looming disease.
Cause #2: Adult Example
Many is the time I have spent in various teacher staff rooms, listening to teachers exclaim (in horrified voices), "I cannot believe what I heard a student say in my class!" The stories vary from just informal speech to outright swearing, but they inevitably involve a student saying something in a school environment that is utterly inappropriate for the situation. 
Why are students doing this? Is it just a matter of "kids these days?" Or has something changed which causes the kids to speak in school the same way that they would speak to friends on the street? At least one cause is the behavior that the students witness in their role models, namely the adults in their world. This includes parents and neighbors, but most importantly teachers. 
The school environment is the first formal, professional environment that children encounter in their lives. To some extent, it is the prototype on which they are expected to base their professional behavior later in life. Yet many schools now allow teachers to wear jeans, tee shirts, and hooded sweatshirts to school as "professional attire." While Casual Fridays are a great idea, to make a more fun and relaxed environment, when it becomes an everyday event it loses all meaning. This "dress code" may get big points from teachers at staff meetings, but what message does it portray to students? This casual mode of dress tells students that the school environment is no longer a formal place. This is also true for mode of speech. Many teachers pick up the slang of their students and use it freely in class to appear more friendly or approachable (as do many parents). When adults dress or speak in the same way as kids, it subconsciously gives permission for the kids to treat them the same way that they treat each other.
Cause #3: Lack of Explicit Behavioral Instruction
When I bring up the idea of explicit behavioral instruction, many people immediately think of the outmoded courses on manners taught at the turn of last century - which fork is used for the salad and which for the dessert, how to keep conversation running smoothly in the parlor after dinner, and other social situations that rarely (if ever) occur for most of us. However, while I agree that these old-fashioned etiquette courses are mainly irrelevant for modern American life, I feel that explicit instruction for formal situations is still a necessity. 
Many people, before graduating from high school or even college, have never had to attend a formal interview or meeting, or go out on a business lunch. They may never have been required to write a piece of formal writing, such as a travel report or letter of inquiry. So why is it that we expect kids to just "pick it up"? We don't expect them to just "pick up" math or science. Students need to be guided in this facet of socialization, just as they need guidance from adults in their academic subjects.
Preventing the Spread of the Disease
The best way to prevent the spread of the disease is the same as for any pathogen: stop it before it starts. How do we adequately address and prevent the issue before it starts? Very simply: we teach it directly in school and in freshman college courses. Where we once could assume that students would pick up professional speech and behavior from their parents and teachers, this is clearly no longer the case. Instead, much like study habits, students can be taught to consciously recognize the correct role to play in a given situation. In particular, students can work on professional behavior by role playing certain formal situations, such as an interview. They can then have the instructor or their peers evaluate and critique their behavior. The same idea also functions for formal writing. Students can work in groups where each student writes a draft of a letter of inquiry or letter of introduction, and then students pass their letters around the group for suggestions. After a second draft, the teacher can collect and read through the letters, and then address major issues with the class as a whole.
Another solution is to use real advertisements or clips from TV and movies to illustrate and break down the different modes of behavior for diverse levels of formality. For example, students could be shown a clip and then asked, "What would you do differently in this situation?" Alternately, students could be asked to correct poor grammar seen in formal writing. Trust me, there is no shortage of examples for poorly written professional writing pieces.
The last solution is all too simple: revise the behavior of the adult role models. For teachers, this is relatively easy. Have a staff meeting, introduce new standards for teacher dress and speech, and discuss why they are necessary to prevent overly-casual behavior and speech in class. While some teachers might initially buck at this more strict view on their dress and behavior, the results will be worth it. In addition to fewer incidents of swearing or impolite speech towards teachers, making the school environment more professional increases student focus and study time, helping students to separate their home life from their school duties.
So, Where We At?
We are in a culture that is more in flux than at any other time in history. English is evolving more rapidly than any other language. We live in an utterly amazing time in which we can send text messages to friends across the country in a matter of seconds. Our language is so flexible that one can shorten "Where are you located?" to "Whr U @?" and still be understood. And yet, there are still times in which we must know how to behave to meet older, more formal standards. That is unlikely to change. Our students and children should be prepared, lest they be passed over for jobs or other opportunities. It is our responsibility to them to provide this preparation.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Signs of Trouble #1 : Waiting Outside the Door

At some schools, subs are advised that all teachers should wait outside the doors of their classroom between classes. The idea behind this is multifaceted. For one thing, this "monitoring" of the halls is meant to reduce the likelihood of bullying. Just having a teacher present should be enough, right? Wrong. Often a teacher presence is not enough to stop the type of bullying which can be most painful, verbal bullying. For many teachers, and especially subs who are unfamiliar with individual students of cliques within the school, it is often difficult to tell if students are just joking around or are seriously insulting one another and causing distress. Because they can't tell, many teachers and subs are loathe to interrupt or put a stop to things.

Another idea of having teachers in the halls between classes is to discourage dawdling. Students often have a very short amount of time between classes, and so administrators feel that it is best if students simply move as quickly as possible from one class to another. The kids are expected to not talk in the halls (this is even a rule in some districts) and that their only time for socialization will be in the cafeteria or outside of school hours. Is this remotely realistic, at an age were socialization is paramount? It is highly unlikely that teachers will be able to enforce this ideal, and even when they can it leads to further negative consequences. Either the students turn on the teachers because they were unable to relax even for a few minutes between classes, or they choose to socialize in class, costing instructional time through talking or texting.

A third concept behind hall monitoring between classes is to note who is entering your class and who is not. For a substitute, this is less than useless - how is one to know who is supposed to be there and who isn't? Many schools don't even give class rosters with pictures, so how are we to know who any one student is? As a sub, trying to take attendance at the door does only two things. It jams up the flow of traffic through the door and through the hall, and alerts the students that you have no idea what you are doing. As a regular teacher, no one would try to take attendance as kids flow in. Teachers know better than to try to stop kids individually, as it's much easier to wait for the bell to ring and then take attendance in class.

The push for teachers to be in the hallway between classes also gives an undesirable negative feel to class-changing time. The very fact that teachers and subs are asked to monitor the hallways implies that there is a need for this. The enforced presence of authority figures for these few minutes tells students and visitors that things are so bad, we feel we have to monitor them every second, even for the four minutes between bells. This subtle negative mood is certainly noticed by the kids. I had a student tell me, when I asked about the teachers in the halls, "If I'm already being treated like some kind of criminal, it makes me want to behave like one. I can't even say hi to my girlfriend or give her a hug without them being all up in my face about it. Geez. I was just givin' a hug!" Often times high school students have after school jobs, drive cars, or are expected to take care of younger siblings - and yet we can't trust them for a few minutes between classes? I think I would feel resentful as well.

Negative consequences for this policy aren't just limited to students. Many teachers resent having to give up those precious few minutes as well. Can you imagine in the business world, if an executive were told that they had to hold six meetings with up to forty attendees each, and they could not have so much as a bathroom break between meetings? Well this is precisely what it means to teachers to be told that they cannot have four minutes to sort through lessons plans, tidy up assignments, grade a few worksheets, or whatever else they may need to do. It's no wonder the hallway monitoring rule leads to complaints and unhappy staff.

In many cases it seems that over-monitoring of students' activity leads in a downward spiral - the more students are pushed and observed and never given any time to be themselves, the more they need to be monitored. When students are given time to self-monitor and be responsible for getting themselves to classes, hallway issues drop rapidly. When teachers get a small break between classes, they are happier and more effective instructors. Both students and teachers are better able to make use of these precious few minutes, and overall attitude improves.