A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

So you think teachers are overpaid?

I sigh, and say, "Bring it."

After what we deal with all day, what's a few more brickbats thrown our way?

So let's review:

Indiana's legislature wants to take away collective bargaining rights for teachers.

So does, as we all know, Wisconsin's legislature and governor.

Tennessee's governor wants to lengthen the amount of time teachers wait to get "tenure," which apparently no one understands as being operationally null as a concept. Tenure does NOT guarantee a permanent job-- it just guarantees that due process must be followed when dealing with teacher retention and evaluation.

Idaho gutted both tenure and collective bargaining.

And there are dozens more stories being propagated of lazy teachers being promised a job for life, getting a generous pension that amounts to robbery from the rest of society, and so on.

Here's the life of teachers from the inside:

In any class that we teach, we are watching about three students for signs of emotional distress based on previous history. Then there are incidental crises among the other students that occur based on fighting with parents, break-ups of relationships, health scares and injuries, potential eating disorders, parental or personal alcoholism, divorces, pregnancies, and suicidal tendencies and/or harming oneself. Thanks to a lawsuit from, once again, Wisconsin (is it something in the water there?) emails may be considered public records and so, to maintain confidentiality, if I have a serious concern, I must walk to the counseling or administrative office during my plan time to discuss those concerns face-to-face. If I have a student in immediate distress, I escort them to the counselor or principal personally, hopefully during passing time. We scrutinize for lines of scabs on arms, bloodshot eyes, poor hygiene, lethargy or mania.

We remind students to make up missing assignments and or tests repeatedly and individually since apparently many students think that teachers declare a moratorium on assignments or assessments in the wake of absences. Students will ask for exhaustive lists of missing work even though assignments and tests are posted on classroom bulletin boards and websites as well as online on the internet-based grade-book program our school operates.

As we move through the hallways, we monitor students for signs of distress (last week as I was on the way to the restroom, I helped a young man to the counselor who was wedged into a weird little blindspot in an empty hallway in tears). We stop kids from harassing each other or roughhousing, which endangers themselves as well as others. We watch for those students or adults in the building without visible ID and direct them to a check-in spot. We greet kids with a smile (in case that's the only smile they get that day) and complement kids on their wardrobes. Over there is the kid who was shot and wounded outside his aunt's house and is using a crutch until the wound heals. There is a kid trying to sneak into the bathroom to hide in a stall until passing time is over so she can wander the building and skip her English class (in which she currently has a 7% average and twenty-two absences this semester alone). We round a corner and loom into view of kids squaring off to probably fight, and eyeball them until they either drop it and go away or continue to shout at each other in the hopes that we will intervene and help them save face without actually appearing to back down themselves. We congratulate that kid who has a bunch of enormous birthday balloons and we give the big high-five to the kid who just got into the college she wanted. We ask kids where they are going and why they aren't in class. And meanwhile, we don't get to the restroom. We sniff for the wafting of smoke from the john or the miasma of marijuana on a kid's clothing.

We write recommendation letters personalized for each student and insist that they sign up for the ACT or trade school.

We utilize electronic technology in the classroom which is, on average, at least three to ten years old, which means it is roughly equivalent to using the Rosetta Stone to translate a Shakespearean soliloquy. And that's if we are lucky. Many of us rely on whiteboards or even, yes, chalkboards and overhead projectors. I do not even have a DVD player in my room. We sit on rickety furniture which is at least a decade old (ask not for whom the chair creaks, it creaks for thee) and use teacher and student desks missing screws and braces and sometimes held together by duct-tape.

We email or talk to parents/guardians/aunts/grandma regarding student progress, and almost every year we get one or two parents who claim that we are too hard, unfair, mean, capricious (although they never use that actual word), or that we pick on their kid or just flat-out make up crazy claims about us. We then must defend ourselves against these claims because no matter how exemplary our conduct administrators are never willing to simply ignore claims that fly in the face of observation or rationality.

We obey the orders of administrators and school board members even though they change and contradict each other weekly or sometimes even daily. We gather data and analyze it even though no one will implement the changes necessary to improve the outcomes that the data exposes. We construct assessments and plan lessons after everything else has taken up our planning time. We attend IEP meetings on our planning time, as well. We attend hour-long faculty meetings that could have been summarized in a three paragraph email and listen to powerpoints being read to us. We fill out surveys, the results of which will never be shared with the faculty, especially if they contradict the plans administrators are determined to carry out anyway.

We collect shoes for Africa and pennies for patients and wear pink for breast cancer and collect clothing for the family whose house burned down or for the refugees of natural disasters. We slip kids lunch money and notebooks and pencils and registration fees to take the ACT. We buy boxes of the good kleenex because the school doesn't provide anything but paper towels and single-ply toilet paper for the legions of kids who come to school sick. We diagnose pink-eye, strep, sprains, influenza, attention deficit disorder, broken hearts, and senioritis. We stay after school to tutor kids for free and use babelfish to translate notes home into mom or dad's native tongue. We go to plays and concerts and graduations and buy coupon books and frozen pizza we don't need to raise money for band trips or new golf shirts. We go to professional development. We pursue social justice.

We attempt to model compassion and responsibility and citizenship and engagement with the world and the pursuit of maximization of potential. We help kids rise above their circumstances and make no excuses for their failures just as we encourage them to celebrate their successes. We insist that education matters when the world and Snooki seem to prove otherwise and TLC used to be The Learning Channel but now tells you what NOT to wear and showcases toddlers in tiaras and people who eat laundry detergent.

Oh, and during the majority of our time, we teach kids subject matter and skills and try to get them to think about what their lives will be look outside the plastic bubble that is school.


Friday, March 04, 2011

The National Anthem is not entertainment.

Yesterday, March 3, was the 80th anniversary of The Star Spangled Banner being officially named as our national anthem by Congress. Above is a picture of the actual flag that inspired the song.

My alter ego the History Geek has been stirred into activity by recent events surrounding that national anthem.

I pondered that fact while I am still trying to get out of my head the horrors of Christina Aguilera's alleged performance of the song at the Super Bowl. And the memory of other atrocities committed upon our official song.

Now look, like anyone else, I can admit that the song has flaws. A twelve note range is often asking a lot of ordinary people to sing. I get that.

And I realize that a first verse made up of three questions that are not actually answered plus one descriptive statement of explosive devices may not make the most actual sense in terms of describing any particular attributes of our country, let alone our flag (which is what, officially, the song purports to do).

Then there's the fact that the melody was originally used as a drinking song for the Anacreontic Society men's club in London, so it is absolutely ironic that we then used what was a liquor-infused melody of OUR ENEMIES AT THE TIME to eventually craft our national anthem.

I guess it is fitting that pretty much the only time people do sing it is when they are surrounded by alcoholic beverages at a sporting event of some sort.

So, I'll be honest. As a song, it's really not much. As an expression of who we are as a people, it is a nullity. But it is our song and we are used to it, and by being used to it, most of us have come to treasure it-- aesthetics questions aside.

But some people do not know how to behave when it comes to our national anthem. First, one should stand at rest in an attitude of attention. Conversation should cease, and one's attention should be placed upon the flag. Then, one should sing. If one wishes, one can place one's hand over his or her heart as a sign of reverence.

I was at an assembly at one of my kids' schools a while ago. There were a good number of other parents there, as well. The kids and the music teacher asked the crowd to join in the singing of the national anthem. I began singing, and about halfway through the second question, I noticed I was one of THREE people singing. The mother of one of my son's classmates was twisting her body around randomly as if she was having a serizure, and then I realized she was trying to scratch her back against the wall. A man in an Army uniform (rank of sergeant) was playing with his Blackberry in the row in front of me. One little old lady and I were holding down the fort, so to speak, at our end of the gym, and one of my colleagues who is a Navy veteran was booming it out with a lot of verve on the other end of the auditorium. One guy near me sang the first twelve words or so and then stopped. I kept on singing as I was performing this little inventory and just put it out of my mind. Then at the end of the assembly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was another little old lady who thanked me for my singing. Then the music teacher came over and said that I was the only one she could hear and thanked me as well. I have to admit I was both embarrassed by these encounters (I do sing loud; that's how Mama taught me) and abashed. Really? Is this the best we can do? But I did thank them after admitting that my volume knob is stuck at 11.

Then there was the whole Super Bowl incident. I turned to my friends sitting at my house at the time when they announced Christina Aguilera and said, "I didn't know that Christina Aguilera KNEW the words." We giggled, and fifteen seconds later, I WAS PROVED RIGHT. Twenty seconds later, it was proved beyond a reasonable doubt that SHE DIDN'T KNOW THE MELODY EITHER.

Really, shouldn't that be required?

And don't even start with me about the scratching the back or fiddling with electronic devices or swilling beer in the meantime, or watching our millionaire athletes jumping up and down or rolling their eyes heavenward in annoyance while this song is being sung.

But then I started thinking. Apparently, somewhere along the line, some people have gotten the idea that this song is a performance. An entertainment, which can be ignored or mocked as one wishes.

It is not.

Having "recording artists" stand up in front of thousands or millions and banshee their way through our national anthem as if they are trying to win a spot on American Idol has reinforced this perception.

They try to make it THEIR OWN song and emphasize their PERFORMANCE of it as unique. But really it is OURS. OUR song.

And I think we should take it back.

So perhaps it would be nice if, henceforth, at least at public events, we leave the alleged recording stars on the sideline, bring out a marching band (as we used to at the Super Bowl), and invite EVERYONE to sing, rather than passively watch some overwrought, dramatic, insincere performance.

As the camera pans the athletes, it should only show those who are reverently standing during the anthem and singing it. That might get the players' attention, publicity hounds that they tend to be. Anyone jumping up and down or scratching their unmentionables or playing with their hair should be ignored if not shamed.

And to answer the questions in the song itself: Yes, the flag still does wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave. Be glad.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Saber (uh, table)-rattling

Hey, another lesson for you young-uns: don't rattle a table too hard, or a student may whip out their phone and call the po-lice:
An eighth-grade math teacher at Atherton's Selby Lane School rattled a table to get his students' attention Tuesday afternoon, police said.

He succeeded on that score.

But the demonstration landed him on paid administrative leave.

Officers went to the campus at 2:26 p.m. to check on reports of a teacher causing a disturbance in a classroom and possibly throwing objects, said Sgt. Tim Lynch of the Atherton Police Department. When officers arrived, however, they found a calm teacher with class in session and determined nothing had been thrown.

Lynch said it appears the teacher's table-rattling act startled a female student who left the class and called police from a cell phone.

"My impression by talking to her was that she was disturbed by what the teacher was doing," Lynch said.

Most of the students in the class weren't bothered by the teacher's actions, Lynch said. Though the teacher "dramatically" made his point, "it wasn't a teacher out of control," he added.

Redwood City School District Deputy Superintendent John Baker said the teacher will remain on leave pending an investigation. He said he didn't know what specifically happened and would interview the teacher, the student and her parents in the coming days, as well as other students.

No complaints have been lodged against the teacher in the past, Baker said.

The district put the teacher on leave because of the police response and the nature of the complaint, he said.

And exactly why is it that the teacher receives the consequence? Although it IS paid leave. If that means he doesn't have to write lesson plans, I guess it wouldn't actually be a punishment....

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